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Encyclopaedia of Ismailism by Mumtaz Ali Tajddin

The word chiragh is derived from the Syriac shrag or shragh, meaning lamp, and Chiragh-i Rawshan means shining or luminous lamp, which is one of the oldest surviving Ismaili traditions in Central Asia. It is an assembly (majalis) of the believers, where a lamp is illumined, which is its hallmark, and the Koranic verses are chanted for the eternal peace of the departed soul, or for the prosperity of one who is alive.

It appears in the Northern Area of Pakistan that a white cloth is spread on the ground and a lamp (chiragh) is burned in the middle. No other light is allowed to be kept or used as long as this lamp remains burning. The Koranic verses and other religious formula are recited while preparing the wicks of the lamp and inserting the oil made of the fat of sacrificial animal. With loud chanting of salawat, the qadi stands in front of the khalifa (headman) and places the lamp down again three times. It exhorts the Oneness of Divine Light in the universe, but has three relations: the relation to God, the Prophet and the Imam of the age. When the lamp is kindled, the believers deduce that the Imam is the bearer of the Light of God on earth. It is also known from the rites of Afghanistan and other regions of Central Asia that a piece of salt is put into the pan of the grained wheat (dalda), in which a knife is kept. Then, a certain amount of cotton is put into a pot. Someone picks up the pan in recitation of the salawat and presents to the khalifa. The participants stand up in reverence and the khalifa raises his hands and invokes a prayer of twenty-seven verses. The proceeding is followed by the sacrifice of a sheep, which is called dawati. It should not be lean or skinny. It should be fatty, so that the lamp may be burned from the oil of its fat, called rogan-e-zard. The sheep is thoroughly washed. Then, the khalifa picks up the piece of salt with his left hand and smashes into small pieces with the knife holding in his right hand. He relieves the knife and takes salts and three pieces from the grained wheat and puts on the palm of his right hand, mixing them and passes on to his assistant, who gets the sheep to eat the mixture. The khalifa utters the takbir and his assistant facing towards the qibla, slaughters the sheep. It follows the rite of cotton-making (kar pakhta). The khalifa picks up the cotton and gets it touched to his forehead and prepares a long wick (fatila) for the lamp amidst the chanting of the verses of Chiragh-nama. This long wick is folded and the khalifa holds its circle in his finger, who cuts it into respectable pieces. Then, the ghee (rogan-e-zard) is poured into a bowl (chinni). The khalifa puts some ghee in the lamp (kandil), then he drenches all the wicks in the bowl. His assistant takes out the wicks and squeezes to make them ready for burning. Then, the wick is inserted in the lamp and lighted. It is placed in the lantern, which is usually made of a special stone (sang-i sanglej), looking like a ship. The lamp is gray in colour.

A.E. Bertels writes in Nasir-i- Khosrove-i Ismailizm (Moscow, 1959) that the tradition of Chiragh-i Rawshan originated in Badakhshan, whose inhabitants were the fire-worshippers and brought it in the Ismaili fold, which seems absolutely incorrect. The oral tradition attributes its introduction by Nasir Khusrao (d. 481/1088) during operation of his proselytizing mission in Badakhshan, but it also cannot be ascertained. Nasir Khusrao used to arrange the assemblies (majalis) in the villages, known as majalis-i dawat. It is however gleaned from different views that the majalis-i dawat later took the present form of majalis-i chiragh-i rawshan.

The word chiragh, dipak, kandil, fanus, siraj or misbah are common terms for the lamp. In Greek, it is called lampas (torch), in German lampein (to shine), in Roman liex or luc (light) and in French lampe or lampas. The lamp was invented in Stone Age about 70,000 B.C., which was a hollow-out rock filled with fat. It was followed by an invention of a pottery lamp, in which oil was burned in Mediterranean regions. Example from about 2000 B.C. has come from Greek rock tombs in Palestine. Sometimes shaped as bird or fish, and it spread in Iran, Africa, Asia and Rome. No lamp existed in Greece till 7th century B.C. The oldest lamp is a shallow stone basin discovered from French Paleotilic. The Hebrew word lappidh also means lamp, and its description is found in the Old Testament: "God commanded that a lamp filled with the purest oil of olives should always burn in Tabernacle of the Testimony without the veil" (Exod. 27:20). The Arabic word misbah (pl. masabih) means lamp, occurring three times in the Koran, once in singular (24:35) and twice in plural (41:12, 67:5). Another word for the lamp is siraj (pl. surujun), occurring four times in the Koran (25:61, 33:46, 71:16 and 78:13). The light of the Prophet is also compared to a luminous lamp (siraj'i munir) in the Koran (33:46). It infers from the Diwan (Cairo, 1933, 1:44) of Ibn Hani (d. 362/973) that each Fatimid Imam was considered to be an emanation of the Divine Light, and numerous epithets described his brilliance and luminousness: al-agharr, al-azhar, al-mutalliq, al-mutadaffiq, al-mutaballij or al-wadda. As the construction of Cairo continued, new mosques would come to be known by names evoking this special quality associated with the Imam: al-Azhar, al-Anwar or al-Aqmar.

