The origins of the Akhis can be traced back to 9th century C.E., when young men called “Ayyar” (literally “vagabond” in Arabic) formed chivalric groups in the Near East, especially in Persia and Mesopotamia. They adhered to a moral code called “Futuwwa” – a kind of Islamic chivalry – and exerted considerable religious, military and political control in the Islamic world of the time.
In its most literal sense, Futuwwa described the quality of being young, originating from the word for a young man in Arabic “Fata” (plural “Fityan”), equivalent to the Persian “Jawanmerd”. By the 8th century C.E. the word had evolved from adjective to moral framework, representing a moral code which imbued the ideal of a chivalric youth, bound by brotherhood, driven by moral obligation, honour, courage and spirituality: a spiritual chivalry.
Largely independent and connected more to the rules and vows of their brotherhood rather than to the official power structures, Ayyar groups were a persistent source of headache for the local authorities, as they would frequently take up arms and fight against perceived injustices and grievances committed by the establishment.
Ayyar groups were also employed by local rulers and even Caliphs from time to time to strengthen the security of their cities which came under threat from their adversaries. However, such enterprises would be short term, and Ayyars could not be counted on with lasting loyalty.
Ayyars are first recorded as significant actors in war when they defended Baghdat against an army consisting mostly of Turks from Khorasan fighting for the pretender to the Caliphate Al-Ma’mun who was the Abbasid governor of Khorasan and brother of the Caliph Al-Amin. Al-Ma’mun’s forces would finally enter the city and the Ayyar forces disbanded.
Although mainly located around Bagdad, Ayyars were dispersed all over the lands of the Abbasids and the Seljuks. Whenever there was a weakening of the central authority, the Ayyars would exert their own authority and intimidate the local population, engaging in pillage and tribute collection.
In 972 the Caliph Al-Muti made a call for a holy war against Byzantium and armed the Ayyars thinking they would lead the charge. Instead, the Ayyars used this opportunity to mutiny against the Caliphate and their rebellion caused considerable damage in Baghdad.
By the 12th century, the concept of Futuwwa and organisations founded around its prescriptions spread throughout the Islamic world. In parallel with their steep rise in power, their involvement in urban conflicts and sectarian riots increased.
Things came to a climax during the first years of the reign of Caliph Al-Nasir (1180-1225) when Futuwwa connected disturbances forced the Caliph to do something about the situation or his government would lose control over public order. In an initiative to ostensibly approve and support the movement but, in effect, to impose some discipline and order on the groups and bring them under his influence, Al-Nasir recognised and supported Futuwwa, reorganising them along Sufi lines and ideology.
In 1182, Al-Nasir was initiated into the ranks of the Futuwwa, donning their vestments and drinking salt water in the name of its head Shaykh and became the Supreme Commander of this new form of organised Futuwwa.
Like other Abbasid caliphates, Al-Nasir belonged to the Shia Imamiye Sect and in reorganising the Futuwwa, he structured it to combine the Imamiye doctrine with Sufi Order and created a kind of mystic Islamic chivalry. It is probable that he was influenced by Suhrawardi, an important Meshai philosopher and founder of the Persian school of Illuminationism (Hikmat-i Ishraq). Another probable influence seems to have been the contemporary knight orders in the Crusader (Frankish) States like Acre, Antioch and Jerusalem with which Abbasids had very close relations, both at war and at peace.
Over time, the Caliph would use Futuwwa as a clever means of asserting caliphal power through religious hierarchy rather than regional power.
Members of the Akhi came from all kinds of social classes; from the ruling class, landlords, warriors, traders, sheiks, scientists, craftsmen, to the young apprentices of the crafts and even to the jobless vagabonds. In this way, the Ayyars were dissolved in these orders in time and the nightmare of the Caliphate ended.
