Excerpt for Nizam Al-Mulk Tusi by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Naima Sohaib

Muslim Heroes series No. 19

Translated by Rida Sohaib

Copyright  2018 Naima Sohaib

Smashwords Edition

No part of this book may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or otherwise, including photocopying, recording, Internet or any storage and retrieval system without prior written permission from the Publisher.

Available in print at Dawah Books

Translated from the Urdu book “Islami Tareekh ki Qabil-e-Fakhr Shakhsiat” by Naima Sohaib


In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

In a world of dirty politics and incompetent leaders, it often feels as if capable and altruistic leaders who lead a nation to victory and protect their people are a mere dream. It is difficult to name a single politician who inspires with their character, competence and genuine love for the people without lining their own pockets. In such a world the life of Nizam al-Mulk Tusi appears as a fresh breath of air.

Nizam al-Mulk almost single-handedly brought the Seljuq empire of the 11th century to its peak, caring for the king and the people with commendable dedication. His wisdom and insight in preventing crises, his understanding of the world of politics and intrigue, and his avoidance of entangling himself in conspiracies make him a figure of much admiration and respect. Finally, his work as an educationist in establishing the Nizamiyya institutes which revolutionized the education system in the Islamic world left behind him a legacy which has effects on the world to this day. The translation of this book is both a token of my admiration for him and a reminder that not all politicians are corrupt and self-serving. The example of Nizam al-Mulk as a role model give us hope that today’s politicians can emulate him and elevate themselves to the level of statesmen.

I would like to thank Naima Sohaib for inspiring me with her reverence for Muslim heroes which is reflected in her writings, and Sohaib Umar for editing this translation. May Allah SWT accept our efforts.

Rida Sohaib

Nizam al-Mulk Tusi

A Great Statesman and Educationist

Who was Nizam al-Mulk Tusi?

His name was Hasan, his nickname (kuniat) was Abu Ali, and his title was Nizam al-Mulk. His lineage is Hasan bin Ali bin Ishaq.


Hasan was born on the 21st of Dhul Qa’ada in 408 AH (1017 CE) on a Friday in the village of Radkan located in Tus, Persia. His association with Tus leads to the addition of Tusi next to his title.

Childhood and Early Life

Hasan belonged to a middle class family of landowners. His father Ali bin Ishaq was engaged in agriculture. His mother Zamurrud Khatun named him Hasan after the Prophet’s grandson due to a dream she had before he was born. Hasan was young when his mother passed away. His father was facing financial difficulties at the time, but cognizant of the importance of knowledge, he arranged for a good quality education for his son. He himself was considered an expert in mathematics, measurement and jurisprudence, which is why the local governor appointed him as tax collector.

When Hasan entered school, his first teacher was the scholar Abdul Samad Kandoji. Hasan’s extraordinary intellect and memory soon made him prominent among his peers. He was naturally organized and disciplined from a young age. He advised his teachers on how to divide the large number of students into efficient groups, with some students as monitors. This organizational skill helped him a lot in later years. At the age of eleven, he finished memorizing the Quran, after which his father sent him to Nishapur. Nishapur was at the time considered a hub of knowledge and education. Here he joined the lectures of Imam Mawfiq, a respected scholar within the Shafai school of thought. He studied with him for four years, then traveled to Bukhara where he studied many disciplines from various religious schools. Like his father he had a special interest in mathematics. He also became proficient in the Arabic language, as well as frequently attended the lectures of Hadith scholars.

Hasan spent a few years in Ghazni, working in an office to earn money. His marriage and the subsequent birth of two sons increased his financial responsibilities. He therefore traveled to Balkh and became secretary to the governor Abu Ali Ahmed bin Shazan. After a while, the governor’s hard temper persuaded him to leave the post, and he headed towards Merv, the capital city of Khorasan which was then ruled by Chaghry Baig Dawood Saljuqi. He joined Dawood’s court, who soon discovered his talents and appointed him the mentor and tutor of his son Alp Arslan. He instructed his son to respect his tutor as he respected his father, and to never ignore his advice. Alp Arslan remained Hasan’s student until his father Dawood died. Five years later, Dawood’s brother Tughril, the leader of the Seljuq kingdom, died childless. His death sparked conflict over the succession of the kingdom. Hasan’s clever reasoning and strategy led to the resolution of the conflict and he was able to maneouvre Alp Arslan into the position of the ruler. Alp Arslan appointed Hasan as his special vizier, and gave him the title Nizam al-Mulk, which can be translated as Order of the Kingdom. Alp Arslan also appointed Hasan as the mentor of his eleven year old son, Malik Shah. The heavy burden of maintaining order and discipline in the huge dynasty now fell mainly on Hasan’s shoulders. The Seljuqi empire was vast, stretching from Yemen to China. To understand properly what Nizam al-Mulk attempted and achieved during his time as a vizier, a description of the historical backdrop of the time is necessary.

Historical Background

With the downfall of the Abbasid caliphate came the end of political unity within the Islamic world. The governors of different regions formed their own independent kingdoms. The Persians formed the Samanid dynasty which encompassed all of today’s Afghanistan as well as large parts of Transoxiana (most of what is now known as Central Asian Republics, called Ma Wara un Nahar in Arabic) and Khorasan. Another Persian family called the Buyids, of Daylamite origins, ruled the rest of Iran. The Fatamid caliphate also came into existence, ruling initially over North Africa and Egypt, and slowly expanding into Syria, Yemen and Hijaz. Of all these independent empires, the Fatamid dynasty was the most powerful. It ruled for almost three hundred years, from 296 AH to 567 AH. On the other hand the Samanid empire declined quite fast, and a local governor of Ghazni (Afghanistan) called Sabuktigin formed an autonmous government in 366 AH which was later called the Ghaznavid Empire.

