Timeline: Buyid {932-1062}

By the middle of the tenth century the great Abbasid Empire was disintegrating. Into the vacuum formed by its feeble rule over many areas of the once powerful empire, small tribal or clan kingdoms took control. One of these, which grew to rule the heart of the Abbasid Empire in Baghdad from behind the throne, was the Buyids. The Buyids or Buwaiyids were descended from the Daylamites who controlled Tabaristan, the territory along the coast of the Caspian Sea, an area that was not always reachable by even the former powerful armies of the Abbasids. The Daylamites were inhabitants of the highlands of Gilan and traced their history to the Parthian empire, and perhaps even earlier. The later Arabs knew them as fierce fighters accustomed to mountainous terrain. Even during the height of the Sasanian Empire, the Daylamites seemed to be semi-autonomous, backing one shah over another, or used as a personal body guard: Khusro II (590-628) had a royal guard of some 4,000 Daylamites.[1] By the middle of the ninth century the Daylamites, who spoke an Iranian dialect, had been converted to Shi’ism.


Buya ibn Fanna (Panah) Khusro (also known as Abu Suja) was a fisherman from Daylam in Gilan and was the father of three brothers. These three found themselves part of an attempt to revive the Persian Empire and Zoroastrianism under a powerful military leader Mardavij ibn Ziar. When Mardavij captured Hamadan from the Abbasid governor in 931/319 AH and annexed Isfahan in central Iran, the Caliph al-Muqtadir was forced to recognize him as governor of the province of Jebal. In 932/320 AH, Mardavij put Abu’l Hasan ‘Ali b. Buya (the eldest brother) in charge of an area to the southeast of Hamadan, Kara District, but Ali’s popularity with the Daylamites caused Mardavij to be suspicious of him. After numerous skirmishes, Ali eventually marched to Fars (southwestern Iran) and conquered Shiraz, only making peace with Mardavij by sending his brother Abu ‘Ali Hasan b. Buya as hostage. When Mardavij was murdered in 935/323 AH and his attempts at reestablishing a Persian empire ended, the Buyid brothers stepped into power. ‘Ali was in charge of Fars, Abu ‘Ali Hasan took the Jebal province (ancient Media), and Ahmad the youngest took Kerman and later Khuzestan. Four months before Mardavij’s death, ‘Ali had quite cleverly gone to Baghdad to see the Caliph ar-Radi, who had recently taken the throne, and had officially received the governorship of Fars.


In the tenth century a series of weak Abbasid caliphs were unable to control the various forces that were pulling the empire apart. Problems with various Turkish mercenaries, intrigue at court, and the lack of loyalty among the Abbasid troops led the Buyid brothers to realize their chance to take control. In 945/334 AH, under the new caliph Al-Mustakfi, Ahmad entered a starving and desperate Baghdad. He was given the honorific title of Mu’izz al-Dawla (Glorifier of the State) and the office of amir al-omara (the great amir, literally the grand vizier); this allowed him to have the caliph confirm his brothers’ provincial control and to bestow distinctive titles on them as well: ‘Ali was given the title Imad al-Dawla (Support of the State) and ruled from Shiraz, and Abu ‘Ali Hasan was given the title Rukn al-Dawla (Pillar of the State) and ruled from Rayy. Tensions at court were not lessened by the presence of the Buyids since they were Shi’ite and the court was Sunni. Other tensions between the brothers arose as to who was the senior in charge of the others. ‘Ali passed away in 949/338 AH and Abu ‘Ali Hasan (Rukn al-Dawla) took charge of the Buyids; further problems arose with Rukn al-Dawla’s son ‘Adud al-Dawla (Pillar of the State, also known as Fana Khusro) who tried to take control of all the Buyid territories, even to fighting his cousin ‘Izz al-Dawla (Glory of the State, Ahmad’s son) for control of Khuzestan and Iraq. ‘Adud al-Dawla, however, was successful in uniting all the Buyid territories under his control by 980/369 AH, but it only lasted until his death in 983/372 AH. Even though this unification was short lived ‘Adud al-Dawla is remarked upon by Nizam al-Mulk, the later grand vizier for the Seljuks in his Siyasat-nama, as an exemplar and model of the proper authoritarian ruler.[2] The next decades saw internal strife among the three Buyid principalities and among the Buyid family members. At one point the wife (Sayyida) of Fakr al-Dawla (Pride of the State), the son of Rukn al-Dawla, who was the senior member of the family but who had died in 997/386 AH, found herself the actual ruler of Rayy, fighting to frustrate the efforts of her husband’s nephews and grand-nephews, her own son Abu Taleb Rostam (known as Majd al-Dawla, Glory of the State), and even the Ghaznavid Sultan Mahmud, from attacking the city. Her death in 1014/405 AH left the way open for the city to be taken by Sultan Mahmud in 1029/420 AH. Ostensibly this was upon the request of her son Majd al-Dawla who sought support from his mutinous Daylamite soldiers. He found himself, however, captured and forced to watch his city sacked and burned, the great library of Rayy destroyed, and his people stoned as heretics.


