Sultan Alparslan

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Many years before Salāh al-Dīn’s magnanimity towards the defeated barbaric crusaders, another Muslim leader had shown the world how a Muslim ruler behaves with mercy and restraint in this very month of August.

Soon after the advent of Islām, the Roman Empire faced an energetic new challenger in the Umayyad Caliphate. The Umayyads made two serious attempts to conquer the Roman Empire, laying siege to Constantinople in 674-8 CE and again in 717 CE. Fortunately for Byzantium, the Umayyad Caliphate was overthrown in 750 CE by the Abbasids, who gave up such ambitious plans, opting instead for regular military campaigns that sometimes penetrated right into the heart of Byzantine Anatolia. These raids culminated in Caliph Mu’tasim’s (833-842 CE) destruction of Amorium in central western Anatolia in 838 CE.

By the end of the eighth century however, Byzantium’s situation began to improve whereas the Abbasid economy was in decline and the government was paralysed by religious and political factionalism – this was the height of heresy with philosophers, mu’tazilites and bātinites. The Byzantines exploited Abbasid disunity to take the offensive and over the course of two centuries recovered their lost provinces of Illyricum, Greece, Bulgaria, Northern Syria, Cilicia, and Armenia. At this same time that the Byzantines were celebrating their revival, a new player in international affairs arrived on the scene – the Seljuk Turks who were a family of nomadic Oghuz Turks who had converted to Islām around the end of the tenth century.

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Alp Arslan was born Muhammad ibn Daud in the Arab Empire’s Persian province of Khurasan in 1026 (or 1029 or 1032). He was the great-grandson of Seljuk, chieftain of the Ghuzz Turkomans, who had invaded southwestern Asia in the 11th century.

Famed as a military leader, Alp Arslan—his name means “Lion Hero”—began his career campaigning extensively for his father, Daud Chaghri Beg, commander of the Turkoman forces in Khurasan. Upon his father’s death in 1059/1060, Alp Arslan succeeded. Meanwhile, Seljuk forces under Chaghri’s brother, Tughril Beg, had ended a century of Shiite Buyid dominance in Baghdad, whereupon Caliph al-Kaim made him sultan. With Tughril’s death in 1063, Alp Arslan succeeded, despite an attempt to enthrone Tughril’s brother Suleiman.

The new sultan was immediately faced with internal opposition. His father’s cousin, Kutulmish, carried Khurasan into revolt in 1064, and his own brother, Kawurd (founder of the Kirman dynasty), rebelled twice, in 1064 and 1067.

Between the suppression of recalcitrant subordinates, Alp Arslan campaigned against his neighbors. His first major move was a raid in 1064 into Georgia and Armenia, during which the Georgian king acknowledged Seljuk suzerainty. The following year the Sultan led his forces into Transoxiana. In 1070 he took Aleppo during a campaign into Syria. His holdings then reached from central Asia to the Mediterranean.

Alp Arslan was a courageous man, generous in his treatment of opponents. His strength lay in the military realm, domestic affairs being handled by his Persian vizier, Nizam al-Mulk, founder of the administrative organization which characterized and strengthened the sultanate during the reigns of Alp Arslan and his son. Military fiefs, governed by Seljuk princes, were established to provide support for the soldiery and to accommodate the nomadic Turks to the established Persian agricultural scene.

The Battle of Manzikert

Romanus marched with 200,000 men, Greeks, Franks, Russians, Georgians, Armenians and many others. Many historians such as Matthew of Edessa claim the Byzantine army exceeded one million men [5] – Gibbons claims it was the largest army ever fielded by the Roman Empire, East or West. They came with much equipment and in great pomp and to attack the lands of Islām arriving in Malazgrid, also known as Manzikert.