He was particularly known to distribute the vestments of Futuwwa to regional leaders in an assertion of his higher-rank. As the Caliph of the Islamic world, he asked all the heads of the governments, the supreme leaders of Islam, the wealthy merchants, the rich figures of bourgeoisie and even the most important leaders like Kaykaus I (1210-1219), the Sultanate of Rum (the Seljuk State in Asia Minor), to join this brotherhood, and he sent his vizier to conduct their initiation ceremony (1214).
The initiation of Sultan Kaykaus I into the Futuwwa marks the milestone for the formal establishment of the brotherhood in Anatolia. The following reign of Kayqubat I coincided with the golden age of the Sultanate and after his death in 1237, the increasing presence and power of the Mongols on the borders of the Sultanate of Rum threw the region into a long period of strife.
In 1218 Genghis Khan united various Turkic and Mongol tribes of Central Asia under his authority and then embarked on what he hoped would be the conquest of the world. Genghis Han said, “All cities must be razed so that the whole world may once again become a great steppe in which Mongol mothers will suckle free and happy children”. Prestigious cities indeed were destroyed, their populations decimated: Bukhara, Samarkand and Herat, among others.
Those fleeing ahead of Genghis Khan’s army galloping West poured into Asia Minor, waiting to be settled. Most of them were nomads of the steppes, meeting agriculture and industry for the first time. It was a horrifying problem for the already settled cities and villages of the Seljuks. The nomad waves continued as the Mongol invasion continued. At the end, Seljuks of Rum divided into small feudal states and the age of Anatolian statelets (beyliks) started, first in the west of Asia Minor, on the lands taken from Byzantium, and then later in eastern Anatolia, the centre of power of the Seljuks. One of those western beyliks on the border with Byzantium was the one founded by Osman I, whose small state would grow to become the Ottoman Empire.
In this period, the Futuwwa brotherhood quickly spread over Anatolia and became an important status for the elite, as well as the common men. Futuwwa provided an ideal as a classless society of the rulers, warriors and the wealthy men in the Islamic world, from Central Asia to the far regions of North Africa where the Sufi movement first originated.
The brethren of Futuwwa came to be called “Akhi” (plural in the regions where Turks were a majority. The word means “my brother” in Arabic. This is near homophonic to the Old Turkish word “Aki” meaning “generous”. It is thought that the two meanings merged in due course and came to be the common name for the group in Anatolia. Their organisation was called the “Akhiyat-i Fityan”, i.e. the Brotherhood of Youth, and also as the “Akhiyan-i Rum” – the Akhis of Rome, i.e. of Asia Minor which was known as the Land of Rum in those times, “Rum” referring to the Eastern Roman Empire (as its citizens called themselves Roman).
As a powerful para-military organization, Akhis were a major force during the process of the weakening of the Seljuks and the strengthening of the local beyliks. Each sultan of a beylik had his own Akhis, protecting the land, markets and the commercial roads.
The Akhiyat al-Fityan’s relationship with warfare varied widely according to local conditions. Within the cities, the brotherhoods proved fiercely loyal to their cities, and would often come to their defense against aggressors. Where some brotherhoods unified peacefully around trade or Sufism, others were closely linked to rogues that conducted Ghazw, or holy war, raiding towns and villages beyond the borderlands and collecting significant sums of loot.
Akhis had great influence in the emergence of the Ottoman State: Shaykh Edebali, the father-in-law of Osman I (founder of the Ottoman State), as well as most of his close retinue, and his son Vizier Alaeddin Bey (the brother of Orhan who took the throne after Osman I) were all members of the Akhi order. The first regular army of the Ottomans, the Yaya had similar costumes to those of the Akhi. The Akhis, like the Bektashi, influenced the formation of the Janissaries during the early stages of the Empire.
