ISMAILITES OF TAJIKISTAN: TRADITIONS AND THE PRESENT DAY

Valentin BUSHKOV
Tokhin KALANDAROV


Valentin Bushkov, Department head, Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology, Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow, Russia)

Tokhin Kalandarov, Ph.D. (Hist.), senior researcher, Institute of the Humanities, Pamir Branch, Academy of Sciences of Tajikistan (Khorog, Tajikistan)


This article will discuss the way of life and religious beliefs of the little-studied peoples of the Western Pamir (Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan).

By this we mean small Pamir peoples living high in the mountains in the valleys of the right-hand tributaries of the Panj River that are very hard to reach. They are Iazgulems (they call themselves Zgamik), Rushans (Rykhen) and their local group Khuftsy (Khufij), Shugnans (Khugni) and their local group Badzhuitsy (Badzhubij), Bartangtsy (Bartangij) with the local group of Oroshortsy/Roshorvtsy (Roshorvij), Ishkashimtsy (Shikoshumi), Vakhantsy (Khik, Vakhi), and others. All of them have their own tongues that other ethnic groups do not understand.

All Pamir peoples, with the exception of the Iazgulems and Vanchtsy, are Ismailites, that is, they belong to one of the Shia trends the followers of which are scattered across more than 20 countries. Ismailism came to the Pamir in the 10th-11th centuries. Nasir-i Khusraw (1004-1088), an outstanding Persian-Tajik poet, philosopher and religious figure, known as the Apostle of Ismailism in the Pamir did a lot to plant Ismailism there. For over ten centuries now this Islamic religious trend has played and continues to play a huge role in the life of the local mountainous peoples.

The history of Ismailism and its religious doctrine have been described in detail in many fundamental works by Russian, Soviet, Tajik and foreign authors,1 therefore we shall limit ourselves to the events connected with Ismailism that shed additional light on the ethnoconfessional specific features of the Pamir peoples.

Ismailites, like the Shia Muslims, are convinced that after the death of Prophet Muhammad his follower Ali, who was also his first cousin and son-in-law (married to his daughter Fatima), became the first imam (spiritual leader) of the Muslim community, therefore spiritual leadership (known as Imamate) is hereditary and begins with Ali and his wife Fatima. According to the Shia doctrine and tradition the Imamate is inherited through an appointment made by the imam. It is his task to select the time of such an appointment and the future imam from among his descendants. The present imam of the Ismailites is Aga Khan IV, Prince Karim who inherited the post on 11 July, 1957 from his grandfather.

From the very beginning the Sunni Muslims (who were rulers, theologians, etc.) looked at the Ismailites as heretics. For many centuries the Ismailites were persecuted and punished for the loyalty to their faith. Until the middle of the 19th century Europe knew nothing about the Pamir Ismailites: they lived high in the mountains practically inaccessible to the civilized world. Studies of the area started when it became part of Russia in 1895.

In 1918-1919 Soviet power came to the mountains. As everywhere else it fought against religion in an effort to uproot the traditional ideology and religious practices of Ismailism. Religious leaders and common people suffered from repressions that started when the territory became part of the autonomous, and later, union socialist republic of Tajikistan in 1925.

The year 1936 was one of the landmarks in the history of the local Ismailites: Moscow and the local communist party and state figures were unhappy about the republics neighborsChina and Afghanistan. In 1936, Moscow decided to seal off the border with Afghanistan probably in view of the coming Stalinist repressions. This decision severed traditional ties with relatives and spiritual and religious contacts between the Pamir peoples and Muslims in other countries.

At all times the khalifa (appointed spiritual leader of a community) played a special role in the traditional life of the Pamir ethnic groups. He performed religious rites connected with the most important events in human life: births, marriages, deaths, etc. In the 1930s, burial rites were bannedthe khalifas could not attend burials and read prayers for the repose of the dead. (According to the Ismaili faith no soul can reach heaven if not accompanied by such prayer.) Quite often burials were supervised by KGB secret agents or their informers so that to prevent the khalifas from doing what they should do.

