Voices: Alice Hunsberger on Nasir Khusraw – Poet of Substance

Editor’s note: Rachael Kohn,  a broadcaster, author, and speaker on religion and spirituality, conducted an interview with Alice Hunsberger on her former program, “The Ark”, on the occasion of the millennium birth anniversary of Nasir Khusraw. A shorter version of the interview was prepared and presented by Mashal Ali and Nurin Merchant at a literary night event hosted in Ottawa to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of His Highness the Aga Khan. Their version is produced below with the kind consent of Ms. Kohn.

Rachael Kohn: Hello, this is “The Ark”, and I am Rachael Kohn

A thousand years ago a Persian poet defied the conventions of the day. His name was Nasir Khusraw, an Ismaili Muslim, a branch of Shi’a Islam.

Instead of lavishing praise on the sultan or his horse, he praised learning and spiritual purity. For example he beautifully wrote:

The world is a deep ocean
Its water is time.
Your body is like a shell, Your soul the pearl.
If you wish to have the value of a pearl,
Raise up the pearl of your soul with learning.

Rachael Kohn: Unlike Rumi or Omar Khayyam, Nasir Khusraw isn’t well-known in the West. Yet! But New Yorker Alice Hunsberger may change that, with her book on his life and work. She was particularly interested in how different Khusraw’s poetry was at the time.

Alice, when one thinks about the period, the Persian poet that comes to mind is Omar Khayyam who was almost a contemporary of Khusraw, I guess he was about a generation later. Now he is much more well known in the West; how would you compare Omar Khayyam and Khusraw?

Alice Hunsberger: Yes, Omar Khayyam is best known because of the wonderful and inspired translation a century and a half ago by Edward Fitzgerald, and one of the tricks to becoming well-known, is finding a good translator.

Right now for example, Omar Khayyam is best known as a poet to the West but in the East he was primarily known as a brilliant mathematician and astronomer. Nasir Khusraw on the other hand is one of the best, highest ranking poets in the Persian speaking world.

Nasir Khusraw really is not a love poet, so you will not find mystical expressions of love. What he calls for is the use of intellect in religion in one’s life; and in contrast to Omar Khayyam, who was, we could say, cynical toward religious people.

Rachael Kohn: Well Khusraw himself was something of a religious seeker. He seems to have even read about other religions as well as philosophy. What faction or what tradition of Islam did he align himself with?

Alice Hunsberger: He was very well educated and did look at lots of different religions. At some point in his life, he had a spiritual awakening, and in one place he tells it as a dream, and in another its a more journey-like kind of story.

He finally found the truth and the peace in faith that he was seeking in the Ismaili faith, that is a branch of the Shi’ites.

He believes that what God sent down is the external, and that the internal meaning is what needs to be brought out and that needs an Imam, an interpreter.

Rachael Kohn: Well, Nasir Khusraw, I think was referred to as ‘the real wisdom of the East’; how did he earn that accolade?

Alice Hunsberger: Well I would think that would refer to this inner wisdom which beyond the scientific knowledge, beyond external religious practices, there’s an inner truth that underlies the teachings. This is what he was preaching. So we have to get to the inner truth.

Rachael Kohn: What sort of personality or character comes through in his writing?

Alice Hunsberger: When you read his works you feel right away, ‘Here’s a strong person, a strong, definite individual’. You feel him in many emotions; he opens up some of his poems with sadness, other ones he begins with beautiful springtime visions of trees and flowers so that you see a person in all his complexity.

Rachael Kohn: Is there a strong ethical sense that comes through in his poetry? Is he a critic, a sharp observer of the religious life around?

Alice Hunsberger: Absolutely. As a member, as a leading intellectual of the Ismaili faith, he came under the criticism and enmity of the other schools of the Sunnis and others, so he used his pen very forcefully to defend the faith and to defend his actions.

Rachael Kohn: Alice, are Nasir Khusraw’s poems used today as an inspiration for progressive thought in Islam?

Alice Hunsberger: I think so. I haven’t been back to Iran for a while but they’re having conferences about him now and, even though he is from another branch of Shi’ism, they certainly respect his ethics and his strong personality.

Rachael Kohn: Well Nasir Khusraw ended his days rather sadly, exiled. Why was he exiled?

Alice Hunsberger: After his journey which he undertook as a result of the spiritual awakening, he stayed in Cairo because it was a very powerful Ismaili seat; for about 200 years there was an Ismaili caliph in Cairo, and so he studied there. He left to become a preacher back in his homeland of Khurasan and converted many people.

His success brought enmity and danger to his life, so he fled into a region of Badakhshan where he lived out his life under the protection of a local prince and he wrote much of his sad poetry of his exile from there. Here is a short verse of one of these poems:

But it doesn’t matter where we are,
Sometimes we’re in bad places;
But no-one values a ruby less for coming out of dirty soil
And no-one criticises roses for coming out of manure.
So we all are like a ruby and like a rose.
We need to blossom and shine wherever we are.

Rachael Kohn: Wise words a thousand years ago and today. That was Alice Hunsberger speaking about the poetry of Nasir Khusraw, who’s been the subject of celebrations by Ismaili communities around the world.

Date updated: Thursday, August 14, 2014.
Originally Published: 2009.

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To read complete transcript, please click ABC Australia Poet of Substance

Alice Hunsberger received her doctorate in Middle East Languages and Cultures from Columbia University in 1992, specializing in Persian and Arabic literatures. She has taught courses dealing with aspects of Islam as well as on the history of science at various universities in Iran and the USA, including Arya Mehr University of Technology in Isfahan, Iran and Hunter College, The City University of New York. Dr Hunsberger was a Visiting Research Fellow at The Institute of Ismaili Studies from 1999-2001. She is author of the work Nasir Khusraw, the Ruby of Badakhshan: A Portrait of the Persian Poet, Traveller and Philosopher.

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