The Iran Society


Summary of a lecture given to the Society on 24 January 2001
By Alice C. Hunsberger


Last May, when I was in Tajikistan to give a paper on Nasir Khusraw, I came away with a story. Nasir Khusraw holds a special place in the hearts of the Tajiks, not only because they consider him a Tajik poet, since Tajik is the name of their language, which is really Persian. But also because he spent his last years there, in exile mostly in the eastern region called Badakhshan. Today, Badakhshan (which straddles both Tajikistan and Afghanistan and Pakistan) nearly completely professes the Ismaili faith, a fact the Badakhshanis reverentially attribute to Nasir Khusraw’s beautiful preaching and poetry.

The story is this. During Soviet times, when Tajikistan was one of the republics, an officer came from Moscow to Tajikistan to make an inspection. He was shown around the schools, hospitals, power plants and other places that would display progress in general. One of the things sagaciously pointed out were the soaring mountain peaks: Mount Lenin, Mount Communism, Mount Fifth of May, and so on. This fellow from Moscow, who was not only sensitive but informed of local enthusiasms, said, “Aren’t you upset that there is no Mount Nasir Khusraw?” To which his Tajik host replied, “There is no mountain high enough.”

Farid al-din Attar, the Persian mystic poet, writing a century and a half after Nasir Khusraw, penned some verses, according to one apocryphal source, to explain why he was sitting in seclusion in Mecca. According to this text (Lisan al-Ghayb), ascribed wishfully and indeed successfully for centuries to Attar, Attar wrote a six-line poem entitled, “The Tale of Nasir Khusraw and His Seclusion” (Hekayat-e Nasir Khusraw va ghorbat-e u).

The pseudo-Attar writes:

The cry of Nasir Khusraw when he dwelt in Yumgan,
Arched even past heaven’s nine-storied vault,
A little corner he took to hide himself away
Hearing the Prophet himself had named that very spot,
Not a man to enter into the fighting fields of dogs,
Like a Ruby in Badakhshan he hid himself away

Mid the hidden hearts of mountain he chose the corner of Yumgan,
So as not to have to look upon the horrid faces of his foes,
Now I, too, like that great Prince have found a little corner for myself,
Since in the search for deeper meaning
He provided the provisions.

Even though the source is suspect, I include this poem here because it gives a glimpse of the high regard Nasir Khusraw has been held in, and the company he has been assumed to keep. To have it long accepted that the great Attar would have proudly modelled his behaviour on the values and actions of Nasir Khusraw points to the spiritual pinnacle he was imagined, by the Persian reading public, to inhabit.

Born in the year 1004 AD/394 AH, 150 years before Attar, Nasir Khusraw died around 1077. Proud to claim he hailed from Khorasan, his name also specifies his main towns as Marv and Qobadiyan. Nasir Khusraw served in the courts of the Saljuqs, a Turkic dynasty which destroyed the Ghaznavids. For Nasir, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni stands as the prime example of a worldly leader unworthy to be the subject of praise by the high art of poetry. In one brilliant poem, he derides the other court poets for having sung Mahmud’s praises with cries that he would live “a thousand years more.” Nasir Khusraw often complains in his poems of the loss of Iranian lands to Turks:

The house of Qarun has now made all Khurasan
A model for the world entire of how sinister fate unfolds.
Their slaves at one time were the Turks,
But sometimes things turn this way and that,
And now they themselves are slaves of Turks.
Of his life, we can identify four general parts. We know he was born into a family of government administrators; in his Safarnama, he describes how he and two of his brothers are employed by the court, he himself in some financial capacity. Elite and well-educated, he knows Persian and Arabic and their literatures, as well as science, mathematics, and the debates of philosophy and theology of his day.

He is also a spiritual man. He tells us, again in his Safarnama, how on a business trip he went off to pray while his companions entertained themselves with reciting poetry. In the longest poem in his Divan, he writes how he inquired of scholars of all faiths to see which one was best. Many of his concerns are based on justice. In the poem, he asks, If those who pledged their allegiance to Muhammad are assured a place in heaven, what is the justice for those who live at a later time, to whom should they stretch out their hand?

