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Ismailis constitute a small religious minority community in the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan. They reside primarily in Rushan, Shughnan, Ishkashim, Wakhan, Zibak and Kuran-Munjan regions. The inhabitants of these regions are predominantly Tajik in their ethnicity and Ismaili in their religious orientation. Ismailis advocated millenarianism during the Alamut period under the astute leadership of Hasan al-Sabbah and his successors in Persia (Iran) and became &politicized after the collapse of the Ismaili Centre, or the Alamut, before the Mongol invasion in 1257. After that they remained subservient to concerned local and regional authorities. Governments in Afghanistan and the Sunni majority in Badakhshan have discriminated against them, Ismailis however maintained the principle of taqiyya (a precautionary dissimulation of their faith in a hostile environment) in practising their beliefs, thereby preserving their religious literature and safeguarding their identity. The focus of this article is to examine how Ismailism unfolded and consolidated in Badakhshan, to explore factors that led to politicization of the Ismaili intelligentsia in Shughnan in the 1960s and 1970s, to study the basis of their support of the pro-Soviet government in Afghanistan during the tumultuous years of the Soviet occupation of the country, and to reflect upon opportunities for their future in the post-Soviet era politics in Afghanistan.
Badakhshan, a mountainous region in the eastern part of Afghanistan covering an estimated area of 40,886 sq. km, much of which is dominated by extremely mountainous terrain and deep ravine and valleys, is one of the least developed provinces. There are no asphalt roads and the only unpaved roadway for vehicles is located in the capital of the province, Faizabad, which had been maintained by the local people on a corvee basis.
Badakhshan enjoyed a quasi-autonomous status when the people of Badakhshan elected Yaribig, son of Shahbig, as the Amir, or chief of the region in 1068. This situation lasted until Badakhshan was occupied by the Amir of Afghanistan, Abd al-Rahman, in the early nineteenth century. Yaribig ruled over Badakhshan but resigned several years later when the people of lower Yaftal elected Shah Emad as their Amir. Yaribig, infuriated and indignant over the new development, left Badakhshan for India. Upon hearing of Yaribig's departure the Amir of Qataghan organized an army, led an expedition to Badakhshan and established his fiefdom there. The cruelty and oppression of the new Amir and his agents caused the people of Badakhshan to appeal to Yaribig to return and deliver them from their misery.
Yaribig returned to Badakhshan, organized an army, and defeated the Uzbek invaders. After striking a fatal blow to Shah Emad and his supporters in Qala-e-Laiaba, Yaribig became the ruler of Badakhshan. His status was further enhanced when he forbade the custodians of Prophet Mohammad's shroud in Bukhara to transfer the shroud to a safer place in India. Yaribig seized the shroud and kept it in a house in the town of Yakmajal where he built a mausoleum to house it permanently. He appointed several men from Samarkand as caretakers. These caretakers were known as Shaikh and Mutawali and their children inherited the right to caretakership. The town of Yakmajal was re-named Faizabad, meaning, `a blessed town'.(1)
Yaribig ruled Badakhshan for fifty years and appointed his sons Amirs. Shah Suleimanbig became the Amir of Jurm, Yusuf Ali was appointed Amir of Sada-e-Pasaku, and Khaja Niyaz and Khaja Eshaq were selected to be Amirs of Zardiev, Sar Ghulam and Shiva. His fifth son, Shah Ismailbig, was in charge of the regions of Keshm, Farkhar, Warsanj and Tangdarun. His sixth son, Ziauddin, ruled over Barghanj, while Kuran-Munjan was under the leadership of his seventh son, Mir Alughbig. After Yaribig's death in 1118 his children and grandchildren fought one another for control of the region. Their strife greatly weakened the former stability of the fiefdom; it disintegrated when invading Uzbeks subjugated them. For centuries Badakhshan was ruled by various invaders until Amir Abd al-Rahman conquered Badakhshan in the early nineteenth century, Ismailis who had withstood conquests and the devastation wrought by invaders in the past were once again victimized. The Sunni majority in Badakhshan suppressed the Ismailis and subjugated them under Sunni legal and judicial authority.
