In Search of Nasir Khusraw – Persian Philosopher and Poet

A view of the Mir Qa'la [Fortress] at the town of Kabodian

A view of the Mir Qa’la [Fortress] at the town of Kabodian

Huw Thomas, co-author of the Odyssey Guide to Tajikistan and the High Pamirs, goes in search of the birthplace of Nasir Khusraw.

Nadir Khusraw [1004 – 1077] is recognized as one of the great poets of the Persian language and as an important Muslim philosopher. He was one of the greatest travellers of the eleventh century. His Safarnama describes his travels from 1054 to 1052 from his native Balkh [in what is now northern Afghanistan] to the Fatimid court in Cairo – where he confirmed his conversion to the Ismaili interpretation of Islam – and back through Mecca to Khorasan [in modern Iran] where he became head of the Ismaili missionary activity [da’wa] in eastern Iran. His poetry, mostly in the qasida form, is known as Diwan, totally more than 15,000 lines of evocative poetry. In about 1057, under threat of death for his Ismaili missionary activities he was forced to leave Khorasan and seek exile in the valley of Yumgan in what is now Afghan Badakshan. His modest grave is there. Continue reading

Afghanistan, Tajikistan

Following the Heroin Trail of Tajikistan

Malgosia Skowronska is a graduate of the War Studies Department of King’s College London, and the producer of Narkomen, an independent film on the problems faced by heroin addicts in Tajikistan.

The day comes to an end. The sun had almost gone down behind the surrounding peaks of the Pamir Mountains. Mirzo, with his slow and exhausted voice, lets me know that he no longer had the strength for conversation, for memories. He needs another dose. Mirzo, like many from his village of Porszniev, situated deep in the mountainous region of Tajik Badakhshan, has been struggling with heroin addiction for almost two decades.

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Mirzo with his mum in their house in Porshniev. Photo: Malgorzata Skowronska

Heroin took its toll. Mirzo talks about his youth, about his friends and classmates, among whom only a handful have managed to escape addiction. “Once, 30-40% of young people in the village took heroin. Most of them are already gone. They even did not live half of their life.” He counts everyone one by one: three sons of the neighbour, two doors down another three brothers, he and his younger brother. The list of those affected by addiction seems to have no end.

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Central Asia, Tajikistan

In search of ancient Christianity: The Nestorian Caves of Tajikistan

Huw Thomas is the co-author of Tajikistan and the High Pamirs: A Companion and Guide (Odyssey Publications). In this article, he describes a search for relics of ancient Christianity near the banks of the Oxus in the heart of Central Asia. 

It is especially poignant that with the turmoil in Syria and Iraq, there is the danger that the remnants of the earliest strands of Christianity in its original homelands will be lost. Christianity which has co-existed with Islam for centuries, is under unprecedented threat. It is increasingly viewed as a Western religion.

What is less well known is that Christian communities developed far to the east of the Roman Empire. One of the most significant of these communities was the ‘Nestorian Church’, officially known as the Apostolic Assyrian Church of the East, with its see in Baghdad. This church, one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, once extended over a greater part of the world than did the Roman church, and until the sixteenth century had more adherents. In its heyday from the 10th to 14th centuries the Nestorian church had eight million adherents and stretched from the Mediterranean to China and India. Continue reading

RSAA member, Tajikistan

Landmarks, memory, and a changing Dushanbe

Anna Kellar studied Political Science as an undergraduate at Yale, where she co-founded the Yale Afghanistan Forum, and is currently finishing a Msc in Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics. She has conducted research on development aid in Tajikistan,  studied foreign policy in Italy and worked for an anti-corruption NGO in Slovakia. She is the recipient of a Sir Peter Holmes Memorial award from the RSAA. Here, she writes on the changing face of the Tajik capital, Dushanbe.

Last summer, while browsing through a collection of Soviet kitsch for sale in Dushanbe’s GUM department store, I found a faded set of Intourist postcards of Dushanbe circa 1982. The city they depict is clean and modern – blue skies, few cars, inhabitants in white shirts and sundresses. Though I recognized a few of the landmarks, many were a mystery to me. I assigned myself a mission: locate each place and see what had changed, and what hadn’t, in thirty-two years.

In the years since the postcards were printed, Tajikistan went through major upheaval, yet, despite independence and war, most of the landmarks had survived the 1990s. The statue of Lenin was gone, of course, replaced by the favorite national poet, Rudaki. I expected that; the remarkable thing was that the switch was only made in 2007. Other Soviet heroes linger on – trees have grown in front of Kuibishev, but he still guards the (mostly-inactive) train station. The hotels and department stores still stand, some with new names and new facades, but the same bones.

