Today in history: Nizari Quhistani, one of the most distinguished Persian poets, set off on a two-year journey

On February 4, 1280, Nizari Quhistan (1247-1320), one of the most distinguished poets of thirteenth-century Persia (modern-day Iran), set off on a two-year journey from Quhistan, in south-eastern Persia, to the shores of the Caspian Sea. In his Safar-nama (Travelogue), Nizari describes each of the places he visited and the people he met, although he does not offer a reason for the journey he undertook.

Nizari Quhistani was born in the town of Birjand in Khurasan (northeastern region of Persia, immediately south of Transoxania and west of Badakhshan), where he received his early education. Birjand was a small commercial centre along trade routes. It was also an important centre of Ismaili population, with a large number of fortresses in the surrounding area including the major strongholds of Mu’minabad, Qa’in, and Tun.

Castle of Qa’in. Image: Peter Willey, Eagle’s Nest.

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. Later on, under the guidance of either his father or a tutor, Nizari became familiar with the classics of Persian and Arabic literature, eventually becoming well-acquainted with the poetry of Firdawsi (d. 1020), Umar-i Khayyam (d. 1123), and Nizami (d. 1203).

For a time, he served as an official at the court of Malik Shams al-Din Muhammad (d. 1285) in Herat as a tax collector and court poet, achieving considerable fame. He authored numerous poetic compositions, which earned him a place amongst notable Persian literary figures. Nizari is the earliest post-Alamut Ismaili author to have chosen the poetic and Sufi forms of expression to convey Ismaili doctrines.

During the hostile post-Alamut period, the Ismailis and the Imams were obliged to safeguard themselves against rampant forms of persecution, concealing their true beliefs and literature. After the fall of Alamut to the Mongols in 1256, the Ismailis had scattered all over Persia and Central Asia and were deprived of central leadership from the Imams for almost two centuries.

As part of their disguise strategies, the Ismailis concealed themselves under the cloak of Sufism without establishing formal ties with any one of the orders, or tariqahs, spreading in Persia and Central Asia. Although the origin and early development of this phenomenon remain obscure, the earliest record of this practice is found in the writings of Nizari Quhistani, who chose Sufi forms of expression to convey Ismaili doctrines, a model followed by subsequent Nizari authors in Persia, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.

The Nizari-Sufi relationship was facilitated by the similar esoteric doctrines of these tariqahs coupled with the use of the Persian language by the community; Hasan-i Sabbah (d. 1124), founder of the state of Alamut in 1090, had adopted Persian as the language of the community.

In his Safar-nama, Nizari mentions that Imams Shams al-Din Muhammad and Qasim Shah lived under assumed identities in Azarbaijan. Imam Shams al-DIn Muhammad was concealed under the nickname Zarduz, ’embroiderer.’

In his Diwan, which comprises some ten thousand verses of poetry, Nizari draws on Sufi expressions to convey praises of the Imams of the time.

Nizari Quhistani
Nizar Quhistani’s Diwan, 19th century copy, contains ten thousand verses. In this work, Nizari draws on Sufi expressions and Ismaili vocabulary to convey his praises of the Nizari Imams of the time. Image: The Ismailis An Illustrated History

The Safar-nama provides valuable information about the Ismailis of Persia during the Mongol period.

Glossary, The institute of Ismaili Studies (accessed February 2017)
Dr. Nadia Eboo Jamal, Surviving the Mongols, I.B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London 2002
Dr. Aziz Esmail, Professor Azim Nanji, The Ismailis in History, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accesses February 2017)
Dr Farhad Daftary, Dr Zulfikar Hirji, The Ismailis: An Illustrated History, Azimuth Editions in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies

Compiled by Nimira Dewji





Previously on Ismailimail…

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