It was against this backdrop that the Seljuqi Turks began rising to power. The Seljuqis originated from the areas between Turkestan and China, and their larger tribes were very powerful in Turkestan. The ruler Yabghu greatly respected the Turk leader Dakak. When Dakak’s son Seljuq grew up, his extraordinary talents and leadership skills astonished everyone. Yabghu was clever enough to appoint Seljuq as the commander of his army. Seljuq’s quick rise through the ranks and his rapid successes gave birth to jealousy and conspiracies amongst members of the court. Many began to plot against him, and sensing the danger to himself, Seljuq left Turkestan with his tribes to settle instead under the rule of the Muslims, embracing Islam. After succeeding in bringing order and organisation to his tribes, he began to advance slowly into Transoxiana. This area was populated mostly by Muslims under the rule of Yabghu, who demanded tribute from those living there. Soon Seljuq had won a significant number of battles, and a large area had fallen under his control. Thus he laid the foundations of the Seljuq Empire. He had four sons, of whom Arsalan and Mikail are the most famous for having sons that went on to become great sultans. The Seljuqi rulers of Iran and Iraq were his descendents. After Mikail’s offspring, Arslan’s children prospered as well. They formed their empire in Asia minor (modern day Anatolia), and the Ottoman Turks are their legacy.

To delve into some of the details, after Seljuq’s death, his sons spread out into the various areas of Transoxiana. They clashed in bloody battles with the Ghaznavids, the rulers of Khwarzem and the rulers of Bukhara. The real reason for these repeated battles was that the surrounding rulers were intimidated by the growing power of the Seljuqs, and often initiated the fighting to distract and weaken the empire. Arslan was captured in one such battle with the Ghaznavids, and he died in captivity. Mikail was martyred in a fight against the non-Muslim Turks. He had three prominent sons: Tughril Beg, Chaghri Dawood and Yabghu. Tughril Beg was a consummate warrior, and he led his army against the Ghaznavids who had attacked the Seljuqs, afraid of their increasing power. Tughril, however, established a great defense, and defeated Masood I of Ghazni in a war that culminated in the Battle of Dandanaqan in 1040 CE (429 AH). The Seljuq empire was thus established in Khorasan, after which Tughril headed west and conquered most of Iran. In 447 AH he entered Baghdad which was then under the control of the Buyids, ridding the Abbasids of them. The Seljuqs had now emerged as a powerful empire, ranging from Khorasan to Persia and Iraq. In 423 AH, the Caliph in Baghdad summoned Tughril to his court, formally recognizing his right to rule and granting him an affirming decree. Thus began the Seljuq dynasty.

All of Mikail’s sons were included as rulers of the Seljuqi empire. Tughril Beg, Chaghri Dawood, Yabghu and their offspring were all entrusted with the rule of various areas of the empire. After Tughril’s death, his nephew Alp Arslan, the son of Chaghri Dawood, became the Great Seljuq while the rest of the family governed the local areas they were responsible for. When Alp Arslan ascended the throne, it was Nizam al-Mulk who took it upon himself to help him maintain law and order of such a great empire. He did this so well that he is considered, to this day, as the greatest and wisest vizier of the Muslim history.

Nizam al-Mulk – The Wise Advisor

Nizam al-Mulk was not a traditional politician. Having been given the great responsibility of maintaining the order of an entire empire, he did not resort to the underhanded tactics that were frequently employed by his fellow courtiers to undermine their rivals and opponents. His chosen method was instead to focus all his energy, skills and experience into improving the governance and solving the problems of the people. He defeated his opponents not by conspiracies and manipulations, but by his outstanding performance. His wisdom and intelligence led him to suggest effective solutions to even the trickiest and most puzzling difficulties. He often used this to extract the sultan out of delicate situations, thus earning his favor and consequently having great influence over him. He gained extraordinary power and influence as vizier due to this.

His goal was not to maximise his personal interests by gaining power or position. He wanted a powerful and united Muslim empire instead of several dispersed Muslims states. A united Muslim empire was in the best collective interest of the Muslims as it could successfully defend them against the multiple non-Muslim forces of the time. He also wanted to bring about peace and prosperity for the Muslims that lived under the empire’s protection. It is considered a nigh impossible task to be a loyal companion to a king while remaining true to the values of a Muslim and safeguarding the rights of Muslim populace. Nizam al-Mulk, however, proved that it was indeed possible, and he has set a shining example for all Muslim advisors and viziers to follow.

Nizam al-Mulk was known for finding solutions that had the most advantages and the least disadvantages. When he rose to the rank of vizier, the matter under consideration was that the Caliph in Baghdad needed to be persuaded to recognize Alp Arslan as an autonomous Islamic ruler. Nizam al-Mulk suggested that the petitioner to the Caliph should be one whom the Caliph would find it hard to deny. Thus he convinced Tughril’s wife, who also happened to be the Caliph’s daughter, to go to Baghdad and petition her father to recognize Alp Arslan’s right to rule. Tughril’s wife was therefore sent with many gifts and courtesies to persuade the Caliph, who, as predicted, did not wish to refuse his daughter and awarded Alp Arslan the title of “Ziauddin ‘Adad al-Dawla”, thus approving his sultanate.

Nizam al-Mulk was always careful that relations with the caliphate in Baghdad should remain warm and friendly. He abhorred the idea of Muslims fighting each other over small slights or careless insults. Once Alp Arslan chose, as the ambassador to the caliphate, a man whose son had killed the Caliph’s personal slave. The Caliph refused to receive the man or accept him as the Seljuq empire’s ambassador. Alp Arslan was inclined to stand firm on his decision, which would have pitted two Muslim empires against each other. Nizam al-Mulk talked him down, convincing him that the right course of action would be to call back the previous ambassador and announce the appointment of a new one in order to preserve the friendship between the two powers. Alp Arslan acted on Nizam al-Mulk’s advice, and the Caliph in Baghdad immediately accepted the new appointment.

