Table of Contents
- The Early Years
- The Journey of a Life
- Years of Exile
- The Content of His Writings
- The Travelogue
For over nine hundred years, Nasir Khusraw has attracted passionate attention, from admirers and critics alike. Delight in his mastery of poetical form and expression has led centuries of Persian speakers to rank him among the best of Persian poets. In addition, his personal record of the seven-year journey he took from Central Asia to the Mediterranean coast, Egypt, Arabia and back home again has been studied word by word for its detailed descriptions of cities, societies and customs. French and German scholars of the 19th century stood where he stood in Jerusalem and could count out the steps he had counted out centuries before. Appreciation for the serious intellectual content found throughout his writings, both in poetry and prose, early on earned him the title of hakim, that is someone revered for scientific knowledge and analytical ability. In some parts of Central Asia, people still claim descent from him. On the other hand, his success as a missionary for the Ismaili faith caused public and official opinion to turn viciously against him, forcing him to flee for his life. He spent the last fifteen years or so of his life in exile under the protection of a minor prince, in a remote place tucked away in the mountains of Badakhshan, slightly north of the Hindu Kush. He has been falsely credited with founding an eponymous religious community, the Nasiriyya. Legends about him flowered so extravagantly that by 1574 a scholar was warned not to believe anything said about him. Today, his verses are still taught in Persian literature classes and, perhaps more significantly, are recited from memory and sprinkled throughout Persian conversations when a moral illustration is called for, as in the following example:
In only twenty days it grew and spread and put forth fruit.
Of the tree it asked: ‘How old are you? How many years?’
Replied the tree: ‘Two hundred it would be, and surely more.’
The squash laughed and said: ‘Look, in twenty days, I’ve done more than you; tell me, why are you so slow?’
The tree responded: ‘O little squash, today is not the day of reckoning between the two of us.’
‘Tomorrow, when winds of autumn howl down on you and me, then shall it be known for sure which one of us is the real man!’
In an age when the international language of political and intellectual discourse from Spain to India was Arabic, Nasir distinguished himself by writing predominantly in his native Persian language. Most of his fellow Iranians — including the brightest stars of Islamic intellectual history, such as the philosophers Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and al-Farabi and some of his fellow Ismailis — made sure to write at least some works in Arabic and thereby secured a broader reputation. For example, Ibn Sina’s medical compendium, al-Qanun, translated from Arabic into Latin, served as Europe’s main medical text until nearly the modern age and its title introduced the word ‘canon’ into European languages. Nasir Khusraw himself was certainly well-schooled in Arabic and there are some suggestions that he also composed works in that language.1 But all that exists today is in Persian, and that raises some questions. If indeed he wrote only in Persian, it would throw a provocative light on someone who, in all other aspects, took a global view of life. If, on the other hand, he did compose in Arabic also but all that remains are his Persian works, it would illuminate something about the audience that received him and took his words to heart.
Nasir Khusraw’s life can be divided into four periods: his early years up until his religious conversion at about the age of forty, about which we know very little; the seven-year journey, for which we have his Safarnama (Travelogue) and some references in his poetry; his return home to Khurasan as head missionary for the Ismailis in the region; and finally his exile in the Pamir mountains of Badakhshan in the district of Yumgan, for which we have his poetry and some of his philosophical works with their dedications to the prince who gave him refuge.
Nasir’s place of birth, Qubadiyan, was a small town in the outskirts of Marv, a major city in the Balkh district of the great province of Khurasan, which extended in eastern Iran roughly up to the Oxus River. The provincial capital, Nishapur, and the city of Marv were important stopping points along the Silk Route and, in Nasir’s time, cosmopolitan cities successfully mixing people from many ethnic groups and religions. Sizeable Jewish, Christian and Buddhist communities lived side by side with Muslims of both Sunni and Shi‘i persuasions, producing a society rich not only in material wealth but also in intellectual, religious and artistic products.