For Nasir Khusraw, the answer came from the Ismaili faith, one of the branches of Shi’i Islam. One of the primary tenets of Shi’ism is that God would not leave the world without an Imam to interpret the scriptures brought by the Prophet. Twelver Shi’ism holds that the twelfth is now ‘in occultation’, reigning eternally over the world until the end of time. Ismaili Shi’is hold the same basic principle – that there must be someone to explain God’s revelations, but hold also that the Imam must always be “living” and present for the community (not in occultation).

The second stage of Nasir Khusraw’s life began when he converted  to the Ismaili faith and set off on what would become a seven-year journey which took him from Khurasan, across the north of Iran, to Jerusalem, Cairo, Mecca and back home through Iran. More than two hundred years before Marco Polo, Nasir Khusraw left a record of his magnificent journey, during which he lived three years in the Fatimid court of the Ismaili caliph in Cairo.

In Cairo, he also occupied a high position at Court, and when he left, he returned home to Khurasan as the head preacher or missionary for the Ismailis in the region. This third part of his life is the most shrouded in mystery. We do not have exact dates of where he went and when. But we can gather that he was extremely successful in his mission, so much so that he attracted the ire of leaders of the other schools of Islam. Eventually, the crowds attacked his house in Balkh and he fled eastward and found refuge in the town of Yumgan, where he lived out his days spreading the word under the protection of a prince who had accepted the Ismaili faith.

Thus begins the fourth stage of his life, his exile in Yumgan, which he laments frequently in his poems:

Pass by, sweet breeze of Khurasan
To one imprisoned deep in the valley of Yumgan,
Who sits huddled in comfortless tight straits,
Robbed of all wealth, all goods, all hope.
But watch how he shifts the balance and finds solace in his distant solitude:
You ask me, ‘If you are so intelligent and of high birth,
Why are you sitting here in Yumgan, alone and lowly?’
Under God’s protection I am here in Yumgan.
Look closely, and consider me not a prisoner.
No one says that silver or diamonds or rubies
Are prisoners in the rocks or lowly.
Even though Yumgan itself is lowly and worthless,
Here I am greatly valued and honoured.
Nasir Khusraw’s poetry covers more emotions than such personal sadness. A wise observer of the ways of the world, he also brings strong feelings to what he sees. One consistent theme is his scorn for hypocritical religious leaders:
From pulpit-tops they preach to the common folk,
Dazzling them about paradise and the food to be had there.
They crow and cry in hope of food;
Asses always bray when you speak of barley.
By day you fast and moan and finger your rosary,
By night you’re enjoying music and wine.
You’ve memorized the texts of deception quite smoothly,
So now you’re grand mufti of Balkh, Nishapur and Herat.
One of the most-repeated themes in his poetical corpus is that of rationality, specifically the application of reason, to one’s life and one’s faith. We do not find the word ‘love’ in Nasir Khusraw’s poetry, but rather intellect and reason. For him, reason is the proper gift from God to man, distinguishing him from both the angels and the animals, and it is a duty to apply rational thinking to all aspects of life, including religion.
The world is a deep ocean, its water is time;
Your body is like a shell, your soul the pearl.
If you wish to have the value of a pearl,
Raise up the pearl of your soul by learning.
What did God give us alone of all the other creatures?
The intellect, by which we lord o’er all the beasts.
But note, that virtue and intellect which makes us lords of donkeys,
Are the very same trait which binds us as slaves of the Lord
With intellect, we can seek out all the hows and whys,
Without it, we are but trees without fruit.
But for Nasir Khusraw, it is not sufficient to have knowledge. For him that is only half of the solution. Knowledge must be followed by action. The simple amassing of facts is useless. Knowledge should be shared and made part of one’s life. Alternatively, merely following the dictates of faith without understanding their inner, batin, meaning is equally invalid, for him. Religious acts must be informed with deep understanding.
If you wish to dwell in the meadow of mercy and blessing,
Graze on knowledge and action today.
Moisten the seed of action with knowledge,
For the seed will not grow without moisture.
Nasir Khusraw is a rich mine for study, whether casually dipping into him from time to time or for deep analytical study. From the heights of poetic excellence and expression, rigour and potent meaning to the depths of philosophical analysis and to the core of a spiritual person wrestling with the historical particularities of his time, the figure of Nasir Khusraw stands strong, one worthy to live a thousand years more.