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Chiragh-I-Rawshan - An Ismaili Tradition in Central Asia

Publication Type  Article
Year of Publication  In Press
Authors  Tajddin Sadiq Ali, Mumtaz-Ali
Key Words  English; Full Text Online

It is one of the oldest surviving Ismaili traditions in the regions of the Central Asia. It is an assembly (majalis) of the believers, where a lamp is illumined, which is its hallmark, and the Koranic verses are chanted for the eternal peace of the departed soul, or for the prosperity of one who is alive.

Chiragh-I-Rawshan - An Ismaili Tradition in Central Asia

word chiragh is derived from the Syriac shrag or shragh,
meaning lamp, and Chiragh-i Rawshan means shining or luminous
which is one of the oldest surviving Ismaili traditions in the
regions of the Central Asia. It is an assembly (majalis) of the
believers, where a lamp is illumined, which is its hallmark, and the Koranic
verses are chanted for the eternal peace of the departed soul, or for the
prosperity of one who is alive.


appears in the Northern Area of Pakistan that a white cloth is spread on the
ground and a lamp (chiragh) is burned in the middle. No other light is
allowed to be kept or used as long as this lamp remains burning. The Koranic
verses and other religious formula are recited while preparing the wicks of the
lamp and inserting the oil made of the fat of sacrificial animal. With loud
chanting of salwat, the qadi stands in front of the khalifa
(headman) and places the lamp down again three times. It exhorts the Oneness of
Divine Light in the universe, but has three relations: the relation to God, the
Prophet and the Imam of the age. When the lamp is kindled, the believers deduce
that the Imam is the bearer of the living Light of God on earth. It is also
known from the rites of Afghanistan and other regions of Central Asia that a
piece of salt is put into the pan of the grained wheat (dalda), in which
a knife is kept. Then, a certain amount of cotton is put into a pot. Someone
picks up the pan in recitation of the salwat and presents to the
khalifa. The participants stand up in reverence and the khalifa raises his
hands and invokes a prayer of twenty-seven verses. The proceeding is followed
by the sacrifice of a sheep, which is called dawati. It should not be
lean or skinny. It should be fatty, so that the lamp may be burned from the oil
of its fat, called rogan-e-zard. The sheep is thoroughly washed. Then,
the khalifa picks up the piece of salt with his left hand and smashes into
small pieces with the knife holding in his right hand. He relieves the knife
and takes salts and three pieces from the grained wheat and puts on the palm of
his right hand, mixing them and passes on to his assistant, who gets the sheep
to eat the mixture. The khalifa utters the takbir and his assistant
facing towards the qibla, slaughters the sheep. It follows the rite of
cotton-making (kar pakhta). The khalifa picks up the cotton and gets it
touched to his forehead and prepares a long wick (fatila) for the lamp
amidst the chanting of the verses of Chirag-nama. This long wick is
folded and the khalifa holds its circle in his finger, who cuts it into
respectable pieces. Then, the ghee (rogan-e-zard) is poured into a bowl
(chinni). The khalifa puts some ghee in the lamp (kandil), then
he drenches all the wicks in the bowl. His assistant takes out the wicks and
squeezes to make them ready for burning. Then, the wick is inserted in the lamp
and lightened. It is placed in the lantern, which is usually made of a special
stone (sang-i sanglej), looking like a ship. The lamp is gray in colour.


Bertels writes in Nasir-i- Khosrove-i Ismailizm (Moscow, 1959) that it
originated in Badakhshan, whose inhabitants were the fire-worshippers and brought
it in the Ismaili fold, which seems absolutely incorrect. The oral tradition
attributes its introduction by Nasir Khusrao (d. 481/1088) during operation of
his proselytizing mission in Badakhshan, but  it also cannot be
ascertained. Nasir Khusrao used to arrange the assemblies (majalis) in
the villages, known as majalis-i dawat. It is however gleaned from
different views that the majalis-i dawat later took the present form of majalis-i
chiragh-i rawshan.


