Today in history: Nasir Khusraw began his seven-year journey

Born in 1004 in Marv in  the eastern Iranian province of Khurasan, Nasir Khusraw followed the family tradition and worked for the government in a financial capacity. During his adulthood, he began to search for answers to his inner discontent. Around the age of forty, he describes in his Safar-nama (Travelogue), he had a dream that subsequently transformed his life into one of conviction and preaching.

Image: The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Photo: The Institute of Ismaili Studies

He left his job and set out for a pilgrimage to Mecca on March 5, 1046, beginning his famous journey that was to last seven years. Travelling through Persia, Asia Minor, and Syria, he made the first of several pilgrimages to Mecca before arriving in Cairo in 1047, where he stayed for three years. Nasir met the Fatimid Caliph-Imam Mustansir bi’llah and established a close relationship with the da’i al-Mu’ayyad al Shirazi.

Nasir studied and trained at the court with other Fatimid intellectuals including poets, theologians, grammarians, jurisprudents, and astronomers. Cairo was the place where in the tenth and eleventh centuries “some of the liveliest theological and intellectual debates of the Muslim world”1 took place. Following his final pilgrimage, Nasir returned home to Balkh as head of the Ismaili administration of his home province. However, due to persecution in his native land, Nasir fled to Yumgan in the mountainous region of Badakshan where he stayed for the remainder of his life, composing most of his works.

Nasir Khusraw has written in the Persian language in three genres — travelogue, poetry, and philosophy. His Safar-nama has been studied for its detailed descriptions of cities, societies, customs, and archaeology of the time. His mastery of poetical form and expression has led centuries of Persian speakers to rank him among the best of Persian poets.

Although the work of Nasir Khusraw has been known in the West for more than a century, the first major attempt to understand him was made in the late nineteenth century. The Safar-nama was translated into French first by Charles Schefer of Paris in 1881; during the same decade the German scholar H. Ethe as well as the French orientalist E. Fagnan edited and analyzed some of his other works.

The Persian edition and French translation of the Safar-nama provided an important introduction to medieval prose literature for many European students of the Persian language.

Nasir Khusraw's shrine in Badakshan, Afghanistan, restored by AKTC in 2013. Image: Archnet
Nasir Khusraw’s shrine in Badakshan, Afghanistan, restored by AKTC in 2013. Photo: Archnet

In addition to the Safar-nama, six volumes of philosophical and religious texts explaining Ismaili doctrines, and poetry contained in the Divan have survived.

Annemarie Schimmel states that Nasir Khusraw, “one of the most fascinating figures not only of Ismaili and Islamic history, but also of the entire Middle Ages, has left a rich legacy behind, both in his own considerable writings and in the imaginations of those who believed in him and those who sought his downfall.”2

1Alice C. Hunsberger, Nasir Khusraw, The Ruby of Badakhshan: A Portrait of the Persian Poet, Traveller and Philosopher, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accessed March 2016)
2Annemarie Schimmel, Make a Shield from Wisdom: Selected Verses from Nasir-i Khusraw’s Divan, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accessed March 2016)
The Safar-nama of Nasir Khusraw, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accessed March 2016)

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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