The posting below highlights Professor C.E. Bosworth’s discussion on Afshin who suppressed the 20-year revolt of Babak Khrramdin against the Caliphate in the early 9th century AD. This article was orginally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 1989 .


AFŠĪN, princely title of the rulers of Ošrūsana at the time of the Muslim conquest, the most famous of whom was Ḵeyḏār (arabicized Ḥaydar) b. Kāvūs, d. Šaʿbān, 226/May-June, 841. The term is an arabicized form of middle Persian Pišīn, Avestan Pisinah-, a proper name of uncertain etymology (AirWb., col. 907). In pre-Islamic Iranian tradition, it is the name of a grandson of Kayanid king Kavād (Yt. 13.132, 19.71). In the Islamic period, it is found as a proper name attested by Armenian historians in the form Ōšin (from Awšin; see Justi, Namenbuch, pp. 252-53).

Our early knowledge of the ruling family of Ošrūsana is derived from the accounts by the Arabic historians (Ṭabarī, Balāḏorī, Yaʿqūbī) of the final subjugation of that region by the ʿAbbasid caliphs and the submission of its rulers to Islam. Ošrūsana lay to the south of the great, southernmost bend of the Syr Darya and extended roughly from Samarqand to Ḵoǰand. During the reign of the caliph Mahdī (158-69/775-85) the Afšīn of Ošrūsana is mentioned among several Iranian and Turkish rulers of Transoxania and the Central Asian steppes who submitted nominally to him (Yaʿqūbī, II, p. 479). But it was not until Hārūn al-Rašīd’s reign in 178/794-95 that Fażl b. Yaḥyā Barmakī led an expedition into Transoxania and received the submission of the ruling Afšīn (whose name, by inference from Ṭabarī, III, p. 1066, was something like Ḵarāḵana); according to Gardīzī (ed. Ḥabībī, p. 130), this Ḵarāḵana had never previously humbled himself before any other potentate. Further expeditions were nevertheless sent to Ošrūsana by Maʾmūn when he was governor in Marv and after he had become caliph Kāvūs, son of the Afšīn Ḵarāḵana who had submitted to Fażl b. Yaḥyā, withdrew his allegiance from the Arabs; but shortly after Maʾmūn arrived in Baghdad from the east (202/817-18 or 204/819-20), a power struggle and dissensions broke out among the reigning family of Ošrūsana.

After killing an opponent, Kāvūs’s son Ḥaydar had to flee to Khorasan and then to the caliphal court in Baghdad, thus inaugurating the period of royal favor in which he was to bask for some two decades. In 207/822 an expedition under Aḥmad b. Abī Ḵāled was guided into Ošrūsana by Ḥaydar, using a shorter, lesser known route. Kāvūs himself now submitted, and the rival contender for the succession, Ḥaydar’s brother Fażl, fled temporarily to the steppes. Kāvūs traveled to Baghdad and finally embraced Islam, being mentioned as tributary ruler of his province (Ṭabarī, III, pp. 1065-66). At some unknown date, Kāvūs died and was succeeded as Afšīn or prince of Ošrūsana by Ḥaydar. During the years in which he served the ʿAbbasids, Ḥaydar or Afšīn was a top commander in the guard of Maʾmūn’s brother Abū Esḥāq Moḥammad, the future caliph Moʿtaṣem, governor of Egypt. After his arrival in Egypt in Ḏu’l-qaʿda, 215/December, 830-January, 831, Afšīn was first sent as governor of Barqa, then recalled to suppress rebellions of the Copts and of the unruly Beduins of the Banū Modleǰ in the regions of Alexandria and the Delta (216/831; see Ṭabarī, III, p. 1105, and Kendī, Ketāb wolāt Meṣr, ed. R. Guest, Leiden and London, 1912, pp. 189-92). To him is also attributed the formation of Moʿtaṣem’s guard of Maḡāreba, Arabs of the Nile Delta and the adjacent deserts of Lower Egypt.

Afšīn’s rise in caliphal favor culminated in his nomination as supreme commander in the struggle against Bābak (q.v.), leader of the anti-Islamic and neo-Mazdakite movement of the Ḵorramīya (q.v.), which had set afire Arrān, Azerbaijan and northwestern Persia and whose epicenter was the fortress of Baḏḏ. This outbreak had apparently been going on since ca. 201/816-17. According to the detailed account in Ṭabarī (III, pp. 1170ff.), Moʿtaṣem appointed Afšīn governor of Jebāl and commander in the war against Bābak in Jomādā II, 220/June, 835. Afšīn arrived in Azerbaijan and rebuilt the fortresses between Barǰand and Ardabīl destroyed by Bābak. He then gave battle to Bābak at Aršaq, defeated him, and drove him into Mūḡān and then back into his fortress of Baḏḏ, although one of Bābak’s commanders, Ṭarḵān or Āḏīn, managed to defeat at Haštādsar a force under the caliphal general Boḡā al-Kabīr (221/836) which included Afšīn’s brother Fażl b. Kāvūs (who had clearly also entered the caliphal service). In this same year Afšīn received reinforcements from the caliph under Jaʿfar b. al-Ḵayyāṭ and a continent of volunteers under the Arab magnate Abū Dolaf ʿEǰlī (q.v.). Afšīn now established a camp at Rūd-al-rūd over against and six miles away from Baḏḏ, and used this as a base for assaults by his mountain troops. After an abortive attack by Abū Dolaf’s volunteers, Afšīn brought up siege machinery and naphtha-throwers (naffāṭūn), and finally stormed Baḏḏ in Ramażān, 222/August, 837.