In the 4th/10th century, several decades before Nasir’s birth, the provinces of Khurasan and Transoxiana (in today’s Central Asia) had been the locus of a Persian cultural renaissance, following several hundred years in which Arabic temporarily gained ascendancy after the military conquest achieved by the Arabs around the year 30/650. This ‘Persian Spring,’ as I would call it, resulted in a new language, New Persian, that richly suffused Arabic words into Middle Persian vocabulary and grammar, and provided the vehicle to express a Perso-Islamic cultural identity. One of the most significant early fruits of this new language was the composition of the Iranian national epic poem, the Shahnama (The Book of Kings), completed by Firdawsi in 401/1010, when Nasir Khusraw was five or six-years-old. Then, within decades, Nasir established himself as a master stylist in this new language in both poetry and prose, fully able to express himself in complicated metres in which rules of Arabic poetry govern Persian poetry, and in a clear prose style unencumbered by the linguistic ornamentation so favoured several centuries later.
Nasir followed family tradition and entered the government bureaucracy in some financial capacity, perhaps tax collection, for which he gained a measure of fame. ‘I was a clerk by profession and one of those in charge of the sultan’s revenue service’ and ‘acquired no small reputation among my peers,’ he writes in his Safarnama.3 In his early days, familiar first with the Ghaznavid sultans and then working for their successors the Saljuqs, Nasir Khusraw enjoyed a life of travel, study, poetry, wine, women and friends. He had done well at school, having learned Arabic and Persian with their rules of prosody, and studied philosophy, religious sciences, literature, history and mathematics. Later in life, he wrote a book on mathematics, even though he could find ‘not one single scholar throughout all Khurasan and the eastern lands like myself [who] could grapple with the solutions to these problems.’ But he felt it his responsibility to take on the task, for readers he would never see, ‘those yet to come, in a time yet to come.’4
Nasir Khusraw relished the opportunity to see new places and to admire the accomplishments of the human hand and mind. In his travels, he turned his keen eye toward both the physical and administrative structures put in place by each society. such as city walls, irrigation canals and road surfaces in one, and taxation conditions, employment practices and shop rental policies in another. Intellectually precise and attendant to detail, nothing fell outside his curiosity: he admired the luxurious feel of silks and damasks; tested local superstitions; arranged a private preview of a royal banquet; held poetry sessions with local poets; struck up conversations with peasants, shopkeepers and princes; visited Christian shrines; noticed the presence of women in the cafés of Armenia; compared fruit bazaars in Cairo, Mecca and Khurasan; delighted at the sight of a child holding a red rose in one hand and a white rose in the other; and struggled across the Arabian desert but refused to eat the recommended lizards.
But, for Nasir Khusraw a more urgent current ran under such delights of the world, namely his aching desire to have some purpose, some answer to the question of why all this exists. Why the world, why human happiness, why human sadness, why beautiful pearls within ugly, scabby oysters? He asked all the teachers and clergy he knew, inquired of all denominations and schools of thought, and read all the books he could, but no response was adequate enough for him. This restless searching and inner discontent lasted until it all came together in the conviction that the answers to these ultimate questions could be found in the doctrines of the Ismaili, Shi‘i faith.
At some point in his 40th year (or 42nd, depending on the source), Nasir experienced a spiritual upheaval. It culminated in the conviction that truth could be discovered in the Ismaili message. He also became convinced that he must change his life completely and use this truth to change the world. In his Safarnama he describes a powerful dream that shocked him out of his ‘forty years’ sleep,’ and transformed his life into one of religious conviction and preaching. Elsewhere, in an autobiographical poem, he recounts his years of spiritual searching and credits his teacher, al-Mu’ayyad fi’l-Din al-Shirazi (d. 470/1078), with guiding him on the path of knowledge. Both accounts of conversion are valid psychologically and possible historically. For a dream or a quest need not be merely a literary convention or a topos of human mythology. People do have dreams and do have moments of exquisite clarity, which they interpret as having revealed a profound truth that thereafter guides their lives.