Prior to the domination of Islam in the region the Zoroastrian faith constituted the principal religion in Badakhshan. It is argued that Islam reached Badakhshan around the tenth century and after its division into the Sunni and Shia doctrines the latter established its influence in the region around 871. Shiism split into two major sects after the death of Imam Jafar Sadiq in 765: the Ithna Ashari or `twelvers' and the Ismaili. Those who followed Jafer's son Musa al-Kazim are known as Ithna Ashari whose twelfth Imam, Mahdi, disappeared around 873. The vast majority of Shiites in Afghanistan are ethnic Hazaras(2) and the Shiites maintain that Imam Mahdi will return to rule the earth and deliver people from misery, starvation and oppression. Adherents of Jafer's other son, Ismail, are known as Ismailis. Karim Aga Khan, who is known for his wealth and supports socioeconomic development projects to improve the quality of life in the developing world, is the 49th and the present Imam of the community worldwide.(3)
Under the leadership of Imam Al-Muiz, Ismailis seized political power in Egypt in 975, consolidated their rule and laid the foundation of the Fatimid empire. During the reign of the 18th Imam, Al-Mustansir, the Fatimid empire disintegrated because of internal bickering and external assault by the powerful Seljuk Turkish empire in 1094. Following the death of Al-Mustansir Ismailis split into two factions. Those who followed his son Al-Mustali maintained their rule in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Western India. Ismailis in Persia rejected Mustali's accession to power and pledged their allegiance to Al-Mustansir's other son, Nizar, and are duly known as Nizari Ismailis. The Nizari Ismailis, under the astute leadership of Hasan al-Sabbah, established the Ismaili state by conquering the Alamut fort in northern Iran in 1090-91. During this period the Ismaili movement became increasingly militant as evidenced by their assassinations of sworn enemies of their faith. Since Ismailis adhered to strict observance of the foundation or principle (assas, a Persian word) of their faith they are known as assassiyuns or followers of the assas.(4) Scholars in the West often combined these two disparate items and mistakenly portrayed them as `assassins'.(5) Ismailis endured the Mongol invasion headed by Hulegu and the execution of the Nizari leader, Rukn al-Din, Khurshah and his family in 1257.(6) The Mongol and subsequent military conquests by hostile rulers forced a large number of Ismailis of Persia and Central Asia to seek refuge in the safety of the Pamir mountains in Badakhshan. The Pamir region was partitioned between the Russian empire and Afghanistan in 1895 and the Oxus river, for the most part, separates Gorno-Badakhshan from Badakhshan province of Afghanistan.(7) According to a legend the people of Shughnan trace their origins to two holy men who fled to Shughnan in order to escape execution by the ruler of Balkh. The legend reads as follows:
In Balkh there was a large realm governed by a mighty Khan. A terrible
disease befell this khan, so that two worms grew out of his shoulder, only
their heads projecting, whilst their bodies remained in his body. To cure
this disease and to get rid of the worms two holy men were called in, who
advised him to feed the worms on human brains. This being done, the worms
disappeared for a time, but returned again. A third holy man was now called
in, who advised that the worms should be fed partly on dog's and partly on
sheep's brains. The worms disappeared forever. The two holy men who were
first called in were now afraid that they would be beheaded owing to their
unsuccessful treatment, and fled into the mountains of Shughnan. The
mountain Tajiks are said to be the descendants of these two men.(8)
Although there is no concrete evidence documenting the spread of Ismailism in Central Asia, it is believed that Ismailism established its influence there during the early period of the Fatimid empire in Egypt. Well-known Ismaili philosophers and scholars during this era include Ahmad Yaqub Sajze, who was assassinated in Bukhara in 331/942. His theoretical works are: Kashf al-Mahjub [the discovery of the essence], Asas al-Da'wa [the foundation of propagation], Tavil-e-Shariya [interpretation of Islamic law], Sus al-Baqa [eternal life], Ketab al-Etehad [the book of unity] and Esbat al-Nabuwa [the proof of prophecy]. Other prominent Ismaili philosophers of this period are the famous Persian poet Abulhasan Rudaki (d. 329/940) and Abu Ali Hussein, son of Cina, also known as Avecinna (371/981).(9) During the reign of King Mahmood of Ghaznavid (997-1030) Ismailis were persecuted and massacred because of their
religious and social radicalism, their intellectual abilities and above all their political affiliation with the Fatimid empire in Egypt. A well known Ismaili dai, Taharti, was summoned to the court in Ghazni where King Mahmood ordered a Shiite judge, Hasan b. Tahir b. Muslim, to preside over his trial. The judge who claimed direct descent of Prophet Mohammad's family had a biased opinion about the Ismaili faith and tried to sway public opinion against Taharti's faith; he declared his claim to be a Sayed to be dubious and recommended his execution.(10)
The spread of the Ismaili faith in Badakhshan is due in large part to the works of Ismaili dais, missionaries who visited the region prior to and during the Alamut period. One of the more effective methods the dais used to propagate the doctrine was to approach and persuade local chiefs to embrace the faith, then later use their influence to encourage their subjects to convert to the new faith. Ghiyath was the first dai to visit Afghanistan, when he was forced to leave his native town, Ray, in southern Tehran after Sunni cleric Al-Zafarani incited people against him. In Marv he succeeded in converting an influential tribal chief, Al-Husayn Al-Marwazi, who ruled over Maymana, Taliqan, Herat, Gharijistan and Ghor. Following his conversion his subjects accepted the Ismaili faith. Al-Marwazi was elected chief of the Ismaili communities of Afghanistan.(11) Abu Muin Nasir-e-Khusraw was another prominent Ismaili figure whose works contributed to the perpetuation of the Ismaili faith. Nasir-e-Khusraw was born to a wealthy family in 1004 in the Qubadian district of Balkh province and served as a government financial administrator in Marv, with access to the Ghaznavid court at Balkh prior to the Seljuk invasion in 1040. At the age of 40 Nasir-e-Khusraw went to Egypt where he met the Ismaili Imam, Al-Mustansir, and was appointed as the Hujat, Imam's representative, to the eastern realm of the Fatimid empire. Nasir-e-Khusraw returned to Badakhshan in 1052 and began preaching Ismaili doctrines. His religious propagation and writings antagonized conservative Muslim clerics who incited people against him. Threatened with death, Nasir-e-Khusraw sought refuge in the Yumgan valley and concentrated on writing religious and philosophical treaties. Nasir-e-Khusraw died around 1072-73 and was buried in Yumgan where his shrine is zealously guarded by Ismailis and non-Ismailis alike.(12)