News reached Sultan Alp Arslan when he was laying siege in Azerbaijan. Sultan Alp Arslan knew that he would not be able to raise his army who were far away and whilst the enemy was close. He gathered the men he had with him which numbered around 15,000. They then marched on and when they drew near the enemy, they encountered an advance guard of the Byzantines of around 10,000. After a brief engagement, the advance guard fled. When Sultan Alp Arslan drew nearer, he sent a message to Emperor Romanus for a truce but this was emphatically refused by Romanus.

It is said that before battle, Romanus sent an envoy to Sultan Alp Arslan as one last warning saying: “I have come to you with forces you cannot resist so become subservient to me willingly”. This angered Sultan Alp Arslan and the glory of Islām filled his breast and he responded:

“Tell your master it is not you who have brought me out but it is God, to Whom be praise, who has brought you and your troops to me to make you food for the Muslims” [6]

Sultan Alp Arslan was then advised by the Imām and Scholar of the army, Abu Nasr Muhammad ibn Abdul Malik as follows:

“You are fighting for a religion which Allāh promised to support and to make it prevail over all others. I trust that Allāh will have put this victory down to your name. Confront them on Friday in the afternoon, at the hour when the preachers will be in the pulpits. They will be praying for victory for the warriors of jihād – and prayer is linked to a favourable response.”[3]

Accordingly, just as the hour came on Friday 20 Dhu’l-Qa’da 463 AH, corresponding to 19 August 1071 CE, Sultan Alp Arslan led all his men in prayer following which he wept much beseeching Allāh and they too wept with him. He then addressed his men and said:

“We are with a depleted force. Either I will achieve the goal or I will go as a martyr to Paradise. If I die, then know that my son, Malikshah is to be my heir. Whosoever wishes to depart, let him depart, for there is no Sultan to command and forbid today for I too am a ghazi (warrior) with you.”[7]

Encouraged by the fact that no one departed; he threw down his bow and arrows, picked up his sword and mace and tied the tail of his horse. He put on a white coloured clothing, anointed his body and said “If I am killed, then this is my winding sheet”He then moved closer to the enemy and then dismounted his horse, rubbed his face in the dust of the plains of battle and wept and prayed to Allāh for a considerable amount of time for he understood the words of the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) who was reported to have said:

“Two du’ās are never rejected, or rarely rejected: the du’a during the call for prayer, and the du’a during the calamity when the two armies attack each other”[8]

The Byzantines set up like the number five on a dice with Romanus in the Centre whilst the army of Islām set up in a crescent formation hiding their small number. Voices reciting the Qur‘ān and the sounds of drums from the Sultan’s troops, and the ringing of bells from the Byzantines, filled the air. Sultan Alp Arslan then mounted his horse and charged towards the enemy lines with cries of “Allāhu Akbar” in unison with his army such that the mountains trembled. The charge was so ferocious that the dust which emerged from beneath provided them with much cover as they smashed into the centre of the Byzantine army. Allāh’s help descended and many of the enemy’s army were sent to their hereafter whilst the others fled in retreat with the soldiers of the Sultan reciting the verse I have set out at the outset of this article.[9] But it was to get better. The Muslims had managed to capture the Emperor of the Byzantines, Romanus himself.

When Romanus was taken to Sultan Alp Arslan, the Sultan beat him three times with his whip and the following conversation is said to have then taken place:

Alp Arslan: “What would you do if I was brought before you as a prisoner?”

Romanus: “Perhaps I’d kill you, or exhibit you in the streets of Constantinople.

Alp Arslan: “My punishment is far heavier. I forgive you, and set you free”.[10]

Arslan negotiated a peace with Romanus before permitting him to depart. This saw the transfer of Antioch, Edessa, Hierapolis, and Manzikert to the Seljuks as well as the initial payment of 1.5 million gold pieces and 360,000 gold pieces annually as ransom for Romanus. Romanus remained captive with Sultan Alp Arslan for approximately a week during which time he treated him with great kindness and generosity. He escorted him a long distance back to Constantinople and sent with him a number of his men for safe passage with a banner above his head bearing the words ‘There is nothing worthy of worship but Allāh’ [7].

