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
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
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
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
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.