After Nasir-e-Khusraw's death Ismailis in Badakhshan remained isolated from the rest of the Ismaili community until several years later, when two Iranian dais visited Badakhshan. The first, Sayed Shah Malang, settled in Shughnan and established his authority in the region. The second, Sayed Hasan Shah Khamush, son of Sayed Haider, supervised Ismaili affairs in Shughnan and its adjacent areas. Khamush was born in 459/1079 in Isfahan and received his religious education at home. At the age of twelve he predicted the birth of Sayed Abdul Qadir Jilani, a descendant of Imam Hussein, at the house of Sayed Abu Salih in Baghdad. A few years later a caravan travelling from Baghdad to Isfahan brought the news of Jilani's birth. The dissemination of the news convinced residents of the town of the Shah Khamush's unique gifts and enhanced his stature as a religious preceptor. Khamush's biography implies that he was related to Jilani's family, in that his father and Jilani's father married Nasiba and Fatima, daughters of an influential man in Baghdad, Sayed Abdul Ghani Somaghi.(13) While Khamush was on a pilgrimage to Mecca, a mysterious voice called to him that Shaikh Junaid and Jilani were there to see him. Khamush was quiet and heard the caller again, who identified himself as Jilani and said his mission had been to reveal to Khamush that he was the `chosen person' and must return to Khatalan where he will lead the people. Khamush and his four companions returned to Shughnan via India.(14)
During this period Shughnan was under the rule of the princes of Kashgar, and Khamush succeeded in establishing his influence as a religious leader in the region. The Amir of Shughnan was informed of Khamush's holistic healing power and requested his help in getting his daughter to recover from an agonizing illness. When Khamush healed the girl the Amir was extremely grateful and as a token of his gratitude he married his daughter to Khamush in 490/1098. A few years later Khamush went to Vanj where he met the Amir and remained there for a few years and married the Amir's daughter. Khamush's social status and his relationship with the Amirs enabled him to convert many people in Khatalan to the Ismaili faith. They renamed the city Al-Shalghan and appointed a number of religious leaders or Pirs from Shughnan to oversee religious and social issues there. Khamush went to Kulyab where he married one of the daughters of the Mir of Kulyab, Sayed Ali Shah Wali. It is believed that Khamush died around 531/1151.(15)
The dissemination of the Ismaili faith is also the result of works by Ismaili philosophers who disguised themselves as sufis or mystics in order to escape persecution and political repression. Ismailis maintain that well-known philosophers such as Sanai (d.ca. 535/1140), Farid al-Din Attar (d.ca. 627/1230), Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 672/1273), Qasim al-Anwar (d.ca. 837/1433) and Aziz al-Din Nasafi (d.ca. 1262-63) are their co-religionists and their writings have been kept in Badakhshan as Ismaili works.(16) In 1310 Ismailis were further split after the death of Imam Shams al-Din Mohammad over the question of succession. Those who followed his son, Mohammad Shah, are known as the Mohammad Shahi branch of the Ismailis, while those who followed his other son, Qasim Shah, became known as Qasim Shahi Ismailis. During the reign of the Timurid king Abu Saeed (1451-69), Shah Razi al-Din visited Badakhshan and preached the Ismaili faith until he was killed by a local Timurid ruler in 1509. Shah Razi al-Din was identified as the 30th Imam of the Mohammad Shahi branch of the Ismailis. Razi al-Din II was succeeded by his son Shah Tahir al-Husayni Al-Dakkani, the 31st and most famous of the Mohammad Shahi Imams, who continued to have supporters in Badakhshan and Kabul until the seventeenth century. Shah Tahir (d.952 or 956/1545 or 1549) was in charge of religious affairs of the Ismaili community as a sufi or shaikh in the region close to Qazvin until he was appointed to a professorship in Kashan in 916/1510-11. When Tahir's enemies tried to have him killed Shah Husayn Isfahani, an Ismaili chancellor at that time, informed Shah Tahir of the plot and persuaded him to leave town. Shah Tahir fled Iran and settled in Dakkan in India in 1520.(17) In 1490, the Qasim Shahi Ismailis under the leadership of the 33rd Imam, Abd al-Salam Shah, extended an invitation to the Mohammad Shahis to transfer their allegiance to him. It is believed that the Mohammad Shahis reverted to the Qasim Shahi branch at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Religious writings produced by Ismaili scholars such as Sayed Suhrab Vali Badakhshani in 1452; and Sultan Husayn Ghuriyani Herati, known as Khayrkhaw-e-Herati, who died in 1553, are significant contributions to the literature of the Ismaili faith in the region.(18)
In the early fifteenth century, when the Ismaili Imam established his headquarters for religious activities at Anjudan in Iran, Ismaili religious propaganda had been reinvigorated to the extent that not only could it find new converts, but it could also re-establish its authority over territories far away from the centre. When the Imam had no direct contact with his followers in the post-Alamut period in central Asia, Ismailis gradually came under the authority of local religious leaders who were referred to as Pir. The status of pir gradually became hereditary to the extent that some dynasties of the pirs became entirely independent from the headquarters of the Imam. This situation provided them with the opportunity to enhance their social and financial status. Although Imam Mustansir Billah II (d. 885/1480) began sending his representatives to Afghanistan to undermine the influence of the local pirs by replacing them with his loyal appointees, the tradition continued with local pirs being at the helm of the community's leadership. John Biddulph, a British colonel who visited the Pamirs in 1874, described the close bond between a pir and his followers as follows:
The respect paid to the pirs by their disciples is unbound, nothing is
refused them ... One of them once said ... `if I ordered a father to kill
his own son, he dare not refuse'. Whenever they move about, they are
attended by a large number of followers, who are fed and maintained out of
their superfluities, and they live entirely on the offering of their
disciples. Presents of horses, cattle and the best of everything is given
to the pir.(19)
Badakhshan lost its quasi-autonomy during the reign of Amir Abd al-Rahman in 1880-1901. The Shah of Shughnan, Mir Sayed Akbar, took advantage of the struggle between Abd al-Rahman and Mohammad Eshaq Khan and established his rule in Shughnan with his base in the Barpanja village in 1888. When Abd al-Rahman led an expedition to Shughnan, Sayed Akbar fled to Hisar and remained there until the Russian-British border commission demarcated the boundary lines between Afghanistan and the Russian empire in 1895, recognizing Shughnan as part of Russian territory and Darwaz as part of Afghanistan. This situation enabled Sayed Akbar to return to Shughnan, and he ruled there for two years until the Amir of Bukhara replaced him with a loyal appointee, Eshan Qulibig.(20)
In 1893 Abd al-Rahman reconquered Shughnan, took the Mir of Shughnan, Yusuf Ali Shah, as a hostage and kept him in Kabul under house arrest. After the subjugation of the region Shughnani chiefs pledged their allegiance to Abd al-Rahman and as a token of good will they used to send a number of ghulam bachas (page boys) to the palace to serve the king. Abd al-Rahman admitted the ghulam bachas to a military school in Kabul in order to train them as officers in the royal army whose objective was to serve the king and defend his kingdom. General Mohammad Ali, chief commander of the Kabul Police Department in the 1960s, was one of the ghulam bachas who got promoted to such a high position.(21) In 1893 Abd al-Rahman also succeeded in establishing his domination over Wakhan and appointed Ghafur Khan Qirghiz as governor of Wakhan instead of Ali Mardan, the native chief of Wakhan.(22) After subjugating Badakhshan, Abd al-Rahman appointed administrators and judges from among his Pushtun tribes in the region and coerced the Shiites and Ismailis to attend the Sunni mosques and abandon their religious orientation.(23) The status of Ismaili chiefs was reduced to that of middlemen known as arbab or qaryadar, who were elected by their constituencies and endorsed by the local bureaucracy.