word chiragh, dipak, kandil, fanus, siraj or misbah are common
terms for the lamp. In Greek, it is called lampas (torch), in German lampein
(to shine), in Roman liex or luc (light) and in French lampe or
lampas. The lamp was invented in Stone Age about 70,000 B.C., which was
a hollow-out rock filled with fat. It was followed by an invention of a pottery
lamp, in which oil was burned in Mediterrean regions. Example from about 2000
B.C. have come from Greek rock tombs in Palestine. Sometimes shaped as bird or
fish, and it spread in Iran, Africa, Asia and Rome. No lamp was prevalent in
Greece till 7th century B.C. The oldest lamp is a shallow stone
basin discovered from French Paleotilic. The Hebrew word lappidh also
means lamp, and its description is found in the Old Testament: “God commanded
that a lamp filled with the purest oil of olives should always burn in
Tabernacle of the Testimony without the veil” (Exod. 27:20). The Arabic word misbah
(pl. masabih) means lamp, occurring three times in the Koran,
once in singular (24:35) and twice in plural (41:12, 67:5). Another word for
the lamp is siraj (pl. surujun), occurring four times in the
Koran (25:61, 33:46, 71:16 and 78:13). The light of the Prophet is also
compared to a luminous lamp (siraj’i munir) in the Koran (33:46). It
infers from the Diwan (Cairo, 1933, 1:44) of Ibn Hani (d. 362/973) that
each Fatimid Imam was considered to be an emanation of the Divine Light, and
numerous epithets described his brilliance and luminousness: al-agharr,
al-azhar, al-mutalliq, al-mutadaffiq, al-mutaballij
or al-wadda. As
the construction of Cairo continued, new mosques would come to be known by
names evoking this special quality associated with the Imam: al-Azhar,
or al-Aqmar.


the migration of the Prophet in Medina, the first thing to be done was to build
a cathedral mosque. It was constructed on a plot, measuring 54 yards width and
60 yards in length, known as the Prophet’s Mosque (Masjid-i-Nawi). It is
said that the palm-leaves (sa’af al-nakhl) were burnt for lightening the
interior of the mosque. Qurtubi (d. 671/1272) writes in al-Ta’rif fil Ansab
(Cairo, 1987, p. 252) that a Syrian merchant, called Tamim al-Dhari (d. 40/660)
brought a lamp (kandil) with oil and wick from his native Syria to
Medina and donated for the mosque. His lightening of a lamp in the mosque was
an important social event, which was not only approved but also recommended by
the Prophet who, gave him a nickname of Siraj (lamp). Thus, the use of
lamps at night in mosque became a universal practice among Muslims. The Prophet
is said to have permitted a woman, Maymuna to send oil in Jerusalem sanctuary (bayt
) in order to light the lamps (Abu Daud, 1:48).


was a custom of Ali bin Abu Talib to cause his friends to meet him in his house
in Kufa and lit a lamp in their midst. Nasir Khusaro reported in his Safarnama
(tr. W.M. Thackston, New York, 1986, pp. 55-58) a widespread use of lamps, made
of brass and silver in the holy places of Hebron, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. He
further noted that the lamp oil, called zayt harr was derived from
turnip seed and radish seed. He also wrote that in the mosque of Cairo, there
was a huge silver lampholder or chandelier with sixteen branches, each of which
was 1½ cubits long. Its circumference was 24 cubits, and it could hold as many as
seven hundred odd lamps on holiday evenings. The weight is said to be 25
kantars of silver, a kantar being 100 rotls, a rotl being 144 silver dhirams.
More than a hundred lamps were kindled in the mosque of Cairo every night. On
the north side of the mosque was a bazar Suq al-Kandil (lamp market).


Imam Muhammad al-Bakir died in 114/733, his son Imam Jafar Sadik ordered to lit
a lamp in the house (al-Kafi, 3: 25). The tradition also indicates that
a lamp was also kindled in the house when Imam Jafar Sadik died in 148/765. It
is probable that the adherents would have started the practice in their


is yet indeterminable point, how and when this obscure rite entered into the
Ismaili tradition?


