Welcome to F.I.E.L.D.- the First Ismaili Electronic Library and Database. Guests are not required to login during this beta-testing phase

The Ismailis of Afghanistan: ISMAILI MISSION IN AFGHANISTAN

The Ismaili mission in Afghanistan is almost blanketed in mist. How and when the Ismaili mission (dawa) penetrated Afghanistan is in mystery and under the shadow of much ambiguity. The accessible sources can very little explore the spread of Ismailis dawa and also the names and brief biographies of the missionaries or dais. There is no local narrative in writing except the verbal informations, which usually came down from generation to generation. The reason of this ambiguous and darkness have many aspects: The hostile surroundings in the locations of the Ismailis, the unbearable attitude of the ruling powers and local chief tribes, the fanatic and prejudice approaches of ulema class, etc. The ulema all the times branded the Ismailis as heretics and issued savage judgment against them. The Ismailis were tortured and put to death as an act of Islamic service. It caused the Ismailis not to produce scholars or writers in Afghanistan for many centuries. Besides, there were immense difficulties on the field of communication with the Imam of the age, also the scattered dispersion and above all their absolute minority were the main reasons. Most of them had to settle in the mountainous villages of central parts and remote places of northern areas. The hovering fear of persecution forced them to maintain complete secrecy of their faith and assumed taqiya (dissimulation) during last five centuries.

During the pre-Fatimid period, the Samanids of Samarkand and Bukhara had penetrated their power in the territories of Afghanistan. The Ismaili mission was brisk in Khorasan between 903 and 913. Nasr bin Ahmad (d. 914) was an ardent Ismaili ruler in the Samanid dynasty, but there is no any sound indication whether the Ismailis entered in Afghanistan by the Ismailis dais in his period. It is however possible that the dais working under Hatim ar-Razi (874-934), An-Nasafi (d. 942) or Abu Yaqub as-Sijistani (883-996), etc. had visited the villages of Afghanistan. It is worthwhile to write that the Abbasids took notice of the rapid conversion of the Ismailis in Khorasan, notably the Samanid ruler, Nasr bin Ahmad, who insinuated his son, Nuh bin Nasr (942-954) to take field against the Ismailis. Nuh bin Nasr dethroned his father and conducted a barbarous and merciless massacre of the Ismailis in 942. This event is known in the Ismaili history as al-mainat al-uzama (great calamity) in Khorasan and Transoxania. An-Nasafi and his chief associates were also executed in the wild operations at Bukhara in 943, and as such, Nasir Khusraw (1003-1088) called him Khwaja-i Shahid and Shaikh al-Shahid. It may be safely surmized that most of the surviving Ismailis were impelled to quit Bukhara and Samarkand and took refuge in the northern regions of Afghanistan.

Before proceeding with the thread of our narration, we must refer one important historical factor. Imam Muizz (d. 975) had sent Jaylam bin Shayban in Multan, where the latter founded a Fatimid vassal state in Multan in 960. In the meantime, Alaptagin (d. 963) founded the Ghaznavid Empire in Afghanistan. The sixth ruler, Mahmud (998-1030) seized Ghazna and made it his capital. In 1001, Mahmud debauched from the snow-clad hills along the northwestern frontier of India, marched through Khybar Pass and swooped down upon India. In short, he invaded India no fewer than 12 times between 1001 and 1030. When he was returning from his expedition to Bhatinda in 1005, he invaded Multan in 1006. In 1010, he once again spurred his horses towards Multan and launched a terrible massacre of the Ismailis. Abul Fatah Dawood, the then Ismaili ruler of Multan was taken prisoner. He was imprisoned in the fort of Ghurak, about 50 miles northwest of Kandahar, where he died in 1015. So came an end of the Fatimid rule in Multan. The Ismailis who escaped from slaughter, fled to Mansurah below Multan. The Ismaili influence reverberated in Mansurah, and their foothold can be judged from the report that the last Habbarid ruler of Mansurah, Amaduddin Khafif espoused Ismailism. Mansurah emerged next as an Ismaili state after Multan soon to be wiped out by the sworn enemy of Ismailism. This time Mahmud poured down his mighty force towards Mansurah and destroyed its rule in 1025.