After Abd al-Rahman's death in 1901 his son Habibullah succeeded to the throne and ruled the country until 1919. Habibullah inherited a strong central state and easily eliminated any hindrance to the maintenance of stability of his rule. During his rule the Hanafi school of Islam constituted the principal religious code, forcing the Shiites and Ismailis to submit to the Hanafi legal and judicial authority. The Sunni majority continued to ill-treat and discriminate against Ismailis. When Habibullah was assassinated in 1919 his son Amanullah succeeded him and declared Afghanistan's independence from the British government. The Ismailis' situation improved somewhat in the post-independence period. King Amanullah, who ruled the country until 1929, introduced a new constitution which granted equal status to every national group and individual citizen and permitted the Shiites and other religious sects to practice their faith freely.(24) Although the state did not suppress the Ismailis, the Sunni majority continued to discriminate against them. Ismaili pirs did not have any role in the political decision-making process within the state bureaucracy. Their role was restricted to local politics, in which they commonly acted as intermediaries between the community and government officials.
When King Amanullah strove to establish diplomatic ties with China he sent his envoy Abdul Karim Khan and his entourage, the head of the Indian revolutionary government in exile, Raja Mahendra Pratap of the Ghadr Party, to proceed to China via Sinkiang. The British sought to restrict Afghanistan's foreign relations, unhappy with Amanullah's anti-colonial rhetorics and his support to the national liberation struggle in British India, where he persuaded the Aga Khan to use his influence over his followers in the Pamir region to prevent Amanullah's envoy from crossing the Pamir to China. The British believed that Pratap
could use Sinkiang as a base to stir up troubles in India ... The British
government also alerted its intelligence network in Gilgit and Hunza to
intercept him ... it even used the influence of Aga Khan over his Ismaili
followers in the northern territories of Kashmir to help in his watch.(25)
The hostile situation caused by the attitude of the Sunni majority toward Ismailis was not conducive for the Aga Khan to visit Afghanistan and see his followers. Sultan Mohammad Shah, the 48th Ismaili Imam, known as the Aga Khan III, sent his emissary Pir Sabz Ali to Badakhshan in 1923 to instruct the Pirs to look after the Ismaili community, collect tithes and forward them to him in Bombay.(26) Ismaili pirs in Badakhshan remained subservient to the Kabul regime during the reign of King Mohammad Nadir (1929-34) and his successor Mohammad Zahir (1934-73) and the period of Mohammad Daoud's republican regime in 1973-78. The decades of the 1960s and 1970s were a period of rapid capitalist development and modernization in Afghanistan; however, the Ismaili-settled regions in Badakhshan received barely adequate financial support from the central government. Although a small segment of Badakhshanis were able to build lives of sybaritic comfort for themselves, the overwhelming majority remained poor. Poverty, underdevelopment and lack of employment opportunities and investment by the state dismayed the elites in the Shughnan district. However, it is also estimated that 99 per cent of the population in Shughnan is literate, making the region the hub of social and political activities within the Ismaili community in Badakhshan in the 1970s and 1980s.
The total population of Shughnan is estimated to be 36,240, and the majority of its inhabitants are peasant farmers engaged in agricultural activities. The average size of landholding among big landowners is estimated to be 10-12 hectares, while that among the peasantry is estimated to be 0.5-2 hectares with 15-30 head of cattle.(27) Poor peasants till the land of big landowners on the basis of tenancy, in which the peasant provides instruments of labour and receives between one-third and one-fifth of what is produced during the harvest period. The main agricultural products are wheat, berries, walnuts, apricots and beans. The shorter summer period leaves crops vulnerable to various diseases, and the harsh winters with heavy snowfall make it difficult for residents to travel to neighbouring provinces to purchase essential food items. The community remains dependent on non-Ismaili communities outside of Shughnan. Table 1 shows the social structure in Shughnan.
SOCIAL STRUCTURE IN SHUGHNAN, 1996
Big Landowners 2,938
Small landowners 26,442
Elites Teachers 600 (120 females)
Students 6,000 (Z585 females)
Source: Interviews with Ismaili elites, community elders in Shughnan, Afghanistan, 5 August 1996.
