Khawja Nasir Tusi’s Tales

I Wish I’d Been There

An Azerbaijan stamp commemorating Tusi's 800th Aniversary superimposed over the solar system. The tribute on the stamp reads "Outstanding Scientist and Philosopher of Azebaijan 1201-2001"

By Arif Babul

Arif Babul - World Renowned Astrophysicist said in an interview with Simerg "Tusi was far ahead of his time"

“Oh, how weary I am. My life is ebbing away. Ya Rahman! Gently usher me into your abode of peace. I pray bring this painful existence to an end.”

I drag myself across the Maragha Observatory’s common room. Here, in the world’s first institute exclusively built and dedicated to astronomical research, Khawja Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s young research students sit at a desk reviewing well-worn copies of Risalah-I Mu’inniya and its sequel Hall-i-muskhillat Mu’inniya, both originally penned some twenty years ago, and copying out highlighted proofs and arguments on a fresh manuscript that will be Khawja’s final word, memoirs if you will, on the configuration of the planets and other heavenly bodies.

“Look at this! Pure genius,” whispered one of the scholars. “Hard to imagine that he came up with such elegant proofs. Now all he does is sit out there blistering under the burning sun, as if punishing himself, staring into emptiness, muttering to himself  ‘Once I beheld Paradise; now there’s only darkness’. From what seeds has such melancholy sprung?”

I look out across the courtyard at Khawja, sitting on a rock by the entrance, fingering a tasbih, staring away at the horizon. Like myself, the jinns that torment him so have been his steady companion these past ten years. In the beginning, he was able to hold them at bay but over time, they have grown stronger, become bolder.

As far as I can reckon, all of this can be traced back to that faithful year, 1256 I think it was. We were at the citadel of Maymundiz. Nauroz was approaching. Khudhavand Rukn al-Din Khurshah  had been declared lord and master not so long ago, following the assassination of his father, Khudhavand Ala al-Din Muhammad. For a few months now, the citadel had been a frenzy of activity; the walls were being reinforced; emissaries coming and going, carrying messages to distance provinces; food and water stores were being readied. The deadly horde from the East was approaching. The Mongols! They were hell bent on eradicating the Ismailis from the very face of this world. Their leader had charged his generals thus: “None of that people should be spared, not even the babe in its cradle.” What had engendered such hatred, I do not know. Perhaps in twisted fashion, this was a complement, an acknowledgment that these people were a force to be reckoned with.

The Alamut Fortress was perched at an elevation of 2,100 meters on a rocky crest. It had a magnificent library that Khawja Nasir made use of. He wrote many Ismaili treatises, working closely with the Imams. The fortress was destroyed on December 15, 1256 by Hulagu Khan as part of the Mongol offensive, and its famous library burned except for a few non-Ismaili works.

During the age of the former Khudavind, Khawja had enjoyed a highly creative scholarly life. For one, he lived in the Alamut and had the run of its truly remarkable library. He was treated with respect and awe. He was given special dispensation to wander the ramparts in the dead of night unhindered, pointing strange instruments at the stars and scratching down seemingly cryptic notes in a codex that never left his side. What he enjoyed the most, however, was the solitude. He was only rarely interrupted, and then only by the lord himself who would invite Khawja to accompany him on his strolls through the hills and mountain meadows. Khawja looked forward to these meetings. The two would stroll off together, trailing behind the shepherds striking out to round up the sheep before nightfall, engaged in animated discussions. Sometimes, Khurshah, the future Khudavand, would join them as well. Khawja always returned from these strolls excited, rushing to his room to pen his thoughts. This was how many of his treatises were born. I know. I was there.

Out of these sessions came the clearest statement of a fundamental Ismaili concept of firman bardari, that it is not the command (firman) that the momins should attach their hearts to but the one who issues the command (firman-dih). Khawja wrote several pages mining this simple statement. But of all of his philosophical writings, the one particular set of writings that Khudavind would come back to often were the principles of satr, qiyama and taqiyya that Khawja was trying to formulate. Khudavind seemed particularly anxious that Khawja complete the formulation of the concept of satr. He repeatedly encouraged Khawja to develop his arguments more fully and complete his manuscript.