When Nasir left Cairo, he apparently left as the hujjat of Khurasan, the head of the Ismaili da‘wa (missionary organisation) in his home province. The Fatimids had divided the Islamic world into 12 regions and assigned for each of them a supervisor, or hujjat, to direct and coordinate the propagation of the faith. For Khurasan, they could not have chosen a better person for their purposes than Nasir Khusraw. His love of his homeland was now combined with his fervent commitment to guide others to the right path, just as he himself had been guided.
But the Ismaili faith, which is a branch of Shi‘i Islam, was by no means universally appreciated. Both the Sunnis and some non-Ismaili Shi‘is regarded the Ismailis as heretics. The significant difference between the Sunnis and the Shi‘is (including Ismailis) is that in Shi‘i theology the spiritual and temporal leadership of Muslims is believed to flow through the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, specifically the progeny of his daughter Fatima and her husband ‘Ali, a cousin of the Prophet. The early, pre-Fatimid Ismailis recognised a particular line of such spiritual leaders or imams. Subsequently, with the rise of the Fatimids, the Fatimid caliphs were recognised as imams by the Ismailis; and this line of Ismaili imams has continued to the present day. The other main branch of Shi‘ism recognises 12 imams, the last of whom disappeared in mysterious circumstances in the year 260/871 and its followers are known as Twelver Shi‘is (Ithna‘ashariyya). Sunni theology, on the other hand, does not accord ‘Ali such extraordinary veneration and generally accepts the progression of leadership as it unfolded after the Prophet Muhammad, that is, the first four caliphs, followed by the Umayyad and ‘Abbasid dynasties of caliphs — a historical continuity which lasted over 600 years, from 11/632 to 656/1258, when the Mongols executed the last ‘Abbasid caliph.
As equally long lasting as the theological difference between Shi‘ism and Sunnism, was Shi‘i opposition to the concentration of political power in the hands of the Sunnis. The Fatimid Caliphate, which lasted from 297/909 to 567/1171, was the first and only major Shi‘i ruling power until 907/1501 when Twelver Shi‘ism was established as the state religion of Iran under the Safavids. Since the Fatimids directly challenged the authority of the ‘Abbasid caliphate, both doctrinally and politically, the Sunni ‘Abbasids conducted a campaign of threats, killings and theological polemic against the Fatimids from their capital in Baghdad. Other than the Ismaili Fatimid caliphate in Cairo, most other political power bases were Sunni, and strongly so. Nasir Khusraw’s employers before his conversion, first the Ghaznavids and then the Saljuq sultans, were all staunch Sunnis and showed their support for the Sunni caliph in Baghdad through decisive efforts to quell Shi‘i activism, especially that of Ismaili missionaries working for the Fatimid caliph.
As the head of Ismaili missionary activity in Khurasan for the Fatimid da‘wa, Nasir’s missionary successes put his life into danger. Both the Sunni and the Twelver Shi‘i religious scholars (‘ulama), as well as the crowds of common people under their influence, threatened his life. We have no clear picture of how much or how frequent the persecution of Nasir Khusraw was, nor do we know what forms it took. But we do know that other Ismaili preachers were often put to death because of their work. So when public pressure against Nasir escalated even in his hometown of Balkh, he realised he had to flee. He found refuge further east, in a place called Yumgan, in the court of ‘Ali b. al-Asad, an intellectual Ismaili prince in the mountainous region of Badakhshan.
to one imprisoned deep in the valley of Yumgan,
Who sits huddled in comfortless tight straits,
robbed of all wealth, all goods, all hope.
