Among those who are connected with Ismaili literature one name, however, was known for a long time: that of Nasir Khusraw (d. after 1072 in northern Badakhshan). His travelogue, Safarnama, was formerly often used in European universities as the first reading book in Persian for its deceptively easy style. The Safarnama was edited and translated into French first by Ch. Schefer of Paris in 1881; during the same decade the German scholar H. Ethe as well as the French orientalist E. Fagnan edited and analysed some other works of the great philosopher-poet. E.G. Browne, well-known for his pioneering work on Persian literature, considered Nasir Khusraw one of the very rare Persian poets whose work would appeal to Western readers as he does not indulge in panegyric poetry but speaks honestly out of his heart, defending the true faith. However, despite E.G. Browne’s enthusiastic praise of Nasir Khusraw’s poetry, which was published in 1905, very few attempts were made to offer his verse, at least in part, to an English-speaking audience. For the mainstream orientalist, Nasir Khusraw’s poetry remained outside the normal course of Islamic studies, and only recently deeper research into his fascinating thought has begun.
One may compare his verse to the work of Ibn Hani, who lived a century before him in the farthest west of the Islamic world, in Andalusia, where he used his highly hyperbolical language to emphasize the Ismaili da‘wa, the call to the “true religion” - so much so that he had to leave his native country to become the panegyrist of al-Mu'izz, the Fatimid caliph who after the conquest of Egypt in 969 AD founded Cairo, al-Qahira al-Mu’izziyya, the capital of the Fatimid empire in which, under the inspiring rule of the Imam of the time, happiness and wealth seemed to reign and people prospered, as Nasir Khusraw shows in both his Safarnama and in some of his autobiographical poems.
Arabic and Persian poetry in honour of the true Imam and of the Ismaili Tariqah were by no means restricted to the classical time when the “Fatimid Sun”, as Nasir Khusraw sometimes calls it, was shining over parts of the East. Pious poets have poured out their hearts wherever small pockets of Ismailis were found, be it in Syria, be it in Eastern Iran, in Badakhshan, where Nasir Khusraw is still venerated as a miraculous saint and wise philosopher, and somewhat later in the vast areas of the western subcontinent, from Gujarat to the Panjab. There, the devotional songs of the community, the ginans, were composed, again, in a large variety of languages - songs, in which the Indian traditional imagery is used side by side with the philosophical vocabulary of the Ismaili tradition. These ginans again deserve an in-depth study owing to their linguistic problems and the complicated Khojki alphabet in which they were noted down till recently. And if the different yet familiar idioms of India and Pakistan were not enough to make our access to Ismaili devotional literature difficult, what can be said of hymns in Burushaski, a language absolutely unrelated to any other known language, and spoken to this day in the high valleys of Hunza?
The different languages used by the Ismaili community during the past millennium have meant that this literature has been a closed book for most people, even within the community - for a Syrian or Iranian Ismaili was or is not able to read and enjoy religious poetry in Sindhi, Burushaski or Shina, while the pious in the lowlands of Sind or Cutch might not be conversant with Arabic or Persian.
For this reason, a collection of Ismaili religious poetry in translation is most welcome to both the insider and the outsider. In this volume we follow the translators through their fine English renderings of a number of selected pieces from many of the linguistic areas in which Ismaili communities lived and still live, and we read with joy and deep admiration the poets’ various statements about the true faith, about the radiance of the Imam whose didar is the hoped-for goal of the believer. The strong faith which has inspired the original pieces is certainly reflected in the translators’ work, and every reader, from whatever religious background he or she may come, will enjoy this anthology and experience the intensity of religious feeling that touches his or her own heart.
The poems show a beautiful way to the “shimmering light” the poets have seen in their visions, a way that will inspire their readers. We hope, therefore, that the anthology may serve as a fine introduction into a hitherto inaccessible world, a world filled with ardent spiritual love and inexhaustible beauty.
(Adapted from the Foreword by Annemarie Schimmel of Shimmering Light: An Anthology of Ismaili Poetry. London: I. B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 1996.)