Rawdat al-taslim, by Nasir al-Din al-Tusi. Persian manuscript, dated 1353/1935. Divided into twenty-eight chapters or representations (tasawwurat), this is a comprehensive treatise expounding Ismaili doctrines of the Alamut period. Photo: The Institute of Ismaili Studies

The end result was astonishing to say the least. The manuscripts triggered much discussion and debate among the other scholars. Khawja had redefined the meaning of satr. Traditionally, it referred to times during which the Imam physically concealed himself, was generally accessible to his community only through his trusted officers, and never to the outsiders. Khawja, however, argued that satr describes any period during which the true spiritual reality of the Imam is veiled, regardless of whether the Imam is physically visible or not. Indeed, he asserted that the Fatimid period was time of satr. Going further, Khawja argued that at any time – but especially during the time of satr – it is only the foolish who, casting aside discretion, gathered to venerate or otherwise draw attention to the Imam without his consent and permission. It is easy to see why the writings were controversial; the latter especially did not go over well with the rank and file. Khudavind, however, was most happy and made it known so.

The day before he was murdered, Khudavind Ala al-Din Muhammad had called Khawja to him. Placing his hand on Khawja’s shoulder, he invoked the Almighty to bless Khawja with a long and successful life. He whispered for some time in Khawja’s ear. I was too far away to hear. I wish I had scampered closer. Eventually, Khudavind stood back and said, “Nasir, even the brightest day must give way to twilight and the dark of night. The words that you have penned are the foundation on which my jamat will stand in light or darkness. Even if all else turns to ashes, you must ensure that these words live on.”

Not long after the ascension of Khudavand Khurshah, Khawja was forcible evicted from his quiet scholarly life and thrust into the limelight. Hulegu’s force was steadily marching towards the Maymundiz. Many, many formidable fortresses across Khursan had been swept away by the evil tide that was flowing out of the East. The new Khudavind wanted Khawja by his side on the war council. “You have seen witnessed firsthand the battle art of the Mongols. You know of their tactics and of their ethics. We need your counsel.”

Now he – Nasir – found himself wrestling with hot-headed soldiers who regarded him as a foreigner, an intruder. And when they heard him speak of the futility of resistance, and of the death and destruction that the Mongols visited upon those that resisted, they whispered that he was weak, that his loyalty was like fat that melted in the heat. At least, there was unanimity on one subject: Shams al–Din Muhammad, Khurshah’s eldest son, the recipient of Khudavind’s nass, would need to be spirited away. And so he was – just – mere days before the horde converged on Maymundiz.

Ismaili Strongholds in Iran and Syria during the Seljuq Era. The Alamut and Maymundiz citadels are in the top right rectangle. Click to enlarge.

For weeks, the war council met deep in the bowels of Maymundiz (see map), in a room that no one dared breach, not even I. I often scurried by, catching odd angry outbursts: “How dare you suggest that! We will never surrender. We will fight to our very last.”

At other times, only Khudavind Khurshah and Khawja met. On one such occasion, I was scampering by the door and was startled to hear Khudavind shout in anger, “You will, Nasir! By my command, you will!” Even the guards were taken aback. What in the world was going on? I feel like I am trapped in a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, and the key is to be found inside that forbidden room. How I wish I could be privy to all the secrets that these walls hold!

As days wore on, Khawja grew increasingly irritable and troubled. Whereas he normally had treated me with kindness, now he shouted at me and stamped in my direction. As the Mongols began to gather, Khwaja’s behaviour became increasingly erratic. I spied him whispering to some fellow in the shadows.

Meanwhile, Khudavind Khurshah remained resolute to the very end. He tried this and that. He exchanged messages with the Mongol leader asking for such and such terms, and then changing tack. Anything to buy a bit more time. There was so much that needed to be done. All the same, something was not quite right. Khudavind and Khawja avoided each other. Everyone noticed.

On that fateful day, a full week into November, Hulegu began his siege of Maymundiz. The first few victories went to the Nizaris but then, Hulegu called out forth a Chinese ballista and began to hurl heavy rocks and fireballs over the walls. The resulting death and destruction caught the defenders offguard. Khudavind sued for a ceasefire. He indicated that he was ready to consider surrendering. The bombardment stopped but Hulegu threatened to start up again unless Khudavind ordered his warriors to surrender unconditionally. The fida’is urged Khudavind to refuse outright. Khawja, however, stayed noticeably silent. He simply stood there, detached. Khudavind sent Hulegu a series of messages.

