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By far the most comprehensive study of Sarbadar history

Ranin Kazemi
November 1, 2006

The History of the Sarbadar Dynasty
1336-1381 A.D. and Its Sources

By John Masson Smith, Jr. (Paris: Mouton, 1970)

This book is a major contribution to the scholarship on the forty-five-year history of the Sarbadar dynasty. The dynasty came to power in fourteenth-century Khurasan when the Ilkhanid government of northeastern Iran, after the death of ‘Abu Sa‘id, had disintegrated into several local domains. In this book, John Smith goes through a variety of literary and numismatic sources, compiles their relevant historical facts, and reconstructs the political development of the period (736-82/1336-81). In so doing, he provides a critical analysis of the primary literature, develops methods to overcome their inconsistencies, and produces a chronology as well as a coherent account of different episodes in Sarbadar history.

The brief yet eventful story of the Sarbadars is divided into three periods. First, the early period (736-45/1335-45) begins when a certain ‘Abdurrazzak in the town of Bashtin in the Sabzawar district kills a local government official and organizes “a rebellion so as to escape punishment” (103). By 738/1337-38, he had enough manpower to overtake Sabzawar, a major city that would remain a Sarbadar stronghold for the next half century. Having killed and succeeded ‘Abdurrazzak in this same year, his brother Wajihuddin Mas‘ud then embarked on a major political campaign, expanded the sphere of Sarbadar authority, and consolidated his sociopolitical resources. This was possible in part through the helpful initiatives of the radical Shi’i ShaykhHasan Juri who appealed to the Sabzawaris (who were for the most part traditionally Shi’i Muslims) and was able to organize them, unite them with the other clusters of Shi’i Muslims inside Khurasan, and finally moblize them for a political cause. In 743, however, the Shaykh, while in a battlefield, was killed by a Sarbadar soldier, thereby closing a two-year period of shared authority between him and Mas‘ud. Two years later, Mas‘ud’s reign came to a tragic end when his army was defeated and he was captured and executed in Mazandaran. This event closed the first period of the Sarbadar history and ushered in three decades of civil war in Khurasan.

The middle period (745-59/1344-58) is characterized by a lack of internal cohesion. There were two major political groups during these times: (1) Mas‘ud’s followers and (2) the generality of the Sabzawaris, and each group lacked political unity within itself. The succession of nine rulers -- Muhammad Aytimur, Kulu Isfandiyar, Shamsuddin b. Fadlullah, Shamsuddin ‘Ali, Yahya Karawi, Zahiruddin Karawi, Haydar Kassab, Lutfullah b. Mas‘ud, and Hasan Damghani -- in fourteen years bespeaks of sociopolitical instability that had thus plagued the Sarabadrs. It was during the reign of Shamsuddin ‘Ali (748-52) that some major financial reforms as well as campaigns against “prostitution and traffic in drugs and liquor” were undertaken (131). After Shamsuddin’s murder by Haydar Kassab, Yahya carried out a successful assassination against Taghaytimur, a collateral descendant of Jingiz. This enabled the Sarbadar state to overtake the latter’s territories and expand to the political limits set originally during Mas‘ud’s reign.

Despite the somewhat stable and firm leadership of Shamsuddin and Yahya, the Sarbadar state had principal weaknesses. Smith identifies these as (1) “the lack of a clearly defined or generally acknowledged ruling family, group, or class among the Sarbadars,” (2) “the absence of established proprieties to restrain ambitious men from scheming to seize power,” and (3) the presence of a divisive Shi’i dervish organization with aspiration “to establish a radical Shi’i theocracy” (140). It was precisely because of these elements that so many figures in such a short span of time came to and disappeared on the stage of the Sarbadar political theater -- and all by means of conspiracy and murder.