The khalifas, however, challenged the authorities and consciously violated the ban. In the village of Bidiz (Roshtkalinskiy District, Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region) we heard a story about one of them from a woman called Savlatmo Shonabieva (born in 1945). The father of Gulbek, who was serving as the village khalifa, had been a khalifa before him. He never denied spiritual help to those who needed it. Being aware of the danger to the khalifa if any of the informants saw him entering their house the relatives of the dead put him in a large basket normally carried on the back and brought him to their house where he read the prayer for the repose of the dead. Similar stories are told in many Pamir villages by those grateful to the courageous spiritual leaders.

In Soviet times, especially in the 1930s and 1960s when anti-religious wave was at its peak any Arabic inscription found in a house of an Ismailite could be used to accuse him of anti-Soviet activities. People buried their religious books and manuscripts usually in holes in the outskirts of villages.

Today, some of the books are recovered by chance. In 1998, people from the village of Tavdem (Roshtkalinskiy District) who gathered stone slabs to put on a burial of an old woman lifted one of them and found a box full of religious books and manuscripts.

Soviet power did not encourage traditional songs either. Here is a typical example. There is an ancient tradition in the Pamir to accompany the soul of the dead to the other world with music played on national instruments (rubab and tanbour, two string instruments) and daff (tambourine). The rite is called madokhoni (meaning eulogy in some of the Iranian languages). It is one of the key elements in the Ismaili burial rite. The local Soviet authorities did their best to wipe away the rite and failed so they decided to transform it into laudations of the communist party and the Soviet system. The experiment failed yet it created numerous stories. Here is one of them: during a madokhoni when the singer was lauding Apostle Nasir-i Khusraw strangers appeared in the house. The singer showed a presence of mind and replaced the name of Nasir-i Khusraw with the name of Lenin.

Madokhoni usually goes on from two to six hours or even throughout a night. It consists of four stages. The first one, called zil, is mainly slow singing to the rubab accompaniment. The singer (madokhon) sings the kasydys (odes) dedicated to the Prophet Muhammad and his four relatives, revered by the Ismailites, Ismaili imams and fighters for the faith. The kasydys that tell how Imam Ali fought infidels in Heibar and how he conquered the daeva (a male demon) and other enemies are most popular in the Pamir.

The second stage called hidari is performed at a faster pace to the daff and tambour accompaniment. More singers join the madokhon to sing the refrain. Sometimes they sing by turns: one of them sing the first strophe, another, the second, and so on. This stage consists of panegyrics (madhia) by prominent classical Oriental poets such as Shams-i-Tabrezi, Jalaluddin Rumi, Hafiz or madhia that belong to Pamir poets Shofitur, Muborak Vakhoni, and others.

The panegyrics that sing praise to the Shia imams are very popular locally: There is no Shah on the Planet but Ali, Lets Listen to the Stories about Ali, And at Night I Dreamed about the Lavish Cupbearer, Ali Has Been Alive since the Beginning of the World.

Having reached the peak the singers change the rhythm abruptly and start the third stagethe rubai (quatrains dedicated to the Ismaili saints). Then they start the fourth stage called sitoish (eulogy proper). They sing madhias to a different melody. Normally sitoish consists of 16 to 20 rhymed lines.

Having completed the cycle those present continue the talk on religious subjects they abandoned when the singing had begun or comment on episodes of the rite. If the listeners ask them the madokhoni may start the second cycle on a different subject. All those present are greatly impressed with the content, the manner of execution and the melodies. At the time of strict ban the madokhoni was the only efficient instrument of religious propaganda and dissemination of spiritual values.

Perestroika and the policy of openness changed the states attitude to religion. As soon as the Soviet Union fell apart the atheist pressure relaxed and gradually melted away. The post-Soviet expanse was living through religious resurrection that took different forms in different places. Early in the 1990s this reached the formerly Soviet Pamir. In May 1995, Imam Aga Khan visited the area and opened a new page in the religious life of the local peoples. An interest in the traditional culture and religious beliefs increased still more.

Meanwhile, the living standard that dropped after the Soviet Unions disintegration continued to decline. It was back in the late 1980s that the economic situation in the autonomous region worsened under the pressure of a large number of former emigrants who started coming back.

