In esoteric traditions, Nawruz is a reminder to sow for the Hereafter

God is the One who sends forth the winds to stir up the clouds; then we drive them toward barren lands, giving life to the earth after its death. Thus is the Resurrection.
Qur’an 35:9

Image: Pixabay/dengarden

Spring and all its flowers
now joyously break their vow of silence.
It is time for celebration, not for lying low;
You too — weed out those roots of sadness from your heart.
Hafiz (Poetry Chaikhana)

Nowruz, or No Ruz, (Navroz) meaning ‘new day,’ is the first day of the first month (Farvardin) in the Persian calendar also marking the arrival of Spring. Although the festival, which dates to the sixth century BCE, is observed by many cultures and countries along the Silk Road, its earliest origin lies in Zoroastrianism, one of the oldest monotheistic religions, founded by the Prophet Zoroaster in Persia about 3,500 years ago.

Since ancient times, Spring has been a celebration when the Sun begins to overcome Winter’s cold and darkness and there is a renewal of growth in nature (see Yalda Night). 

Nawruz has been observed by agrarian people deeply connected to the land for thousands of years to welcome the resurgence of life in the fields, offer gratitude for the blessings, and celebrate the spirit of hope and renewal. Today, the Persian New Year is celebrated on March 20, which coincides with the Spring equinox in the northern hemisphere.

Unlike other religious festivals that remember an event or a person Nawruz focuses on nature and spirit; it is tied to the changing of the season and the renewal of the land. In the Qur’an, God has entrusted humans with two tasks: to be His servant, and to be the stewards of His creation. Nawruz is a time for spiritual renewal and a time to reflect on humankind’s responsibility towards God’s magnificent creation.

Cherry blossoms. Image: Rafferty Baker/CBC

Nawruz in Esoteric Traditions
Mary Boyce notes that Prophet Zoroaster taught:
“Our “limited time” will … be succeeded by the “Time of Long Dominion” (virtually eternity), with the world and all that is in it restored to the perfect state in which it was created by Ahura Mazd­­a [God]. A traditional spring festival, ushering in the loveliest season of the year with joyous festivities, could thus, be renamed the “(festival of the) New Day” and celebrated with religious rites, be a recurrent reminder of the unique “New Day” which will eventually bring everlasting bliss; and so this observance could aid faith and deepen understanding of doctrine” (Nowruz In the Pre-Islamic Period).

Shafique Virani states:
“…At the exact moment of the equinox, the Sun crosses the celestial equator, marking in the northern hemisphere when day begins to gain ascendancy over night, and light over darkness. The moment has had tremendous symbolic significance throughout history in the art, architecture, ritual and literature of many cultures across the globe.”

NOAA’s GOES-3 satellite – Earth at Spring Equinox 2013

Virani adds “The most thorough treatment of Nawruz in extant Ismaili literature in any language probably occurs in the magnum opus of the learned Husayn b. Yaʿqub Shah [fl. seventeenth century], a [descendant] of a family of Ismaili dignitaries. His hitherto unpublished Tazyin al-majālis (‘Adornment of Assemblies’), … explores the spiritual dimension of commemorations such as Nawruz….

The physical Nawruz is brought about by a change of the year
The spiritual Nawruz occurs but with the transformation of life itself
The Nawruz of the people of verity lies in changing their actions
The Nawruz of the people off falsehood lies in changing their clothes
Nawruz is not something set to fade
Nawruz is something safe from ever fading
(cited in “Spring’s Equinox: Nawruz in Ismaili Thought”)

Husayn b. Yaʿqub’s purpose is not solely to celebrate the festival with eloquent verse. Throughout his treatise, he exhorts the believers to observe these occasions as opportunities for transformation. His treatise is addressed to ‘the people of insight, whose hearts are fragrant with perfume, and the people of virtue, whose minds are the treasuries of spiritual gnosis.’ … He informs the readers that Nawruz is not simply when the sun enters into the constellation of Aries, signalling the moment of the equinox and the transformation of the physical world with the arrival of spring.”

Image: Nimira Dewji

The symbolism of spring in general, and of Nawruz in particular, can be found in Ismaili literature of every historical period including Ginans, the devotional literature of the Nizari Ismailis of the Indian Subcontinent, also shared by the Imam Shahi community. The season conveys symbols of a spiritual world beyond sensory experience.