It is related that Jadhima al-Abrash was the first to originate the use of wax candle and lamp for lighting in Arab. After the migration of the Prophet in Medina, the first thing to be done was to build a cathedral mosque. It was constructed on a plot, measuring 54 yards width and 60 yards in length, known as the Prophet's Mosque (Masjid-i-Nabwi). It is said that the palm-leaves (sa'af al-nakhl) were burnt for lighting the interior of the mosque. Qurtubi (d. 671/1272) writes in al-Ta'rif fil Ansab (Cairo, 1987, p. 252) that a Syrian merchant, called Tamim al-Dhari (d. 40/660) brought a lamp (kandil) with oil and wick from his homeland Syria to Medina and donated for the mosque. His lighting of a lamp in the mosque was an important social event, which was not only approved but also recommended by the Prophet who, gave him a nickname of Siraj (lamp). Thus, the use of lamps at night in mosque became a universal practice among Muslims. The Prophet is said to have permitted a woman, Maymuna to send oil in Jerusalem sanctuary (bayt al-muqadis) in order to light the lamps (Abu Daud, 1:48). Azraki writes in Akhbar al-Mekka (Beirut, 1964, 1:200) that the first to illuminate the Kaba was Ukba bin al-Azrak, whose house was next to the mosque, just on the makam; here he placed a large lamp (misbah). Khalid bin Abdullah al-Kasri was first to place a lamp on a pillar of the zamzam beside the Black Stone. In 216/831, a new lamp-post was put up on the other side of the Kaba.

It was a custom of Ali bin Abu Talib to cause his friends to meet him in his house in Kufa and lit a lamp in their midst. In the Mosque of al-Azhar writes Makrizi (4:36) and elsewhere the lamp (kandil) was often of silver. In 400/1009, large candelabra were made in Egypt, which from their shapes were called tannur (stoves). Imam al-Hakim presented the Mosque of Amr with a tannur made out of 100,000 dhirams of silver; the mosque doors had to be widened to admit it. He also give it two other lamps. In the Mosque of al-Hakim, the Imam also sent candle lanterns and lamps, and made similar gifts to al-Azhar and other mosques: the lamps were of gold and silver (Makrizi, 4:51). Ibn Taghribirdi (2:105) writes that the lamps so given by Imam al-Hakim were placed in the mosques with great ceremony, with blasts of trumpets and beating of drums. Nasir Khusaro reported in his Safarnama (tr. W.M. Thackston, New York, 1986, pp. 55-58) a widespread use of lamps, made of brass and silver in the holy places of Hebron, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. He further noted that the lamp oil, called zayt harr was derived from turnip seed and radish seed. He also wrote that in the mosque of Cairo, there was a huge silver lamp holder or chandelier with sixteen branches, each of which was 1½ cubits long. Its circumference was 24 cubits, and it could hold as many as seven hundred odd lamps on holiday evenings. The weight is said to be 25 kantars of silver, a kantar being 100 rotls, a rotl being 144 silver dhirams. More than a hundred lamps were kindled in the mosque of Cairo every night. On the north side of the mosque was a bazar Suq al-Kandil (lamp market).

When Imam Muhammad al-Bakir died in 114/733, his son Imam Jafar Sadik ordered to lit a lamp in the house (al-Kafi, 3: 25). The tradition also indicates that a lamp was also kindled in the house when Imam Jafar Sadik died in 148/765. It is probable that the adherents would have started the practice in their regions. Ibn Abi Usaybia (1:165) writes that, “Inspired from this practice, the Abbasid caliph al-Mutasim (218-227/833-842) was on his deadbed in 227/842, and also asked that the prayer should be performed over him with candles and incense (bi ‘l-sham wa’l bukhur).