Early in the 20th century agriculture in the area was much more profitable than at the end of the same century. According to fragmentary information, in 1902 in the Western Pamir the local people gathered 150 kg per capita of grain and bean crops. They also paid taxes, saved part of the crop as seed stock and fed the cattle so that they could barely survive. In the same year there were 5.86 conventional heads of cattle per capita. Arable land was scarcebarely 0.23 hectare per capita.

In 1986, people reaped meager 22.6 kg of grain crops per capita, there were barely 1.78 conventional heads of cattle and sheep and goats per capita. The region produced 1.13 kg of potato, 1.5 kg of vegetables, 7.7 kg of fruit and berries, 0.11 kg of grapes, 0.12 kg of melons, 30.2 kg of meat, 30.7 kg of milk per capita. Between 1986 and 1997 the cattle population in the region dropped: the number of cows decreased from 74.3 thou to 70.9 thou, sheep and goats, from 343.2 to 225.4 thou.

We should bear in mind, however, that while in the early 1890s there had been 35 thou living in the Western Pamir2 by 2000 the population grew to over 210 thou.

It was the Aga Khan IV Foundation that opened its branch in Tajikistan in 1994 to help the people. A year earlier, in 1993, while the civil war was still raging the Foundation opened its office in Khorog to help the Pamir people. The program that was at first called the Pamir Relief and Development Program (PRDP) today is called the Mountain Society Development Support Program (MSDSP). At first, the program delivered and distributed humanitarian aid from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Germany, France, and other countries, yet the relief action would have been impossible without the Aga Khan Foundation. In 1998, the local people got 12 thou tons of flour, 1,500 tons of butter, 2,135 tons of powdered milk, 987 tons of lentil, and 178 tons of grain. The list is far from complete. It should be added that the aid was equally distributed among followers of all confessions: the Ismailites, Sunni Muslims, Christians, etc.

The relief action was well timed: between 1992 and 1994 fighting isolated the Pamir people from the rest of the country. In 1992, about 40 thou out of the total population of about 175 thou had no jobs. In the last decade the government has passed over 20 decisions related to the areas social and economic developmentnone has been realized so far.3

Imam Aga Khan IV does not limit his aid to material support: in 1995 he opened his educational agency in Khorog; the program is called Ismaili Tariqa and Religious Education Committee (ITREC) that deals mainly with religious education: it is cooperating with the Ismaili religious teachers, collecting Islmaili manuscripts, and helping the local schools realize religious educational programs. The latter aspect is gradually coming to the fore: at the age of eight the schoolchildren in the Pamir start a new program called Talim (Teaching).

The children are expected to master a new subject in the curriculum called Akhlok wa marifat that can be translated as Ethics and Education. The Institute of Ismaili Studies that has been working in London since 1977 issued a series of textbooks in the Tajik language specially designed for the schools of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region and supplied with free pens and notebooks. The new subject is taught once or twice a week; the Ismaili Tariqa Committee offers all teachers in every district of the autonomous region ten-day seminars to help them master the teaching methods. It should be added that the teachers draw no additional payment for teaching the new subject.

A mere enumeration of the chapters in the textbook for eight-year-old schoolchildren gives an ample idea of what they are taught. The textbook is called Khudoi ofarinanda (God the Creator) and consists of three chapters. The first Ofarinanda (The Creator) says that God created the Universe. An extract from the 22nd Surah of the Koran confirms that nature is extolling God. The second chapter Khudoi bakhshanda (God Is Merciful) uses extracts from the Koran to prove divine mercy. Chapter Three Khudoi iakto (God Is One) proves with the help of the Koran that God is one and unique. The language perfectly suits small children; the attractively bound book abounds in illustrations.

We believe that the program and its realization say that the new generation of the Pamir people displays a greater interest in the sources and main provisions of Ismailism.

The Aga Khan Foundation helps students as well: today there are 52 students in Moscow and Bishkek who draw financial support from the Foundation. In 2000/2001 academic year alone the Foundation allocated $233,661 for this purpose.4 The Foundation plans to open an Aga Khan university in Khorog to provide higher education and to study the mountainous regions and mountainous peoples of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere. It was back in 1995 that an international commission of experts, research workers and other specialists in the mountainous regions recommended opening this educational establishment.