From the Western Land has arrived the lord
Vested in him are countless hopes
Shattered is the night, the sun has risen!
The imam’s coming is the advent of spring
Flowers have blossomed, the season has bloomed
Pir Sadaradin, Pachham desathi parabhu padhareya, v 1-3 tr. Shafique N. Virani

Serve none other than that very lord, my brother
Friend, never doubt in this
Hail the advent of the lord, as glorious as the risen sun!
The Imam has arrived, friends, as the spring, and flowers have burst into bloom.
By God, the believers blossom, redolent with fragrance
Pir Sadaradin, Jugame phire shahaji muneri, tr. Shafique N. Virani

Image: Nimira Dewji

With vigilance exult in the word of the Guide
For this is what illumines the pure soul
As when spring arrives and flowers burst into bloom
In the heart are showers of divine light.

Pir Sadaradin, Abhi abhi antar buj bujantar, tr. Shafique N. Virani

“The imagery of spring sets the stage for a composition by Sayyid Fatḥ ʿAliShah Shamsi [d. after 1792] specifically about Nawruz, which is recited annually by the South Asian Ismailis at the time of the festival.

The Pir describes his encounter with Imam Shah Khalil Allah [d. 1817] on the day of the festival. Considering the association of Nawruz and spring with the revival of souls at the end of time, this epithet carries intriguing symbolic value, and is already a subtle indication of the sublimation of meaning that occurs throughout the composition.

Saddened to learn that the Imam had gone hunting in the woods, and overwhelmed by feelings of love, in search of his Imam, he too, entered the forest and it was there that he encountered Imam Shah Khalil Allah. While the occasion for the composition of the poem is clearly a physical encounter, it is evident that the author wishes, at the same time, to convey something of a profound spiritual experience. Symbols of transformation abound, including that of the coming of spring.

The author is dyed in the eternal colour of the master, his life-breath blossoms like a flower and the empty caskets are filled with pearls, which are a symbol of supreme knowledge in the Indian poetic imagination. Most importantly, the author’s ultimate desire is fulfilled when he is blessed with a vision of the lord in the form of pure light.

On the glorious day of Nawruz
The most luminous imam, lord of the resurrection, had gone hunting
This humble servant’s heart was filled with longing
His very life-breath remained at the feet of the imam

I was bound to my lord in rapture by love
Being dyed in the master’s eternal colour
Such was the absorption of my thoughts in the lord of the resurrection
that the treasuries of truth overflowed with pearls

I strolled merrily with the lord
Obtaining the troves of both matter and spirit
The souls shall be saved
Of those who listen wholeheartedly to these words of gnosis

When a soul attains the mystic way
Its life-breath blossoms like a flower
Love envelops it in the fragrance of aloes and sandalwood
Pure as a swan, it lovingly glides along the lake

Shah Khalil Allah was hunting near the citadel at the ring of fortresses
And graciously called for Fatḥ ʿAli
My untold hopes were realized
The lord appeared eternally as light
Faithful brethren, venerate the lord with all your heart
Listen, O saints, such is the teaching of Sayyid Shamsi
Those who forget not the lord’s bounties
Shall never be touched by sorrow

Navroj na din sohamna, tr. Shafique N. Virani

Lilacs. Image: Gardenia

For the believers, the true Nawruz occurs when their actions, deeds and very existence are transformed such that their iniquities are exchanged for virtues, and their misdeeds for noble actions. While the people of exterior forms take Nawruz to be the time when fields are to be sown, the people of interior meaning realise that this world is the sowing ground for the next world, and act accordingly” (Virani).

Image: Nimira Dewji

Tazyin al-majalis reflects an incident related from the time of Imam Ali b. Abi Ṭalib:

Ali (may God be pleased with him) saw a group dressed in finery. ‘What is going on?’ he asked. He was told, ‘This day is one of their festivals.’ He replied, ‘For us, a festival is a day on which we commit no sins” (Virani, “Intellectual Interactions in the Islamic World p 474) …. May all of our days be Nawruz!’ (Ibid. p 456)

Mary Boyce, NOWRUZ i. In the Pre-Islamic Period, Encyclopædia Iranica,
Mary Boyce, A Persian Stronghold of Zoroastrianism, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1977 
Shafique N. Virani’s “Spring’s Equinox: Nawruz in Ismaili Thought” published in Intellectual Interactions in the Islamic World, Edited by Orkhan Mir-Kasimov, I.B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, 2020, p 453-481

Contributed by Nimira Dewji, who also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she posts short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for the unhoused, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at

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