From 1029/420 AH to 1062/454 AH, due to the constant internal power struggle, Buyid power declined until the principalities fell to the Kurds and then the Seljuks. Yet, through all that time, the caliphate in Baghdad was allowed titular control.

The Buyids created a genealogical table connecting them with the great Sasanians, but most scholars agree that this is most probably false. However, they did perform some of the ancient Persian festivals such as No Ruz (New Year) and Mehragan (the fall festival held on the sixteenth day of the Persian month of Mehr, which is about the sixth or seventh of October). It’s in the motifs on textile fragments that one can see further attempts by the Buyids to connect themselves with Sasanian art works. Sericulture was a major production in Tabaristan, and a number of sites along the Caspian coast as well as in Fars were established for the production of silk weaves. Rayy as the capital of one of the Buyid provinces was a center of this trade, and there in its markets one could find beautiful robes of striped and figural silks, cotton and silk blends from Merv, brocades from Byzantium, Russian furs, Armenian carpets and embroidered and plain silks from China. According to McDowell, the principal Buyid weaves are a plain compound tabby twill and a lampas, a “smooth ground and slightly raised design.”[3] Such weaves present motifs familiar to Parthian and Sasanian traditions: equestrian hunting figures such as falconers, confronting eagles (some double-headed birds in pairs), smaller hawks, peacocks, winged ibexes or goats, hexagonal frames of interlaced strapwork, and detached roundels with small animals in the borders. Some pieces have inscriptions which suggest a Buyid attribution such as “Glory and prosperity to the king of kings...(Bah)a al-daula...”, and one has a specific date: “in the year 388 (998 AD).”[4]


Another wonderful example of the continuation of Sasanian motifs is a gold jug in the Freer Gallery inscribed to ‘Izz al-Dawla. Although confirmation on its attribution to the Buyids is controversial, [5] it is decorated with a band composed of three pairs of facing birds and on the stomach of the jug, three pairs of facings figures in interlocking medallions: a sphinx on either side of the handle (the handle might be an addition), two peacocks with ribbons in their mouths, and two horned animals eating large plants.

Very little of Buyid architecture has survived: the Jurjir Portal at the Masjid-i Hakim in Isfahan, the Friday mosques at Isfahan, Na’in, Nayriz, the domed chamber at the Friday mosque in Natanz, some urban remains at the badly destroyed Rayy and Nishapur, some suggestions of grand agricultural estates lying under later Mongol remains, a variety of inscriptions at a number of Friday mosques such as Saveh and Ardistan, and other inscriptions at various sites in Fars, suggest a widespread architectural style, but there is little to attribute particular features except for the ubiquitous brick and stucco as common building materials.