This was the peak of Afšīn’s career, and the caliph rewarded him richly, adding the governorship of Sind to his existing ones of Armenia and Azerbaijan. He fought alongside Moʿtaṣem during his Anatolia campaign of 223/838, which reached as far as Amorium, commanding the right wing in the onslaught against this fortress. Thereafter, however, his star began to decline, apparently as a result of jealousies which he had already shown against Abū Dolaf and ʿAbdallāh b. Ṭāher (q.v.), governor of Khorasan and apparently regarded by Afšīn as an upstart and a rival for power in Transoxania. During the revolt in Ṭabarestān of Māzyār b. Qāren (224/839), the Espahbad of that region—a revolt which had been stimulated by Māzyār’s jealousy of Taherid attempts to interfere directly in the Caspian provinces—Afšīn allegedly encouraged Māzyār in secret, in the hope that Abdallāh b. Ṭāher would be deprived of his governorship and he Afšīn, would fall heir to it. But Māzyār’s rebellion was quashed, and Afšīn’s position now became increasingly difficult.

He was accused by his enemies of hostility towards Islam and of sympathy for ancient Iranian practices and beliefs, of having an imam and a muezzin in Ošrūsana flogged for turning a local shrine into a mosque, contrary to the longstanding arrangement with the ruler of Soḡd whereby the local people were to be left in the peaceful practice of their faith; of possessing richly ornamented, heretical or anti-Islamic books; and of remaining uncircumcised. After a protracted trial, with the chief qāżī Aḥmad b. Abī Doʾād and the vizier Ebn al-Zayyāt as chief prosecutors, he was imprisoned at Sāmarrā and starved to death (Šaʿbān, 226/May-June, 841). In support of the charges against Afšīn, it was stated that bejeweled idols and sacred books of the Magians were found in his house after he had been arrested.

The contemporary Arabic sources thus regard Afšīn’s rebellious acts as those of a protagonist of Iranian religious and imperial feeling, and as the expression of anti-Arab resentment for the loss of ancient Iranian political domination, feelings which were at this time finding a more harmless outlet on the literary level in the Šoʿūbīya movement. That this view subsequently became the stereotype is seen clearly from the anecdote about Afšīn in Abu’l-Fażl Bayhaqī’s Tārīḵ-eMasʿūdī written over two centuries later (pp. 173-78), in which anti-Arab sentiments are specifically placed in his mouth. The truth is difficult to disentangle, but it is clear that personal jealousies of Afšīn’s power and prestige after the victory over Bābak must have played some part in bringing about his ruin. The report of idols found in Afšīn’s house, if true, suggests an adherence to Buddhism, and that of richly ornamented books a connection with Manicheism, rather than with Zoroastrianism, especially as it seems dubious whether Zoroastrianism had ever extended as far north as the Syr Darya valley.


For “Afšīn” as a title, see: Ḵᵛārazmī Mafātīḥ al-ʿolūm, ed. G. Van Vloten, Leiden, 1895, p. 119; tr. and comm., J. M. Unvala, “The Translation of an Extract from Mafâtîḥ al-ʿUlūm of al-Khwārazmī,” Journal of the K. R. Cama Oriental Institute 11, 1928, p. 94; and C. E. Bosworth and Sir Gerard Clauson, “Al-Xwārazmī on the Peoples of Central Asia,” JRAS 1965, pp. 7-8.

Ṭabarī’s account of Afšīn’s warfare against Bābak and of his arrest and trial is translated by E. Marin as The Reign of al-Muʿtaṣim (833-842), New Haven, 1951.

For the secondary sources, see Browne, Lit. Hist. Persia I, pp. 330-36.

Barthold, Turkestan, pp. 202, 210-11.

G. H. Sadighi, Les mouvements religieux iraniens au IIe et IIIe siècles de l’hégire, Paris, 1938, pp. 287-305.

Spuler, Iran, pp. 62-63, 65-67, 140.

Camb. Hist. Iran IV, pp. 75-76, 96-98, 100, 205, 506-07.