Ya'qub ibn al-Layth al-Saffar

Ya'qub ibn al-Layth al-Saffar
(Persian: یعقوب لیث)
Amir of the Saffarid dynasty

Statue of Ya'qub in Dezful, Iran
Reign 861-879
Successor Amr ibn al-Layth
Born 840
Karnin, modern-day Afghanistan
Died June 5, 879 (aged 39)
Gundeshapur, Khuzestan, Iran
House Saffarid
Father Laith
Religion Sunni Islam

Ya'qūb ibn al-Layth al-Saffār (يعقوب بن الليث الصفار), or Ya'qūb-i Layth-i Saffārī (یعقوب لیث صفاری), born Rādmān pūr-i Māhak (Persian: رادمان پور ماهک) (October 25, 840 June 5, 879), a Persian coppersmith,[1] was the founder of the Saffarid dynasty of Sistan, with its capital at Zaranj (a city now in south-western Afghanistan). He ruled territories that are now in Iran and Afghanistan, as well as portions of western Pakistan[2][3] and a small part of Iraq. He was succeeded by his brother, Amr ibn al-Layth.

Early life

Ya'qub was born in 840 in a small town called Karnin (Qarnin), which was located east of Zaranj and west of Bost, in what is now Afghanistan.[4] Information about his genealogy and social background is lacking. Clifford Edmund Bosworth explains that a number of Sunni sources were invariably hostile to Ya'qub because of the disrespect he showed toward the Abbasid caliph.[5] "Some sources accused Ya'qub of being a Khariji, Ibn Khallikan labelled him a Christian, and Nizam al-Mulk claimed that he converted to Ismailism".[6] However, most sources agree on Ya'qub's ascetic lifestyle.[7]

Many sources claim that he lived a very poor life, it is mentioned that he sometimes ate bread and onions due to poverty. His family moved to the city of Zaranj due to the occasional sectarian violence between the Sunnis and Kharijites. His father, Laith, was probably killed before the family arrived in the new city. Ya'qub began work as a coppersmith ("saffar"), while his brother Amr ibn al-Layth worked as a mule-hirer.[8]

Rise to power

Ya'qub, along with his brothers Amr ibn al-Layth, Tahir ibn al-Layth and Ali ibn al-Layth, later joined the ayyars under Salih ibn al-Nadr, who had opposed the Abbasids and began ruling in Bost. By 854, the ayyars managed to expel Ibrahim ibn al-Hudain, who was the Tahirid governor of Sistan. In 858, Dirham ibn Nasr, another ayyar leader, managed to replace Salih as the ruler of Sistan. However, in 861, Ya'qub overthrew Dirham, and gave himself the title of Emir at that point.[9][4]


Campaigns in Sistan and Khorasan

Ya'qub attracted the attention of an Abbasid caliph by first battling Kharijites in his homeland of Sistan. In 864, "Yaʿqub led an expedition to Bost against his former master Salih, and then into Rukkaj and Zamindāvar against the local ruler there, the Zunbil, killing him and securing an immense booty."[8] He also managed to capture several family members of the Zunbils, including the Zunbil king's son. He later moved against the Kharijites in northern Sistan, winning a decisive victory and killing their leader Ammar ibn Yaser in 865. Ya'qub’s campaigns marked the decline of militant Kharijism in the East. After having defeated the Ammar, Ya'qub held a celebration. During the celebration, one of the members of the court made a speech in Arabic. Ya'qub asked the latter why he made a speech in a language which he could not understand. One of Ya'qub's secretaries, Muhammad ibn Vasif, then made a qasida in Persian.[10]

Ya'qub claimed the inheritance of the kings of Persia and sought "to revive their glory," and thus in 867 he sent a poem written by himself to the Abbasid caliph Al-Mu'tazz. The poem said: "With me is the Derafsh Kaviani, through which I hope to rule the nations."[11]

In 870/871, Ya'qub marched against the Kharijites of Herat, and defeated them. He then marched towards Karukh, and defeated another Khariji leader who was named Abd al-Rahman. Ya'qub then pardoned Abd al-Rahman and made him governor of Isfizar.[12]