The people of Shughnan have long been discriminated against for their faith by the Pushtuns, Uzbeks and even fellow Tajiks. The Sunni majority in Badakhshan defended their discrimination against the Ismailis on the grounds that they do not have masjid, a mosque with Azan and Iqamat (calls for prayers), ulema or religious theorists and madrasa (religious school). Ismailis have their own masjid known as Jamat Khana and claim to have 25 such establishments in Shughnan. Coercive policies by the Sunni-dominated governments forced Ismailis to build a masjid at the centre of each state administrative district. Its function is primarily to serve the needs of local government employees, travellers and itinerant merchants with business in the area who could spend the night, as there is no other such accommodation for visitors.
The Pirs claim to be Sayeds, or descendants of Prophet Mohammad through his daughter Fatima. They wield significant influence over the Ismailis and they all acknowledge the supreme authority of the Ismaili leader, Karim Aga Khan. There are an estimated 30-40 non-Ismaili Tajik families in Shughnan, who speak the Shughni language and have social and economic ties with the Ismaili majority. The relations between them and the Ismaili majority has been based on mutual respect, co-operation and friendly neighbourliness. Although the Ismailis pray in the Jamat Khana and non-Ismailis in the masjid, they often socialize on social and cultural anniversaries. Table 2 lists the names of Ismaili Pirs in Shughnan.
RELIGIOUS LEADERS OR PIRS IN SHUGHNAN, AFGHANISTAN, 1996
Hasan Ali Shah s/o Mohammad Ali Shah Shughnan
Malek Eirij Shughnan
Shah Sayed Ali Rabat
Sultan Mahmood Chashnud-e-Bala
Yusuf Ali Shah Shughnan
Shah Abdul Mani Chashnud-e-Bala
Source: Interviews with Ismailis in Shughnan, Afghanistan, 5 August 1996.
Expansion of modern education and increased contact with the outside world raised socio-political awareness among the Ismaili elites. This development has, to a greater extent, eroded the influence the Pirs used to enjoy within the Ismaili community. Yet the pirs continue to supervise religious affairs and arbitrate disputes among members of the community. Unable to attend every social, religious and community related function, the Pir appoints a special representative or Khalifa in every village with resident followers. Pir and Khalifa families intermarry within their own circles. Although a man in the family is entitled to marry a woman from outside the circle, their women are not permitted to marry such `commoners'. Ismaili religious and social rules make it unnecessary for Ismailis to seek legal or judicial advice from the local state in resolving their family or community disputes. Table 3 lists the names of Khalifas in Shughnan.
NAMES OF INFLUENTIAL KHALIFAS IN DIFFERENT VILLAGES IN SHUGHNAN, 1996
Hassan Shah Rushan: Wirizin and Chavid
Sayed Jabat Shedwuj
Ali Bakhsh Rushan; Chashnud-e-Payin
Miran Shah Dehshar
Sayed Shah Dehshar; Sarchashma
Ulfat Shah Sarchashma
Sayed Sharif Sarchashma; Darmarakht
Nazri Shah Sarchashma
Shah Sultan Sarchashma
Ayin Ali Shah Sarchashma
Sayed Abul Wiyar
Sayed Hassan Darmarakht
Sayed Akbar Chashnud-e-Bala
Barakat Shah Chashnud-e-Bala
Ghulam Haider Chashnud-e-Bala
Shahgun Sarkar Rabat
Gul Mohammad Shedjan
Mir Hasan Khushachin Chashnud-e-Payin
Source: Interview with Ismailis of Shughnan, Afghanistan, 5 August 1996.
Modern educational institutions and mass media in the early 1960s and 1970s on the one hand and the influence of nationalist and anti-systematic (pro-Soviet and Maoist) ideological movements throughout the country on the other had gradually influenced the Ismaili elites who perceived their backward economy, lower standard of living and inferior social and political status as a by-product of the biased political strategies of the Pushtun-dominated ruling class within the state bureaucracy.(28) They began to seek ways and means to ameliorate their situation and to gain their rightful position within the society. The majority of Ismaili elites maintained that only socialism could remedy their social and economic problems and they could see that their fellow Ismailis across the Oxus river in Gorno-Badakhshan and those in Sinkiang in China apparently enjoyed a more comfortable life under socialism. To accomplish this objective they supported socialism and became members of the pro-Soviet Hizbe-Democratik-e-Khalqi Afghanistan, or Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) which later split into the Khalq (Masses) and Parcham (Banner), and the pro-Beijing organization of Sazman-e-Democratiki Navin-e-Afghanistan or Neo-democratic Organization of Afghanistan, known as Shula-e-Javid. A few Ismailis even remained sympathetic toward Setam-e-Milli, an organization agitating sectarian national ideology.(29)
The April 1978 military coup by army officers loyal to the PDPA toppled the government of Mohammad Daoud and declared Afghanistan a democratic republic. The state under the leadership of Noor Mohammad Taraki and his successor Hafizullah Amin launched a plethora of social, political and economic reforms which ran counter to the interests of the feudal nobility, business establishments and conservative clerics. They began to oppose the regime's programmes and gradually mobilized the people for an armed struggle against the regime. Ismailis supported the government and the Soviet occupation of the country (December 1979-February 1989). They did not heed the call of the Mujahidin for a holy war against the Kabul regime and the Soviet occupation forces for a number of compelling reasons: (a) the Sunni majority had oppressed Ismailis in the past, (b) Ismailis with pro-Soviet political orientations were impressed with the visible material improvement in the standard of living of their co-religionists in Gorno-Badakhshan of the Tajikistan Republic of the Soviet Union, and were convinced that the Soviet-backed government would sponsor similar development programmes in the Ismaili-settled regions in Badakhshan, and (c) they could not withstand Soviet troop concentration a mere few hundred yards away from their villages. The co-optation of Ismaili elites by the local, state and party apparatus was the most significant factor that led the Ismailis to believe that they would no longer be marginalized socially and politically as in the past. A number of Ismailis gained important civil and state positions. A former school teacher from Shughnan, Amirbig Jawan, was appointed governor of Badakhshan, Khushnazar Pamirzad governor of Jawzjan province; Sahibnazar Joya and Zahirbig were assigned to diplomatic posts in China and Tajikistan respectively, and many others gained key positions within the provincial party apparatus. The Ismaili elite in Shughnan maintained amicable ties with the Ismaili community of Baghlan headed by Mansur Nadiri and strove to persuade people to join the state-initiated civic organization, Jabha-e-Padar Watan or the Fatherland Front in defence of the Kabul regime.(30) Nadiri, who established himself as the only ruler of the Ismaili community in central and northern Afghanistan, tried to expand his influence over Ismaili communities of Badakhshan. He built a drug rehabilitation centre in Shughnan and Ishkashim and provided them with medicine.(31) Badakhshani elites and Pirs viewed Nadiri's strategy as an act that undermined their influence and autonomy, and began to disagree with him and withhold their support.
