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The Poet Who Crossed The Veil Of Time

Celebrated scholar, renowned poet and the outstanding Ismaili theologian of the 5th/11th century, Nasir Khusraw was born in 394 Islamic calendar /1004 AD, in Qubadiyan, suburb of Merw, approximately 250 kilometers south-east Dushanbe, the capital city of the Republic of Tajikistan. Nasir died in 481/1089 and was buried in Yumgan gallery, currently a small village in north-east Afghanistan.

Early Life

When he was seven year old, the great famine of Khorasan devastated the entire region. Ghaznavid invasions of neighboring territories, religious clashes between various Islamic sects and Ghaznavid’s thirst for uprooting the Shi’a Muslims in general, and the Qarmatians (a radical Ismaili sect) in particular, had made life in Khorasan difficult and unpredictable.

A high official in Ghaznavid court, Nasir was conducting a pleasant life in line with customs and habits of the day. At the age of forty however, in a dream, or probably in a self-awakening, or reaching a stage in life when he could no longer behave as a helpless onlooker, he decided to leave the Ghaznavid court and seek an alternative exemplary life advocated by Islamic moral standards and the preaching of Islam’s Holy Scripture, the Qur’an.

Apparently he had heard about the Fatimide rule of Egypt, their concern for Islamic moral values, their tolerance and care of other sects and persuasions, their love for art, culture and science and above all their claim to be the legitimate ruler of the Islamic lands, based on being direct descendents of Prophet Muhammad, through his daughter Fatima.

Fatimide were advocating a particular, and somehow unique, brand of Islam in which religion had two distinct and at the same time interwoven aspects. The outward or visible aspect which was how the faith was to be practiced and it was different in each and every religion. The inward or esoteric aspect which was the reality and truth of religion and It was somehow the same in all religions. Their point of departure from other faiths and religions was their interpretation of the relationship that existed between the apparent and hidden. In their opinion this relationship could have only be vouchsafed and maintained by a legitimate or truthful person who had to be authorized for the job and it was the hereditary Imam of the Ismaili community.

Leaving Home

In response to his spiritual quest, we find Nasir traveling towards Mecca, the citadel of Islam’s religious abode. But before reaching Mecca, he visits Cairo, converts to Ismaili faith and manages to perform pilgrimage of Mecca four times. In the meanwhile, he ascends the ranks of Ismaili religious hierarchy reaching its highest achievable position, that is, the rank of an authorized preacher (hujjat), a position that entitled him to preach Ismaili faith unaided and with authority.

The Fatimide Egypt was, as Nasir saw it, an exemplary Islamic government. It was ruled by a direct descendent from Prophet’s house, named al-Mustansir Billah. In the Fatimide Egypt, both the exoteric and exoteric aspects of religion were adhered to and all features of man’s liberty were honored. Cairo was at its apex of beauty and probably the best city in the entire Islamic domain. And all these attracted Nasir to a degree that for him beyond that there was nothing to look for.

After seven years, in 444/1054, Nasir returned to his mother land. Nasir has carefully recorded the memoir of this long and tantalizing journey during which he traveled some 2220 Farsangs (app. 14,500 Kilometers gallery). His narrative of this journey is a classical example of a precise and informative travelogue in all languages.

Back To The Motherland

Back in Khorasan, he was no longer a careless onlooker. He was intending to introduce radical changes in the life of the ordinary inhabitants of his mother land. He was a zealous preacher, master of various disciplines, an eloquent speaker, highly skilled in Greek and Aristotelian philosophy and logic and with a profound insight into Qur’anic disciplines and its exoteric and esoteric teachings. He had seen the world, had examined the ideologies of its inhabitants and was convinced that Ismaili way of life was the ultimate exemplar worth preaching and summoning people to its adherence.

Nasir And Ismailism

Ismailism that Nasir was preaching advocated the existence of a legitimate Imam whose authority was somehow only second to Prophet Muhammad himself. His domain of authority revolved around the esoteric meaning or the interpretation of the Qur’an according to the requirements of time. On the whole, the esoteric component of religion, that is, its spiritual side was somehow superior to its exoteric aspect. The spiritual side was not perceivable by senses and therefore needed a medium to safeguard its authentic transmission and continuity, and the Ismaili imam was that medium. The entire corpus of Nasir’s literary out put advocates this ideology and as expected, such an ideology could not be tolerated by religious and political authorities of the time.