One image in which our poet often found consolation was of a jewel in a mine. He sees himself as the one precious thing to be found in his entire surroundings. By extension, we are all jewels in the mine, buried beneath tons of muck and dirt, but surely there. No matter the external circumstances, no matter the physical conditions — and luxury and victory can be as deceptive as poverty and enslavement — each person is a work of God, a creation of intrinsic value. Each person contains a piece of eternity, a soul that is the true self. To find this essential self a person must work and dig. Without work, without sacrifice, without conscious effort, the jewel will not be found and will not shine. If the jewel does not shine it does not fulfil the purpose for which it was made. Intrinsic value must be brought into view.
The soul’s purpose is to move toward God. For Nasir Khusraw, the conscious effort to find and polish the jewel, that is, to purify the soul of its base bodily surroundings, can only take place when the intellect (Arabic, ‘aql, or Persian, khirad) leads the way. Since it is the defining characteristic of human beings, not found in any other of God’s creatures, the intellect is the tool for fulfilment in this world and salvation in the next. Through the intellect the human soul is able to learn the things it needs to learn in order to separate what is essential from what is not, the batin from the zahir, and thereby direct the person’s actions to achieve the finest pleasures possible.5
Nasir’s flight and exile provide the overt content of much of his later poetry. In his verses he allows full rein to his sense of separation and homesickness, pointing surely to one of the most compelling reasons for his enduring popularity, touching as he does upon universal feelings not only of loss and abandonment, but also of hope and confidence in the eventual triumph of good over evil. It is one of the ironies of oppression that the solution chosen to eliminate an enemy often guarantees that enemy’s enduring fame. In Nasir Khusraw’s case, no one knows the names of his oppressors, but his poems from exile, longing for his homeland, speak across the centuries to anyone whose world has been swept away by war, oppression or terror.
His answer was not, however, to fatalistically take refuge in the world’s pleasures, or to retire from the world and ignore its social and physical attractions, as many ascetics and some Sufis did, but rather to reject the primacy given to these pleasures by many people and warn all who would be seduced by them. Nasir Khusraw is no ascetic. He chooses as his place of exile a prince’s court, not a dervish’s hut. Nor does he remove himself from an active life in the world. From his exile in Yumgan, he pours out his writings, ‘a book a year,’6 continuing to see the education of others as his personal responsibility.
The account he did make, then, ought to be seen as a reserved response to exciting experiences. His serene, simple prose style, along with his gentle confessions of personal weaknesses, strike an authentic chord.
Unfortunately, the reports from Nasir Khusraw’s sympathetic and discerning eye, open to all architectural and administrative achievements, did not enjoy a wide readership in the Muslim world. Certainly the Safarnama suffered from being written in Persian in a culture where Arabic was still the lingua franca of the intelligentsia from all lands, but perhaps even more for describing the glories of Ismaili political success. When the Fatimid state splintered and finally fell in 567/1171, the Sunnis again took over the reins of government in Egypt. Deprived of political rule and subject to persecution, the Ismailis once again resorted to the practice of taqiyya, or concealing their faith, and advertisements of the glories that had been Fatimid Cairo such as Nasir Khusraw’s Safarnama were purposefully ignored.