His army would later march to Ghazna, Kabul, and Bamyan, conquering these territories in the name of Islam by appointing Muslim governors. From there they moved to north of the Hindu Kush and by 870 AD the whole of Khorasan was brought under their control. The Panjshir Valley was now under Ya'qub's control, which made him able to mint silver coins.[13] In 873, Ya'qub ousted the Tahirids from their own capital of Nishapur, and captured its ruler Muhammad ibn Tahir, which led to conflicts with the Abbasid caliphate. During one of Ya'qub's numerous battles, his face was disfigured to where he could only eat through a pipe in his mouth for twenty days.[14]

Campaigns in Western Iran

Ya'qub set out west for Fars with the intention of subjugating the province. Sources disagree on what happened next, but Ya'qub was eventually dissuaded from continuing his expedition, and he turned back toward Sistan. His withdrawal is described as having been caused either by the governor Muhammad ibn Wasil's submission to him, or by the arrival of emissaries sent by the caliphal government to convince him to abandon his westward advance. In either case, Muhammad soon afterwards reached a rapprochement with the central government, and in 872 he handed over the kharaj (tax revenues), and possibly the government of Fars, to a caliphal representative.[15] Ya'qub later traversed to Tabaristan in 874, and battled the Zaydid leader al-Hasan ibn Zayd. Ya'qub collected taxed in Tabaristan's capital Amul before departing for Rayy.

Ya'qub ibn al-Layth once again set out of Fars, this time, he invaded Fars and advanced to Estakhr, seizing Muhammad's treasuries there. Muhammad departed from Khuzestan, and returned to Fars in an attempt to stop Ya'qub. They met near Lake Bakhtegan in August 875, and in the resulting battle, Muhammad, despite having a numerically superior army, was defeated. Muhammad was forced to flee; Ya'qub looted Muhammad's stronghold at Sa'idabad and took control of Fars.[16]

Map showing the location of the battle, as well as the routes taken by the Saffarid (red) and main 'Abbasid (blue) armies

In 876, the Abbasid representative Al-Muwaffaq, offered Ya'qub governorship of Khurasan, Tabaristan, Fars, Gurgan, and Ray, as appoint him as head of security in Baghdad.[17] Ya'qub, sensing that the offer was made due to the weakness of the caliph, rejected it and wrote back that he would be advancing to the capital. The offer also alienated the Turks of Samarra, who felt that Ya'qub represented a threat to their interests. Seeing that an agreement with the Saffarid was impossible, the Abbasid caliph al-Mu'tamid, decided upon war and pronounced a formal curse upon Ya'qub. On March 7, 876 he left Samarra, leaving his son al-Muwaffid in charge of the capital. On March 15 he arrived at Baghdad, before arriving near Kalwadha and setting up camp.

Ya'qub traveled through Khuzistan, during which he gained the defection of a former general of the caliph's, Abi'l-Saj Devdad, and entered Iraq. The caliphal general Masrur al-Balkhi managed to slow down his progress by flooding the land outside Wasit, but the Saffarid army was able to get through this and he entered Wasit on March 24. Leaving Wasit, he set for the town of Dayr al-`Aqul, which was about fifty miles from Baghdad.[18] According to one source, Ya'qub did not actually expect the caliph to offer battle; instead he would give in to any demands that the Saffarid had.[19] Al-Mu'tamid, however, sent al-Muwaffaq to stop him. The two armies met at Istarband, between Dayr al-`Aqul and Sib Bani Kuma.[20]

The battle took place on April 8.[21] Before the battle, Ya'qub reviewed his troops, who apparently numbered about ten thousand. The Abbasids, however, had a numerical superiority[22] and the additional advantage of fighting on familiar territory. The center of the Abbasid army was commanded by al-Muwaffaq. Musa bin Bugha had command of the right wing, and Masrur al-Balkhi the left.[23] A final appeal was made to the Saffarids to restore their loyalty to the caliph, and the battle began.[24]