For Romanus, when he returned he found that he had been dethroned, was blinded and sent into exile by another powerful dynasty, the house of Ducas. As for Sultan Alp Arslan, just under a year after the momentous battle, the Sultan set out for Mawarannahr (Transoxiana) and subdued its tyrant ruler, Yusuf al-Khwarezmi. Yusuf was being tied up and insulted the Sultan who asked for him to be released and took aim at him with his trusted bow except, for the first time, he missed his target and Yusuf, who had two knives hidden in his garment, stabbed the Sultan before he himself was killed.[3] The wound which the Sultan received eventually led to his death and with that, came the end of one of the most courageous sons of Islām.

Points to Note:

There are many points we can take from the life and times of Sultan Alp Arslan but to list all of them would mean that this article would become endless.

Firstly, in a time when Muslims are negatively portrayed as barbaric because of the wrongful acts of a few in how they treat their prisoners, here we see a leader who dealt with his foes mercifully. Imagine, the head of the enemy who was the aggressor in attacking you, who killed many of your people and caused many injuries and much devastation and now you have him in your grasp – to pardon him indeed takes great character. This example in dealing with your enemies is one that you will not find anywhere outside the house of Islām where you will also find many other examples such as how the Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) dealt with the Quraish at the Conquest of Makkah and how Salāh al-Dīn would deal with the barbaric crusaders almost a century after Sultan Alp Arslan.

Regarding the crusaders, it should not be forgotten that this battle was so devastating, that it set in motion a number of events – one of these was that, within a decade, Pope Urban would make a call to unite Western and Eastern Christendom to avenge the consequences of the defeat at Manzikert in what was the first Crusades. Another event that was set in motion was that the victory opened up the area of Anatolia to the Muslims which marked the beginning of the end of the Byzantine Empire’s tenure as a dominant world power, and marked not only the beginning of the end of their civilization, but also sparked the birth and rise of a powerful Muslim presence that would last until its dissolution almost nine hundred years later, the Ottoman Empire, and thus, the battle of Manzikert is one of the most defining battles in history.

We learn that the outward display of pomp and splendour of Romanus and the Byzantines were of no avail to them and that victory is indeed in the hands of Allāh.

We also see the power of Friday, the day of Jumuʿah in the conscious of the Muslims and how they linked the power of duʿā with victory and how certain they were in their knowledge that on this day, the Muslims everywhere would raise their hands in duʿā for those fighting for them whereas today, you will find many Imāms and Muslims afraid to do so openly for fear of being criminalised.
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After Manzikert, the dominion of Alp Arslan extended over much of western Asia. He soon prepared to march for the conquest of Turkestan, the original seat of his ancestors. With a powerful army he advanced to the banks of the Oxus. Before he could pass the river with safety, however, it was necessary to subdue certain fortresses, one of which was for several days vigorously defended by the governor, Yussuf al-Kharezmi, a Khwarezmian. He was obliged to surrender, however, and was carried as a prisoner before the sultan, who condemned him to death. Yussuf, in desperation, drew his dagger and rushed upon the sultan. Alp Arslan, who took great pride in his reputation as an archer, motioned to his guards not to interfere. He drew his bow, but his foot slipped, the arrow glanced aside, and he received the assassin’s dagger in his breast. Alp Arslan died from this wound four days later, on 25 November 1072, in his 42nd year, and he was taken to Merv to be buried next to his father, Chaghri Beg.


Alp Arslan is widely regarded as having begun Anatolianism, although unintentionally. His victory at Manzikert is often cited as the beginning of the end of Byzantine power in Anatolia, and the beginning of Turkish identity there.

Alp Arslan’s conquest of Anatolia from the Byzantines is also seen as one of the pivotal precursors to the launch of the crusades.

From 2002 to July 2008 under Turkmen calendar reform, the month of August was named after Alp Arslan.