Good relations with neighbouring kingdoms had always been an issue for the Seljuq empire. To resolve this Nizam al-Mulk proposed that the sultan should continue the tradition of political marriages. The sultan arranged a marriage between his sister and Hazarasp, the governor of Basra, while he himself married the widowed daughter of Qadir Khan, the ruler of Kashgar. These marriages heralded peace for the people, and having built family ties, the sultans lived peacefully with each other.

As the caliphate in Baghdad had declined in power, Muslims had begun fighting amongst each other rather than fighting the non-Muslims. Thus much of the area had been split into tiny independent kingdoms. The Seljuq dynasty annexed these splinter countries into itself, and founded a strong, united empire which aimed to preserve the dignity of the caliphate in Baghdad rather than compete with it. The Seljuq empire bordered the Byzantine empire based in Constantinople. The Byzantine government naturally preferred to deal with several small, weak Muslim nations rather than a single united one, and they were always on the lookout for an opportunity to weaken the emerging Seljuq empire. The Seljuqs and the Byzantines were often engaged in skirmishes and minor conflicts, building up to an inevitable major confrontation. In 456 AH (1063 CE), Alp Arslan invaded Armenia and Georgia, where both his son and Nizam al-Mulk Tusi showed great bravery and skill in the battlefield, conquering multiple strongholds belonging to the enemy. Then Alp Arslan himself led the army’s command and conquered one castle after the other, until a large portion of Georgia had been taken over. The ruler of Georgia agreed to a truce whose terms included a tribute paid each year to the Muslims. Thus the Byzantine empire, which demanded yearly tributes from Armenia and Georgia, received the message clearly: the Seljuq empire was strong and not to be taken lightly.

In the summer of 1071 CE (463 AH), the emperor Romanos Diogenes undertook a massive campaign to engage the Seljuqs in a battle with a Byzantine army almost 300,000 large in revenge for the earlier invasion. With no time to prepare, Alp Arslan dispatched a brief army, numbering around 15,000 soldiers, which soundly defeated the Byzantines, confiscating the holy cross that the army had carried and sending it to Baghdad as a sign of victory. In retaliation, the Byzantines raided and took the fortress of Ahlat from the Muslims, but the very next day, the Muslims had retaken the fortress.

Alp Arslan was not inclined to prolong the conflict. The confrontation had been sparked by the Byzantines, and now that the Seljuqs had clearly repelled them and made a show of power, he sent the Byzantine emperor an offer of truce. Romanos, however, scoffed at the offer and replied with the message that “the only truce will be one arranged when we have reached your throne”. The fighting began once more. At the battle of Manizkert, the Byzantine army was dealt an ignominious defeat by the Muslims, who prevailed even though outnumbered by the Romans. Romanos was taken prisoner, and was ransomed for a huge amount of money. A peace treaty was agreed upon, resolving that instead of fighting the Muslims, the emperor would send aid to the Seljuqs if they needed it against their other enemies. It was also agreed that all Muslims that had been taken prisoner during the war would be released. As the ten year long treaty was being signed, Nizam al-Mulk ensured that all the captives, including the emperor and priests, were treated with hospitality and dignity, even honoring them with gifts when released. This was to ensure that they would become sympathetic towards the Muslims, and perhaps act as allies once they returned to court, benefitting the Seljuqs.

The treaty, unfortunately, could not be upheld properly due to a coup in the Byzantine capital which resulted in Romanos being overthrown and a change in leadership. Therefore, some amount of conflict with the Byzantine empire continued. However, the war and the subsequent Muslim victory reminded the surrounding Christian kingdoms, always on the lookout for an opportunity to attack the Muslims, that the Seljuqs were a force to be reckoned with.

Nizam al-Mulk always believed in being kind after a show of power had subdued the enemy, because he considered it the most effective way to bring someone to your side. Unlike most conquerors of his time, Nizam al-Mulk did not believe in conquest for the sake of conquest. He knew that the important thing to do after winning a land is to win the hearts of the people, to improve and advance the administration and infrastructure of the area, and to genuinely make it a part of the empire. If nothing but further conquests follow the annexation of a land, the conquered people feel only resentment towards their occupiers, which leads to conflict, revolt and bloodshed. Thus after the conquest of Anatolia, Nizam al-Mulk did not attempt to advance further. Instead, he focused on and succeeded in winning the hearts of the people who had been conquered. That is the main reason why, even now, Anatolia is a Muslim-majority land.

After having mitigated the urgent internal and external dangers to the empire, Nizam al-Mulk turned his attention to the future. Using his influence he managed to arrange the Friday sermon read in the grand mosques of Makkah and Madinah to be read in the name of the Abbasid caliph. This was a particularly clever move, because these two cities have always been the spiritual and religious centers for Muslims all over the world. At the time, as the Fatimids and Ismailis dominated over much of the Muslim nation including Egypt and modern day Saudi Arabia, the Friday sermon was being read in their name. Thus Shia beliefs were spreading alarmingly fast, while the Sunnis were rather weak politically, and their sects too mired in conflict with each other to properly combat the spread of Shia philosophy.

Nizam al-Mulk realized that this could become a serious problem for the Sunnis in the coming years, and he had already begun to think of a peaceful way to prevent the Shia beliefs from taking hold. His strong political insight led him to the conclusion that the Fatimids, although appearing to be strong and majestic, had begun to weaken internally due to a combination of administrative and financial problems. Thus the citizens of Makkah and Madinah were already growing dissatisfied with the aristocrats and the government. The Seljuq dynasty, by contrast, was seen as a rising star and impressed everyone with its power and grandeur.

Using this as an opportunity, Nizam al-Mulk met with the local governor of Makkah, Muhammad bin Abi Hashim, in 462 AH. The meeting was warm and pleasant, and the governor was treated with utmost respect and honor. Nizam al-Mulk convinced him during this meeting to break from the Fatimid empire and give his allegiance to Alp Arslan instead. Muhammad bin Abi Hashim was willing to be persuaded, and he agreed to arrange for the Friday sermons in Makkah and Madinah to be read in the Seljuqs’ name. Soon the surrounding areas had adopted the same behavior, and the region began to break free of Shia influence. The Fatimid dynasty, indeed weakened by its internal affairs, could not afford to confront the Seljuqs and allowed the areas to slip out of their sphere of influence. Thus Nizam al-Mulk succeeded in averting a great potential conflict with peaceful means without any bloodshed due to his clever strategy and political insight.

