Memory and Textualization in Early Modern Persian Ismāʿīlism


A review of The Legendary Biographies of Nāṣir-i Khusraw: Memory and Textualization in Early Modern Persian Ismāʿīlism, by Daniel Beben.

At first glance, Daniel Beben’s important dissertation is the study of the periphery of a periphery – and along multiple vectors. Central Asia is already something of an orphan among the area studies, and the mountainous region of Badakhshan (today split between Tajikistan and Afghanistan) doubly so. And Ismāʿīlī studies are similarly provincialized within the broader field of Islamic studies, being limited to a relatively small diaspora (and more historically famous as assassins militating against Sunni rule).

 Beben’s study deserves much more than that first glance, however, as he has leveraged all of the challenges of his subject matter into instruments for engaging much deeper questions related to conversion and textuality. The figure of Nāṣir-i Khusraw did indeed immigrate to the mountains of Badakhshan as an Ismāʿīlī missionary, but that was not how he was remembered by the predominantly Sunni population of the region. Following his death at the end of the eleventh century, Nāṣir-i Khusraw’s shrine served as a Sunni pilgrimage destination and beacon of Islamization for the still-pagan holdouts in the mountainous frontier. The Sunni appropriation of Khusraw’s memory is reflected in numerous texts produced throughout this time period, and when Ismāʿīlism really took off in Badakhshan – an expansion Beben convincingly traces to the eighteenth century – it was the Sunni-ified textual traditions from which the nascent Ismāʿīlī community derived its source material, not the by-then forgotten “authentic” medieval works of Nāṣir-i Khusraw.

Just as interesting is what this reveals about the continuum between oral and textual culture. Nāṣir-i Khusraw’s shrine in Yumgān (now located in Afghanistan) kept memory of the saint alive during the intervening centuries, but in the Ismāʿīlī communities (to the extent there even was such a thing before the aforementioned expansion) this was exclusively an oral tradition until the eighteenth century. Tapping into the broader Persian cosmopolis of literature empowered the eighteenth century expansion, but in connecting with this larger world the Ismāʿīlīs had no choice but to appropriate Sunni texts to ground their oral traditions in written culture (p. 322). In a fascinating turn, however, this process did not amount to a grand march from primitive oral culture to sophisticated textual civilization. Rather, Beben demonstrates that many of these texts were meant to be read aloud and help tend the emergent Ismāʿīlī flock (p. 328).

The introduction summarizes the work’s core arguments and poses the basic question at hand: “If Nāṣir-i Khusraw ostensibly converted the Badakhshān region to Ismāʿīlism in the eleventh century, why then was it not until the eighteenth century that written narratives concerning Nāṣir first appear in the manuscript record of the Badakhshānī Ismāʿīlī tradition?” (p. 4). In terms of macro-historiographical debates, Beben’s frames his argument for the eighteenth century as the turning point in in the development of Badakhshani Ismāʿīlism as a critique of literature overemphasizing the role of colonialism and print culture in the development of communal identities (pp. 16-17).

The core chapters proceed more or less chronologically, beginning with the career of Nāṣir-i Khusraw himself: “… it would be more proper to speak of Nāṣir not only as an agent of ‘Ismāʿīlization,’ but also more broadly, and more importantly, as an agent of Islamization” (p. 84). The second chapter examines Mongol-era works to demonstrate that an oral tradition is already perceptible in the centuries immediately following Khusraw’s death

Chapters Three through Six are really the heart of the dissertation. In the third chapter, Beben demonstrates the existence of the Yumgān shrine as a major pilgrimage center, but for a predominantly Sunni community. The earlier biographies of Nāṣir-i Khusraw dealt with in the previous chapter were unconnected with the shrine itself, but those of the post-Mongol period were penned in intimate dialogue with the shrine (and thereby Badakhsan) as a place (p. 183). This was when the “Narrative of the Four Pillars” emerged, placing Nāṣir-i Khusraw as the patron saint of Badakhshan, imagined to the be the direct parallel of Aḥmad Yasawī for Turkestan, ‘Alī Abu’l Ḥasan b. Mūsā al-Riḍā in Khurasan, and Farīd al-Dīn Mas‘ūd Ganj-i Shakar for India (pp. 218-223).

In Chapter Four, Beben connects the expansion of the Nizārī Ismāʿīlī da‘wa to the tectonic geopolitical shifts precipitated by Nadir Shah Afshar’s conquests. The growing Ismāʿīlī community used this opening to seize upon the idea of the Four Pillars and further claim not only that Nāṣir-i Khusraw himself was an Ismāʿīlī all along (and an advocate of the correct Nizārī spiritual chain, no less), but so were Yasawī, Riḍā, and Ganj-i Shakar (p. 336, in Chapter Five). Whereas past scholars viewed the various pseudepigrapha and misattributions as a product of ignorance, Beben reveals it to be a strategy of expansion (an idea expanded on in Chapter Six with regard to the nineteenth century) (p. 381).

This summary hardly does justice to the painstaking detective work on display in this dissertation. The author traces the flow of ideas between numerous arcane works existing only in manuscript form. He establishes the chronology of texts misdated by famous orientalists that preceded him. The dissertation convincingly draws meaning from minute differences between different copies of the same work. In the face of a paper trail thin enough to dissuade even the most stalwart of scholars, Beben pieces together scattered fragments of texts in numerous languages over a nearly thousand-year span, colonial-era travel accounts, and oral history he gleaned on his own. Unusually for a study of this kind, he leverages that diverse source base to deal with the reception of his sources, rather than examining them in a vacuum.

This dissertation will be of interest to any scholars interested in the history of Islam as a religion and/or Central Eurasia as a region. Remarkably (especially for Central Asian studies), I would place this work more in the former category than the latter. Those interested in Islam, conversion, and textuality more generally might jump to Chapters Four through Six; those interested in Badakhshan as a place might focus on Chapters Two and Four (indeed, this dissertation may just be the most complete longue durée synthetic history of Badakhshan in existence); and Sovietologists will be especially interested in an epilogue tracing the Soviet reception of Nāṣir-i Khusraw, which “essentially divorced him from Ismāʿīlism” – ironically, in a similar manner to his Sunni-ified memory during the post-Mongol era (p. 424).

James Pickett
InterAsia Initiative
Yale University
Department of History
University of Pittsburgh

Primary Sources

Institute of Ismaili Studies (IIS).
Institute of Oriental Studies, Academy of Sciences, Tajikistan (IVANRT).
Institute of Oriental Studies, Academy of Sciences, Uzbekistan (IVANRUz).
Khorogh Research Unit, Institute of Ismaili Studies (KhRU).

Dissertation Information

Indiana University, Bloomington. 2015. 515pp. Primary Advisor: Devin DeWeese.

Image: Statue of Nasir-i Khusraw from the village of Porshnev in Badakhshan, Tajikistan, photo by author.

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