During the Mongolian attacks on Khorasan and Persia in the 13th century, tribes from these areas marched west, from the north and from the south. The Turkic nomadic “Turkoman” tribes arrived in Persia, Iraq and finally in Asia Minor in the Sultanate of Rum. These tribes were mainly lead by warriors on horseback. The Seljuks settled them on the borders with their western neighbour, Byzantium. In these turbulent times, the Akhi forces protected the peoples settled in the dangerous border areas. The more they were needed, the more they enlarged their armies and became powerful and enriched themselves. Thus the Akhi rose to prominence in the wake of the fall of the Seljuk State. In the absence of a powerful central authority, these brotherhoods would exercise a stabilizing religious, political, economic, and military presence in Asia Minor.
When Ibn Battuta travelled to Asia Minor and the steppes between 1325-1354, he described the Akhis as follows: “They exist in all the lands of the Turkomans of Al-Rum, in every district and village. Nowhere in the world are there to be found any to compare with them in solicitude for strangers, and in ardour to serve food and satisfy wants, to restrain the hands of tyrannous, and to kill the agents of police and those ruffians who join with them. An Akhi, in their idiom, is a man whom the assembled members of his trade, together with the others of the young unmarried men and those who have adopted the celibate life, choose to be their leader… The members are called fityan and their leader, as we have said, is the Akhi.”
What has been said by Ibn Battuta for Akhiyan-i Rûm who were followers of Futuwwa, has a lot in common with the Knight Templers and Hospitallers of the Crusader States of 12th century.
Such comparison seems accurate as per several sources such as Desmond Seward’s The Monks of War: “A German monk who visited Jerusalem at some time before 1187 tells us that the Order’s hospital contained a thousand beds for both sexes in eleven wards. Moslems and Jews were admitted; they too were Poor of Christ. Brethren would sleep on the floor if more beds were needed after a battle or during an epidemic. Besides the brethren, the staff included salaried physicians and surgeons (and presumably midwives since there was an obstetric ward with cots for babies), together with many nurses. Patients were very well fed, eating meat three times a week; chicken was available for Moslems or Jews as an alternative to pork… The brethren (Templars and Hospitallers) were remarkably adaptable. Some learned Arabic (great officers kept Saracen secretaries) and the brothers’ spy service was unparalleled. They filled some areas of institutional vacuum such as banking, for only they possessed the necessary vaults, organisation and integrity. The Templars became professional financiers; all moneys collected for the Holy Land were conveyed by them from their European preceptories to the Temple in Jerusalem, while pilgrims and even Moslem merchants deposited their cash at the local temple.”
During the conquests of the competing beyliks by the Ottomans, Akhi warriors were a major part of the army. However, accused frequently of conspiracy against the state, many brotherhoods found themselves absorbed by an aggressively expansionist Ottoman state, and under Murad I and his successor, Bayezid I (the Thunderbolt), Akhi discontent and resentment towards imperial attempts at control ultimately led to open rebellion several times, which were put down with increasing ease by the strengthening Ottoman State.
After the victory of Tamerlane (1401) over Bayezid I, the fourth sultan, the Akhis were dispersed among the land and returned to their origins as the guardians of cities.
The Interregnum Period of 1402-1413 was the time of the wars between the four sons of Bayezid I (Beyazid the Thunderbolt), when the Akhis supported Mehmet I who succeeded in taking the throne. In 1421 his son Murat II took the throne. Murat II understood the potential of the Akhi Brotherhoods as independent units of local influence to become seditious hotbeds of revolutionary agitation and decided to form a loyal army which would not change sides during war, i.e. an army of his own and created the Janissary forces.
The Akhis were forced to choose either to become private cavalrymen (Sipahi) of the landlords (Timar) who were responsible to the authority of the Ottoman Sultan, or join the craft corporations and take responsibility in the industry and trade of the Empire. The Akhi name continued in these craftsmen’s guilds and played an important role in the commercial development of the Empire. Some chose to join Sufi orders and lead a purely spiritualist life. Those who dared to disagree with the Sultan’s authority accepted their fate to be erased from history. The Military and Mystic Order of the Akhis had nearly the same end as that of the Knight Templars.