Malik Shah’s Rule – the Height of Nizam al-Mulk’s Power

In 458 AH Alp Arslan formally named his son Malik Shah as the heir to the throne. During an invasion of Transoxiana in 465 AH a castellan was captured and brought before Alp Arslan. The castellan was defiant and insolent, and Alp Arslan ordered him to be punished. Before he could be taken away, he lunged forward and attacked the sultan, administering a fatal wound. Alp Arslan died at the young age of 40, having ruled only for ten years.

Before this attack Alp Arslan had asked Nizam al-Mulk to remain faithful to his son after he died, and to help him with the ruling of the empire. At the time of Alp Arslan’s death Nizam al-Mulk and Malik Shah were both away on a campaign in Turkistan. Upon receiving the news of his death, Nizam al-Mulk immediately ordered the army to turn back to the capital, Rey, postponing the Turkistan campaign. As soon as he got back, he arranged for Malik Shah’s coronation, accepting oaths of allegiance from the military commanders and the various members of the nobility. With great haste, Nizam al-Mulk also had the caliphate in Baghdad confirm Malik Shah’s ascension, so that the sermons could be read in his name. He also sent news of Malik Shah’s coronation alongside the news of Alp Arslan’s death to the surrounding areas, in an attempt to forestall any invasion by foreign powers. Finally, the army might have posed a threat to the young king, so Nizam al-Mulk ordered an increase of 700,000 dinars in the military’s salaries, thus pleasing and placating the army.

These quick steps were hugely successful in averting the chaos and rebellion that often accompanied a change in power. Alp Arslan’s nephew Qavurt Beg attempted to claim the throne and start a rebellion against Malik Shah, but Nizam al-Mulk eliminated the threat he posed before he could gain much momentum. If Nizam al-Mulk had been at all slow in ensuring a swift transfer of power, the empire would almost certainly have fallen into civil war, greatly harming the interests of the Muslims as whole. Thus Nizam al-Mulk played a vital role in stabilizing the kingdom while fulfilling his oath of allegiance to the young sultan.

On a number of other occasions Nizam al-Mulk’s actions prevented the empire from falling into civil war and internal conflict. One such situation occurred when Malik Shah’s uncle claimed in court that he had letters from various military officers swearing allegiance to him if he made a play for the throne. He declared that he wanted to read the letters out loud to the court. Incensed at the claim, Malik Shah commanded Nizam al-Mulk to take the bundle of letters from his uncle and read them aloud to see if there was any truth in what he said. Nizam al-Mulk took the letters as ordered, but instead of reading them aloud, he threw them into the nearby fireplace. He knew that if the claims were proven true, the military officers involved would have to be heavily punished for treason, and this could lead to a revolt by the army. The best way to deal with the matter was to not let it gain any importance. Malik Shah knew that Nizam al-Mulk always had a wise reason for his actions, so he did not openly object to the disobedience, and the empire was saved from a potential rebellion.

Having such a capable minister at his disposal meant that Malik Shah had much time at his hand for hunting and other sports. His skilled second-in-command had taken all his burdens and duties upon himself, and did such an excellent job that the entire empire, spreading from the holy land of Jerusalem to China was peaceful and prosperous. It does not mean that Malik Shah was incapable of running his kingdom; rather, his minister was even more talented and competent at doing so.

Nizam al-Mulk had a habit of rescuing Malik Shah from dangerous situations that could have led to terrible outcomes. Once when the caesar of the Roman empire had invaded the Seljuq kingdom, Malik Shah led the army to confront him. During a lull in the hostilities, Malik Shah left the army outpost with a few of his companions to hunt, and was apprehended by Roman soldiers who took him and his companions back to their camp as captives. Dressed in civilian clothing, Malik Shah was unrecognizable as the sultan, and the soldiers did not realize who they had captured. When Nizam al-Mulk found out what had happened, he ensured that the information was kept quiet in the Muslim army camp. He gave the impression that the sultan had returned to the camp, then calmly arranged a meeting with the caesar. During the meeting, Nizam al-Mulk was utterly relaxed, not allowing his words or his demeanour to betray how anxious he was. If the caesar discovered just who it was that he had captured, the Romans would have great leverage and their position would become vastly more favorable.

Nizam al-Mulk kept control of his emotions and had a serene conversation with the caesar about a variety of matters. At the end of the talk, the caesar mentioned carelessly that a few of the soldiers from the Muslim army had been found and captured, and offered to release them to Nizam al-Mulk. When the captives, including Malik Shah, were brought to him, Nizam al-Mulk publicly and rather severely reprimanded the soldiers for their foolishness in wandering into enemy territory for the sake of a hunting trip. Then he swiftly took his leave of the caesar, taking with him the released prisoners and bringing the sultan safely back to his army. When the Roman caesar later found out what had actually transpired, he was astonished and awed at Nizam al-Mulk’s brilliant handling of such a precarious situation.

Allah (SWT) had given Nizam al-Mulk the rare ability to know what needs to be done at any given moment. He had the wisdom to take small steps to prevent huge catastrophes. After the conquest of Samarkand, Malik Shah had invaded Kashgar (a city in modern China) when the Roman delegate requested permission to come to the capital to pay the yearly tribute. Nizam al-Mulk instructed him to travel to Kashgar instead and arranged for the tribute to be received there. The reasoning behind this was that the delegate would have to travel the breadth of the Seljuq empire to reach Kashgar, and the vastness and the grandeur of the empire would awe and intimidate him. When he would narrate his first-hand impressions to the caesar of Rome and his court it would have a more profound effect on them and they would likely hesitate before attacking the Muslims again.