According to Aga Khan IV the local people have reached the extreme level of poverty and isolation with limited possibilities and the right of choice while maintaining a high level of linguistic, cultural, ethnic and religious pluralism thus demonstrating amazing staunchness in extremely hard conditions.5

The university will be a very special educational establishment with an international charter, academic standards, curricula, professorship, students, academic cooperation and contacts. It will concentrate on so-called remote education that makes use of computer and satellite technologies and that will be spread to entire Central Asia. Students, teachers and research associates will be selected from among the best. The first programs of consistent education are designed for upgrading the skills of teachers from the nearby districts.

Teaching and training of bachelors and masters will be based on the English language. The master degree will be offered in the spheres directly related to sustainable development of mountainous regions: geology, hydrology, seismology, ecology, management, environmental protection, mining raw materials, agriculture, and economy. The bachelor degree will be offered in a wider range of subjects: forestry, environmental engineering, organization of rescue during natural calamities, agronomy, civil engineering, mining, energy production, programming, economy, business, accounting, sociology, studies of the local languages, anthropology, history, philosophy, and ethics.

Today, despite the relative calm in the mountains and the country as a whole the living standards among the Pamir Ismailites is very low; population grows because of the high birth rate so the local people can no longer feed themselves. By the end of the 1990s it had become clear that humanitarian aid was not enough while the local conditions would not allow the local people to produce enough food: tiny plots of arable land are scattered here and there that excludes the use of latest agricultural technologies.

Today the Pamir peoples are facing not only the problem of seasonal labor migration that has existed in the region at all timesthey have to move out of the area. The Pamir offers no vacant lands suitable for human habitation and land tilling. The majority of the local people are working outside the native region, mainly in Russia and Kazakhstan. According to the Noor public organization based in Moscow in July 2002 there were 5 thou of members of the Ismaili community in Moscow mainly employed at construction sites.

Despite the hard conditions in which labor migrants have to live in Russian cities (the law enforcement bodies violate human rights while people from Central Asia suffer attacks from nationalist and neo-fascist groups) their number does not decrease. In fact, for the majority of them work in Russia offers the only chance to support their families living in dire poverty back at home.

The socioeconomic and other problems the Pamir people are facing should be resolved as soon as possible. An international conference convened under Aga Khan IV aegis to discuss these problems with participation of politicians, economists, scholars of the Pamir might help. Procrastination no only creates more problems for these unique peoples but also endangers their continued existence.


1 See: A.A. Semenov, Iz oblasti religioznykh verovaniy shugnanskikh ismailitov, Mir islama, Vol. 1, No. 4, St. Petersburg, 1912, pp. 523-561; idem, Opisanie ismailitskikh rukopisei, sobrannykh A.A. Semenovym, Petrograd, 1919; A.E. Bertels, Nasir-i Khosrov i ismailism, Moscow, 1959; N. Arabzoda, Ismailitskaia filosofia Nosira Khusrava, Dushanbe, 1997; W. Ivanow, Nasir-i Khusraw and Ismailism. Ismaili Society, Bombay-Leiden, 1952; B. Levis, The Origins of Ismailism, Cambridge, 1940, and others.
2 See: Ocherki po istoriiOcherki po istorii sovetskogo Badakhshana, Dushanbe, 1981, p. 42.
3 See: A. Niazi, Tadzhikistan: konflikt regionov na fone sotsialno-ekonomicheskogo krizisa, in: Ekologia, obshchestvo i traditsia: sotsialnye i politicheskie krizisy v SNG v kontekste razrushenia prirodnoi sredy (Tadzhikistan i Rossiiskii Sever), Moscow, 1997, p. 22.
4 Information has been supplied by Iurii Khubonshoev, head of the Foundations Moscow branch.
5 Press release about the meeting of President of Kyrgyzstan Akaev and Prince Aga Khan in Bishkek on 30 August, 2000.

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