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Rudaki has replaced Lenin in central Dushanbe

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Sadbarg Department Store and Aini Square

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Rudaki (formerly Lenin) Avenue, and the Zindabod building

Though most of the landmarks I searched for are still there, covered with uglier facades, the surrounding buildings are disappearing. Attempting to imitate the angles of the original postcards, I searched for elevated vantage points, only to realize that the photographer must have stood on the balconies of buildings that no longer exist. Dushanbe changes slowly, but the pace is speeding up.

This scares me when I think about the fate of my favorite landmarks in Dushanbe. The sky blue towers on Pushkin Street are slightly surreal: twelve floors tall and monumental close up, they are somehow hidden, even in low-lying Dushanbe, when you are more than a block away. There are six of them, at corners to each other, the edges softened by vaguely oriental arches and the weathering of time. The balconies are mostly closed in and laundry hangs as tiny bright squares across many of the windows. Satellite dishes cover the roofs like hair on a chia pet.

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For weeks, I would snap a picture whenever my route took me near by. The towers drew me in with their decaying grandeur, their beauty in a city that is rapidly becoming uglier. It also helped that, unlike the slogan-topped towers on Rudaki Ave, of which I was also fond, these were not featured on the postcards that were guiding me around the city.  I felt possessive because I was sure no one else valued them. And as I documented the rapid rise of ugly fiberglass-clad pseudo-post-modern high rises across the city, I became increasingly sure that these relics weren’t likely to last much longer.

Every morning in Dushanbe, I woke up to the sound of construction on the apartment complex rising behind my house. When I came home at night, a single bright light on top of the skeletal framework competed with the waxing moon. The small apartment building I lived in – 2 stories, 8 apartments – was itself on borrowed time. It wasn’t much to feel nostalgic for – overgrown courtyard, broken windows and broken wooden boards in the fly-infested stairwell. But the courtyard also had two-story hollyhocks, and the neighbors shared washing machines, phone chargers, an occasional meal. I started thinking of it as a metaphor for everything good and bad about post-Soviet Tajikistan: existence in the ruins of a grand design, stagnant but made livable through the pacts of the inhabitants.

I visited the inside of the blue towers by accident. I was going to Iskanderkul for the weekend, and my friend was borrowing a friend-of-a-friend’s aquaintance’s sleeping bag from an apartment on the top floor of one of the towers. This was harder than it sounded: its only helpful to know street and apartment numbers if they are also posted somewhere on the building. The only signs I could see, though, were the huge faded numbers painted on the outside of each floor – for what purpose I could only imagine. We made a guess, taking a dark and creaking two-person elevator from the cramped lobby (lit with a bare bulb) up to the top floor. The top landing had four doors, all unlabeled, none of them opening when we knocked.

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But I was immediately drawn to the balcony, the view I suddenly had across the city in the late afternoon haze. From here I could see the detritus clustered on the upper level balconies of the tower opposite, screened by the delicate lacework concrete railings. Looking down, I saw one of the squat buildings nearby had a rug drying on the roof. On the way down the stairs, I read the graffiti – a large ballpoint pen drawing of a car squeezed among the usual declarations of love.

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In the interior courtyard (smelling strongly of the rotting melon rinds collecting at the bottom the trash bins) we pondered which tower to try next, until I noticed the old number sign, well hidden behind a scraggly tree: Pushkin 8. Aha! Into another dim entry, a slightly better maintained elevator, and again we knocked on the door of a random apartment, where a young girl pointed across the hall. We were foreigners; she knew where the foreigner lived. I took a last look from the new balcony: pigeons circled the top of tower I’d just been in, and the twin pastel wedding cake towers of Dushanbe Plaza loomed behind, the new wannabe-Dubai Dushanbe elite’s answer to statement architecture. As we reached the street again, I turned back for a last look, almost running into a young woman with elegant shoes and tight jeans, talking on the phone as she headed out for the night.

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Southwest in the evening

I don’t know the history of the blue towers; I don’t even know their name, if they have one. I don’t know who owns them, I don’t know if the same families have lived there for decades or if they are all rented out to newcomers. I don’t know their future, but I’ll be sad when they are gone. As an outside observer, I have the luxury to see the towers as a symbol.

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Construction in Azadi Square, with the Somoni monument in the background

Dushanbe is changing, though often these reconstructions only imply a superficial cladding over old foundations. The new forces transforming the city combine a Soviet disregard for the past with a drive for growth that only benefits a select political circle. The same story is everywhere: the drug money; the Chinese construction firms; the countless broken sidewalks and new shopping centers. There is a giant hole in central Azadi Square, where the post office used to be and a new post office has yet to be built. The site is fenced off with a massive billboard for Megafon cell plans. Something old is gone, and whether it’s lamented or not, the future hasn’t arrived yet. Not for the majority.