Nizam al-Mulk’s Care for the Common People

Immersed in the cutthroat world of politics as he was, Nizam al-Mulk never forgot that his first responsibility was to the people of the land. Once when Alp Arslan was facing financial difficulties because of conflict with the Byzantine empire, he decided to impose an extra tax on the people to fund it. The news of the impending tax distressed the people. Harvest season was still far off, and a plague had spread through much of the empire, killing people left and right. One day in court, Alp Arslan commented with sorrow that the plague was an enemy that could not be stopped, neither by the army nor by money. Nizam al-Mulk had been awaiting just such an opportunity. He said,

“Yes, only justice and compassion can eliminate such a foe.”

He went on to present several examples from history to prove that it was often the tyranny and oppression of the kings that acted as a curse upon the whole kingdom. Alp Arslan was listening attentively and taking his words to heart, so Nizam al-Mulk added that if the sultan wanted to be a blessing and not a curse upon his empire, he could make some overtures of kindness to his people. Alp Arslan was convinced, and he withdrew his previous decision to impose an extra tax on the people.

Nizam al-Mulk placed great importance on the dispensation of justice to the people. He worked to ensure easy access to justice for people from all walks of life, and made certain that the justice was swift and immediate. In his book ‘Dastur al-Wuzara’ (roughly translated as ‘Code of Conduct for Viziers’), he writes that it is a commandment from Allah that your rulings must be just. If even a single decision is unfair or against the will of Allah, then not even a hundred years of fair ruling will be sufficient enough to make up for the sin.

Nizam al-Mulk detested the difficulties that people commonly faced when trying to meet government officials. His own subordinates had instructions to allow the people an audience with him whenever someone came with a petition or request. Once he was eating his meal when a woman arrived with a petition for him. The guards stopped her from entering until he had finished his meal. When Nizam al-Mulk found out, he was very displeased and reprimanded the guards, saying that their purpose was to serve the people, especially the poor and the needy. Privileged people could usually gain access through their resources and influence, but the less privileged deserved access to their rulers too.

Nizam al-Mulk often used his position and influence to sway the sultan to his point of view when it came to the welfare of the peasantry and the common people. He put a definitive end to regressive, unfair taxes which burdened the poor more than the rich. He ordered wells, reservoirs and irrigation channels to be built across the empire to improve ease of access to clean water for drinking and agriculture. He arranged for hospitable inns to be built on the major streets frequented by pilgrims in order to make the pilgrimage easier for the Muslims. To improve infrastructure he ordered a network of paved roads to be laid throughout the empire, as well as sturdy bridges built across rivers. He had a special passion for constructing mosques everywhere. He also built lush gardens in various regions to improve the beauty of the land. As a result people became happy and prosperous.

History teaches us that when the people are happy and prosperous, and the rulers are genuine in their wish to rule fairly and please the people, peace and security follow automatically. Thus it was that under Nizam al-Mulk’s administration, people’s lives and properties were safe and secure across the kingdom. The people slept safely in their beds at night, not fearing for themselves or their family or their possessions. Beyond all this, however, perhaps the greatest service Nizam al-Mulk did for his people was in the field of education. To understand the importance of his actions, it is first necessary to have an idea of what the state of education was in the Muslim world before Nizam al-Mulk’s arrival on the scene. A summary is presented here from Dr Ahmad Shalabi’s book ‘History of Muslim Education’.

Brief Overview of the Muslim Education System Before 5th Century Hijri

Examining the history of Islam tells us that since the very beginning, there was a great thirst for knowledge amongst the Muslims. Here a question arises. Why were the early Muslims so keen to gain knowledge, when before the advent of Islam, Arabs as a nation were largely illiterate? It is narrated that there were perhaps only 17 literate people in Makkah at the time of the first revelation. However, the oral tradition was exceptionally strong among the Arabs. The ancient Arab trade fairs held at ‘Ukaz, Majna and Zu al-Majaz were famous for their poetry contests and debates, but the topics under discussion were limited to legends about their ancestors, love stories, Arabian history and the reciting of pedigrees and family trees.

After Islam rose to prominence, there were a great many changes in the various aspects of life in Arabia, and education was no different. The reason for this can be traced back to the importance of seeking knowledge in Islam, and Prophet Muhammad’s particular instructions regarding education. The Prophet (SAW) himself set an example in this regard; several of the captives from the Battle of Badr were released upon the condition that they would educate a select number of Muslims and teach them to read and write – this would be their ransom payment. Multiple sayings of the Prophet (SAW) exalting the importance of knowledge and describing the clear superiority of the scholar over the ignorant sparked a tendency in Muslims to favour and encourage the growth of knowledge. In the Quran, Allah Himself orders the Prophet (SAW) to pray for enhancement in his knowledge. The trend thus started by the Prophet himself continued after him during the Rashidun Caliphate. Afterwards, the Umayyads continued on the same path and it peaked at the time of the Abbasids who proved themselves to be true benefactors of knowledge and education.

In the early era of Islamic history, the knowledge of Quran was considered the basic field of education. To pursue education and to learn to read and write, students would travel to the teacher’s house and attend him or her there. The centers or houses where a teacher taught their students were called ‘kuttab’. Imam Shafa’i mentions such a center, “My mother sent me to a kuttab, and after I had finished the Quran I entered the mosque (for further education).”

Soon the number of kuttab and teachers in the Islamic world began to rise rapidly. Other than the kuttab, the mosques held special significance as centers of education. Several companions of the Prophet had their own literary circles in the main mosques of various areas. Abdullah bin Abbas (RA) held tafsir (Quranic explanation) lectures in Masjid al-Haram in Makkah every Thursday. Abdullah bin Umar (RA) gave lectures in Madinah, Ma’adh bin Jabal (RA) in Yemen, Abu Musa Ash’ari (RA) in Basra, Abdullah bin Mas’ood (RA) in Kufa, ‘Ubada bin Samit (RA) in Syria, and Abu Darda (RA) and Abdullah bin ‘Amr bin Aas (RA) gave lectures at the local mosques in Egypt. The same passion for seeking knowledge continued in the next two generations of the taba’een (companions of the companions) and their companions, taba’ taba’een, with the mosques as the center of knowledge and education. Masjid an-Nabawi, for example, was the venue of Imam Rabia Rai and Imam Malik’s lectures.

