YAʿQUB b. LAYṮ b. MOʿADDAL (r. 247-65/861-79), founder of what may be distinguished as the Laythids, or the “first line” within the Saffarid dynasty, who built up a powerful military empire in the eastern regions of the Islamic world centered on Sistān, The rise to power of Yaʿqub and his brother ʿAmr effected a substantial breach in the fabric of the ʿAbbasid caliphate, aggravating a process which began with the autonomous stances of the caliphs’ governors in Khorasan, the Tahirids and the Samanids, who were local potentates in the upper Oxus region and Transoxiana.
Yaʿqub’s home province of Sistān had an enduring heritage of sectarian opposition to the caliphs, and Kharijite activity there provoked an orthodox Sunni counter-movement, including in the capital Zarang, in which the ʿayyārs, or motaṭawweʿa (volunteer fighters) were prominent. Such bands of men soon came to represent the personal interests of local warlords, utilizing local feeling against continued caliphal control and financial exploitation of the province, and it was within one of them, that of the ʿayyār leader in Bost, Ṣāleḥ b. Naṣr (or Naṣr), that Yaʿqub first rose to prominence. In the internecine fighting of rival commanders, another ʿayyār leader emerged in Sistan, Derham b. Nazr (or Naṣr), under whom Yaʿqub then took service. However, he soon built up his own following, set Derham aside and, on 25 Moḥarram 247/10 April 861, he was hailed as Amir in Sistān. Later eulogists of the Saffarids fabricated a glorious descent for Yaʿqub and his family, back through the Sasanid emperors to the legendary Iranian kings, but Yaʿqub’s origins were in reality firmly plebeian; from his birthplace, the village of Qarnin, he came to Zarang as a coppersmith (ṣaffār, ruygar), while his brother ʿAmr was a mule-hirer (Gardizi, p. 138; Tāriḵ-e Sistān, pp. 199-202; tr. pp. 158-60; Juzjāni, I, pp. 197-98).
In 249-50/864, two years after his elevation to power, Yaʿqub led an expedition to Bost against his former master Ṣāleḥ, and then into Roḵḵaj and Zamindāvar against the local ruler there, the Zunbil, killing him and securing an immense booty. Yaʿqub’s ʿayyār origins implied a hostility to the local Kharijites, who were particularly strong around Joveyn and Uq in northern Sistān. Yaʿqub now moved against them, securing a decisive victory and killing their leader ʿAmmār b. Yāser in 251/865 (Tārik-e Sistān, p. 211; tr. pp. 164-5). There were further operations against the Kharijites of the Bāḏḡis and Garčestān regions, in which Yaʿqub employed a mixture of repression and conciliation; he incorporated many former Kharijites into his own army, in which they now formed a distinct unit, the so-called jayš al-šorāt (Bosworth, 1968, pp. 543-44). It was policies like this, and a growing anti-ʿAbbasid attitude on Yaʿqub’s part, that led some hostile sources to stigmatize him as a Kharijite sympathizer himself. Yaʿqub’s actions in fact mark the decline of militant Kharijism in the East, where it henceforth subsisted as the creed of quietist, peaceable communities.
Another early concern for Yaʿqub was to extend his authority northwards to Herat and to the rich province of Khorasan, which was then under the governorship of the Tahirid family. Moḥammad b. Ṭāher b. ʿAbd-Allāh had been appointed as governor in 248/862 when a serious anti-caliphal, Shiʿite revolt broke out in the Caspian lowlands under the Hasanid ʿAli b. Zayd, called al-Dāʿi ilā’l-Ḥaqq, which Moḥammad – and, as it subsequently proved, Yaʿqub himself – was unable to quell. We have two source traditions on the events leading to the deposition of Moḥammad b. Ṭāher in Nišāpur: an “eastern” one (e.g. Gardizi, p. 1402) which places Yaʿqub’s attack on Pušang and Herat in 257/871 as part of his campaign against the Kharijites of northern Afghanistan and after his campaigns in the eastern and northern regions against the Zunbils and Abu Dawudids (see below); and a “western” one (e.g. Ebn [Abi] Azhar in Ebn Ḵallekān, VI, pp. 404-05; tr. de Slane, IV, pp. 302-04) favored by Barthold, which places the Khorasan campaign at the earlier date of 253/867. This earlier date is now confirmed by the local history, the Tāriḵ-e Sistān (pp. 208-09, 213; tr. Ḥabibi, pp. 165-66, 169), which describes how Yaʿqub captured Herat from its Tahirid governor and defeated a Tahirid army, compelling Moḥammad to grant Yaʿqub, as his vassal governor, Sistān, Kabul, Kermān and Fārs, together with the appropriate official insignia; this was the first official recognition of Saffarid authority outside his home province.