Nasir Khusraw’s poetry is located in several works, the main corpus having been collected into his Divan,8 which now totals more than 15,000 lines. The poems in the Divan are primarily odes composed in qasida form, portraying lofty sentiments and thoughts in a formal and stately style. The qasida is characterised by a single rhyme carried throughout the whole poem. Each line (bayt) consists of two equal parts (misra). Besides the odes, the Divan also contains shorter poems and quatrains. The poems in the Divan have, so far, received two major treatments in English: forty poems were translated by P. L. Wilson and G. R. Aavani in 1977,9 and, more recently, Annemarie Schimmel has translated and discussed key themes in quite a number of selected verses.10
Nasir Khusraw also has two long free-standing poems, both of which were included in the 1925-28 edition of the Divan, even though there was some question of the authorship of one. The first, Rawshana’i-nama (The Book of Enlightenment) must be distinguished from his prose work of the same name — which surely marks Nasir Khusraw as the sole example of a Persian writer to have two different works, one in prose, the other in verse, bearing the same name. Fortunately, the prose work carries another name, Shish fasl (Six Chapters), and for the sake of clarity will be referred to here as such. The second long poem, Sa‘adat-nama (The Book of Happiness), has caused considerable debate for over a century. As it had been traditionally attributed to Nasir Khusraw, it was included in the 1925-28 edition of the Divan, even though one of the editors considered it spurious. Malik al-Shu‘ara states in his Sabk shinasi that it must have been composed by another person, a certain Nasir Khusraw-i Isfahani.11 G. M. Wickens translated the Sa‘adat-nama into English in 1955, without taking sides on its authorship. Given the doubts about its authorship, the present work makes no further reference to the Sa‘adat-nama.12
As the leader of the Ismaili da‘wa in Khurasan, Nasir Khusraw produced a number of prose works on Ismaili doctrine, all of them in the Persian language as far as we know. To date, six of these works have been edited from manuscripts and several have been translated, at least partially, into Western languages. The six edited works are Gushayish wa rahayish (Unfettering and Setting Free), Jami‘ al-hikmatayn (Uniting the Two Wisdoms), Khwan al-ikhwan (The Feast of the Brethren), Shish fasl (Six Chapters, i.e., the prose Rawshana’i-nama), Wajh-i din (The Face of Religion) and Zad al-musafirin (The Pilgrims’ Provisions). In addition to these, I. K. Poonawala has identified a number of manuscripts of other works by Nasir Khusraw, and Nasir himself refers to about ten other works, missing to this date.13
The Gushayish wa rahayish14 is arranged as a series of 30 questions and answers dealing with theological issues which range from the metaphysical (‘How can a non-body [such as God] create a body?’) to the soteriological (‘On the injustice of compelled acts and eternal punishment’). Most of the questions are concerned with the human soul, its relation to the world of nature, and its quest for salvation in the next world. They discuss whether the soul is a substance and whether it has been created, and how a person can know about God and His work. However interesting the questions, Nasir Khusraw’s answers always remain general and synoptic, presenting succinct versions of his understanding of Fatimid doctrine on each of the topics. The work stands as a catechism identifying the key theological questions of the Fatimid da‘wa and summarising its teaching on these issues.
In Jami‘ al-hikmatayn,15 Nasir Khusraw contributes to the larger medieval goal of combining the two ‘wisdoms’ of philosophy and religion, specifically Greek philosophy and Islam. Our author not only attempts to bridge the methodological gap between the two, namely philosophy’s method of arriving at knowledge through logical proofs and religion’s method of arriving at knowledge through revelation from God, but also to show that the two are in essence the same, that is, they lead to knowledge of the same truth. The catalyst for Nasir’s work was an Ismaili poem written by Abu’l-Haytham Jurjani a few decades earlier (in the 4th/10th century) which posed certain theological questions. This poem had come to the attention of the Ismaili prince of Badakhshan, ‘Ali b. al-Asad, Nasir’s protector. Curious, the prince asked him to respond to the questions, and the Jami’ al-hikmatayn was his voluminous answer.16 After establishing a theoretical foundation based on Aristotelian principles such as the different kinds of causes (including formal, efficient, final), Nasir Khusraw covers a wide range of topics, including proofs for the existence of the Creator, divine unity (tawhid), divine perfection, universal nature, the angels, paris and divs, genus and species, various types of eternity, the properties of the moon, creation, the difference between perception (mudrik) and understanding (idrak), the relation between body, soul and intellect, the concept of ‘I’ or self, and the influence of heavenly bodies on human beings and souls. In addition, he includes a section on the poem’s author and disparages theologians for destroying both religion and philosophy.