As time went on, religious education came to include more than the recitation and explanation of the Quran. It involved the Quran’s interpretation, the science of Hadith (sayings, actions or silent approvals of the Prophet) and jurisprudence. Apart from the Arabic language, the fields of history and medicine also began to increase in importance. The second caliph Umar (RA) particularly instructed that children should be educated in archery, horse riding, famous quotations and good quality poetry. Mathematics and calligraphy soon gained a place in the field of education as their importance grew. It was considered essential for a scholar to be educated in these basic fields before they could be considered learned.

This increase in the areas of learning meant that it was no longer feasible for all the classes to be held in the mosque. Some of the activities could be potentially disruptive to the solemn atmosphere of the mosque. Thus religious education remained centered in the mosques, while the other fields of education tended to have experts that taught in their homes to where students traveled in order to learn from them. To learn the pure eloquence of the Arabic language, the best practice was to stay for a while with the bedouins in the desert who spoke pure Arabic uncontaminated by the city dialects. Imam Shafa’i spent several years with the bedouin precisely for this purpose.

The state sponsorship of education began because the caliphs of the time often preferred the company of scholars and learned men. From the time of caliph Mu’aawiyah (661-680 C.E.) scholars were invited to court to discuss topics such as the history of various nations and foreign rulers. These scholars would also give their advice on a range of issues. The Umayyad caliphs began to appoint tutors for the young princes who would often live in the palace and teach the princes the knowledge of Quran as well as poetry, history, public speaking, eloquence and quotes of wise men. These tutors were not only responsible for the education of these princes but also for their moral growth, to teach them ethics, etiquettes and manners.

During the Umayyad rule many learned scholars and respected wisemen began to avoid going to the palace because of the sheer opulence, royal protocol and the disregard for Islamic teachings that was reflected in the manners of the court. Later, the Abbasids followed in the Umayyad footsteps and provoked much the same reaction of repulsion and avoidance amongst Islamic scholars and wisemen. They refused to come to the palace to educate the princes in the worldly or religious sciences. When the famous caliph Harun al-Rashid attempted to appoint prominent scholars as private tutors for his sons, they insisted that the princes should join the regular classes and be educated amongst the rest of the students.

The Fatimids subsequently found a solution to this conundrum by establishing classes in the palace for young men of the nobility to be educated madrassa style. The teachers were paid handsome salaries, and this trend became so popular that the royal palaces became a hub for education and knowledge. Mamun al-Rashid’s court was bustling with tutors, educators, translators and historians. This tradition was cherished and continued by all coming successors - the Ghaznavid sultans, the Tulunids and the Seljuqs. The king’s court would always be full of philosophers, mathematicians, lawmakers and physicians, all sponsored and supported by the royal coffers.

Other than the houses of the teachers, the mosques and the royal palaces, bookstores were yet another hotspot of knowledge and education. The fairs and festivals so popular in Arabia before the advent of Islam had been replaced with such book markets. They first became popular in the Abbasid reign. Al-Ya’qoubi writes that one area of Baghdad boasted more than a hundred bookstores. These bookstores were often the sites of spirited debates on one topic or the other. Copies of original books were also done painstakingly in these bookstores. Prominent scholars like Al-Jahiz would pay for the opportunity to be locked into one of these bookshops overnight, where they could read whatever book they wanted to their heart’s content, and to make copies of whatever sections they liked. The market of Baghdad has been mentioned by Ibn al-Jawzi and the market of Cairo (Souq al-Waraqeen) by Al-Maqrizi, teeming with scholars and students eager for knowledge.

In addition to bookstores, libraries were also a center of educational activities. The Abbasid caliphs were the forerunners in this endeavour, and it was Harun al-Rashid who established the Bayt al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom), which became a major intellectual center of the Islamic world. It was not merely a library housing a vast number of books, but also a hub for the translation of books from various languages and a research center for scientific discoveries. These libraries grew so prevalent that every noble and commoner with love of knowledge was racing to have a private library of their own. Not only did the major cities of Shiraz, Cordoba and Cairo possess great libraries, but smaller cities also had a number of them. The Fatimid’s greatest library was housed in an enormous building with forty rooms, each of which could store up to 18,000 books. Dr. Ahmad Shalabi writes about this love for knowledge:

“In 355 A.H. the Khorasani soldiers had annihilated the vizier Ibn al-Ameed’s palace so badly that not even a single pitcher or glass remained unbroken. At such a time, Ibn al-Ameed was weighed down with grief and worry about the state of his library, of which no news had reached him. When the library’s custodian and famous scholar Ibn Miskawayh arrived to inform him that the books had been rescued without damage, Ibn al-Ameed lit up with pleasure, saying ‘You have brought joyful news. All other things can be replaced.’”

The tradition of collecting books and rare manuscripts had become so prevalent in Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) that even peasant farmers had a library room in their houses. Like modern libraries, these libraries were fully catalogued and each book properly indexed, available for loan to others against a deposit. If a science or literature expert required quick access to a book, they were allowed to enter the library even outside public hours. The larger libraries employed scribes and translators for the express purpose of copying and translating manuscripts. The great library of the Banu Ammar emirs of Tripoli (in modern day Libya) had around 180 scribes employed to make copies of manuscripts. Of those 30 were appointed on the night shift so that the scribing process could continue 24 hours a day.