Of course, this did not satisfy Yaʿqub in the long run, but he turned his attention for now to embarking on a raid into Kermān and Fārs in order to exploit the rights granted to him by the Tahirids; Fārs, in particular, was famed for its high taxation yields, meaning that if Yaʿqub were able to secure Fārs and its resources for himself, he could prepare for an attack on Ahvāz, which boasted rich, irrigated agricultural lands. The obstacle here, however, was the power of the ʿAbbasid caliphate, especially after 256/870 when the new Caliph al-Moʿtamed’s energetic and capable brother, al-Mowaffaq, secured an ascendancy in the state. Yaʿqub’s path to Fārs had already been blocked by the caliphal governor there, ʿAli b. Ḥosayn, whom Yaʿqub had nevertheless defeated at Shiraz in 255/869, bringing back to Zarang rich spoils. Fārs meanwhile fell under the control of a local lord, Moḥammad b. Wāṣel, but Yaʿqub reacted by leading a further raid into Kermān and Fārs in 257/970, and collected 30 million dirhams of land-tax from Fārs alone. Al-Mowaffaq now formally granted Yaʿqub the governorship of Balkh, Toḵārestān, Sind and all the other eastern lands and their revenues, on the condition that he withdraw from Fārs, an obvious attempt to deflect Yaʿqub’s energies eastwards to the pagan borderlands of Afghanistan and northwestern India, from which the caliphs had no possibility of deriving revenue in any case (Ṭabari, III, pp. 1698-1706, 1839, 1841, 1858-59; Tāriḵ-e Sistān, pp. 216, 225-26; tr. pp. 171, 178-79).
Yaʿqub had in fact already taken measures against the recrudescing power of the Zunbils and their allies, the Kābol-šāhs, and in 255/869 had marched into Zamindāvar, whilst the Zunbil retreated towards Kabul. He collected rich booty in the form of slave captives and treasures, which were probably from the despoiled shrine of the local god Zun; when presents of idols and other objects were forwarded by Yaʿqub to the caliph, they caused a sensation in Sāmarrāʾ. Shortly afterwards, in either 256/870 (Gardizi, p. 139) or 258/972 (Tāriḵ-e Sistān, pp. 216-17; tr. p. 172), Yaʿqub led a further expedition to the Kabul region, and then turned northwards to attack the Abu Dawudids, or Banijurids, in Balkh.
While the sources are frequently at variance over the exact chronology of the above events, they all agree that it was in the summer of 259/873 that Yaʿqub captured Nišāpur and overthrew the Tahirids. Apparently taking advantage of disaffection within Moḥammad b. Ṭāher’s entourage, amid accusations that the latter had been neglecting the Zaydi Shiʿite threat from the Caspian region, Yaʿqub entered the city without striking a blow, and deposed and imprisoned the Tahirid amir. He proceeded into Ṭabarestān, but failed to dislodge the ʿAlid ruler Ḥasan b. Zayd, and, in any case, once he left westwards in pursuit of his primary goal to attack Iraq and the heartland of the caliphate, control of Khorasan reverted to various local warlords such as Aḥmad Ḵojestāni (Ṭabari, III, p. 1881; Gardizi, p. 130; Tārik-e Sistān, pp. 220-23; tr. pp 174-77).