Most Buyid literature was written in Arabic, although there were a few poets writing in Persian. The patronage for literature appears to have come from the chief ministers and viziers such as Abu Muhammad al-Hasan b. Muhammad al-Muhallabi (960-963/350-353 AH) whose collected letters became a model of prose and eloquent communications. The majalis (salons) of Buyid officials attracted some of the finest scholars of the day; their conversations were recorded and shared among others as exemplars of debates and examples of the proper use of logic and grammar. Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi’s (d. 1023/414 AH) Kitab al-imta’ wa-al-mu’anasa (The Book of Enjoyment and Conversation) describes such literary gatherings. The great library at Rayy was organized and monitored by ‘Abu ‘Ali Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Ya’qub Ibn Miskawayh (d. 1030/418 AH) a Persian philosopher and historian whose Tadhib al-akhlaq (Refinement of Morals) focuses on the proper conduct and refinement of character. He also wrote one of the first major histories on contemporary events in the Buyid period in Tajarib al-uman (Experiences of Nations). Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani’s (d. 967/356 AH) Kitab al-Aghani (Book of Songs) is a collection of poems, songs and the stories of their composers and singers from ancient times to the Buyid period. It is one of the most important sources of pre-Islamic and early Islamic Arab life and customs. Shi’ite law and theology is focused on by Abu Ja’far Muhammad Ibn Babawayh (d. 991/381 AH), one of the leading Shi’ite scholars, in such works as Ma’ani al-Akhbar (The Meaning of Narrations) and Kamal al-Din wa Taman al-Ni’man (The Perfection of the Religion and the End of the Blessings). Sayyid Shari al-Radi’s compilation of the Nahj al-Balagha (The Path of Eloquence, a compendium of sayings, proverbs, short prayers attributed to ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib), is a model of epistolary style and has had wide influence on both the classical and folk traditions of Arabic, Persian and Urdu literature.

Medicine and the establishment of hospitals were of primary importance under the Buyids. Physicians such as ‘Ali ibn al-‘Abbas al-Majusi (d. 994/384 AH, known as Haly Abbas in the West) was also a surgeon and a psychologist whose works on medicine not only established Islamic medicine but also had a profound effect on the development of medicine in the West. His Kitab Kamil al-sina`ah al-tibbiyah (The Complete Book of the Medical Art), also known as Al-Kitab al-Maliki (The Royal Book or in Europe as Liber regius or Pantegni) dedicated to ‘Adud al-Dawla, discusses neuroscience, internal medicine and basic medical sciences. [6]

The Buyids, therefore, represent the transitional period between the dying Abbasid caliphate and the semi-autonomous and future independent Islamic states that were just forming. Its short lived and very violent period contrasted greatly with its support of advancements in learning especially in medicine, philosophy and religion, and the ultimate revival of Iranian culture which would come to establish its mark on later Islamic dynasties.

Johanna Domela Movassat, Ph.D.



[1] C.E. Bosworth, “Military Organisation under the Buyids of Persian and Iraq,” Oriens 18/19 (1965/1966), 144.

[2] J. Allgrove McDowell, “Textiles,” in The Arts of Persia, edited by Ronald W. Ferrier (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 158. There is some concern that a number of pieces of Buyid silks or “Rayy silks” in various museums are not necessarily Buyid. This is due to caches of silk fragments that were discovered in a mid-1920s excavation at Rayy and the following excavation in the 1930s under Erich Schmidt of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (still unpublished); through the 1940s and 1950s a number of fragments labeled as Rayy or Buyid continued to appear on the market, greatly confusing the situation. See D. Thompson, “Abrisam,” Encyclopedia Iranica, Part III: Silk Textiles in Iran (2011), http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/abrisam-silk-index.

[3] McDowell.

[4] For a generally negative comment on most Buyid articles as being suspect (except for a few textiles), see Jonathan M. Bloom, “Facts and Fantasy in Buyid Art,” Oriente Moderno, Nuovo serie, Anno 23 (84), Nr. 2 (2004): 387-400.

[5] See Glenn D. Lowry, “On the Gold Jug Inscribed to Abu Mansur Al-Amir Bakhtiyar Ibn Mu’izz al-Dawla in the Freer Gallery of Art,” Ars Orientalis 19 (1989), 104. Lowry rightly denigrates the widely held opinion that the jug looks too new to be medieval. Such an opinion doesn’t make sense in the light of its material – gold. One could challenge just about every European and Asian gold object because they clean up nicely in museums.

[6] For greater detail on this and other Muslim scientists’ fascinating medical discoveries, see “Islamic Culture and the Medical Arts: The Great Systematizers,” US National Library of Medicine (2011), http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/islamic_medical/islamic_07.html.

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