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Nasir Khusraw, The Ruby of Badakhshan: A Portrait of the Persian Poet, Traveller and Philosopher


Ismaili Heritage Series 4. London: I. B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2000, pp. 288.

ISBN (Hardback): 1 85043919 2
ISBN (Softback): 1 85043 926 5
Synopsis

Publication page on Google Books

Interview with Dr Alice C Hunsberger

Opening page of Nasir Khusraw has attracted passionate attention, from admirers and critics alike, for nearly 1000 years. As a writer celebrated for a poetry which combines art with philosophy, a travelogue relied on for its details of the Middle East in medieval times, and theological texts revered by his admirers and criticised by his detractors, Nasir Khusraw remains one of the most fascinating figures in Muslim history and literature.

Born in 394/1004 in the eastern Iranian province of Khurasan, Nasir Khusraw rose to prominence in the courts of the Ghaznavids and the Saljuqs. Amidst this overwhelming pomp and prestige, he began to question his surroundings and search for a truth that would transcend life’s outward form. After experiencing a spiritual crisis (which he relates in beautiful poetry and elegant prose, he adopted Ismaili Shi‘ism and set out on a pilgrimage to Mecca that was to last seven years. He spent three of those years in Cairo, then under the rule of the Fatimid Caliph–Imams, where he was appointed the hujjat or head of the Ismaili da‘wa (mission) to Khurasan. Upon his return to Khurasan, Nasir Khusraw encountered severe persecution from anti–Ismaili religious scholars, which compelled him to seek refuge in a remote part of the Pamir Mountains of Badakhshan (covering areas of present–day Tajikistan and Afghanistan), where he composed most of the works that we have today .

The first comprehensive study of Nasir Khusraw to appear in English, this book follows the path of his seven–year journey from Central Asia across northern Iran to Jerusalem, Cairo, Mecca and back home again to Iran. Drawing extensively from Nasir’s own record of his journey, his poetry and philosophy, Dr Hunsberger has provided a highly readable and insightful account of the genius of this man of letters. From the rich selection of Nasir Khusraw’s own words, many translated here for the first time, the reader gains a full picture of this figure of intense emotion, deep commitment to his faith, love for his homeland, and an unstinting pursuit of excellence. These personal traits form the human background to a person acknowledged for his literary genius and brilliant mind.

The book is divided into 12 chapters which follow him through the stages of his life and the stops along his journey, pausing on the way to look at particular features of his Ismaili philosophy. It provides a broad overview of Nasir Khusraw’s life and writings, including brief descriptions of the contents of each of his edited texts, including his poetry, travelogue and philosophical texts and scrutinizes the most significant biographical statements that have been made by other writers about him over the past millennium, and weighs their veracity and verifiability.

It also surveys Nasir Khusraw’s writings themselves to illustrate his great appreciation for the physical world and for human talents to improve it. It also introduces the reader to examples of his poetic skill and motifs, such as applying intellect to one’s life rather than blaming fate for one’s misfortunes. By tracing the dramatic shift in Nasir Khusraw’s life when he decides that the life of a court poet or administrator is too superficial for him, the book shows how his travels are linked to the development of his work and the intimate relationship between contemplation and action in life.

His great journeys include a description of Jerusalem and the glories of Fatimid Cairo. Nasir Khusraw can hardly praise Cairo and the Ismaili Caliph–Imam enough, from the generosity expended for scholars like him to the sensible policies governing judges and the military, and from the beautiful tiraz fabrics created in the island of Tinnis to the careful management of the walls and buildings of the city itself. His pilgrimage to Mecca centers not just on the act of pilgrimage but on the importance for an inner pilgrimage of the soul.

The book covers Nasir Khusraw’s period as the hujjat of Khurasan and the subsequent threats against his life and his ultimate flight into exile. Reflecting on the poet's own flurry of emotions, it shows, through generous examples of his poetry, several specific sources of his distress, but also illustrates the optimism and surety of faith that sustained this Ismaili thinker through his moments of despondency and focuses on the sources of the spiritual strength and conviction which he preached avidly to the world.

The title of the book, The Ruby of Badakhshan, refers on one level to the region of Nasir Khusraw’s exile and to the famed rubies of Badakhshan, but it also refers to his own understanding of the worth of each individual, of human nature and of what is ultimately important in life. When asked why he was living in such a remote place as the valley of Yumgan, he replied that no one values the ruby less for lying in a dirty mine, or the pearl for having come from a scabby oyster shell. That is, one's surroundings or origins do not determine intrinsic value. By extension, the ruby therefore also signifies what is good, what is eternal within the human body, namely the human soul. For Nasir Khusraw, the soul operates in both the spiritual and the physical worlds, and within each individual soul lies responsibility for the present and hope for the future.

This book is written for a general, educated audience, and will appeal to students and scholars of Ismaili studies and Persian literature, as well as those interested in Islamic thought and culture, world religions, literature, medieval history and travel.


Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface
Acknowledgements
Note on the Text
Chronology
Map of Nasir Khusraw’s Journeys

  1. A Soul Higher Than Fortune
  2. Heretic, Magician or King?
  3. The Wonders of This World
  4. The Turning Point
  5. Knowledge and Action
  6. The Journey Begins
  7. Jerusalem, The Holy
  8. The Splendour of Fatimid Cairo
  9. Mecca, City of Pilgrimage
  10. The Journey Home
  11. The World Turns Dark
  12. Glory Regained

Notes
Bibliography
Index



Bibliography

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Content Date: January 2000

The Institute of Ismaili Studies - Nasir Khusraw, The Ruby of Badakhshan: A Portrait of the Persian Poet, Traveller and Philosopher
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