The third edited text, Khwan al-ikhwan,17 is divided into 100 chapters. These chapters cover such topics as resurrection; how an incorporeal soul will be punished or rewarded; the necessity for carrying out the requirements of the religious law shari‘a; the meaning of the word Allah; the different ranks of Intellect and Soul; the difference between soul and spirit; how the ‘many’ of the world come from ‘one’ command of creation; the superiority of spiritual power over physical power; that the declaration of faith (shahadat) is the key to heaven; the difference between the Qur’an and the word of the Prophet; and why two prophets could not function at the same time. Chronologically, we know that this is one of Nasir Khusraw’s later works since he refers in it to his Gushayish wa rahayish.18 The Khwan al-ikhwan is remarkably similar to the Kitab al-yanabi‘ written in Arabic by his fellow Persian Ismaili philosopher, Abu Ya‘qub al-Sijistani (d. after 361/971), a similarity which strongly suggests that Nasir may have merely translated his colleague’s work into Persian, at least in part.19 However, Nasir Khusraw’s work contains unique sections not found in al-Sijistani’s Arabic text and should therefore be studied as an independent text, for these sections may either represent lost parts of al-Sijistani’s work, a portion of another work by him, or original writing by Nasir Khusraw himself.
The fourth edited text, Shish fasl (the prose Rawshana’i-nama)20, presents a succinct version of the Fatimid Ismaili doctrine of creation, beginning with the concept of unity (tawhid), continuing through the succeeding Neoplatonic hypostases of Intellect, Soul and Nature, and ending with a discussion of human salvation and how it relates to the hypostases. However superficial this short treatment of these topics may appear, Shish fasl nevertheless serves a valuable purpose in laying out essential doctrines in compact form suitable for teaching purposes, a value visible in the work’s popularity even today. It points to the widespread appeal of these doctrines among many Ismailis and thus a continuity of belief stretching back 900 years.
In the Wajh-i din,21 Nasir Khusraw provides his most straightforward esoteric interpretation (ta’wil) of a variety of religious regulations and rituals, giving the inner (batin) meaning of certain externals (zahir) of religion. The book’s 51 sections include, for example, his ta’wil of certain verses from the Qur’an, the call to prayer, ablutions for prayer, the assigned times of prayer, the movements of praying, alms for the poor, the hajj (pilgrimage to the Ka‘ba in Mecca) and certain prescribed punishments. Following Ismaili hermeneutics, he shows the parallels between the structure of the physical world and that of the spiritual world, and between the human body and the human soul. As an example of the latter, he explains that since drinking wine corrupts the body and usury corrupts the soul, both are therefore prohibited by religious law. For Nasir Khusraw the rectitude of religious law is revealed in its balanced concern for a believer’s body as well as soul. The ‘face of religion’ can be seen as both that beautiful reality which needs to be veiled, as well as the superficial cover itself which hides the inner reality. By choosing this title, Nasir is also alluding to the verse in the Qur’an, ‘All things perish, except His face’ (28:88), meaning that when all superficialities are removed, only the reality of God remains.
In the last of his six works edited so far, the Zad al-musafirin,22 Nasir Khusraw covers a wide variety of physical and metaphysical topics such as simple matter, bodies, motion, time, place, creation, cause and effect, and reward and punishment. But in keeping with the title of the book, he devotes most of his discussion to the human soul, that is, the pilgrim soul travelling through this physical world to salvation in the spiritual world. He discusses the fundamental substance of soul and its essential activities. He devotes one entire chanter to how the soul is united with the body and another to explain why. In another chapter he describes how individuals emerge in the physical world and later are annihilated. One chapter treats the experience of pleasure and heaven. He refutes the doctrine of metempsychosis (tanasukh), the theory that souls reincarnate in different human bodies over time. He argues for the necessity for the reward of heaven and the punishment of hell, that is, the ultimate state of the soul. Throughout the text, Nasir asserts that the most important provisions which the pilgrim needs for this journey are knowledge and wisdom.