A miniature depicting the siege of Alamut

I assume that Hulegu must have finally become frustrated; he must have realized that Khurshah was merely playing for time. The bombardment resumed, with much greater ferocity. For two days and two nights, it continued on and on. Khudavind Khurshah sought Khawja out and after some quick words – was that anger flashing in his eyes? – ordered his soldiers to stop fighting and signal “unconditional surrender”. He ordered his officers and family members who had remained with him – one of his sons and a brother – to go forth and submit themselves to Hulegu. Father, brother, son, nephew drew together in a tender embrace. Every eye welled up with tears but not Khawja’s. His face was masked by a hard, steely look.

Khurshah then convened his final darbar at Maymundiz. He lauded the fidai’s for their valor and loyalty. He acknowledged all of their sacrifices, called upon the Almighty to bless them all with endless bounty, and promised them that no matter what happens, he would always be by their side. He gathered the dignitaries who had remained with him, including Khawja, and rode down to the Mongol encampment. The place was rife with rumour that Khudavind had given up only because “the foreigner” has convinced him.

Tellingly, he did not explicitly order the fida’is to give themselves up and as soon as party had left the castle, these warriors took up the fight once again. Hulegu was furious and demanded that Khurshah command his men to stand down. The messages, however, were ignored. I suspect that the fida’is had decided that the Imam had issued the orders under duress and that they did not reflect his true wishes. It was only after three days of fierce hand-to-hand combat that the Mongols finally managed to take Maymundiz. This, however, was not unexpected.

The real shock came when Khudavind and his entourage were finally brought before Hulegu. Hulegu’s secretary and scribe – Juwayni – upon being introduced to Khawja, drew him aside. Juwayni introduced Khawja to Hulegu, declaring him to be an eminent scholar and a remarkable astrologer who was not an Ismaili but an Ithna Ashari who had been kidnapped and forced to serve Khurshah. Hulegu welcomed Khawja and invited him into his service. Without so much as a glance at Khurshah, Khawja walked away with Hulegu, the two discussing the treasures in the library at Alamut and Khawja volunteering to help Juwayni identify all the important books and instruments. Of course, Khawja’s own books – all of them – featured prominently on this list.

In due course, Khurshah and all of his family members in Mongol custody were murdered. Khawja knows this. How could he do what he did? After calling himself an Ismaili for decades? After earning Khudavind’s trust? Even after all these years, I still haven’t managed to come to terms with turn of events on that faithful day! At the time, even the non-Ismaili scholars who had been at Maymundiz and who had accompanied Khurshah from the castle were aghast. “What irony that this double-dyed traitor should be the author of a Persian magnum opus on Ethics,” they whispered to each other.

An act of betrayal? Khawja, an opportunist? Everything suggests so. It all seems to fit. But then, why this nagging feeling? After all, I never once heard Khawja speak of Khurshah’s son Muhammed’s escape to Azerbayjan, not even when Hulegu and his generals boasted of having put an end to the line of Ismaili Imams. Indeed, he knew that even the Ismailis themselves continued to survive – in hiding, for sure, practicing taqiyya and passing themselves off as Ithna Asharis. After all, he had outlined the very doctrines in practise during this period of satr and had been by Khurshah’s side when the da’is left Maymundiz with the Imam’s instructions. And over the years, he had indeed worked hard to shield the Ithna Asharis from the caprice of the Mongol rulers. Is it possible that all that has transpired is merely an elaborate veil?

So here we are in the courtyard of the Maragha Observatory. There sits Khawja, suffering under a blistering sun, staring off into the horizon, muttering to himself. May God grant him peace!

And who am I – just an old, weary brown mouse who has spent most of his life riding Khawja’s coat-tails.



Editor’s Note: The lack of any clear understanding of Tusi’s character and his actions prior to and following the Fall of the Alamut is one of many mysterious gaps in Ismaili history. Tusi held positions of honour in courts of Ismaili rulers as well as at the Alamut and Maymundiz from 1227 to 1256, during which time he produced his remarkable treatises on astronomy and ethics. It is widely accepted that he embraced Ismailism during this period and made major contributions to the development of Nizari Ismaili thought. Yet, when the Mongols laid siege to Maymundiz, historians note that Tusi was influential in convincing the Imam to surrender. He then renounced his Ismaili past and joined the services of Mongols as a trusted adviser to Hulegu himself. Why? Was Tusi an opportunist? Or was he, as some have suggested, under taqiyya. The debate rages on and our author, Arif Babul, wishes he was there to see all and hear all. The recall is a historical fiction, incorporating known facts supporting both sides of the debate, to imagine a possible storyline without intending to predispose the reading.