India, the three centuries of Muslim rule (603-933/1206-1526), generally known
as the Sultanate period, witnessed the rise and fall of five dynasties: the
Slave (603-690/1206-1290), the Khaljis (690-720/1290-1320), the Tughlaqs
(720-816/1320-1413), the Sayeds (816-855/1414-1451) and the Lodis (855-933/1451-1526).
Then, the Mughal empire was founded in 933/1526. Qutbuddin Aibak (d. 607/1210)
was the first Turkish king of the Slave dynasty in India, whose armies had
evolved and developed in Persian lands, and consequently the Pesian stamp was
very deep upon them. The armies were modelled on the armies of the Persia with
the same arms, equipment and tactics. The slaves of the imperial household
maintained the Persian tradition in Delhi. These Turks, in their social life
also followed the Persian customs, etiquettes and ceremonials. The old Persian
customs of zamindos (ground kissing) was also introduced. India
specially provided benign climate to the festival of Shab-i Barat, which was
festivated for four days.


Barat (night of quittancy) is a popular fete among the general
Muslims, which takes place on the 14th of the month of Sha’ban. Its
native land is Iran, and the Slave dynasty brought and spread it in Indian
soil, where the people very rapidly found it coherence in their own tradition.
On this day, the people assemble and make offerings of bread, sweet rice, halwa
and flasks of water and offer prayers and intercessions for the departed souls.
According to Muslim Festivals in India (Paris, 1831,  tr. W.
Waseem, New Delhi, 1995, pp. 76-77) that the people kindle lamp (chiragh)
and recite the following prayer, known as the Fatiha Chiraghan:


“O God, through the merit
of the light of the apostolate, our Lord Muhammad, may the lamp that we burn on
this holy night, be for the dead a guarantee of the eternal light which we pray
to you for. O God of ours! Deign to admit them in the room of unchanging


expressed the above intention, they recite the first and the 102nd
chapters of the Koran. This ceremony lasts for three days. There was a popular
custom also to send lamps to the mosque, vide I’jaz-i Khusaro (Lucknow,
1876, 4:324) by Amir Khusaro (d. 820/1325).


festival of Shab-i Barat fostered and dressed in Iran, and then introduced in
Afghanistan and India also under the name of Fatiha Chiraghan during the
12th century, and it is possible that the Ismailis of Afghanistan
had certain proctivity towards it. Thanks to an oral tradition in this context
shrouded in mist for centuries in Tajikistan, which is a key to solve the
complications hitherto remained unsolved. The tradition has it that an Ismaili,
called Taj Mughal (d. 725/1325) of Badakhshan was deadly against the festival
of Shab-i Barat. Instead, he transformed the local traditional assembly, called
majalis-i dawat into a specific rite in the house, where a death took
place. In the midst, a lamp was kindled and the Koranic verses and the qasida
of Nasir Khusaro were recited. This was an original form of the presently known
ceremony of chiragh-i rawshan. The selected qasida were reserved
for it, whose collection later became known as the Chirag-nama, which is
traditional more and historical less. We should however not ignore that the
thought of majalis-i dawat was originally propounded by Nasir Khusaro
about two hundred years before the advent of Taj Mughal.


Mughal was an origin of Badakhshan, where he had given shelter to Shah Ra’is
Khan of Trakhan dynasty of Gilgit and Hunza. Shah Ra’is Khan embraced Ismailism
and married to the daughter of Taj Mughal. After some years he persuaded Taj
Mughal to occupy Gilgit. Thus, he mustered a sizable force and conquered
Chitral at first, then Yasin, Koh Ghizr and Puniyal were subdued. He entered
Gilgit, ruled by Torra Khan (d. 735/1335), who submitted and accepted Ismaili
faith. Shah Ra’is Khan became the ruler of Chitral, where he founded the
Ra’isia dynasty and promulgated Ismailism. It was at this time that the Ismaili
faith penetrated in Gilgit, Hunza and Chitral with the indescribable efforts of
Taj Mughal. He is said to have proceeded to Sikiang through Pamir. The
historians have described an extensive territory under his domination. On the
north greater part of Turkistan, on the west the whole area including the city
of Herat, and on the south-east right upto the border of Chitral. It implies
that when the rite of chiragh-i rawshan was in its formative stage, Taj
Mughal spread it in most parts of the Central Asia. The veracity of this
tradition however cannot be substantiated from the extant sources,
nevertheless, it cannot be brushed aside as untrue. Whether historically true
or not, the above tradition embodies certain grains of truth.