It was important to create an encouraging environment for education as the times changed and culture and civilisation grew and prospered. This was done by arranging for the scholarships and residence of students, and setting up salaries for the teachers who dedicated their lives to spreading knowledge. People eager for knowledge travelled thousands of miles to reach the centers of knowledge and science, and to benefit from the great, prominent scholars of the time. It was a logistical nightmare to arrange for their food and board, and to arrange classes in a way that was practically feasible and yet not too time-consuming for an individual. It was too inefficient to visit different areas of a city to learn from various experts in their respective fields, so the tradition of a madrassa was begun.

Initially, the few madrassas that were founded were dedicated to the religious education of a particular school of jurisprudence. Then the Fatimids founded several madrassas with the intention of encouraging Shiite beliefs throughout their kingdom. When the Seljuqs conquered Baghdad and an effort was made to renew the Sunni beliefs, the madrassas were seen as essential to this endeavour. Nizam al-Mulk dedicated himself to the establishing of such madrassas with the support of Alp Arslan and then Malik Shah. Soon a whole network of madrassas had been laid down across the empire. Nizam al-Mulk’s campaign of opening madrassas in every area of the entire kingdom was so effective that this achievement alone is enough to cement his place in history.

The Nezamiyyah Institutes: Nizam al-Mulk’s Incredible Achievement and a Great Education Movement

Nizam al-Mulk was not just a brilliant statesman and a political thinker; he was also a great believer in the importance of education and seeking knowledge. He enjoyed the company of scholars and learned men. He was particularly interested in learning the Hadith sciences. He would also lecture occasionally in Baghdad and Khorasan on Hadith. Before his appointment as minister, many scholars had been banished from their domiciles due to political complications. Nizam al-Mulk put in a lot of effort to have them return safely to their centers to continue their work. Such scholars included the Imam of the grand mosques in Makkah and Madinah as well as prominent scholar Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri. Nizam al-Mulk had great admiration for these people, often standing to invite them to sit in his place, and sitting cross-legged in front of them to indicate respect. It was this regard for knowledge that led Nizam al-Mulk to accomplish a feat which would name him the founder of madrassas in golden ink in the pages of history.

Nizam al-Mulk believed that the process of teaching and learning for students and teachers should be made as easy and convenient as possible. The lack of facilities, the long, arduous journeys, and the shortage of supplies often made it impossible for those involved to dedicate themselves to the act of gaining and dispensing knowledge as much as they would like. He felt severely the need for an institution where the environment could be focused completely on knowledge, and where enough facilities were available so that the students and the teachers would need not worry about anything other than their work. These institutes needed to be in every corner of the land, so that those who sought knowledge would not have to travel long and hard just to find an opportunity to learn.

Starting on his scheme, Nizam al-Mulk founded institutes of education in Nishapur, Balkh, Herat, Isfahan, Basra, Merv, Mosul and in every major city in Iraq. He established a madrassa and a library in every town inhabited by a prominent or known scholar. According to a tradition, he established madrassas and libraries in locations as far off as Jazirat Ibn Umar (modern day island Cizre in Anatolia, Turkey). Named after him, the institutes or madrassas began to be called Nezamiyyah institutes. These institutes were financially supported either by Nizam al-Mulk personally or through the properties that the state granted to be held in trust (endowed or made Waqf) for the institute. These properties included land, buildings, shops and other income generating assets. Only the best tutors were chosen to teach at the Nezamiyyah institutes, and they were paid a handsome salary. Students were granted generous scholarships. Just Baghdad boasted around 30 madrassas, and the buildings of the madrassas were often as grand and majestic as the palace itself, meant to awe and humble visitors and seekers of knowledge.

One day Malik Shah commented on the huge wealth that Nizam al-Mulk tended to spend on the Nezamiyyah institutes, saying, “If you spent the money that you dedicate to these institutes on the army instead, we could conquer the whole world.” Nizam al-Mulk replied, “The army you would recruit could only reach a couple of miles with each arrow they shoot. But the army of scholars that I am training, their prayers have the ability to cross the heavens.”

The most famous and celebrated of all the Nezameyyah institutes was the main branch in Baghdad. Its construction began in 457 AH (1065 CE), and was completed two years later at the enormous cost of 200,000 dinars. It was the largest institute of higher education of the time, and could fit hundreds of thousands of people. Its library hosted millions of books, including the entire personal collection of Nizam al-Mulk himself. Rare and valuable books were collected from all over the world to grace the shelves of the library.

Abu Ishaq Shirazi, a prominent scholar of the time, was selected as the head of the madrassa. On the day of its inauguration, Abu Ishaq was late in arriving at the institute. Nizam al-Mulk’s son, who was in charge of the event, waited a little while and then started the ceremony without the scholar’s presence. When Nizam al-Mulk found out, he disapproved of his son’s decision, saying, “You made the wrong decision. It would have been better to delay the inauguration of the madrassa for as long as needed, even an entire year. No one but Abu Ishaq can be chosen for this post.” Thus Abu Ishaq was cajoled and persuaded until he agreed, twenty days later, to take up the job of leading the institute. Nizam al-Mulk understood very well that to begin important work without competent and skilled people is to limit its potential benefit. If time, effort, money or personal pride needs to be sacrificed to obtain the cooperation of such people then it is a sacrifice well worth making.

There are many details available describing the glory and splendour of the Nezamiyyah of Baghdad. Here was an opportunity for students to fully dedicate themselves to the pursuit of knowledge. Food, clothing, residence, transport – all were provided for. The magnificent library was available at all times. The curriculum focused on religious studies, Islamic law, interpretation of the Quran, jurisprudence, grammar and literature, the art of debate, history and geography. Students could specialize in any of these subjects. The entire aura of the institute, and in particular the library, was awe-inspiring and impressive. Scribes, clerks and custodians of the library were in a constant flurry, busy taking care of the books and adding more to the collection. There was also a center of fatwas, called Dar-ul-Ifta, where the public could come in to ask questions and discuss their problems, and receive religious guidance in return. Preachers and public speakers also addressed the people and gave lectures on relevant topics within the building of the Nezamiyyah institute.