The bloody operations of Mahmud of Ghazna must have affected the morale of the Ismailis of Kabul and Kandahar between 1006 and 1025, most possibly had forced them to profess taqiya. The mission work most possibly had been also passive.

The Ismaili power once again emerged in Multan by the descendant of Abul Fateh Dawood. In 1176, Shihabuddin Ghori (d. 1206) in his bid to revive Mahmud’s hostile tradition, had captured Multan. The small Ismaili state could not withstand the onslaught of the mighty military machine of the Ghorids.

During the period of Imam Mustansir billah, Nasir Khusraw (d. 1088) was designated as a hujjat of Khorasan and Badakhshan. He came from Khorasan and launched mass conversion in Central Asia. According to Encyclopaedia of Islam (London, 1913, 1: 553), "In the 5th (11th) century, the doctrine of the Ismailites was brought to Badakhshan by the poet Nasir-i-Khusraw, and disseminated there with success." When public pressure against him escalated, he found refuge in Yamghan, in the court of Ali bin al-Asad, an intellectual Ismaili prince in the mountainous region of Badakhshan. Thus Yamghan became synonymous with prison, where he died.

The reduction of Alamut rule in Iran by Halagu Khan in 1256 have had a tremendous impact upon the Iranian Ismailis, impairing their morale to great extent. It demolished and annihilated the progressive civilization and culture of the Ismailis. They were absolutely disorganized and disoriented. Those who had escaped the main brunt of the Mongol onslaughts had taken harbour in other regions, notably Kohrasan and Afghanistan. The Ismailis who were origins of Badakhshan were relatively not accessible to the Mongol sword during the turbulent period, and continued to develop a distinctive tradition of their own. Aziz Nasafi was a celebrated Sufi master in Central Asia, whom the Ismailis of Badakhshan considered as an Ismaili scholar. Nothing is known about his religious activities. He immigrated to Iran, where he died in 1262. His Sufic treatise, Zubat al-Haqaiq is still famous in Badakhshan.

It should be noted that the Ismailis scattered on mountains and villages of Afghanistan almost were unknown about the reduction of Alamut rule, because their communication through vakils and dais had collapsed for over 150 years.
In Gilgit sub-region, the Trakhan was a leading dynasty of local rulers. In the period of Torra Khan (1310-1335), his cousin Raja Rais Khan left Gilgit and took refuge in Badakhshan in the house of an Ismaili dai, Taj Mughal (d. 1325). Raja Rais Khan was received with great pomp, who embraced Ismailism. He also married to the daughter of Taj Mughal. Raja Rais Khan persuaded Taj Mughal to invade Gilgit with his followers. Taj Mughal conquered Chitral and subdued Yasin, Koh Khizr and Punial Gilgit, ruled by Torra Khan, who also accepted Ismailism. Taj Mughal launched pervasive mission and said to have dominated on the north greater part of Turkistan, on the west the whole area including the city of Herat, and on the southeast right upto the border of Chitral.

Pir Shams (d. 1356) arrived in India from Daylam. He visited Badakhshan and brought many followers of Momin Shahi sect within the Ismaili fold. After visiting Gilgit and Tibet, he returned to Ghazna, where he deputed a local converted prince towards Badakhshan on a mission work.

Sayed Suhrab Wali Badakhshani was hailed from Herat and passed his life in Badakhshan and Kabul as a local missionary. In his writing, he mentions the date 1452, which suggests that he lived in the period of Imam Muhammad bin Islam Shah (d. 1463), Imam Mustansir billah II (d. 1475) and Imam Abdus Salam (d. 1493). It appears from his Nur-nama that he most probably was influenced with the teachings of the dais of Pir Shams in Badakhshan to some extent. He however continued to impart the teachings of Nasir Khusraw. He was followed by his son Sayed Umar Yamghani, whose descendants and followers continued Ismaili mission around Badakhshan and in the central part of Afghanistan.

Imam Mustansir billah II is also related to have deputed a certain Baba Shahidi in Herat, who came with Abdur Rahman Jami and taught the religious education to the local people.

