New Approaches to the History and Culture of Badakhshan

The Badakhshan region of Central Asia, today divided between Tajikistan, Afghanistan, western China, and northern Pakistan, historically has comprised both a unique and integral part of the Iranian world. While the linguistic and ethnographic aspects of the region were the subject of many critical studies by Soviet scholars in the 20th century, it has been only in recent years that the broader cultural, religious, and historical aspects of the region and its traditions have become accessible to researchers. The papers in this panel, drawing in large measure upon previously-unstudied literary and oral sources, present a range of new investigations and approaches to the study of the Badakhshan region and its place within the wider Iranian and Persianate world.

Two of the panel’s papers will examine the literary traditions concerning Nasir-i Khusraw, the renowned poet, philosopher, and reputed founder of the Badakhshani Ismaili community. While the life and works of Nasir-i Khusraw have received a significant degree of attention in recent years, the biographical and hagiographical traditions concerning this figure have not received attention as literary monuments in their own right. Hence, our papers will investigate various elements of this extensive tradition: The first paper will explore the hagiographical tradition of Nasir-i Khusraw as a window into the ethical and normative framework of the Ismaili religious tradition of the region, while the second paper examines this tradition as a source for the social history of early-modern Badakhshan. Finally,the third paper will turn from the focus on literary traditions to explore the topic of shrines and sacred sites in Badakhshan, focusing on the nexus of architecture and oral traditions in defining the importance of these sites within the religious and cultural landscape of the region. Aside from a focus on the Badakhshan region, the papers on this panel share a number of common themes and methodological concerns; in particular, our essays explore the relationship between textual and oral sources, as well as a concern for the complex patterns of interaction and tensions between the major literary and religious traditions of Iranian and Persianate civilization with local traditions.


by /

The celebrated Persian Muslim poet, philosopher and traveler, Nāsir-i Khusraw (d. ca. 1088) is generally believed to have been responsible for preaching Shī‘ī Ismā‘īlī Islam in the remote mountainous valleys of Badakhshan in Central Asia. He is highly revered as a holy man in the region where his shrine is presently located. The Ismā‘īlīs of Badakhshan refer to their religious tradition as da‘wat-i Nāsir-i Khusraw (literally ‘Nāsir-i Khusraw’s mission/summoning’) regarding him as its founding father. The figure of Nāsir-i Khusraw, who is affectionately known locally as Pīr Shāh Nāsir, is surrounded by innumerable legends and hagiographical anecdotes in Badakhshan. As the most important saint-exemplar and patriarch, his figure has played a major role in defining the ethical and moral ideals and values of Badakhshani Ismā‘īlīs. He is depicted as the embodiment of ethical teachings, an advocate for the socially and economically marginalized, a martyr of faith, a perfect model of ethical conduct and so on. This paper examines samples of written and oral Badakhshani hagiographical materials about Nāsir-i Khusraw and uses them as sources that reflect the moral and ethical principles, values and ideals of the Ismā‘īlīs of Badakhshan. By examining the topoi and structure of the stories about Nāsir-i Khusraw, the founding father of the Ismā‘īlī tradition of Badakhshan, I aim to show that for the Ismā‘īlīs of Badakhshan morality lies at the heart of faith. By attributing teachings to and relating didactic stories about the deeply revered figure of Nāsir-i Khusraw, the Badakhshani hagiographers stress the imporance of morality for attaining salvation.

by /

The Silk-i guhar-riz is a Persian text authored in early 19th-century Badakhshan which has only recently gained attention in scholarship on the Central Asian Ismaili tradition. The text is in part a philosophical treatise, with commentary on various elements of Ismaili doctrine, but more substantially it presents a historical vision of the Central Asian Ismaili community, tracing its origins to the renowned 11th-century philosopher, poet, and Ismaili missionary Nasir-i Khusraw. To date the text has been considered largely as a conservative repository of traditions concerning the foundation and early history of the Ismaili community of Central Asia. Current scholarship on the work, however, has not given attention to the social, political, and religious context in which the text was produced and circulated in early 19th-century Badakhshan, nor to the question of the particular agendas and constituencies addressed by the text as a case of hagiographical literature.

I argue in this paper that the Guhar-riz must be understood within the context of the competitive religious and political environment of early-modern Badakhshan and Central Asia, an environment which is reflected in the diverse and discrepant biographical traditions concerning Nasir-i Khusraw which developed and circulated in this period. In this paper I will briefly review the biographical traditions surrounding Nasir-i Khusraw which emerged following the Timurid annexation of Badakhshan in the mid-15th century. I demonstrate that the dominant biographical trend construed this figure as a Sunni, disavowing his attachment to Ismailism; more particularly, I introduce evidence to show that communities connected with his shrine in Badakhshan strove to secure legitimacy and privileges through promoting the Sunni orthodoxy of the interred.

Rather than representing a conservative oral tradition connected with Nasir-i Khusraw, I argue that the Guhar-riz in fact presents a direct and competitive engagement from an Ismaili constituency with the various claims advanced on this figure and his legacy in the early-modern era. While the author presents his own unique assertion of both spiritual and familial lineage from Nasir-i Khusraw, the text also directly engages with the multiple narratives concerning Nasir-i Khusraw advanced by non-Ismaili constituencies in Central Asia, in effect “re-appropriating” this figure for Ismailism. Finally, I argue that this text, when considered in the backdrop of a wider body of evidence from this period, should be understood within the context of a renewed Ismaili daʿwa mission in Central Asia originating in the mid-18th century.

by /

This paper examines the stories associated with the sacred sites in some parts of the Badakhshan region of Tajikistan. It argues that sacred sites, through the stories associated with them, disrupt the scientific and materialist views of the lived environment, and create a rupture in the common narratives about Islam/Isma’ilism in this region. The sacred sites, in that sense, stand at a borderline between the real and the incredible. They are real in a sense of being material things; a building, a tree, a stone, a spring-water, or even a mountain and a lake, and they are incredible through the contents of the stories associated with these places and things. These stories are often about the miracle-works of the Imams and other Muslim saints, who help people to resolve the situations which human beings are powerless to resolve. For the Isma’ilis of Badakhshan, who traditionally had no Mosques, the sacred sites are the focus of their religious affections. The narratives about the miracles worked by the saints, (buzurgan “the great-ones”), associated with the sacred sites are part of this affective field. Many of these stories are associated with the saints who arrived into the region from Persia and who are believed to be ‘foundational figures’ of the local religious tradition. The oral stories about the saints associated with these places have important place in the religious expression and the Isma’ili Muslim identity of the people in Badakhshan. They show the ways in which people attribute meanings to their social and natural environment and articulate these meanings within the framework of their Isma’ili Muslim faith. Through the stories associated with the sacred sites the natural surrounding becomes animated and appropriated as part of their social and cultural world.
This paper is based on the data collected during my fieldwork in Badakhshan region from May 2011 to January 2012 and oral data collected and preserved in the archive of the Khorog Research Unit, an entity run by the London based Institute of Isma’ili Studies.