Central Asia, Kazakhstan, RSAA member, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan

Sufism and the State: Saints’ Shrines in Central Asia

Fitzroy Morrissey is an Oriental Studies Graduate of Oxford University. He has travelled extensively in the Islamic world, and is the author of A Sufi for a week. He is currently studying Persian as a graduate student. Here, he discusses the relationship between Sufism in Central Asia and the post-Soviet states.

For over half a millennium, Islam in Central Asia has revolved around three poles: (Hanafi) Sunnism, Persian culture and Sufism. These three are not separate but rather overlapping elements of Central Asian religious life, such that one scholar has recently declared, “Orthodox Islam and Sufism are very mingled in Tajikistan and the majority of believers are not able to make out the difference.” (Arabov, 2010, 346)

Often dismissed by observers of Islamic societies – as well as by Muslim fundamentalists – as a “heterodox” or “folk” form of Islam, Sufism has in fact long been an integral part of the religious orthodoxy of Central Asia: the clerics (ulema) who guard and define that orthodoxy have traditionally enjoyed close ties to the local Sufi orders (tariqas). The Naqshbandiyya order, which arose in the Transoxanian city of Bokhara in the late-13th, early-14th century, and is the most popular order in Central Asia, is particularly well known for its sobriety and emphasis on upholding the sharia.

Unsurprisingly, Sufism – and Islam more broadly – experienced a major decline as a public presence in Central Asia during the Soviet period, which saw Sufi lodges (khanqas) forcibly closed and the widespread banning of the practice of visitation to saints’ shrines (mazar) – a ritual traditionally practised even by those with no formal connection to the Sufi orders. Yet the survival of Sufi practices and beliefs among certain groups, especially the Naqshbandis, has allowed for a Sufi revival to take place since independence in 1991/92. Since then, many Sufi shrines have been renovated, visitation of saints’ tombs has once again become an important part of religious life, and several Sufis have taken important positions in the religious hierarchies of the Central Asian republics.

The issue of saints’ shrines is a particularly important one, for it gives us an insight into the extent to which the state has been prepared to patronise Sufism and promote it as an integral part of their state’s national identity and history. In Uzbekistan, where the state’s relationship with the Sufi orders and their leaders, post-independence, has flitted between support and suspicion, the two most important shrines are those of Baha’uddin Naqshband, the 14th century sheikh after whom the Naqshbandiyya is named, and Khoja Ahrar Obdayollah, another prominent Naqshbandi sheikh, who lived in the 15th century. These two sheikhs are key figures in the history of the development of Naqshbandi thinking and practice. Baha’uddin is said to have introduced the so-called “silent zikr” (zikr-e khafi) into Naqshbandi ritual, which still distinguishes the meditative practice of the Naqshbandis from the more extravagant, musical rituals of other orders. Khoja Ahrar, meanwhile, perhaps more than anyone else embodied the key Naqshbandi doctrine of “solitude in the crowd” (khalvat dar anjuman), which meant that Naqshbandi disciples could and should play a prominent role in the economic and political life of the community, while constantly remembering God. This latter doctrine helps partly to explain the traditional prominence of Naqshbandi Sufis in Central Asian politics – Khoja Ahrar himself was involved in the Timurid administration, and is said to have accrued considerable personal wealth as a landholder. (For Khoja Ahrar Obaydollah’s life and political and economic role in the community, see Gross & Urunbaev, 2002, Ch. 1.)

Because of the special importance of Baha’uddin and Khoja Ahrar within the history of Central Asia’s most important Sufi order, it is no surprise that their shrines are still significant today, on both the religious and political levels. In Soviet times, the shrine of Baha’uddin Naqshband, located near Bokhara, was closed, and used by the authorities as a storehouse for fertiliser, indicating the extent of Soviet disregard for Central Asia’s religious heritage. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the shrine was reopened in 1989. The post-Soviet government of Islam Karimov (with financial support from Turkey, where there is a large Naqshbandi community) subsequently paid for the renovation of the shrine in 1993, to mark the 675th anniversary of Baha’uddin’s birth. The government also sponsored a number of initiatives in celebration of the anniversary: Uzbek President Karimov, along with the then Chief Mufti, Mukhtarkhan Abdulayev, himself a Naqshbandi Sufi, attended a commemorative ceremony at the shrine, an academic conference dedicated to Baha’uddin was organised, a Naqshbandi cultural foundation was founded in Bokhara, and the main street of the city was renamed after the saint. (For these measures, see Louw, 2007, 55-6)

