Nizam al-Mulk (d. 1092), born Abu ʿAli Hasan ibn ʿAli al-Tusi, served as vizier in the court of the Seljuq Sultan Alp Arslan (r. 1063–72) first, and of his son Malik Shah (r. 1072–92) later, becoming the most powerful and influential politician from Central Asia to Baghdad during the 11th century. Although he achieved a pivotal role in the administration of the Great Seljuq Empire (r. 1037–1194) and became one of the most celebrated personalities in Islamic historiography, a surprising limited amount of modern scholarship has been dedicated to the study of his life. Instead, modern scholarship has paid much more attention to Nizam al Mulk's work, the Siyar al-Mulūk (Siyāsatnāmah)—one of the masterpieces of the Islamic Mirror for Princes literary genre—while generally overlooking the abundant evidence about his life that is available in Islamic sources. In this context, Neguin Yavari's The Future of Iran's Past about the life of the vizier is an interesting proposal that comes to fill an existing gap in the field. However, the reader expecting to find a purely chronological succession of events about the life of Nizam al-Mulk will be disappointed, as this work offers a much more comprehensive view of the vizier in particular, and about the history and historiography of Medieval Iran in general.
The Future of Iran's Past is a rather unconventional biography. Instead of choosing a traditional structure, for example, dedicating a chapter to each period of Nizam al-Mulk's life, Yavari opts to offer a collection of five different essays. Although each of the chapters could be read on its own, they are in fact connected to one another. Readers interested only in finding information about the life of the vizier, can go directly to Chapter 3 and omit the rest. However, this is not advisable; the rest of the book offers useful insights into the sociohistorical context in the life of Nizam al-Mulk based on research deeply rooted in historical sources. The preface offers clarification, explaining the argumentative base for binding these five different chapters together in a single manuscript. The author suggests that the life and work of Nizam al-Mulk transcended the period he lived, and his own persona. Therefore, an account of his life, Yavari argues, would not be complete without a more comprehensive analysis of the relevance of Nizam al-Mulk during his lifetime, an analysis of the historical contexts in which he lived, and the legacy he left.
In the first chapter, the author deals with biography as a literary genre by way of comparison. The essay compares biographical work from medieval Europe with a contemporary biography written in the Islamic World. The former is the Vita Karoli, written by Einhard (d. 840) considered to be the first secular biography of the Frankish emperor Charlemagne (d. 814). The latter was written by ʿAbd al-Hakam (d. 882) in Egypt and focussed on the life of the Umayyad Caliph ʿUmar II (r. 717–20). The chapter is interesting as a way to introduce the topic of biographical writing in the medieval period. The author briefly explains in her preface that this chapter aims to “draw out, in the first instance, certain intellectual constructs that shape the lives of great people in both classical historiography and the early Islamic historical tradition” (p. xx). However, when reading the chapter, there is little reference to Nizam al-Mulk himself or other aspects covered in the rest of the book. Albeit the author engages with challenging questions regarding kingship, secular and religious authority, and the depiction of rulers in comparative perspective, one cannot avoid feeling that this chapter is somehow forced into the book. The remaining chapters are, in my view, better interconnected despite remaining individual essays in their own right.
The second chapter is a good, though general, overview of the history of 11th-century Iran; a useful introduction to the sociopolitical context of the period. The chapter's main concern is a discussion of the “origin” of the Great Seljuqs according to the different narratives found in Islamic sources and investigates carefully the role of “the Turks” in this period of Islamic history. The section mainly investigates how the Turkic Seljuq dynasty became the hegemonic military power in Eastern Iran and the implications that this event had in the historical development of the region. The chapter introduces the reader to the political context, in which Nizam al-Mulk lived, which becomes relevant to understand different aspects of the vizier's biography described in the following chapter.
The third chapter is the actual account of Nizam al-Mulk's life, in which the author expands, based on a wide range of contemporary and later sources, on the vizier's early life, his education, role in the administration of the Seljuq court, patronage activities, conflictive relationship with the Sultans—especially with his nemesis al-Kunduri (d. 1064) —and finally his death. In Chapter 4, Yavari offers a short reflection on the relationship between Nizam al-Mulk and alterity. The section looks at how different medieval sources have portrayed the interaction between Nizam al-Mulk and the Turks, the Caliphs, the “heretics” (mainly Shiʿa and Ismaʾili) and the Sufis. Although this section is especially relevant, it might leave the reader disappointed, as it feels rather short considering the relevance of the subject and the abundance of source materials dealing with these topics that exist in Islamic historiography.
The final chapter looks at the legacy of the figure of Nizam al-Mulk after his death and pays attention to different moments of Islamic history up to the present. The author suggests that a political image was crafted by Nizam al-Mulk himself together with those that elevated his writings and persona in later periods. Specially, the author highlights that in terms of his political thought, the ideas of Nizam al-Mulk can be seen as having taken Islam as a political ideology “transcending confessional, ethnic and regional divides” (p. 133). Based on this idea, Yavari suggests that in the history of Iran, Nizam al-Mulk has become a “veritable figure of Memory,” (p. 148) someone whose Iranian background and resolute defence of Islam has served as a national symbol into the modern day.
It is tempting for scholars when writing a biography of a prominent figure of the medieval Islamic world whose works have survived to overuse the person's owns writing to reconstructs aspects of his life. This has the obvious danger of falling too much into the person's bias in the account of his own life. When dealing with a famous figure such as Nizam al-Mulk, whose Siyar al-Muluk became one of the most popular texts in the medieval and modern Islamic world, this risk multiplies. However, Yavari's book does not fall into this temptation. Instead, she makes good use of a wide range of both Persian and Arabic sources to confront different versions of the events, rendering a critical and revealing narrative on different aspects of Nizam al-Mulk's life.
The balance between a clear presentation of the narrative and the in-depth use of original sources makes The Future of Iran's Past a useful contribution to the field and appealing to a wide audience. It can certainly be a useful reference for students; the individual chapter essays allow the book to be included in different subjects across university curricula. In addition, each of these essays opens the door to a variety of new lines of enquiry into the nature of medieval biographical writing and into how looking at the life of a well know figure such as Nizam al-Mulk, can still offer new perspectives to the study of Islamic history both past and present. This work can equally benefit scholars in their study of medieval intellectual Islamic history. Yavari's use of endnotes and a bibliography offers a useful tool for the interested reader, who will find a complete list of primary and secondary sources that can be helpful for visualizing the comprehensive corpus of original sources in the production of the book. Overall, The Future of Iran's Past is highly recommended for those willing to explore the life and legacy of arguably one of the most influential political characters of the medieval Islamic World.