The fighting raged on for most of the day. The Saffarid army was somewhat reluctant to directly fight the caliph and his army. Despite this, there were heavy losses on both sides, and several Abbasid and Saffarid commanders were killed. Ya'qub himself was wounded, but he did not leave the field. As evening approached, reinforcements arrived to support al-Muwaffaq.[25] The mawla Nusayr created a diversion by attacking the Saffarid rear from boats on the Tigris and setting fire to the Saffarid baggage train, giving the Abbasids a further advantage.[26]

Eventually the Saffarid army began to flee from the battle. Ya'qub and his bodyguards continued to fight, but were forced to leave the field as the army retreated, leaving them behind.[27] The caliph had apparently flooded the lands behind the Saffarids before the battle, and this made a retreat difficult; many men drowned attempting to escape the Abbasid army.[28] With the Saffarids making their hasty exit, al-Muwaffaq was able to capture Ya'qub's baggage. Several political prisoners that Ya'qub had brought with him, such as the Tahirid Muhammad bin Tahir, also fell into Abbasid hands and were freed.[27]

Ya'qub then withdrew from Iraq and died three years later.[29][30]


The motivation behind the Saffarids' initial campaigns remains unknown and highly debated in secondary scholarship. Some scholars believe that Ya'qub fought as a ghazi warrior for the purpose of spreading proto-Sunni Islam, others support the notion that he was motivated by his Persian identity and consequent desire to restore the glorious Sasanian past, while still others believe he was simply motivated by greed and adrenaline.[31][32] Ya'qub's hostility towards the Abbasid caliphs was easily seen. According to the Tarikh-i Sistan, Ya'qub even said that the Abbasids were liars, and also said the following thing: "Haven't you seen what they did to Abu Salama, Abu Muslim, the Barmakid family and Fadl ibn Sahl, despite everything which these men had done on the dynasty's behalf? Let no one ever trust them!"[33]


Statue of Ya'qub Layth in Zabol

Ya'qub had colic disease and was refusing treatments when advised to do so. As a result, he died on Wednesday, June 5, 879, in Gundeshapur.[34] He was soon after succeeded by his brother Amr Saffari. Although he was not viewed as a gentleman, he also did not exercise any special cruelty. It was reported that he did not smile much, and was called "the anvil" by one of his enemies. According to Ibn Khallikan, his wife was an Arab woman from Sistan, although all other sources, including Ibn Athir and Juzjani, claim that Yaqub never married.[35][36]


It was during Ya'qub's rule that Persian was introduced as an official language, and Ya'qub reportedly did not know Arabic.[37][38] Ya'qub has been accorded the historical status of a popular folk hero since his court began the revitalization of the Persian language after two centuries in which the Arabic language flourished in Persian lands.[3] Several poets like Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Mamshadh, fabricated Ya'qub's genealogy, tracing it back to the legendary Iranian king Jamshid.[5] Ya'qub is also sometimes perceived as one of the first autonomous rulers in Khurasan since the Islamic conquests.[2][3] Ya'qub's campaigns in fact also marked the early stage in the decline of caliphal political unity in the Islamic world,[8] which further worsened by the ghulams and the Dailamites.