According to the imam of the mosque adjoining Baha’uddin’s shrine, the Uzbek government’s patronage of the shrine complex, and its broader support for the country’s indigenous Sufi institutions, has been motivated by a desire to counteract what he called the “Wahhabi outlook”, referring to the puritanical form of Islam that has gained a foothold in Central Asia (particularly in the guise of the Hizb ul-Tahrir movement) and other parts of the Islamic world over the past half century, and which is widely seen as the ideological basis for Islamic radicalism. Certainly, the imam’s comments give a strong indication of the thinking behind the Central Asian governments’ often supportive approach towards Sufism. Sufism represents a more peaceful, tolerant and less political version of Islam than the Wahhabi interpretation. Furthermore, the Naqshbandiyya, and Sufism more generally, is an important part of the region’s cultural and religious heritage, and can thus be presented by Central Asian states as the indigenous form of Islam, in contrast to “foreign” Islamic fundamentalism.

Yet, turning to the shrine of Khoja Ahrar Obaydollah, which is found near Samarkand, we also get a sense of the ambiguity of the Uzbek state’s relationship with Sufism. As in the case of the shrine complex of Baha’uddin Naqshband, the Uzbek government provided funds for the renovation of the shrine and for celebrations of the 600th anniversary of the saint’s birth in 2004. However, according to a report on Sufism in Central Asia authored for the Carnegie Endowment by Martha Brill-Olcott, the Uzbek government has become increasingly concerned about some of Obaydollah’s political teachings, particularly his call for a society governed by sharia, and for Naqshbandi disciples to involve themselves in political affairs. This concern led to the Uzbek authorities delaying the scheduled anniversary celebrations on two occasions and limiting a planned conference on the life and teachings of the sheikh to a small, local affair. Such suspicion on the part of the state towards Khoja Ahrar’s political views not only demonstrates the continued relevance of the teachings of famous Sufi masters in Central Asia, but also gets to the heart of the state’s ambiguous relationship with Sufism and the Sufi orders. On the one hand, the Uzbek government celebrates and supports Sufism as an important part of the country’s cultural and religious heritage and a potential bulwark against Islamic radicalism. On the other, it seems suspicious of the organisational capabilities of the Sufi orders, especially the more politically active Naqshbandiyya (the Qadiriyya is currently the only other major order in Uzbekistan), fearing that those capabilities might one day be translated into political action against their rule.

The issue of saints’ shrines is also relevant to the Central Asian states of Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Located in these two countries are the tombs of two extremely important figures in the history of Sufism: Seyyed Ali Hamadani, a contemporary of Baha’uddin Naqshband, originally from Hamadan in Iran but buried in Kulab in southern Tajikistan, and Ahmad Yasavi, a 12th century Sufi who gives his name to the Yasaviyya order, and whose tomb lies in the Kazakh city of Turkestan. Seyyed Ali Hamadani was a sheikh of the Kobravi order, which was historically one of the most important tariqahs in Central Asia, before it died out at the end of the 16th century, its place being taken by the Naqshbandiyya. Hamadani is credited with bringing Islam to the Kashmir region, where he is celebrated as a saint, and was also a prominent thinker in the school of Ibn ‘Arabi, which is famous for its elaboration of the doctrine of vahdat-e vojud or “the oneness of existence”.

In the case of the cult of Ali Hamadani, we witness the same kind of state involvement that we saw in the Uzbek state’s patronage of the shrine of Baha’uddin Naqshband and Khoja Ahrar Obaydollah. Following the civil war in the country (1992-97), the Tajik authorities, with support from Iran, funded the renovation of Hamadani’s shrine and the construction of a museum dedicated to the Sufi at the shrine complex. At the same time, the government declared Hamadani a national saint – his face subsequently appeared on the 10 somoni banknote. At the beginning of 2014, meanwhile, to mark the 700th anniversary of the saint’s birth, it was announced that the Tajik state, again in conjunction with Iran, would provide funds for the reconstruction of the park where Hamadani’s museum is located and for celebrations connected to the anniversary, while the Iran-Tajikistan Friendship Society announced plans for a Seyyed Ali Hamadani Foundation. Meanwhile members of Tajikistan’s political elite are said to frequently visit the shrine. As in the case of Uzbekistan, the Tajik government’s decision to patronise the legacy of Seyyed Ali Hamadani can best be understood as part of a broader policy to promote a more tolerant, politically quietist – in a word, Sufi – interpretation of Islam as the country’s indigenous religious tradition, as a bulwark against the imported threat of fundamentalism.