Ismailis supported the Soviet-backed government as it provided educational opportunities for a large number of Ismailis to study in the Soviet republic of Tajikistan as well as in institutions of higher education elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Prominent Ismaili elites in the academic fields are Karam Ali Shah, the author of Badakhshan History, affiliated with the Department of Oriental Studies in Dushanbe, Tajikistan; Qurban Ali Hamzay; Nasiruddin Paykar, who is head of the Department of Russian Language at Kabul University; and Khayr Mohammad, whose speciality is Pamir folklore and who is affiliated to the Academy of Sciences in Afghanistan. Shughnan also counts among local treasures a self-educated poet, Sayed Emamuddin Adim, known as Jayhun, whose poems are read by the people in Shughnan, and a prominent social worker, Karim Nowjo, who is the director of a non-governmental organization (NGO) known as the Rural Welfare Association based in Mazar-e-Sharif, Balkh province. Ismailis hailed the government for signing an agreement with the Soviet republic of Tajikistan extending a power line from Khorog, the administrative centre of Gorno-Badakhshan, to Shughnan in the 1980s. The project provided electricity free of charge to government offices and 60 private homes; however, the power was cut off when Islamists came to power in Afghanistan and could not afford the payment Tajikistan requested. During the Soviet occupation period it is estimated that as many as three per cent of Ismailis lost their lives in the struggle to defend the regime against the Islamists battling for the establishment of an Islamic state.
During the post-Soviet withdrawal period and with the establishment of an Islamic state in Afghanistan in 1992, Ismailis remained supportive of the nominal government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik from Badakhshan. A large number of Ismailis from Badakhshan had been stationed in various military units in Kabul in support of the Rabbani government and fought a pitched battle against the Hazaras and others opposing Rabbani. There is no data available on the casualties inflicted on them. Ismailis in Badakhshan are disappointed that their co-religionists in the Baghlan province, headed by Mansur Nadiri, remained subservient to General Abdul Rashid Dustam, an Uzbek warlord who opposed the Rabbani government. As an advocate of peace and Third World development the Ismaili spiritual leader, Karim Aga Khan, always instructed his followers in Afghanistan to work towards peace and stability. During his visit to Pakistan on 13 November 1994 the Aga Khan addressed a crowd of his followers from various parts of Afghanistan, instructing them that they must
use all their energy, their wisdom, their knowledge, their contacts to
return peace to Afghanistan. This absolute priority of peace is true not
only for Afghanistan, it is true for Tajikistan, it is true for all
countries where there is civil disorder. Society cannot make progress when
there is killing ... Remember also that the Imamat institutions, as soon as
conditions enable this to happen, will assist you to rehabilitate your
economies, your education, the quality of your lives. And what we are doing
in Tajikistan will be available to you in Afghanistan.(32)
During Rabbani's reign as head of state in Kabul non-Ismaili Tajiks remained in charge of social and administrative affairs in Shughnan. The Kabul regime supported Tajikistan's opposition groups battling the government in Dushanbe from their bases in northern Afghanistan. These Tajik fighters and their local supporters in Badakhshan subjected Ismailis in Shughnan to harassment despite their demonstrated loyalty to Rabbani's government. When Karim Aga Khan paid a ten-day visit to Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan in May 1995 local officials did not permit Ismailis to cross the Oxus river to Gorno-Badakhshan; they had to watch their Imam from afar. Continuing harassment by Tajik and Afghan Islamists compelled Ismailis to take matters into their own hands and put an end to outside interference in their domestic affairs. Bahrambig Adeli, a young Ismaili commander who spent several years in a number of Middle Eastern countries during the 1980s, returned to his native town Shughnan, noticed the ill-treatment of his fellow Ismailis by the non-Ismaili Tajik leaders and began to discuss the situation with other elite Ismailis trying to find ways and means to put an end to their suffering. Ismailis organized themselves and during an armed struggle, which took the lives of several people, they succeeded in expelling non-Ismaili forces from Shughnan and seized military and political power themselves. Bahrambig Adeli, commander-in-chief of the Ismaili defence unit, said that he and his supporters informed Kabul of the new development and expressed their allegiance to Rabbani.