In his return to Khorasan, there was hardly any similarity between him and the Nasir who had left the land a decade ago. It seems that even his family, close friends and relatives could no more tolerate his radical views and his high moral standards. Religious authorities too, found his preaching harmful and in contrast to what they had in mind. Gradually pressures build up, his house was looted and there was a plot to kill him. With all the love and affection that he had for Khorasan, he had to flee from there and escape to the Caspian shores in north Iran. This happened when the Seljuk ruler had conquered the northern Iran and Nasir, once more, had to escape. But this time the options were limited and he had to take refuge in a remote place in Badakhshan, north-east Afghanistan where there existed scattered pockets of adherents to Ismaili faith.

To use a modern expression, Nasir if anything, was a man true to himself. He neither cheated on himself nor said something that he did not believe to be true. He praised the Fatimide caliph of Egypt, al-Mustansir, as the legitimate and truthful ruler after Prophet Muhammad. His poems, best specimen of ethical poetry in Persian language, are so rich and profound that to quote one of his critics, can only be composed through divine inspirations.

In Badakhshan, he preached Ismaili faith zealously and people responded to him whole heartedly. Regions one after another accepted his summons and welcomed him. He used to travel far and wide, while composing at least one book every year. His isolation did not prevent his fame spreading all around. He did initiate subtle changes in the life style of the natives of Badakhshan, the trace of which is visible even today after almost 1000 years. In Badakhshan, he says, arithmetic was not practiced properly, so I wrote a book on the subject and taught people how to keep the accounts. Today there is a common belief that it was Nasir Khusraw who designed the Pamiri House, which is believed to be earthquake proof.

The Myth Of Nasir Khusraw

Within a period of four to five hundred years, Nasir becomes a legendry and mythological figure capable of performing miracles, composing talismans, summoning genies and predicting the future. But in truth, and judging from his own writings, Nasir neither believed in destiny, nor performed any miracle. He was a pragmatist, profound advocate of applying intelligence to almost anything, except the knowledge of God which was to be obtained either through an apostle or a truthful imam being prophet’s vicegerent.

Literary Out Put

Nasir was a prolific writer, following is a brief description of some of his major works that have survived to our time:

1.Diwan. (collection of his poems), approximately 12000 stanzas. There are various editions, the most recent being that of Prof. Minowi. Its English translation is forthcoming in the series of ‘Text and Translations’ by the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London.

2. Safar-nama. (Travelogue) which is the memoir of his long journey to Egypt. There are numerous editions and it has been translated to French and English languages.

3. Zad al-musafirin. (Provisions for travelers). Mankind is portrayed as a traveler who should start his journey fully prepared. Zad al-musafirin is an encyclopedia of philosophical deliberations making full use of Qur’anic exegesis to establish Ismaili theological viewpoints. Existing Persian edition of the book is faulty and erroneous. English translation is forthcoming.

4. Wajh-i din. (Portray of faith). Divided into 52 chapters it renders a comprehensive picture of the exegesis of Islamic religious laws (shari?at) from an Ismaili point of view. It contains a detailed chapter on the legitimacy of the Ismaili imamate. Existing Persian edition of the book is faulty and erroneous. English translation is forthcoming.

5. Khwan al-ikhwan. (Food for brothers). Divided into 100 chapters it is a Persian rendering of what Nasir learned from previous Ismaili scholars. Existing edition of the book is faulty and erroneous.

6. Jami’ al-hikmatayn. (The Sum of Tow Wisdoms). Under the pretext of explaining a philosophical poem, Nasir establishes the similarities between Islamic revelation and Greek philosophy. Existing edition has been prepared by Prof. H. Corbin and Muhammad Mu’in.

7. Gushayish wa rahayish. (Knowledge and Liberation). A profound philosophical text arranged in a question and answer format. The original version has been much longer,its linguistic style, unlike other philosophical works of Nasir, is simple. English translation by Dr F. Hunzai has been published by the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London.

8. Rowshanaei-nama. (The epistle of enlightenment). It is a short poetical work dealing with ethical virtues.

9. Saadat-nama. (The epistle of good fortune). It is a short poetical work dealing with ethical virtues.

10. Shish fasl. or a prose version of Rowshanayi-nama. Existing Persian edition of the book is faulty and erroneous. English translation has been published by Ismaili Society of Bombay.

The list of books and treatises attributed to Nasir is impressive. For the location of manuscripts, dates, various editions and recent works on Nasir Khusraw see BIBLIOGRAPHY. It is obvious that some of his works have not survived to our time and some do not mach his masterly style and are wrongly attributed to him.