The mausoleum of Ahmad Yasavi in the Kazakh city of Turkestan is one of the oldest surviving examples of state patronage of a saint’s shrine in Central Asia. The Yasaviyya order, which looked to Ahmad as their founder and guide, played a key role in bringing many of the nomadic Turkic (and later Mongol) tribes of Central Asia into Islam. Known as a popular order of wandering dervishes, the Yasaviyya are said to have incorporated many of the traditional shamanistic practices of the Turkic tribes into their rituals, thus easing the conversion process. As a bridge between the Islamic and Turkic worlds, therefore, the cult of Ahmad Yasavi was especially appealing to the 14th century conqueror Timur (known in the west as Tamerlane), a Turkic-Mongol warrior who sought to depict himself as the heir to the universal empire of Genghis Khan, yet also a Muslim who defined his rule in Islamic terms. For this reason, Timur patronised a major reconstruction of Ahmad Yasavi’s shrine, which was already an important site of pilgrimage. By linking his rule to the cult of Ahmad Yasavi, Timur was able to tap into the power of the cult of saints that was widespread throughout Central Asia, and thus to acquire religious legitimacy for his rule. This policy of patronising shrines as a means of gaining legitimacy in Islamic terms was continued by his Timurid successors, who also renovated and expanded the shrine of the famous 11th century Sufi Abdullah Ansari at their capital Herat, as well as the ‘Alid shrine at Balkh and the mausoleum of the Shi’a Imam Reza at Mashhad. Clearly, Timur and his successors understood that, if they were able to present themselves as protectors and patrons of the saints, the baraka (spiritual power) of those saints that the pilgrims sought might rub off on them. (For the Timurids’ patronage of shrines, see Subtelny, 2007, Ch. 6.)

Today, the shrine of Ahmad Yasavi is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an undoubted source of Kazakh national pride. As in the Uzbek and Tajik cases, following independence the Kazakh state was quick to identify the shrine as a point of reference in its efforts to construct a new national identity. Once again we find that state funds were provided for the renovation of the shrine, and 1993 – the same year that the Uzbeks celebrated the life of Baha’uddin Naqshband – was declared the year of Ahmad Yasavi in Kazakhstan. Like Baha’uddin and Ali Hamadani, Ahmad Yasavi has thus become something of a national saint. (see Low, 2007, 49-50)

The relationship between Islam and the state in the republics of Central Asia remains a contested issue. In providing state support for the cults of their nations’ most famous medieval mystics, the governments of these republics have sought to define this relationship. The message seems to be that the state is the guardian of the nation’s religious heritage, and that Sufism is an integral part of this heritage. In so doing, the governments are drawing on an ancient precedent – even before Timur, rulers sought legitimacy through the patronage of Sufi saints’ shrines (the Seljuks’ patronage of the shrine and cult of the famous Sufi Bayazid Bastami being one notable example). The policy of supporting saints’ shrines therefore seems to have two major goals, namely: helping to construct a new national identity through the appropriation of the past, and promoting a more tolerant form of Islam as a counterweight to Islamic radicalism. In the long run, the success of this policy will be determined by whether long-held traditions such as visitation to saints’ shrines are able to survive the onslaughts of secular modernism and radical Islam, both of which are critical of the cult of saints. If the survival of the practice of visitation during the Soviet era – and its subsequent revival – is a good indicator, then the shrines will continue to play a prominent role in the religious and cultural life of Central Asia for many years to come.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Ann-Gross, J & Urunbaev, A, The Letters of Khwajah ‘Ubayd Allah Ahrar and His Associates (Brill, 2002).

Arabov, O, “A note on Sufism in Tajikistan: what does it look like?”, Central Asian Survey, 23:3-4 (2010), 345-347.

Brill-Olcott, M, “Sufism in Central Asia: A Force for Moderation or a Cause of Politicization?”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2007).

Louw, E, Everyday Islam in Post-Soviet Central Asia (Routledge, 2007).

O’Dell, E, “The Teaching, Practice, and Political Role of Sufism in Dushanbe”, NCEEER Working Paper (2011).

Roy, O, The New Central Asia: Geopolitics and the Birth of Nations (I.B. Tauris, 2007)

Subtelny, M, Timurids in Transition: Turko-Persian Politics and Acculturation in Medieval Iran (Brill, 2007)

Trimingham, J, The Sufi Orders in Islam (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Weismann, I, The Naqshbandiyya: Orthodoxy and activism in a worldwide Sufi tradition (Routledge, 2007).