The last period of Sarbadar history (759-782/1357-81) is for the most part a time of stability and reform in the reign of ‘Ali Mu‘ayyad. It was him who, with the assistance of one Dervish ‘Aziz, made the Shi’a the state religion and later, reminiscent of his predecessor, destroyed the dervish, his followers, and, to the extent he could, their dervish organization. In spite of this, ‘Ali Mu‘yyad is reported to have been “a just and capable ruler under whose guidance the state and its people prospered” (147). The pace of the fatal decline of the state’s sociopolitical workings was, however, accelerated during his reign by his latter-years political miscalculations as well as the antagonism that divided his government and the lingering dervish organization. By the year 783/1381, the Sarbadars without much they could do were thus incorporated into the Timurid empire.

Smith’s textual sources may be divided into two distinct categories. First, the fragmentary references by the writers who were not primarily concerned with the Sarbadar state and history (i.e., Ibn Batuta, Al-Ahri, Faryumadi, and Mar‘ashi). These are the less reliable sources in terms of their both accuracy and interpretations. Nonetheless, they do supplement and clarify the accounts of the next group of texts. Second, the most important historical information (facts and interpretations) comes from two sources, one which is extant and the other not. Hafiz-i Abru’s two major historical works, Majmu‘a-i Hafiz-i Abru and Zubdat at-tawarikh, are among the most valuable and reliable of the two sources. The second source, Tarikh-i Sarbadaran (not extant or not discovered yet), although not quite consistent both internally and with regard to Hafiz-i Abru’s narrative, may be read as complementary. We can only reconstruct Tarikh-i Sarbadaran by reading the sources that are heavily drawn from it. Obviously, cautions must be observed, as certain events in Hafiz-i Abru are not covered in this narrative account (e.g., the dervish radical Shi’i theme and vice versa).

In writing this monograph, Smith also used the available numismatic materials. It is through a careful analysis of the Sarbadar and Sarbadar-related coinage that he draws a somewhat definitive chronology, maps “the fluctuations of political control in and around Khurasan,” and ultimately suggests “the religious attitude of the Sarbadar and the changes in that attitude” (65). As a result, one may assert with some measure of certainty that between 759 and 763 the Sarbadars under ‘Ali Mu‘ayyad changed their religious orientation, endorsing, for but a brief period, the Shi’i doctrine but not the radical Mahdist ideology of the dervish organization. The dervishes, on the other hand, sought nothing less than the destruction of the Sunni establishment in Khurasan.

A parenthetical note about the dervishes: the organization was first instituted when Shaykh Hasan Juri’s teacher ShaykhKhalifah, preached to the urban populace of northern Khurasan his doctrine, which contained both futuwwa and Shi’i elements. The salient characteristics of this group, Smith observes, appear to have been (1) their teachings of justice and honesty, (2) their emphasis on profession and trade, and (3) their preparedness to undertake campaigns for their religious cause.

The last section of the book is devoted to the reconstruction of the political and economic geography of Khurasan during these times and other miscellaneous considerations. Sarbadar authority in times of political stability and military gain was extended so far east as Nishapur and westward to Simnan and eastern Mazandaran. The most important urban center in the Sarbadar realm was Sabzawar (as far as one may infer from the coinage) and next to it came Isfarayin (a ruined site today, known as “Shahr-i Bilkis” and located south of Bujnurd). Other towns and cities situated in the Sarbadar frontier regions were for the most part considered marginal (e.g. Nishapur).

To date, this book remains by far the most comprehensive study of Sarbadar history. It is at once a compilation of all the available literature and numismatic data, and an analytical study of these materials. It is moreover supplemented with maps, tables, and illustrations, making it an indispensable source of information for the student of medieval Iran and a pleasant and informative read for the general reader. Comment

For further information on the Sarbadars see: “The Jalayirids, Muzaffarids, and Sarbadars,” in The Cambridge History of Iran, volume 6, The Timurid and Safavid Periods (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1986); see also on the web.

Ilia Pavlovich Petrushevskii, Nahzat-i Sarbadaran-i Khurasan, translated into Persian by Karim Kishavarz (Piedmont, CA: Jahan Book Co., 1988).

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