In the company of Abu Abdallah Rudaki

Linked with Abdullah Jafar Ibn Mohammad Rudaki, Persia/Tajikistan (859-941).

By K.N. Pandita

My parents put me to Farsi-Tajik studies from early childhood. My uncle was a conventional type of man. Whenever I opened my books for study, he would begin the lesson with this verse:

Danish andar dil chirag-e rausahn ast
Waz hameh bad bar tane tu jaushan ast

This was my first meeting with Rudaki. I was too young to understand the deep meaning of the verse. My uncle never told me anything beyond reciting the verse.

I grew up in an atmosphere steeped in Farsi-Tajik cultural ethos, and then became a regular student of this language and literature in the college and at the university. Obviously, I had to know more of Rudaki and other bright stars of Farsi-Tajik literary firmament and in detail.

Rudaki was the celebrated father of Farsi-Tajik poetry. My interest grew and also my respect for him when I read that he had composed more than a million verses and Kalileh wa Dimneh in verse, which unfortunately is lost to us. It must have been a tremendous effort. To my great joy I could now realise the deep meaning in Rudaki’s profound verse so often and so long spoken by my uncle during my boyhood. This was my second interaction with the celebrity.

My uncle never mentioned the name of Rudaki. But then Rudaki had penetrated from the small hamlet called Rudak in Penjikant down to a small village house in Kashmir –- my uncle’s house. It was a long and mysterious journey.

There can be no better appreciation of the popularity of the poetry of a great poet somewhere in Central Asia than that his verses are remembered and recited by people in distant lands.

These were my initial contacts with Rudaki. And then I had to know him better, his poetry, his music, his thoughts and above all his times, the Samanian, the fabulous Central Asia and the rest of it. Thereafter Rudaki, like other great intellectuals of Farsi-Tajik speaking world, Ferdowsi, Sanai, Khayyam, Attar, Maulana, Saadi, Hafiz, Kemal, Bedil and others down to Lahuti and Laiq Sherali all became pat of my cultural personality. My third interface passed on nicely.

On October 4, 1982, my (now late) friend Abdullah Jan Ghaffarov took me to Samarkand by Tajik flight. The same day, we drove to Penjikent where I was taken round the museum.

An excellent and well – preserved museum it was. Then we drove up the narrow mountain path to Rudaki’s village called Rudak meaning small stream of water.

It was late autumn afternoon. The air was crisp and blissfully cool and it’s environ resembled very much those of a village in Kashmir with mountains in the background, running brooks, crimson tree leaves and dried grass.

By 5 o’clock we were at the resting place of Rudaki. I could not believe my eyes that I was at the grave of the great poet, the bard of the Samanid era now resting at a secluded corner of the world in a tiny and primitive village where a fast flowing stream sang as its waters tossed against big boulders in swift drift downstream.

I paid obeisance at the shrine of Rudaki. I looked intently at the inscription on the monument and the walls. It was all simple, in pure natural style with nothing artificial. Everything looked as natural as it could be. Prior to me, many eminent scholars of Iran and India like Saeed Nafici and Sardar Ja’fari and others had paid a visit to the grave of this greatest symbol of Tajik culture.

Having made a small note of everything that I saw at the resting place, we moved away to return to Penjikent where Abdullah Jan, the chief of the Kolkhoz would be waiting for us. As we stepped on to the road, I saw about half a dozen local elderly men (resh sefid ) standing in a row and waiting our appearance. As they saw us, they made a gesture and after exchanging salam, they told Adullah Jan that the village folks wanted us to be their guest that night. We convinced them that we had to stick to our schedule and return to Penjikent. In great dismay, the elders expressed regret that Rudaki, their illustrious ancestor, would never feel happy not to have entertained a visitor from India in his native village. This was my third interaction with Aba Abdullah.

My fourth interaction with Rudaki took place rather indirectly. In 2004, the Agha Khan Institute organised a week-long function to hold millennium celebrations of celebrated Ismaili poet Nasir Khusrav in Khorog (Tajikistan). I also participated and presented a paper.

In preparing my paper on the sources of a study of Nasir Khusrav, I had to deal with Ismailis, insights into their history and doctrines. While discussing the role of Fatimis of Egypt in the propagation of Ismaili thought, I came across a reference to the Samani King Nasr b. Ahmad Saman showing inclination towards Ismaili doctrine. In this connection, I found that the name of Rudaki was also mentioned among those who sympathised with the Fatimids. Thereafter I made further enquiry into it. Thus took place another interaction with the great Tajik poet.