It is still insoluble, how and when this obscure rite entered into the Ismaili tradition?

In India, the three centuries of Muslim rule (603-933/1206-1526), generally known as the Sultanate period, witnessed the rise and fall of five dynasties: the Slave (603-690/1206-1290), the Khaljis (690-720/1290-1320), the Tughlaqs (720-816/1320-1413), the Syeds (816-855/1414-1451) and the Lodis (855-933/1451-1526). Then, the Mughal empire was founded in 933/1526. Qutbuddin Aibak (d. 607/1210) was the first Turkish king of the Slave dynasty in India, whose armies had evolved and developed in Iranian lands, and consequently the Iranian stamp was very deep upon them. The armies were modelled on the armies of Iran with the same arms, equipment and tactics. The slaves of the imperial household maintained the Iranian tradition in Delhi. These Turks, in their social life also followed the Iranian customs, etiquettes and ceremonials. The old Iranian customs of zamindos (ground kissing) was also introduced. India specially provided benign climate to the festival of Shab-i Barat, which was festivated for four days.

Shab-i Barat (night of quittancy) is a popular fete among the general Muslims, which takes place on the 14th of the month of Sha’ban. Its native land is Iran, and the Slave dynasty brought and spread it in Indian soil, where the people very rapidly found it coherence in their own tradition. On this day, the people assembled and make offerings of bread, sweet rice, halwa and flasks of water and offered prayers and intercessions for the departed souls. According to Muslim Festivals in India (Paris, 1831, tr. W. Waseem, New Delhi, 1995, pp. 76-77) that the people kindled lamp (chiragh) and recited the following prayer, known as the Fatiha Chiraghan:

“O God, through the merit of the light of the apostolate, our Lord Muhammad, may the lamp that we burn on this holy night, be for the dead a guarantee of the eternal light which we pray to you for. O God of ours! Deign to admit them in the room of unchanging felicity”

Having expressed the above intention, they recited the first and the 102nd chapters of the Koran. This ceremony lasted for three days. There was a popular custom also to send lamps to the mosque, vide I’jaz-i Khusaro (Lucknow, 1876, 4:324) by Amir Khusaro (d. 820/1325).

The festival of Shab-i Barat fostered and dressed in Iran, and then introduced in Afghanistan and India also under the name of Fatiha Chiraghan during the 12th century, and it is possible that the Ismailis of Afghanistan had certain proclivity towards it. Thanks to an oral tradition in this context shrouded in mist for centuries in Tajikistan, which is a key to solve the complications hitherto remained unsolved. The tradition has it that an Ismaili, called Taj Mughal (d. 725/1325) of Badakhshan was deadly against the festival of Shab-i Barat. He transformed the local traditional assembly, called majalis-i dawat into a specific rite in the house, where a death took place. In the midst, a lamp was kindled and the Koranic verses and the qasida of Nasir Khusaro were recited. It was an original, rather crude form of the presently known ceremony of chiragh-i rawshan. The selected qasida were reserved for it, whose collection later became known as the Chiragh-nama, which is traditional more and historical less. We should however not ignore that the concept of majalis-i dawat was originally introduced by Nasir Khusaro about two hundred years before the advent of Taj Mughal.

Taj Mughal was an origin of Badakhshan, where he had given shelter to Shah Ra’is Khan of Trakhan dynasty of Gilgit and Hunza. Shah Ra’is Khan embraced Ismailism and married to the daughter of Taj Mughal. After some years he persuaded Taj Mughal to occupy Gilgit. Thus, he mustered a sizable force and conquered Chitral at first, then Yasin, Koh Ghizr and Puniyal were subdued. He entered Gilgit, ruled by Torra Khan (d. 735/1335), who submitted and espoused Ismaili faith. Shah Ra’is Khan became the ruler of Chitral, where he founded the Ra’isia dynasty and promulgated Ismailism. It was at this time that the Ismaili faith penetrated in Gilgit, Hunza and Chitral with the indescribable efforts of Taj Mughal. He is said to have proceeded to Sikiang through Pamir. The historians have described an extensive territory under his domination. On the north greater part of Turkistan, on the west the whole area including the city of Herat, and on the south-east right upto the border of Chitral. It implies that when the rite of chiragh-i rawshan was in its formative stage, Taj Mughal spread it in most parts of the Central Asia. The veracity of this tradition however cannot be substantiated from the extant sources, nevertheless, it cannot be brushed aside as untrue. Whether historically true or not, the above tradition embodies certain grains of truth.