A pretext for Yaʿqub’s second incursion into Fārs, in 261/875, was an appeal from Moḥammad b. Wāṣel’s rivals for help against him. Moḥammad was defeated and fled, while Yaʿqub again occupied Fārs and Ahvāz. What the caliph feared most now was an alliance between Yaʿqub and the Zanj rebels, who were by now in control of much of Lower Iraq and southern Ahvāz, and while no formal, high-level alliance was made, contacts were undoubtedly established for local cooperation between the two anti-caliphal sides. The panic-stricken caliph granted Yaʿqub an immense array of governorships, from Fārs and Ray eastwards, but Yaʿqub rejected such overtures, marched into central Iraq and captured Wāsiṭ. A battle took place at Dayr al-ʿĀqul, 50 miles south-east of Baghdad, in a terrain intersected by irrigation canals and unfamiliar to the Saffarid army, enabling al-Mowaffaq’s troops to secure victory, and thus remove the threat to Baghdad (Ṭabari, III, pp. 1841, 1859, 1887-898; Masʿudi, Moruj, VIII, pp. 42-5; Tārik-e Sistān, pp. 225-32; tr. pp. 178-84; Ebn Ḵallekān, VI, pp. 412-19; tr. IV, pp. 312-19). For the remaining three years before his death from an internal illness at Jondišābur in Šawwāl 276/June 879, Yaʿqub nevertheless retained control of Ahvāz, Fārs (which he recovered from his old enemy Moḥammad b. Wāṣel) and Kermān. Thus both southern and eastern Persia remained subtracted from caliphal control, a situation which was to continue under Yaʿqub’s successor ʿAmr (Tāriḵ-e Sistān, p. 233; tr. p. 184; Ebn Ḵallekān, VI, pp. 418, 420-21; tr. IV, pp. 315, 320-21).
Yaʿqub, as a man of the people who gloried in his lowly origins and denounced the ʿAbbasids as usurpers and exploiters, expressed local Sistāni discontent with outside masters, and for this reason may be regarded as a mouthpiece of local protest in Persia, though not as a proto-Persian nationalist. Nor can we assume that the scraps of New Persian poetry which his inevitable court eulogists addressed to him, and which are preserved in the sources, show Sistān as a focus of the New Persian literary revival. Frugal in his way of life, inured to hardship and a skilful military commander, Yaʿqub may be regarded as an exponent of Realpolitik who had no time for the “caliphal fiction” whereby all governors and holders of local power were to be regarded as enjoying their authority only as an act of caliphal delegation. His career accordingly marks an early stage in the disintegration of caliphal political unity in the Islamic world.
Sources. Ebn al-Aṯir (Beirut), VII. Ebn Ḵallekān, ed. ʿAbbās, VI, pp. 402-32; tr. de Slane, IV, pp. 301-35 (biographical notice).
Gardizi, ed. Ḥabibi, pp. 138-42. Juzjāni, Ṭabaqāt, I, pp. 197-99; tr. Raverty, I, pp. 20-22.
Masʿudi, Moruj, VIII. Ṭabari, III. Tāriḵ-e Sistān, pp. 200-33; tr. Gold, pp. 153-85. Yaʿqubi, Taʾriḵ, II.
Studies. V. V. Barthold, “Zur Geschichte der Ṣaffāriden,” in Orientalistische Studien zu Theodor Nöldeke gewidmet, ed. C. Bezold, Giessen, 1906, I, pp. 171-91.
M. I. Bāstāni-Pārizi, Yaʿqub-e Layṯ, Tehran, 1344 Š./1965-6.
C. Edmund Bosworth, Sīstān under the Arabs, from the Islamic Conquest to the Rise of the Ṣaffārids (30-250/651-864), Rome, 1968, pp. 109-22.
Idem, “The armies of the Ṣaffārids,” BSOAS 31, 1968, pp. 534-54.
Idem, “The Ṭāhirids and Ṣaffārids,” in Camb. Hist. Iran IV, pp. 106-16.
Idem, The History of the Saffarids of Sistan and the Maliks of Nimruz, Costa Mesa and New York, 1994, pp. 67-180.
Idem, The New Islamic Dynasties, Edinburgh, 1996, pp. 172-73 no. 84.
Idem, “Yaʿḳūb b. al-Layth,” EI XI, pp. 254-55.
Theodor Nöldeke, “Yakúb the Coppersmith and his Dynasty,” in Sketches from Eastern History, London and Edinburgh, 1892, pp. 176-95.
Samuel Miklos Stern, “Yaʿqūb the Coppersmith and Persian National Sentiment,” in Iran and Islam. In Memory of the Late Vladimir Minorsky, ed. C. E. Bosworth, Edinburgh, 1970, pp. 535-55.
R. Vasmer, “Über die Münzen der Ṣaffāriden und ihrer Gegner in Fārs und Ḫurāsān,” Numismatische Zeitung, N.S. 63, 1930, pp. 131-62.
(C. Edmund Bosworth)
Originally Published: July 20, 2002
Last Updated: July 20, 2002