Other than the Nezamiyyah of Baghdad, the Nezamiyyah of Nishapur was also a prominent and celebrated madrassa of the time. The head of the institute was Ziauddin al-Juwaini, a prominent theologian who had also served as imam of the grand mosques in Makkah and Madinah. He taught at the institute for 30 years.

For a long time, these madrassas spread the light of knowledge to those who sought it. The Nezamiyyah of Baghdad was destroyed some 200 years later during the Mongol invasion, but other madrassas managed to stay standing in the centuries to come. In his book “History of Muslim Education”, Dr. Ahmad Shalabi has compiled a list of prominent and known figures who served as teachers in the Nezamiyyah institutes. From the 5th century Hijri to the end of the 8th century, the list shines with the names of inspiring personalities, including Imam Ghazali and Abu Abdullah al-Tabari. After the 9th century, mentions of these institutes fade out of history books. The reason for this is that financial crises caused due to in-fighting and civil wars led to the repossession of the Awqaf (endowed properties) that had been granted to the madrassas. This severe cut in funding caused a tremendous shock to the structure and facilities of the institutes, and they never recovered, gradually vanishing from existence.

The madrassas found by Nizam al-Mulk do not exist anymore, but the good they did and the benefits they produced endure in many forms. The madrassas that exist today in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have been inspired from the legacy the Nezamiyyah institutes left behind. However, their curricula need to be updated and brought in line with the contemporary sciences, as was the case during the time of Nizam al-Mulk.

Siyasatnama – an Unparalleled Treatise on Politics and Statecraft

As the Seljuq dynasty grew and expanded its borders, the sultan Malik Shah began to feel the need for a book that could serve as a guide and a reference; a book that outlined the principles of governance while also standing as the constitution of the nation. He tasked his ministers Sharf al-Mulk, Majd al-Mulk and Nizam al-Mulk to write a book for this purpose, which all three of them did. The book compiled by Nizam al-Mulk was the only one that met with Malik Shah’s approval, and was consequently accepted as the constitution of the empire.

The book, written shortly before Nizam al-Mulk’s death, gained real recognition and prominence only after he had passed away. Siyasatnama, also known as “Siyar al-Muluk”, consists of 50 chapters. It describes in detail what factors lie behind political success, and what steps are necessary to ensure stability and peace in a country. In this context Nizam al-Mulk expands at length on topics like desirable characteristics in a king, the privileges and duties of a king, the realities of governing, the responsibilities and challenges facing the ministers of a country, and the process behind selecting good administrators and bureaucrats to run the country. It covers the proper role of other governmental agencies like the armed forces, police, finance department, secret services, etc. It discusses guideline principles and codes for each.

Siyasatnama is easy to read and understand. Despite the heavy topics, the average reader does not feel a sense of boredom, nor does the book come across as dry, heavy reading. Instead, Nizam al-Mulk’s eloquence and fluency keep the reader engaged and interested. He does not merely present his arguments on a particular principle or rule, but offers historical events and facts to support his claims. Thus the book is littered with historical references to events in both Muslim and non-Muslim histories, focusing specially on the ancient empires of Persia and Turkey. He also includes frequent quotes from the Quran and Hadith as well as insightful quotes from wisemen, mystics and ascetics.

The truth of the matter is that Nizam al-Mulk’s book can be considered a guide and a manual for Muslim leaders and politicians of all times. Politics is generally thought to be void of all honour and principles; it is considered an area where anything goes, and all rules and morals may be ignored if needed. Nizam al-Mulk’s book shows how decent, honourable men can and should conduct themselves in the muddy waters of the political arena, and that is the reason that this book gained as much fame amongst non-Muslims as it did amongst Muslims. It has been translated into almost all the major European languages, and the British actually included it as part of the curriculum for civil service training in the Indian subcontinent after its colonisation.

Nizam al-Mulk – a Great Political Thinker

Nizam al-Mulk occupies a place of honour amongst the greatest political thinkers of all times. This is because he was not just a man of theory but carried with him almost 30 years of experience in the real world of politics. He examined and studied the rise and fall of various governments for years, and remained involved in the administration and management of his country even as power changed hands. Thus he had the unique opportunity to experience and witness practical politics from a very close perspective, and this sets him apart from other famous political philosophers like al-Farabi and al-Mawardi.

In his book Siyasatnama, Nizam al-Mulk deems the rulers of a country as a reflection of the character of the common people they rule over. He says with great certainty that inept kings are imposed upon immoral people. Under their reign, the country falls apart and becomes rife with bloodshed, robberies and unrest. In the turmoil of this punishment, both good and bad people alike suffer and die. This does not last forever, however, and in His mercy Allah SWT sends after a while a better ruler who ends the oppression and suffering, and brings about positive changes.

Nizam al-Mulk does not make the king accountable to the common people, but he warns him to follow Allah’s commands closely and to beware that he will have to answer to Allah for all his actions and decisions. Both ideologically and practically, Nizam al-Mulk wants to see the king as a faithful and practicing Muslim. In his opinion the king need not be a great scholar himself, but he should be a friend to knowledge and scholarship, and a promoter of science and arts, of education and advancement. A love for his people, along with an affinity with the poor people and a desire to help them, are also vital characteristics of the ideal king.

Along with all these traits, the king should also be courageous and resolute. Above all, he emphasizes again and again that the king should be fair and just. Nizam al-Mulk says that justice in a kingdom strengthens the empire and the king himself. An unjust and oppressive king cannot retain his power or his throne for long. Nizam al-Mulk considers it the direct responsibility of the king to establish justice in his kingdom. He presents Prophet Yusuf (Joseph) (AS) as well as Prophet Muhammad’s companion Umar (RA) as shining examples of just rulers. He reminds the ruler of the huge honour and favor that Allah (SWT) has promised for rulers and kings who govern their people justly, and recommends that they always keep it in mind.