Scanning safely the meagre chains of traditions, it emanates that the credit to launch mass conversion in the villages of Hazarajat goes to a certain Pir Murad and his two brothers, who were formerly aggressive to the Ismailis. He was an origin of Behsud professing the faith of the Ithna Asharis. It is said that he was greatly touched with the esoteric practice and embraced Ismailism. He converted his two brothers, Mohammad Murad and Bahi Murad, and learnt much about Ismaili tariqah. He is said to have travelled in Iran to behold the Imam. The tradition has it that he launched his mission in Central Afghanistan and brought a concourse of the people of Siasang and other parts of Hazarajat to the Ismaili fold. He died and buried in Behsud. Pir Murad was succeeded by by his son, Akhund Kalb-i Ali, who mostly propagated in Behsud. His younger brother, Akhund Asghar is reported to have lanuched the mission widely for 12 years. Akhund Zargan Ali, the son of Akhund Kalb-i Ali spread the mission in Quli Khish, Shikali, etc. He was followed by his son, Akhund Sarwar Ali, who in turn, succeeded by Akhund Shafi (d. 1947). Later on, his son Abdul Ali (d. 1986) joined the Naderi group.

It appears that the Ismaili mission was organized for the first time after the reduction of Alamut in Anjudan in the time of Imam Gharib Mirza (d. 1496). According to the new system, the Imam was followed by a single hujjat, known as hujjat-i azam, who generally resided at headquarters. He administered the framework of the mission and served as an assistant of the Imam. Next, there was a single category of dai at large, being selected from among the educated class. The dais remained in close contact of the headquarters. The next lower rank was mu’allim (teacher), who was the head of the mission activities in a specific region. He was appointed by the hujjat. He was however assisted by ma’dhun-i akbar (the senior licentiate), who was empowered to make conversion at his disposal and judgement. Another assistant of the mu’allim was called ma’dhum-i asghar (junior licentiate), who could discharge his work upon the instruction of mu’allim. In Afghanistan, the ma’dhun-i akbar gradually became known as pir and ma’dhun-i asghar was known as khalifa. Sometimes, one person held the office of pir and khalifa. In sum, the new system mostly was operative in Iran, Afghanistan and other regions of Central Asia. The tradition of vakil however was retained, who collected tithe in different villages. On the contrary, the Ismailis recognized three categories of people in the world. Firstly, the opponents of the Imam (ahl-i tadad). Secondly, the ordinary followers of the Imam (ahl-i tarattub), also known as ahl-i haq, who were also divided into the strong (qawiyan), comprised of the dais, mu’allims and ma’dhums and the weak (da’ifan). Thirdly, the followers of union (ahl-i wahda), also called as the high elite (akhas-i khas)

Muhammad Shah (d. 1404), the son of Mumin Shah (d. 1338), the son of Imam Shamsuddin Muhammad (d. 1310) was an eminent saint (sadat) in Khwand and acquired few powers in the locality of Daylam. He was succeeded by his son, Raziuddin I (d. 1429), who in turn was succeeded by his son, Muhammad Tahir Shah (d. 1462). His son Raziuddin II (d. 1509) had gone to Badakhshan from Sistan in 1508 for mission purpose. He is reported to have established his rule over a large part of Badakhshan with the help of the Ismailis in the time of certain Taymurid amir, called Mirza Khan (d. 1520). Raziuddin II was killed in the local tribal fighting in 1509. Mirza Khan then executed many Ismailis in Badakhshan, forcing them to migrate in the present territories of Afghanistan.

Muhammd Reza bin Sultan Hussain Ghuriyan Herati, or better known, as Khayr Khwah Herati was an origin of Herat at the end of 15th century. His father Sultan Hussain was a native of Ghriyan in Afghanistan, where he served as Imam’s vakil. He was also a head of the Ismaili affairs in the region of Herat and other cities in northern Afghanistan, even the borders of China and India.

Once the Imam summoned him in Iran through a messenger, Nur Mahmud, he started his journey along with Khwaja Kassim Kohistani, but was killed by brigands in Khorasan. His son Khayr Khwah, who was then 19 years old, was taken in his father’s place despite the objection of few elders of the jamat. He visited Anjudan and saw the Imam. He had been given training of Ismaili mission and was sent to Mashhad for learning Arabic. Finally, he was appointed a chief dai in place of his father in Afghanistan. He died most possibly after 1553.