In mid-August 1996 Ismaili self-rule collapsed when Tajik opposition groups reorganized themselves, attacked Ismaili military bases and regained control of the region. Information is not yet available concerning the number of war-related casualties in the region; however, a number of Ismailis crossed the Oxus river and appealed to the United Nations military observers' mission in the Gorno-Badakhshan to grant them political asylum there on the grounds that:
We, Ismaili followers from Shughnan district of Badakhshan province of
Afghanistan, want to inform you that as a result of violence by Afghan and
Tajik mujahidin against our faith and dignity, a section of our youth has
been forced to defend their honour and land with weapons. However, some of
them have been massacred. Moreover, the leader of the Tajik mujahidin,
Sayed Abdullo Nuri, has declared a jihad [holy war] against Ismailis on the
radio. The population of Shughnan district was not capable of defending
itself against this offensive and we have been forced to emigrate and to
seek political asylum in the GBAO [Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast] of
the Republic of Tajikistan. We are asking esteemed representatives of the
UN to help us gain asylum in the GBAO, as our co-religionists live there.
We hope you will take us under your protection.(33)
Commander Bahrambig Adeli and his supporters, who claim to be sympathizers of a narrow nationalist political group known as SAZA, were stripped of their power in Shughnan. A pro-Soviet officer of the PDPA Ghulam Shah Jalal, who served as an army officer in various capacities during and after the post-Soviet period in Afghanistan, became the new commander-in-chief of the region.(34) This development occurred after warming ties between the Rabbani government and the Kremlin. The latter perceived the presence of a nationalist movement in Shughnan as a direct threat to stability in the CIS member state of Tajikistan where 25,000 Russian soldiers have been posted to fight Tajik militant Islamic groups operating from their bases in northern Afghanistan.
When the Taliban, a Pushtun-dominated movement started by religious students and backed by Pakistan, seized power in Kabul in September 1996, Rabbani fled to the northern part of the country and abandoned his Badakhshani Ismaili supporters. Dismayed with this new development, Badakhshanis left Kabul for the safety of Pakistan in early November 1996. During their journey to Pakistan they were assisted by their co-religionist Ismailis of Pakistan who provided them with a small amount of aid. There are an estimated 500 Badakhshani families settled in the Malir refugee camp set up by the Ismaili Welfare Board in Karachi. The ongoing civil strive and ethnic cleansing forced an estimated 3,000 Afghan Ismailis of the Hazara and Pushtun tribes to seek refuge in various cities in Pakistan in 1992-96, and Badakhshanis sought refuge in Pakistan when the Taliban militias clambered to power in Kabul. They left Kabul owing to lack of basic food items, to avoid being conscripted into the army to fight a war that holds no meaning for them, and also to escape the Taliban's regressive Islamization policies. A small number of Badakhshani Ismailis who were imprisoned and tortured by the Rabbani regime owing to their differing political views and background supported the Taliban in order to seek revenge against Rabbani. Problems related to adaptation to a different cultural and linguistic environment, lack of employment opportunities (most local Pakistanis are unemployed), and meagre aid to the residents of the camp, compounded by the harsh and callous treatment by a few autocratic administrators of the Ismaili Welfare Board who lack even a rudimentary knowledge of the refugees' traumatic life experience and their psyche, compelled an estimated 180 individuals to return to Afghanistan; those who could not return had no option but to stay in Pakistan.
Ismailis in Badakhshan constitute a minority, yet they are a pivotal religious community. Although Ismailis have been subjected to multitudinous forms of discrimination by the Sunni majority in Badakhshan, the Pushtun-dominated ruling class in the state apparatus have likewise suppressed Tajiks of Sunni and Ismaili persuasions. The central governments did not do anything to improve their standards of living. For this reason the Shughnani intellectuals saw socialism as the only solution to their backward economy and their emancipation and equality. When a pro-Soviet state was established in Afghanistan in April 1978, Ismailis in Badakhshan declared their support for the new state, and remained loyal to the Soviet-backed governments of Babrak Karmal and Najibullah until the establishment of an Islamic state in Kabul in 1992. With the establishment of an Islamic state the armed struggle among various Islamic groups continued unabated. The longer the civil war dragged on the more communal character the war assumed, inciting people to rally behind their ethnic leaders. This situation compelled the Ismailis in Badakhshan to support the Rabbani government.
Owing to Shughnan's mountainous terrain, shorter summer and a long and harsh winter, agricultural production is not sufficient to meet local demands. The community remains dependent on the neighbouring non-Ismaili communities for essential food items. Deterioration of relations between Ismailis and non-Ismailis therefore poses a major threat to the former in regularly obtaining outside supplies or aid. To break their dependence on outside sources for basic survival as well as physical and emotional well-being, Ismailis looked to the state bureaucracy, intending to utilize its resources for the development of their community's productive capacity as well as modernizing and transforming the community's social structure.
The ruling elites in Kabul did not sponsor any development programmes in the Pamir region and Ismaili settled areas in the region remained backward in terms of social and economic development. With economic and technical aid by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) Ismailis would be in a position to transform the Pamir region into a Geo.-administrative centre for an Ismaili authority in the twenty-first century. The Ismailis of the Pamir region reside in Gorno-Badakhshan in Tajikistan, Badakhshan in Afghanistan and Sinkiang in China. Gorno-Badakhshan is well developed in contrast to other Ismaili settled areas in the region, and with its well-entrenched administrative infrastructure and educational institutions (the newly built University of Khorog) it could function as a centre for an Ismaili Authority to lead the Ismailis into the next century. The creation of such a centre would help Ismailis to maintain their religious identity in the face of growing religious orthodoxy and orthopraxy in the region and cultural hegemony by international capital. This idea, while a valid long-term goal, cannot yet be achieved; the Pamir Ismailis must resolve their immediate concerns, to strengthen and promote good relations with non-Ismaili communities and actively participate in the movement for a consociational government to emerge in Afghanistan to stabilize the situation and rebuild the country's infrastructure. Their participation in such a movement would enhance their position in Afghanistan's politics, economic and social developments in the future.