The Fatimid Ismaili Caliphate was founded in North Africa in A.D. 909 with Mahdiyya as its capital. The Ismailis were known by other names also like Batini, Sab’i, Talimi, and Qarmati (Carmethians). Their adversaries called them malahida and the followers of Hasn bin Sabbah as Hashishi from which we get the word Assassin in English.

Nasr b. Ahmad II, the Samanid ruler ascended throne in A.D. 913 and ruled for almost thirty years. This was the zenith of Samanid glory and Rudaki enjoyed the favour and support of the king. Writing about the splendour of the Samani court of Nasr II, renowned French historian A.C. Berbier de Meynard has given a description in two articles (Journal Asiatique for February-March, 1853, pp. 169-239, and March –April, 1854, pp. 291-361).

Here is the excerpt:

“Bukhara was, under the Samanid rule, the Focus of splendour, the Shrine of Empire, the Meeting place of the most unique intellectuals of the age, the Horizon of the literary stars of the World, and the Fair of the greatest scholars of the Period. Abu Ja’far Muhammad b. Musa al-Musawi related to me as follows, ‘My father Abu’l Hasan received an invitation to Bukhara in the days of the Amir-i-Sa’id (Nasr II b Ahmad, reigned A.D. 913-942), and there were gathered together the most remarkable of its men of letters, such as Abu’l-Hasan al-Lahham, Abu Muhammad b. Abu Thiyab, Abu’n-Nasr al Harthami, Abu Nasr adh-Dharifi, Rija b. al-Walid al-Isbahani, ‘Ali b. Harun ash-Shaybani, Abu Ishaaq al-Farsi, Abu’l-Qasim ad-Dinawari, Abu ‘Ali az-Zawzani, and others belonging to the same class.

Abdullah Maymun al-Qaddh is mentioned as the originator of the Fatimid Caliphs of Egypt. From Ahwaz in Iran, he went to Syria to preach the Ismaili doctrine. Maymun’s third son Sa’id ibnu’l Husayn b. Abdullah Maymun was born in A.H.260 /A.D. 873 A.D. in Syria. The Berbers of North Africa had already accepted the Ismaili doctrine. With the establishment of his seat at Mahdiyyeh in Egypt, Sai’d Ibnu’ Husayn proclaimed himself Mehdi under the name of Abu Muhammad Ubeidulah.

Abdullah Maymun claimed to be the descendent of the line of Fatima, the daughter of the holy Prophet and therefore assumed the title Fatimid. The claim of Maymun has been contradicted by some Arab historians.

Abdulh bin Maymun’s one son lived in Khurasan in Taliqan. The possibility of this person interacting with some serious minded intellectuals in Mawara an- Nehr is in sight, and may be one of the conduits through which Ismaili influence penetrated into Central Asia. But this is only a surmise and has not been corroborated in any work of history.

In A.D. 969, Egypt was wrested by the Fatimids from the hands of the House of Ikhshid and by the end of 10th century Syria was in their hands. In all 14 members of the Fatimid dynasty ruled in Egypt and maintained pro-Ismaili tendency.

It has been reported that Nasr II was influenced by the Fatimids and declared his allegiance to that house. In all probability he might have taken this step under political compulsions in order to make himself secure against chieftains who were greedy for power and influence in the region.

Some historians, mostly Iranians and partially western, have tried to project the uprisings in Khurasan and in Trans-Oxiana during the 8-9 centuries as resurgence of pre-Islamic Iranian civilization. In this context many movements including those of the Saffarids, Buwayhids, Zayyars, and Samanis are mentioned as nationalist movements notwithstanding some ideological colour. This is a debatable issue.

However, the belief that Rudaki also contributed to Fatimi-Ismaili line may best be explained that he might have tried to follow the line of his benefactor Nasr bin Ahmad Saman. It has been reported by Browne that Rudaki met with bad days at the fag end of his life. It is difficult to attribute this situation to Rudaki’s pro-Fatimid and pro-Ismaili proclivities. Nevertheless history tells us that Fatimid influence did spread far and wide in the Islamic world of the day.

It will be an interesting research in the life and times of Rudaki to establish the nature of his relations and contacts with the Fatimid Caliphate or with Ismaili doctrine that was much prevalent in Mawara-an-Nehr of his days. I hope Tajik scholars and researchers will undertake this study.

(The author is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies in Kashmir University. His writings on Tajikistan including his travelogue titled My Tajik Friends are known among academic circles in Tajikistan).

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