A Brief Note on the Life of Nasir-i Khusrau
Copyright, Iraj Bashiri 2004
Hakim Abu Mo’in al-Din, Nasir-i Khusrau al-Qubadiani al-Balkhi al-Marvazi, also referred to as al-Hujjat (Proof), was born in July 1003-4 in Qubadian of Balkh. He died in Yumgan, a principality of Badakhshan in 1088. Nasir-i Khusrau grew up in Qubadian in a relatively wealthy scholarly Shi’ite family. His father was a landowner and a government employee. Nasir-i Khusrau received his early education in Qubadian and went on to Balkh and Merv for further study. His education consisted of the Arabic language, especially Arabic syntax, and the study of the Qur’an. He could recite the Qur’an from memory. He was also fond of Arabic and Persian literatures, as well as Greek philosophy. Additionally, he studied algebra, geometry, poetics, astronomy, medicine, jurisprudence, theology, and music. In religion, in addition to Islamic theology, he studied Manicheism and Hinduism. His poetry reflects the depth of his knowledge of these fields.
As a youth, Nasir-i Khusrau spent a considerable amount of his time in Balkh, especially at the winter quarters of the Ghaznavid sultans, Mahmud (d. 1030) and later his son Mas'ud (d. 1041). According to his own Safarnameh (book of travels), in his early forties, he was a secretary and tax collector for the Ghaznavids and the Seljuqs of Khurasan. He also served both courts as a poet and participated in the celebrations at court. His job as tax collector familiarized Nasir-i Khusrau with the tyranny of the Seljuqs and prompted him to seek a solution to not only his own problems but also those of the poor peasants of the region.
In 1045, while he was living in Juzjan, Nasir-i Khusrau had a dream which caused him to resign his position and, accompanied by his younger brother, Abu Sa’id, and a Hindu slave, he set off for the Hijaz in search of Truth. He intended to observe life in far-off places, assess other peoples’ beliefs, and choose a creed for himself. His travels (1045-1052), which lasted nearly seven years, took him to Afghanistan, Sughdia, Iran (Nishapour, Semnan, Ray, Qazwin), Azerbaijan, Armenia, Anatolia, Aleppo, Syria, Palestine, Arabia, and Jerusalem. From Jerusalem he went to Egypt where he stayed for three years (1047-1050). At the end of his travels, he returned to Balkh with a mandate from the Imam of the Isma’ilites to attract the Muslims of Khurasan to the Isma’ili creed.
The events that led to Nasir-i Khusrau’s life-long commitment to Isma’ilism are the following. Cairo impressed Nasir-I khusrau tremendously, especially the administration of the Fatimid Caliph al-Mustansir Billah. There he was exposed to Isma’ili thought and joined the order being promoted by the Fatemid rulers of Egypt. The Fatemids claimed to direct descent from the Prophet of Islam through the line of al-Hussein, the son of Ali and Fatimah, the daughter of the Prophet. Once he was distinguished as an accomplished scholar in both Persian and Arabic literature as well as Greek thought, he was promoted to the rank of da’i. When the time came for him to leave Egypt (1053), he was promoted once again, this time to the rank of Hujjat. The territories that the Fatemids controlled or planned to bring into their control were divided into twelve jazirahs or islands. Khurasan was one of those “islands.” The Fatemid Imam Abu Tamim Ma’d ibn Ali al-Mustansir bi-Allah appointed Nasir-i Khusrau the Hujjat for Khurasan. He was to propagate the Isma’ili doctrine among the Muslims of his homeland. Nasir-i Khusrau was fifty years old at the time.
Nasir-i Khusrau did not hide either his rank as a Hujjat, his closeness to the Fatemid Caliph, or indeed, his intention of propagating the Isma’ili da’wa. Rather he entered into enthusiastic debates with not only the scholars in Khurasan but also with Seljuq officials and nobles, some of them ardent supporters of the Sunni faith. Predictably, Nasir-i Khusrau's activities created heated debates, arguments and conflict in the Islamic world in general and in the Seljuq realm in particular. Nasir-i Khusrau’s open criticism of the amirs and wazirs of the Seljuqs, on the one hand, and his open call to all to join the Isma’ili faith, on the other hand, infuriated the Caliph in Baghdad. It also incensed the Sunni faithful, the ulema, and the government. In fact, the ulema issued a fatwa for his death.
All these oppositions together made residence in Khurasan untenable, if not outright very dangerous, for Nasir-i Khusrau. Unable to protect himself against all eventualities, he fled to Mazandaran and Tabaristan. He hoped that the Shi’ite Ispahbads would support and hide him. But the officials of the Seljuq court sought him out; he was forced to flee again and again. Nearly a decade after his return to Balkh, he fled to Yumgan, a far-off valley in the Badakhshan highlands. The governor of Yumgan, Ali ibn Asad, welcomed Nasir-i Khusrau and accepted the Isma'ili faith. The bond of friendship that developed between the two lasted for the rest of their lives.
Nasir-i Khusrau spent the last twenty-five years of his life in Yumgan, free from both the tyranny of the Seljuq rulers and the interference of the Sunni ulema in his affairs. From Yumgan, he dispatched epistles far and wide, creating a network of Isma’ili communities throughout the region. He also wrote. In fact, most of his major works, especially those related to the Isma'ili da'wa, were written during this time. Many of them testify to the harsh circumstances under which he had to live. Rather than a bitter or broken man, however, his writings reflect the attitude of a stoic upholder of his faith.
Nasir-i Khusrau was an Isma’ili in word and deed. After returning from Egypt, he gave up all his worldly possessions and lived like a monk. He did not drink alcoholic beverages and spent most of his time in study and prayer. He followed the shari’a so closely that often he avoided consuming what is permitted, lest there be some question regarding his choice.