the course of its evolution, the ceremony was reserved for a long time only for
the dead person, and was performed not on the night of 14th Sha’ban.
It is also likelihood that the reason for giving it the ceremonial name of chiragh-i
  was to distinguish it with the rite of the Shab-i Barat,
known as the fatiha chiraghan.


chiragh-i rawshan was not emanated from Shab-i Barat, but exercised a
safeguard against it. Neither the fireworks are conducted, nor the graves are
venerated, and also no specific time is fixed for it. Later, it was divided in
four different assemblies (majalis), namely dawat-i fana, dawat-i
baqa, dawat-i safa
and dawat-i raza. The last two majalis are
now not prevalent.



dawat-i fana


almost resembles the practice of the ruhani majalis prevalent in the Indian
tradition. When one dies, his family members and relatives assemble in his
house for three days, known as the dawat-i fana. His family  does
not cook food for three days, but only a lamp is kindled. Major J. Biddulph
writes in Tribes of the Hindoo Koosh (Karachi, 1977, p. 123) that, “On
the evening of the appointed day, a caliph comes to the house, and food is
cooked and offered to him. He eats a mouthful and places a piece of bread in
the mouth of the dead man’s heir, after which the rest of the family partake.
The lamp is then lighted, from which the ceremony is called “Chirag Roshan,”
and a six-stringed guitar called gherba being produced, singing is kept
up for the whole night.”


dawat-i fana exhorts that when a believer dies, it is his physical death
not spiritual. His soul quits the earthy body and assumes celestial body (jism-i
). He was a dark himself on earth, but now he becomes light. The
brightness is thus eluded symbolically in the lamp. There is a separation among
bodies, but not in the light. There is nothing except union in the light after
death. It emanates in another interpretation that the fire denotes ardent love
and its light is the knowledge, therefore, unless a believer burns in the fire
of love with Imam, the light of knowledge is not sparked in his heart. It will
be interesting to note that Missionary Muhammad Murad Ali Juma (1878-1966),
known as Bapu died in Bombay on February 4, 1966. In his message of February
14, 1966, the Imam said: “I grieved greatly the loss of one of my most devoted
spiritual children. His services were above reproach and he was a Candle of
and example to my jamats.”



dawat-i baqa


chiragh-i rawshan is also solemnized for the longevity, prosperity and
blessing of a person who is alive, known as dawat-i baqa. It also
corresponds with the Indian tradition of the hayati majalis. It also
exhorts that the Imam is an Everlasting Guide and Epiphany (mazhar) of
God on earth. The believers must kindle the lamp of Divine Light in their
hearts. Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah also said, “The lamp of the Divine Light
exists in you and your hands. This is spoken metaphorically. This lamp always
exists in you all” (Zanzibar, 13/9/1899).


assembly’s purpose is also to reflect upon the unique wisdom of the ayat
(the lamp verse) of the Koran (24:35), in which God has compared
His Light with a lamp. On that occasion, the person seeks forgiveness of
his sins, and resolves to lead a virtuous life.


tradition of chiragh-i rawshan deeply influenced the religious and
social life of the Ismailis. It executed an ideal platform of the Ismailis for
centuries, who were scattered in different villages of Afghanistan, Tajikistan,
Northern Areas of Pakistan and other regions of Central Asia. It reflects an
illustration of impermeable unity of the Ismailis in past. 


is said that an Ismaili dai of Badakhshan, called Sayed Yakut Shah visited Iran
in 1253/1837 to see Imam Hasan Ali Shah in Mahallat. The Imam is reported to have
accorded him permission to launch proselytizing mission in Gilgit and Hunza,
including retention of the tradition of chiragh-i rawshan.


Sabzali (1884-1938) had been in Badakhshan during his travel in Central Asia in
1923. He participated the majalis-i chiragh-i rawshan in a
village, and seriously noted the defective content of the Chirag-nama being
recited in its rites. He pointed out and promised to provide them its approved
copy from the Recreation Club Institute. Later, a good copy was sent in 1924
from Bombay.


is still practised with same spirit, vein and devotion. Muhammad Jamal Khan
(1912-1976), the Mir of Hunza had written a letter to the Imam on September 4,
1965 regarding the fate of chiragh-i rawshan. In his reply of September
30, 1965, the Imam declined the request submitted to abandon the tradition of chiragh-i

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