The Future of Iran’s Past: Nizam al-Mulk Remembered. By Neguin Yavari. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 275 pp. $50
Nizam al-Mulk (1018-92), vizier—roughly prime minister—at the height of the Seljuk dynasty, has been considered the most famous politician and scholar of his time, not only by contemporaries but also by historians. That the Seljuk empire at the time of his death stretched from what is today Turkey and Israel to Afghanistan and hosted flourishing arts and culture was due in no small part to his advice and policies.
The Future of Iran’s Past originated as Yavari’s Columbia University doctoral dissertation. She examines Nizam al-Mulk’s political reforms; contrasts his religious writings with his somewhat disparate actions; and argues that he was not simply a master statesman and politician, but “the most prominent politician of the period to perceive new beginnings and radical departures.”
The eleventh century saw both the fracture and coalescence of a new Persian cultural order. And while Nizam al-Mulk was important as a “crypto-Shi‘i and a proto-Iranian patriot,” Yavari also points out his importance as a model even today as an “exemplar of legitimate Islamic governance.” Beyond Nizam al-Mulk the individual, Yavari seeks to create a “richly textured history of the Seljuks,” which she believes is lacking in scholarly Western-language works.
Yavari is a careful and multifaceted scholar, weaving together an analysis based on a broad survey of Arabic and Persian primary documents as well as English, French, and German secondary sources. She is also creative: She examines not only historical documents, but also art, literature, and even numismatics. She considers the Seljuk vizier not only in his own time but also over the centuries, showing how his influence plays out in Iran and the Arab world today.
Although Yavari does not bog down in trendy theories that too often substitute for scholarship in Middle Eastern studies, her thick prose will limit her audience. Nevertheless, The Future of Iran’s Past is an important work and achieves its goal, adding significantly to Western scholarship on the Seljuk period. Yavari has written the must-read work on Seljuk-era politics, culture, and religion.