On March 5, 1291, Sa’d al-Dawla, the powerful Jewish vizier of the Mongol monarch Arghun, was murdered, at the royal camp.
Sa’d al-Dawla was a physician by training who, by virtue of his financial skills, was singled out by Arghun Khan, the fourth ruler of the Ilkhanids, a Mongol dynasty that between 1260 and 1335 ruled what are today Iran and the surrounding countries.
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But his rise to power and the fact that he was not a Muslim earned him a lot of enemies, eventually leading to his downfall.
Sa’d al-Dawla ibn Safi b. Hibat Allah al-Abhar was born in about 1240 in Abhar, in the Iranian province of Jibal.
Although he was trained as a physician, the first mention of him in the historical record refers to him as a broker of some kind in Mosul, following which he became a hospital administrator in Baghdad.
So competent in financial matters did he reveal himself to be that his resentful rivals arranged to have him transferred to the king’s camp, near Tabriz, where he was to serve as doctor to the court of Arghun, and soon became his personal physician.
A Jew in charge
Arghun was a Buddhist who was accepting of Muslims, Jews and Christians. (After 1295, the rulers of the kingdom all converted to Islam.) He too was impressed with Sa’d al-Dawla, first appointing him to be collector of taxes in Baghdad, and, in 1289, grand vizier (chief minister) for the entire kingdom.
Thus, wrote the churchman and historian Gregory Bar Hebraeus (also known as Abu al-Faraj), “were the Muslims reduced to having a Jew in the place of honor,” a situation they greatly resented.
At the time, it was not at all unusual for a ruler to fire all the officials who were in place when he came to power, often replacing them with relatives or at least with co-religionists. Thus was Arghun’s practice, and also that of Sa’d al-Dawla, who issued a decree forbidding the employment of Muslims in the official bureaucracy.
One historian, the 14th-century Wassaf, tells us that Sa’d al-Dawla not only saved Arghun’s life medically, but also that he passed on to him information about other members of the court who were stealing from him.
Infidel dog, efficient tax collector
The 19th-century Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz writes that the rise of Sa’d al-Dawla caused “deep vexation” among Muslims, who “were accustomed to despise [Jews and Christians] as infidel dogs” and now saw them in power.
Specifically, their anger was directed at the vizier. Some of the resentment certainly derived from his effectiveness, and lack of mercy, as a tax collector.
The rumor soon began circulating that Sa’d al-Dawla was behind the creation of a new religion, of which Arghun was the prophet.
Although this seems like mere libel by his enemies, the contemporary Israeli historian Reuven Amitai, an expert on Mongol history, wonders whether the charge, which is repeated by Wassaf, didn’t reflect “an effort to promote the ruler’s personal spiritual authority or power, a concept not foreign to Mongol culture.”
Early in 1291, Arghun fell ill. Opponents of Sa’d al-Dawla accused him of poisoning the monarch, and once it became clear that Arghun was about to die, they took advantage of the situation to murder his chief counselor. Two days later, Arghun himself died.
Sa’d al-Dawla’s violent end was shared by other members of his family. It was also followed by anti-Jewish riots in a number of cities.