Imam Khalilullah Ali I (d. 1585) seem to have organized a best system of his contacts with the Ismailis of many places, including Afghanistan. He is said to have employed a certain Zayn al-Abidin bin Hussain bin Khushnam Angawani (d. 1554), who knew many languages. He had been assigned to write letters, bearing official seal of the Imam, for the jamats.

It suggests that the Ismaili faith and their influences were fully spread out in Afghanistan during 16th century. There is no any indication of the Ismaili mission for a century after the period of Khayr Khwah Herati due to the vortex of politics and persecutions.

In upper Oxus, Mir Shah Amir Beg of Shagnan was a powerful ruler in Central Asia. He had left behind an inscription at Khorog, dating 1779 or 1780. His son, Shah Wanji Khan had exiled the fire-worshippers from Shagnan, and extended his influence in Badakhshan and Chitral. His son Kubad Khan is said to have violently harassed the local Ismailis. He was however overthrown by his brother, Yusuf Ali Shah in 1814. In his time, the Ismaili dais worked actively in Afghanistan and its surrounding lands.

Sayed Karamali Shah hailed from Iran and lived in Mahallat. He mostly remained in the company of Mirza Muhammad Bakir, the brother of Imam Abul Hasan Shah (d. 1792), who taught him the esoteric aspects of Islam. Sayed Karamali Shah was deputed in Badakhshan and Chitral, where he launched pervasive mission and died in Yasin.

Sayed Shah Ardabil was also a famous missionary in Badakhshan. He is reputed to have converted Mir Saleem Khan II, the ruler of Trakhan dynasty in Gilgit, who died in 1823.

The ancestors of Sayed Yakut Shah, the son of Sayed Shah Abbas Abdur Rahim had propagated Ismailism in Central Asia including Badakhshan. He also visited Iran to see Imam Hasan Ali Shah, and then launched his proselytizing mission in Badakhshan.

The British had grown to be a paramount power in India in the course of 18th and early 19th century. About the time that Imam Hasan Ali Shah was having troubles in Iran, the British were deeply involved in Afghanistan, and their efforts were aimed at establishing in Kabul a rule that would be friendly to Britain, and prevent the Soviet influence penetrating the borders of India. The British occupied Afghanistan in August 7, 1839 and placed Shah Shuja (1780-1842) on the throne of Kabul and Kandahar. Imam Hasan Ali Shah left Iran in 1841 and arrived India via Afghanistan. He trekked inside Afghanistan from Girishk to Kandahar in August 1841. He had a meeting with Muhammad Taymur, the appointed governor of British India in Kandahar and Major Henry Rawlinson (1810-1895). The political arena in Afghanistan had become so hodgepotch that no Ismailis could freely visit Kabul or Kandahar to see Imam Hasan Ali Shah. Sayed Shah Hussain, the then Mukhi of central and northern parts of Afghanistan however managed to see the Imam in Kandahar.

The British forces quitted Kandahar on August 9, 1842 for Quetta, the Imam stayed for about six weeks with Sardar Sherdil Khan. By the end of November 1842, the Imam came in Sind.

When the Imam Hasan Ali Shah settled himself in Bombay, he is said to have deputed his Iranian men as his commissioners in Afghanistan. In most cases, the Imam sent his sealed letters in Persian in Kabul, which are still in possession of the Afghan Ismailis.

The Iranian scholar Reza Quli Khan (1800-1872) writes in Majma al-fulsaha (Tehran, 1878, p. 620) that, "There exist in the mountains of Badakhshan, Hazarajat and Bamiyan, the Ismaili Shiahs who follow the teachings of their dais, especially the doctrines of one called Shah Sayed Nasir Khusraw Alwi. This branch of the Ismailis is called the Nasiriyya."

In 1923, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah (d. 1957) sent Pir Sabzali (d. 1938) on a visit of Central Asia, who also visited the territory of Badakhshan occupied by the Soviet Union and the Afghanistan. He visited Faizabad and returned to Chitral via Kabul. In other words, he could see the Tajik Ismailis in Badakhshan and not the Ismailis of central and northern parts of Afghanistan.

Back to top