  1. "The provincial Persian Ya'kub, on the other hand, rejoiced in his plebeian origins, denounced the Abbasids as usurpers, and regarded both the caliphs and such governors from aristocratic Arab families as the Tahirids with contempt". -- Ya'kub b. al-Layth al Saffar, C.E. Bosworth, The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Vol. XI, p 255
  2. 1 2 "Yaʿqūb ibn Layth al-Ṣaffār". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2007-07-15.
  3. 1 2 3 "Saffarid Dynasty". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 2007-07-15.
  4. 1 2 Noldeke, Theodor (2007). Sketches from Eastern History. Read Books. p. 178. ISBN 1-4067-7014-0. Retrieved 2010-09-09.
  5. 1 2 Bosworth, The Armies of the Saffarids, pp. 536, 541
  6. Siyasat-nama, translated by H. Darke (New Haven 1960), p. 15.
  7. Bosworth, C.E. (1994). The History of the Saffarids of Sistan and the Maliks of Nimruz (247/861 to 949/1542-3). Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publisher.
  8. 1 2 3 C. Edmund Bosworth, ed. (July 20, 2002). "YAʿQUB b. LAYṮ b. MOʿADDAL". Encyclopædia Iranica. Retrieved 2012-09-06.
  9. Bosworth 1975, p. 109-111.
  10. Bosworth 1975, p. 595.
  11. FLAGS i. Of Persia, A. Shapur Shahbazi, Encyclopaedia Iranica
  12. Bosworth 1975, p. 110.
  13. Pandjhir, Encyclopedia of Islam, Vol. VIII, 258.
  14. B.G.Gafurov, Central Asian:Pre-historic to Pre-Modern Times, (Shipra Publications, 2005), 53-54.
  15. Bosworth, pp. 148-9; Tor, pp. 132-3; al-Tabari, pp. 119, 137
  16. Bosworth, pp. 150-2; Tor, p. 157; al-Tabari, p. 166
  17. Bosworth, "Saffarids," pp. 153-55; al-Tabari, pp. 168-69; Ibn al-Athir, p. 260. Ibn Khallikan, p. 312, adds Kirman, Adharbayjan, Qazwin and al-Sind to this list.
  18. Bosworth, "Saffarids," pp. 158-59; al-Tabari, pp. 169-70; Ibn al-Athir, pp. 260-61; Ibn Khallikan, pp. 313, 316
  19. Bosworth, "Saffarids," p. 161; Ibn Khallikan, p. 315
  20. Bosworth, "Saffarids," p. 159; al-Tabari, p. 170; al-Mas'udi, p. 43; Ibn Khallikan, p. 31
  21. Bosworth, "Saffarids," p. 159. The actual date is given variously in the Arabic sources, such as April 1 (al-Tabari, p. 170) and April 10 (Ibn al-Athir, p. 261).
  22. Bosworth, "Saffarids," p. 159; Ibn Khallikan, p. 314
  23. Bosworth, "Saffarids," p. 159; al-Tabari, pp. 170, 172; Ibn al-Athir, p. 261
  24. Bosworth, "Saffarids," pp. 159-60; Ibn Khallikan, pp. 313-14
  25. Bosworth, "Saffarids," p. 160; al-Tabari, pp. 170-71; Ibn al-Athir, p. 261; al-Mas'udi, pp. 43-44; Ibn Khallikan, pp. 314-16; 318-19
  26. Bosworth, "Saffarids," p. 160; al-Mas'udi, pp. 44-45
  27. 1 2 Bosworth, "Saffarids," p. 160; al-Tabari, p. 171; Ibn al-Athir, p. 261; al-Mas'udi, pp. 44-45; Ibn Khallikan, pp. 315-16, 319
  28. Bosworth, "Saffarids," p. 159; al-Mas'udi, p. 43
  29. Bosworth, C.E. (1994). The History of the Saffarids of Sistan and the Maliks of Nimruz (247/861 to 949/1542-3). Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers.
  30. Al-Tabari. A History of Prophets and Kings. pp. Volumes 36 & 37.
  31. Tor, D.G. (2007). Violent Order: Religious Warfare, Chivalry, and the ʻAyyār Phenomenon in the Medieval Islamic World. Orient-Institut-Istanbul.
  32. Bosworth, C.E. (1994). The History of the Saffarids of Sistan and the Maliks of Nimruz (247/861 to 949/1542-3). Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers.
  33. Bosworth 1975, p. 125.
  34. Noldeke, Theodor (2007). Sketches from Eastern History. Read Books. p. 193. ISBN 1-4067-7014-0. Retrieved 2010-09-09.
  35. Tor, D.G. (2007). Violent Order: Religious Warfare, Chivalry, and the ʻAyyār Phenomenon in the Medieval Islamic World. Wurzburg, Germany: Orient-Institut-Istanbul.
  36. Ibn Khallikan's biographical dictionary By Ibn Khallikān, pg. 330
  37. Stern, S.M. (1970). Yaqub the Coppersmith and Persian National Sentiment. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
  38. Culture and Customs of Afghanistan. Greenwood Press. 2005. p. 27.


New title Emir of the Saffarids
Succeeded by
Amr ibn al-Layth
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