The author would like to express his gratitude to the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) for sponsoring a field trip to Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan and Badakhshan, Afghanistan in August 1996, and to Ghulam Abbas Hunzai and Rashida Hunzai, staff members of the Tariqa Board at the Ismaili Centre in London for their remarks on an earlier version of this article.
(1.) Mirza Fazlalibig, Tarikh-e-Badakhshan [Istoria Badakhshana], edited by A.N. Boldyrev (Leningrad: Izd-vo Leningradskogo Universiteta, 1959), pp. 3-11.
(2.) Hafizullah Emadi, `The Hazaras and their Role in the Process of Political Transformation in Afghanistan', Central Asian Survey, Vol. 16, No.3 (1997), pp. 363-87.
(3.) Hafizullah Emadi, `Minority Group Politics: The Role of Ismailis in Afghanistan's Politics', Central Asian Survey, Vol. 12, No.3 (1993), pp. 379-92.
(4.) Emadi, `The Hazaras and their Role'.
(5.) Bernard Lewis, The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (New York: Basic Books, 1968), pp. 7-8; Marshal G.S. Hudgson, The Order of Assassins: The Struggle of the Early Nizari Ismaili against the Islamic World (The Hague: Mouton and Co. Publishers, 1955).
(6.) Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis: their History and Doctrines (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p.444.
(7.) Emadi, `Politics of Transformation and Ismailis in Gorno-Badakhshan, Tajikistan', Internationales Asienforum 29 (1998).
(8.) Ole Olufsen, Through the Unknown Pamirs: The Second Danish Expedition 1898-99 (London: William Heinemann, 1904). Reprinted (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), p. 210.
(9.) Abdul Hai Habibi, Tarikh-e-Afghanistan bad az Islam [A History of Afghanistan after Islam] (Kabul: Education Press, 1345/1966), pp.873-4.
(10.) Clifford E. Bosworth, The Ghaznavids: Their Empire in Afghanistan and Eastern Iran, 994-1040 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1963), p. 195.
(11.) Daftary, The Isamilis, pp. 120-25.
(12.) Henry Corbin, `Nasir-e-Khusraw and Iranian Ismailism', pp. 520-42, in Richard N. Frye (ed.), The Cambridge History of Iran: The Periods from the Arab Invasion to the Saljugs, Vol.4 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975).
(13.) Fazlalibig, Tarikh-e-Badakhshan, pp. 239-43.
(15.) Ibid, pp, 224-51.
(16.) Daftary, The Ismailis, p.454.
(17.) Said Amir Arjomand, The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam: Religion, Political Order, and Societal Change in Shiite Iran from the Beginning to 1890 (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp.113-14.
(18.) Daftary, The Isamilis, p.441.
(19.) John Biddulph, Tribes of the Hindoo Koosh (Um ein Vorwort Vermehrter der 1880; reprinted Graz, Austria: Akademische Druck-u-Verlagsanstalt, 1971) p. 119.
(20.) Fazlalibig, Tarikh-e-Badakhshan, pp. 230-33.
(21.) B. Kushkaki, Rahnuma-e-Qataghan wa Badakhshan [Guide to Qataghan and Badakhshan] (Kabul: Ministry of Defence, 1923), pp. 336-41.
(22.) Mir Munshi Sultan Mahomed Khan (ed.), The Life of Abdur Rahman Khan Amir of Afghanistan, Vol.2 (London: John Murray, 1900). Reprinted (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1980), p. 145.
(23.) Hasan K. Kakar, Government and Society in Afghanistan: The Reign of Amir Abd al-Rahman Khan (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979), p. 160.
(24.) Hafizullah Emadi, State, Revolution and Superpowers in Afghanistan (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1990); Politics of Development and Women in Afghanistan (New York: Paragon House Publishers, 1993); Afghanistan's Gordian Knot: An Analysis of National Conflict and Strategies for Peace (Honolulu: East-West Center, 1991).
(25.) Ram Rahul, Afghanistan, Mongolia and China (New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 1992), pp. 13-14.
(26.) Zulfiqar Khalid, Pakistan in the Pamir Knot (Lahore, Pakistan: Vanguard Books Ltd., 1987), p. 21.
(27.) Discussion with Azam Rusta, director of Bakhtar News Agency in Shughnan, Afghanistan, 5 Aug. 1996.
(28.) Hafizullah Emadi, China's Foreign Policy Toward the Middle East (Karachi: Royal Book Company, 1977); also see `China's Politics and Developments in Afghanistan', Journal of Asian and African Studies, Vol.28, Nos. 1 & 2 (January-April 1993), pp. 107-17.
(29.) Interview with an Ismaili elite who wished to remain anonymous, Shughnan, Afghanistan, 5 Aug. 1996.
(30.) Interview with a Badakhshani Ismaili elite in Karachi, Pakistan, March 1997.
(31.) Hope and Anguish (London: Afghanaid, 1993-94), Report published in 1995, p. 35.
(32.) His Highness the Aga Khan. Address to Ismaili Communities in Pakistan, Farman Mubarak of Mowlana Hazar Imam, 13 Nov. 1994, Islamabad, Pakistan, 5pp.
(33.) `Ismaili Ethnic Group Asks UN for Asylum in Tajikistan', BBC Summary of World Broadcasts, Part 3, Asia-Pacific, South Asia; Afghanistan, FE/D2706/A/2 Sept. 1996.
(34.) Interview with Badakhshani Ismaili intellectuals in Karachi, Pakistan, 1997.
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