ESMĀʿĪL, b. Aḥmad b. Asad SĀMĀNĪ, ABŪ EBRĀHĪM (b. 234/849, d. Ṣafar 295/November 907), the first member of the Samanid dynasty to rule over all Transoxania and Farḡāna. He served almost two decades (260-79/874-92) as governor of Bukhara (q.v. ii) on behalf of his brother Naṣr, ʿAbbasid governor of Transoxania, who resided at Samarqand. In Khorasan and Transoxania this period was one of strife among various adventurers seeking power following the fall of the Taherid governors of Nīšāpūr. The disturbances did not end until the Saffarid ʿAmr b. Layṯ (q.v.) finally established himself in the region in 283/896. As governor Esmāʿīl had to fend off attacks on Bukhara by Khwarazmian forces under one Ḥosayn b. Ṭāher Ṭāʾī. In addition, he twice failed to send the 500,000 dirhams stipulated as annual tribute to Naṣr, and his alliance with Rāfeʿ b. Harṯama, one of the contenders for power in Khorasan, forced him to defend Bukhara against two attacks by Naṣr (in 272/885 and 275/888).
When Naṣr died in Jomādā I 279/August 892 Esmāʿīl became ruler of all Transoxania and transfered the capital to Bukhara, thenceforth the center of the Samanid amirate; he was officially recognized as governor of Transoxania by the caliph al-Moʿtażed (279-89/892-902) in Baghdad. In 280/893 he led an expedition north into the steppes, capturing Ṭarāz (modern Dzhambul in the Kazakhstan Republic), taking an immense booty of animals and Turkish slaves, and converting a Nestorian Christian church into a mosque. He also extended Samanid suzerainty over the Afšīns (q.v.), the local Iranian dynasty of Ošrūsana in the middle Jaxartes (Syr Darya) valley. He acquired his greatest renown in contemporary eyes, however, from the defeat and capture of ʿAmr b. Layṯ in a battle near Balḵ, probably in Rabīʿ I 287/March 900.
ʿAmr, after defeating and killing the rebel Rāfeʿ b. Harṯama in 283/896, had received from al-Moʿtażed a grant of Ray and the whole of eastern Persia and Transoxania, which entailed deposing Esmāʿīl as governor. He therefore invaded the upper Oxus (Amu Darya) provinces but was decisively defeated by Esmaʿīl. The ʿAbbasids at Baghdad were thus relieved of pressure from the aggressive Saffarids, and the caliph formally appointed Esmāʿīl governor of Khorasan, Sīstān, Ray, Ṭabarestān, and Isfahan, in addition to his Transoxanian provinces. Subsequent Samanid amirs were, however, able to retain permanent control only of Khorasan and Transoxania. Although he still officially recognized the caliphs’ overlordship in the Friday sermon (ḵoṭba) and on his coinage (sekka), Esmāʿīl was able to take advantage of his distance from Iraq and his new prestige to function as an independent sovereign. There is no evidence that he ever forwarded regular tribute or taxation to Baghdad.
The last years of Esmāʿīl’s life were spent combating the Zaydī Shiʿite imams in the Caspian provinces, extending Samanid power westward across northern Persia, and repelling a Turkish invasion from the steppes (291/904). The Shiʿite Moḥammad b. Zayd b. Moḥammad of Ṭabarestān had sought to take advantage of Esmāʿīl’s preoccupation with ʿAmr b. Layṯ to invade Khorasan but had been killed in Gorgān in 287/900. Once firmly in control of the eastern lands, Esmāʿīl launched an offensive against Ṭabarestān and the rest of northern Persia and by 287/900 held territory as far west as Ray and Qazvīn, though again his successors were not able to hold on to these areas against the resurgent Deylamites (q.v. ii) and Kurds. When Esmāʿīl died he was succeeded by his son Aḥmad (295-301/907-14). A tomb in Bukhara has been identified as that of Esmāʿīl (Schroeder, pp. 946-49; see BUKHARA v), though it seems to belong to the later Samanid period (Blair, pp. 25-29).
Esmāʿīl left a reputation for justice and piety and for serving the caliph and his interests faithfully, a reputation preserved in later historical and adab literature. He is often referred to in sources as Amīr-e Māżī and Amīr-e ʿĀdel. He may be considered the greatest of the Samanids, for none of his successors was of his caliber.
See also SAMANIDS.
Bibliography (for cited works not given in detail, see “Short References”):
Barthold, Turkestan2, pp. 222-26.
S. Blair, The Monumental Inscriptions from Early Islamic Iran and Transoxiana, Leiden, 1992. C.
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E. Schroeder, “An Historical Outline. C. Standing Monuments of the First Period,” in Survey of Persian Art III, pp. 930-66.
Ṭabarī, III, pp. 2133, 2138, 2183, 2144-45, 2201, 2203-4, 2216, 2220-21, 2249, 2279.
Tārīḵ-e Sīstān, pp. 253-63.
W. L. Treadwell, “The Political History of the Sāmānid State,” Ph. D. diss., Oxford University, 1991.
(C. Edmund Bosworth)
Originally Published: December 15, 1998
Last Updated: January 19, 2012
This article is available in print.
Vol. VIII, Fasc. 6, pp. 636-637