In the course of its evolution, the ceremony was reserved for a long time only for the dead person, and was performed not on the night of 14th Sha’ban. It is also likelihood that the reason for giving it the ceremonial name of chiragh-i rawshan was to distinguish it with the rite of the Shab-i Barat, known as the fatiha chiraghan.

The chiragh-i rawshan was not emanated from Shab-i Barat, but exercised a safeguard against it. Neither the fireworks are conducted, nor the graves are venerated, and also no specific time is fixed for it. Later, it was divided in four different assemblies (majalis), namely dawat-i fana, dawat-i baqa, dawat-i safa and dawat-i raza. The last two majalis are now not practised.

Majalis-i Dawat-i Fana
It almost resembles the practice of the ruhani majalis prevalent in the Indian tradition. When one dies, his family members and relatives assemble in his house for three days, known as the dawat-i fana. His family does not cook food for three days, but only a lamp is kindled. Major J. Biddulph writes in Tribes of the Hindoo Koosh (Karachi, 1977, p. 123) that, “On the evening of the appointed day, a caliph comes to the house, and food is cooked and offered to him. He eats a mouthful and places a piece of bread in the mouth of the dead man’s heir, after which the rest of the family partakes. The lamp is then lighted, from which the ceremony is called “Chirag Roshan,” and a six-stringed guitar called gherba being produced, singing is kept up for the whole night.”

The dawat-i fana exhorts that when a believer dies, it is his physical death not spiritual. His soul quits the earthy body and assumes celestial body (jism-i falaki). He was a dark himself on earth, but now he becomes light. The brightness is thus eluded symbolically in the lamp. There is a separation among bodies, but not in the light. There is nothing except union in the light after death. It emanates in another interpretation that the fire denotes ardent love and its light is the knowledge, therefore, unless a believer burns in the fire of love with Imam, the light of knowledge is not sparked in his heart. It will be interesting to note that Missionary Muhammad Murad Ali Juma (1878-1966), known as Bapu died in Bombay on February 4, 1966. In his message of February 14, 1966, the Imam said: “I grieved greatly the loss of one of my most devoted spiritual children. His services were above reproach and he was a Candle of Light and example to my jamats.”

Majalis-i Dawat-i Baqa

"The chiragh-i rawshan is also solemnized for the longevity, prosperity and blessing of a person who is alive, known as dawat-i baqa. It also corresponds with the Indian tradition of the hayati majalis. It also exhorts that the Imam is an Everlasting Guide and Epiphany (mazhar) of God on earth. The believers must kindle the lamp of Divine Light in their hearts. Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah also said, “The lamp of the Divine Light exists in you and your hands. This is spoken metaphorically. This lamp always exists in you all” (Zanzibar, 13/9/1899).

This assembly’s purpose is also to reflect upon the unique wisdom of the ayat al-misbah (the lamp verse) of the Koran (24:35), in which God has compared His Light with a lamp. On that occasion, the person seeks forgiveness of his sins, and resolves to lead a virtuous life.

The tradition of chiragh-i rawshan deeply influenced the religious and social life of the Ismailis. It executed an ideal platform of the Ismailis for centuries, who were scattered in different villages of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Northern Areas of Pakistan and other regions of Central Asia. It reflects an illustration of impermeable unity of the Ismailis in past.

It is said that an Ismaili da'i of Badakhshan, called Syed Yakut Shah visited Iran in 1253/1837 to see Imam Hasan Ali Shah in Mahallat. The Imam is reported to have accorded him permission to launch proselytizing mission in Gilgit and Hunza, including retention of the tradition of chiragh-i rawshan."

Pir Sabzali (1884-1938) had been in Badakhshan during his travel in Central Asia in 1923. He participated the majalis-i chiragh-i rawshan in a village, and seriously noted the defective content of the Chiragh-nama being recited in its rites. He pointed out and promised to provide them its approved copy from the Recreation Club Institute. Later, a good copy was sent in 1924 from Bombay.

It is still practiced with same spirit, vein and devotion. Muhammad Jamal Khan (1912-1976), the Mir of Hunza had written a letter to the Imam on September 4, 1965 regarding the fate of chiragh-i rawshan. In his reply of September 30, 1965, the Imam declined the request submitted to abandon the tradition of chiragh-i rawshan.

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