Seminar: The Assassin of Herat

Today I had the very great privilege of hearing Dr. Evrim Binbas (of Royal Holloway, University of London) deliver a paper at the weekly mediaeval studies seminars hosted at the University of St Andrews. Usually, these events are convivial affairs, with senior lecturers and undergraduates mingling happily as they prepare to hear papers from colleagues from across the UK. Today, however, a pair of distinguished guests were in attendance.

Two manuscripts, of texts from the 15th century, rested magisterially on a side-table as the audience peered intently at them. They had come from the University’s Special Collections Unit to complement the talk, entitled The Anatomy of a Regicide Attempt: Shahrukh, the Hurufis, and the Timurid Intellectuals in 1426/1427. One, a Qur’an, was about the size of a modern atlas. Its elegant script was contained in a highly decorated rubric with scroll work in gold against a blue background, and decorative paisleys adorned the margins. In contrast the other manuscript was both smaller and less lavishly decorated.

Both manuscripts brought a tangible sense of history into the room as we discussed the reign and attempted assassination of Shahrukh, son and successor of Timur (whose brutal tax-collecting methods were featured yesterday.) Like his father, Shahrukh was a successful commander and came to the throne only after wresting control of the empire from the various family members to whom it had been apportioned.

Shahrukh's domains extended from Samarqand to Isfahan, with their capital in Herat. (

The attempt on Shahrukh’s life came midway through his reign, on a Friday. As was customary for a man with a reputation for piety, he had attended the weekly prayers at one of Herat’s principle mosques. Emerging from the mosque, he travelled down the highly public route back to the palace, along which a throng of people had gathered to watch the royal retinue as they passed. Here, in full view of the crowds, an assassin launched an attack on Shahrukh, wounding him before he was caught and killed by the Amir’s guards.

The effect on Shahrukh’s court was immediate. According to some sources, the government launched an immediate investigation into the unknown assailant, seeking witnesses, while another claims that the attempted assassination provoked a riot in the city, with vigilante groups lynching members of a suspected sect. As the investigation developed (aided by torturers, in accordance with Timur’s precedents) authorities began to suspect an Islamic sect known as the Hurufis.

A radical group, the Hurufis engaged in apocalyptic predictions and divinations, and had long been suppressed in Iranian regions. Already little loved by the populace of Shahrukh’s realms, they were an appealing target, especially since they were connected to a class of increasingly independent intellectuals. In persecuting the Hurufis, therefore,  Shahrukh could also purge the intellectuals of freethinkers, radicals, and (in his view) potentially threatening rebels.

What followed is one of the few recorded examples of a persecution of the intellectual establishment in mediaeval Islamic societies. In its polemical zeal, it resembled the witch -hunts of supposed communists during the McCarthy Era in America, and resulted in the harassment, imprisonment, and execution of a number of well-known intellectuals of the 15th century.

Historians today, however, still do not know if either the Hurufis or other intellectual elites were involved in the plot to kill Shahrukh. We know little about the assassin himself, except his name (Ahmad-i Lur,) and his motivations remain shrouded in mystery. Yet his desperate and unsuccessful deed illustrates the continuing tensions in Iranian society, still reeling from Timur’s conquests and divided over the legitimacy of Shahrukh’s leadership.


4 thoughts on “Seminar: The Assassin of Herat

  1. Pingback: A Happy Coincidence « mediaevalmusings

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