In 1090, Hasan-i Sabbah acquired the fortress of Alamut in northern Iran, marking the founding of what was to become the seat of the Nizari Ismaili state. Over the next 150 years, the Ismailis acquired more than 200 fortresses in Iran and Syria, located in the inaccessible mountainous regions for refuge of the Nizari Ismailis as well as others fleeing persecution during the early Middle Ages. The state fell to the Mongols in 1256.
Photo of Alamut by Lawrence Lockhart (1890-1928) who trekked through the area in 1928. The Ismailis An Illustrated History.
The first five centuries after the fall of Alamut comprise the most obscure phase in Nizari Ismaili history. The Ismaili communities scattered over a wide region from Syria and Persia, Central and South Asia, developing locally and in isolation from one another. For at least two centuries, the communities did not have direct access to the Imams, who were living discreetly in various parts of Persia; they were accessible through a few of the trusted da’is.
In order to avoid persecution, the Ismailis as well as the Imams sought refuge under the mantle of Sufism which was spreading in Persia, appearing as a Sufi tariqa, using the master-disciple (murshid-murid) terminology of the Sufis. At the same time, Sufis used batini ta’wil or esoteric interpretation and teachings widely ascribed to the Ismailis.
From the Arabic suf meaning ‘wool’ perhaps referring to the woollen garments worn by early mystics, Sufism developed as a reaction against the worldliness of the early Umayyad period (661-749), stressing contemplation and spiritual development. Sufism aimed the individual to gain a deep knowledge of God, therefore, seekers had to embrace a path of devotion and prayer that would lead to a spiritual awakening. Thus, the sharia has a counterpart, the tariqa (‘way’), the journey undertaken by the Sufi in the quest for knowledge of God.
Jamal notes that there are several possible reasons for the rise of Sufism including “the capacity of Sufis for transcending sectarian differences by accommodating a wide variety of beliefs and practices” (Surviving the Mongols, p 8. Sufism, like Shi’ism, expresses devotion to Ali ibn Abi Talib, the first Shi’i Imam, whom they regard as “the fount of esoteric wisdom, but it was during the Mongol era that they began to formulate systematic chains of initiatory transmission (silsila) going back to Ali and Muhammad” (Ibid. p 89).
The similarity in doctrines of Ismailism and Sufism noted by scholars – such as batin and ta’wil, and the organisation of Sufi orders around a spiritual guide (pir or shaykh) – were “known to have developed in Shi’ism well in advance of the emergence of organised Sufism.” These doctrines “were first articulated by the Shi’i Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq in the [8th century] and they occur frequently in Ismaili literature of the Fatimid period” (Ibid. p 91), although the vocabulary of the Ismailis became increasingly exposed to Sufi terminology during the post-Alamut period. The close relationship between the two esoteric traditions may have been further facilitated by the adoption of Persian rather than Arabic as the principle language of the Ismaili religious literature, beginning in the 10th century with the Fatimid da’i Nasir-i Khusraw and subsequently by Hasan-i Sabbah.
The earliest recorded evidence of Ismaili-Sufi relationship is found in the writings of Nizari Quhistani, who may have been the first post-Alamut Nizari Ismaili author to have chosen poetic Sufi forms to express Ismaili doctrines, a model followed by later Ismaili authors in Persia, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.
Hakim Sa’d al-Din Nizari Quhistani (1247-1320) was born in Birjand, Quhistan (in modern-day Iran). The poetic talents of Nizari began to be displayed in his dreams, appearing as fully-formed verses. The persistence of these dreams led him and his father to believe that he was destined to be a poet. After completing his early education, Nizari studied philosophy and literature, thereafter serving the local ruler as a tax collector and court poet at Harat (in Afghanistan), achieving considerable fame.
Subsequently, Nizari travelled widely, recording his experiences in his Safar-nama (‘Travelogue’). During his travels, he had an audience with Imam Shams al-Din Muhammad (d. ca. 1310), who had succeeded his father Imam Rukn al-Din Khurshah – the last Imam of the Alamut period – in 1257.
Among Nizari’s numerous notable works is the Diwan which contains some 10,000 verses of poetry, in which he conveys praises of the Imam of the time. His Safar-nama (‘Travelogue’) provides valuable information about the Ismailis of Persia during the Mongol period.
Quhistani Nizari Alamut
A 19th century copy of Nizari Quhistani’s Diwan. Image: The Ismailis An Illustrated History
Due to the political and religious climate, Nizari’s poems were not widely read and copied in Persia, but are referenced in Persian sources more than a century after his death when the Timurids succeeded the Mongols as rulers of greater Persia in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Timurid prince Baysunghur (d. 1433), a generous patron of the arts and architecture, commissioned the copying of many works by scholars and poets working in his library at Harat, which became a major centre of art and literature.
Nizari Quhistani has been deemed “one of the best representatives of Persian poetry.” (Jamal, Surviving the Mongols, p 59). The first Western scholar to take notice of Nizari Quhistani was the Australian Joseph von Hammer-Purgstall, who published a short survey of Persian literature in 1818. “E.G. Browne, the author of the first comprehensive history in English of Persian literature, was sufficiently impressed by a manuscript of Nizari’s poems in the British Museum to call him ‘a genius comparable to the one great Isma’ili poet hitherto known, Nasir-i Khusraw’” (Ibid. p 61). Ivanow (d. 1970) and other scholars from the former Soviet Union made the most significant contributions to the study of Nizari Quhistani in the early 20th century.
Jamal states that Nizari Quhistani’s Safar-nama “is a unique document for the invaluable information it provides about the Ismaili community of Persia during the Mongol period which is not available in any other source. It makes clear that despite the destruction of their political power and territorial independence, a sizeable number of Ismailis survived in Quhistan and other parts of Persia. Nizari’s work also illustrates the continuing existence of the long-standing tradition of the Ismaili da’wa after the fall of Alamut. Through Nizari’s own example as a da’i, it becomes evident that the da’wa must have continued to exist in some form with its characteristic functions and sense of mission within the community. At the same time it appears that the Ismaili da’wa of the post-Alamut period adapted some of its methods and expressions to the prevailing religio-cultural milieu dominated largely by Sufism.”(Ibid. p 146).
Nadia Eboo Jamal, Surviving the Mongols, I.B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London 2002
Azim Nanji, The Ismailis in History, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Farhad Daftary, Zulfikar Hirji, The Ismailis: An Illustrated History, Azimuth Editions in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Malise Ruthven, Azim Nanji, “Sufi Orders 1100-1900,” Historical Atlas of the Islamic World, Cartographica Limited 20
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