His religious tendencies aside, Nasir-i Khusrau was one of the most famous poets, philosophers, and travelers of his time. Even those who did not like his adherence to the Isma’ili sect, respected his erudition and piety. He was also quite aware of his own strength of character and the lofty status that he held among his peers.
Nasir-i Khusrau was a disciplined individual. When he accepted to lead the Isma’ili faction in Khurasan, he accepted the difficulties that the task entailed. He was also a moralist and wrote on philosophical and didactic themes.
Nasir-i Khusrau’s works include both poetry and prose. His style is simple and direct. His Safarnameh, a record of his observations in Mecca and Egypt, is at once aesthetically pleasing and overwhelmingly informative. He was the first poet to renounce the composition of panegyrics. His qasidas express moralistic and mystical thoughts.
Safarnameh (book of travels): a compilation in simple prose detailing the travels of the poet.
Zad al-Musaferin (Pilgrims's Provision): written in 1062 deals with the scholar's philosophical and theological investigations.
Vajhi Din (Path of Faith): contains Nasir-i Khusrau's Isma'ili thoughts.
Gushaish va Rahaish (Unfettered and Free): contains the scholar's philosophical thoughts.
Jami' al-Hikmatain (Compendium of Two Truths): compares Isma'ili doctrine with Greek thought. In the process, it reconciles reason and revelation, explores man’s nature, and distinguishes the inner drives that give vent to benevolence and evil.
Nasir-i Khusrau’s other contributions include the prose work Khan ul-Ikhvan and two divans. His Arabic divan, which is lost and his Persian divan, which contains the Roshanai Nameh (Book of Light), a moralizing sequence in rhyming couplets) and the Sa'adatnameh (Book of Felicity), which has been reproduced a number of times.
Reproach Not the Firmament!
By Nasir-i Khusrau
by Iraj Bashiri
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Reproach not the Firmament deep and blue,
Your own stubborn nature provides the clue.
Neither expect the Firmament to bring joy,
When your own star you knowingly destroy.
Fruitless trees can, at best, fuel the fire,
Fruitless men, alike, to oblivion retire.
Forget about fragrant tresses and lips so sweet,
Or about the hedges and the tulip cheeks you greet.
Don't lavish praise on filthy creatures,
That dastardly deeds are their only features.
Adore not with verse the Lie or the Greed,
Smite them down, the infidels’ most cherished creed.
Be not Unsuri who groveling worshiped Mahmud,
Lavished on him all flattery and piety he could.
I pledge never to sprinkle before the swine,
The precious, peerless Dari pearls that are mine.
pilgrims came with reverence,
grateful for the mercy of God the Merciful,
came to Mecca from 'Arafat
crying the pilgrim Labbaika of reverence.
Weary of the toil and trial of Hejaz,
delivered out of hell and dire chastisement,
pilgrimage accomplished, visitation done
back they returned home, safe and sound.
I went out awhile to welcome them,
thrusting my foot outside my blanket.
In the midst of the caravan there came
a friend of mine, true and well-beloved.
I said to him, 'Tell me how you escaped
out of this journey of anguish and fear.
When I remained behind from you so long
repining was always the companion of my thoughts.
I am happy, now you have made the pilgrimage;
there is none like you in all this region.
Tell me now, after what manner did you
hallow that most holy sanctuary?
When you resolved to put on pilgrim garb
with what intention did you robe yourself?
Had you forbidden to yourself all things
save only one, the Almighty Maker?'
'No,' he replied. I said, 'Did you cry
Labbaika knowingly and with reverence?
Did you hear the summoning voice of God
and so answer as did Moses before you?'
'No,' he replied. I said, 'When on 'Arafat
you stood, and made offering unto God,
did you know God, and unknow yourself?
Did the breeze of gnosis then blow on you?'
'No,' he replied. I said, 'When you went
into the Sanctuary, like the men of the Cave,
were you secure from your own soul's evil,
the pangs of burning, the anguish of Hell?'
'No,' he replied. I said, 'When you cast
your handful of stones at the accursed Satan,
did you then cast utterly from yourself
all evil habits and blameworthy acts?'
'No,' he replied. I said, 'When you slew
the sheep for the sake of captive and orphan,
did you first see God near, and slay
in sacrifice your mean and worthless soul?'
'No,' he replied. I said, 'When you stood
high on the hill where Abraham once prayed,
did you then truly in faith sure and certain
surrender to God your most inward self?'
'No,' he replied. I said, 'When you circled
the Holy House, running like an ostrich,
did you remember the holy angels
all circling about the mighty Throne of God?'
'No,' he replied. I said, 'When you hastened
from Safa to Marwa, hurrying to and fro,
did you see in your soul's glass all creation,
was your heart heedless of Hell and Heaven?'
'No,' he replied. I said, 'When you returned,
your heart torn at forsaking the Kaaba,
did you then commit your self to the tomb,
are you now as if already your bones crumbled?'
'Of all whereon you have spoken,' he answered,
'I knew nothing, whether well or ill.'
'Then, friend,' I said, 'you have made no pilgrimage;
you did not dwell in the station of effacement.
You went; you saw Mecca; you returned,
purchasing for much silver the toil of the desert.
If hereafter you would be pilgrim again,
let it be so as I have now taught you.'
Bear A Word
By Nasir-i Khusrau
by E. G. Browne
Bear from me to Khurasan, Zephyr, a kindly word,
To its scholars and men of learning, not to the witless herd,
And having faithfully carried the message I bid thee bear,
Bring me news of their doings, and tell me how they fare.
I, who was once as the cypress, now upon fortune's wheel
Am broken and bent, you may tell them; for thus doth fortune deal.
Let not her specious promise you to destruction lure:
Ne'er was her covenant faithful; ne'er was her pact secure.
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