About the writer: Arif Babul is Professor and Director of Canadian Computational Cosmology Collaboration, in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, where he researches on how our universe evolved from an extremely smooth state into a rich network of galaxies. He describes poetically the texture of the universe, comparing it to a bejeweled necklace, a spider’s web with delicate filaments, or frothy bath.

He says: “Over the course of my career, I have worked on a wide variety of topics ranging from flow of matter onto black holes and exotic early-universe features such as ‘superconducting cosmic strings,’ to the distorting effects caused by the bending of light beams by gravity as predicted by Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. However, the topic that has truly captured my imagination is the quest to understand how cosmic structures, like galaxies and the larger galaxy clusters came to be.”

His complete profile is available via his Web page, Arif Babul’s Homepage

Arif lives in Vancouver with his wife, Naznin, and daughters, Shazia’Ayn and Alia-Nur.


Professor Babul’s extensive four part interview with Simerg can be read at: Voices: Brilliant Astrophysicist, Arif Babul, in Conversation with Simerg. He has also contributed a poem on this Web site entitled Midnight Meditation.

Note: Shazia’Ayn and Alia-Nur recently contributed A Fida’i Mission: Into Saladin’s Tent for I Wish I’d Been There.


1. Please click I Wish I’d Been There or visit the home page for links to other published articles in this special series.

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7 thoughts on “Khawja Nasir Tusi’s Tales

  1. Imams trials have always been questioned, and starting this dialogue will encourage others to consider the hidden explanations as to whether Tusi was a renegade or was he a true momin, and as such someone to be valued as a dai to be truly emulated. Did the Ismaili owe their survival to this individual who did not let on that the Ismailis were surviving? If so he should be valued. Also could Tusi have been upset by the orders that he had to follow, which is definitely not a command any adoring follower would not willingly take on?

  2. Last night on BBC4 I saw Prof. Khalil’s presentation of the last part of Islam and Science.

    I was very impressed with the inclusion of Nasirudin Tusi as one of the most outstanding scholar in Islam and his contribution to scientific thought which later got developed by Copernicus and ultimately led to the rennaissanse contribution which showed that the Earth rotates round with other planets and not the other way round.

    I feel Prof. Babul has done great service to bring to our knowledge of such great events and scholars from the Ismaili tradition.

  3. It is interesting to read an account of the fall of Alamut, which is based on, half history and half imagination. The role of Khawja Nasir-ud-Din Tusi, in advising the young reining Imam Rukan-ud-Din Khurshah to surrender before Halagu Khan, his general character, his faith and allegiance to the Imam is confusing and uncertain. One fact comes out clearly that Khawja Nasir was an “Opportunist” who misused the trust placed in him by the Imam for his personal gains and destruction of the Ismaili State. The analysis of the situation reveals beyond any doubt that Ismailis could have survived the siege of the Mongols. There were 100 Ismaili castles under command, most of them well stocked with food and arms to withstand the siege and the Ismaili were prepared to fight and sacrifice their lives rather than surrender and later be massacred . The Castle of Gird-i-Khoh is a clear example which did not surrender to the Mongols, and could endure the siege for the next 20 years.

    There are two critical points in Ismaili history where they were inflicted with a fatal blow to their existence. I believe that Khawja Nasir-ud-Din was one such person who misused a very high trust of the Imam and consequently an Ismaili State founded by Hasan-i-Sabah was destroyed for ever after 170 years of a magnificent rule. The second person who struck a death blow to the Ismaili State was Al-Afzal, the Prime Minister, the head of the Fatimid Army and head of dawa. He misused the trust of the Imam Mustansir Billah, deposed the designated Imam Nizar, and appointed Al-Mustali instead and thus created a permanent division among the Ismaili faith and consequently the destruction of the Fatimid Empire.

    “Man az began-gan hergiz na nalam
    Ke ba man her che kerdand ashna kerdand”

    I have no complain from my enemies
    Because, I was always struck by my friends

    Thank you

    Dr Ali Mohammad Rajput
    Professor Emeritus University of KHOROG

    • Imam’s words“Nasir, even the brightest day must give way to twilight and the dark of night. The words that you have penned are the foundation on which my jamat will stand in light or darkness. Even if all else turns to ashes, you must ensure that these words live on” and Tusi’s silence over whereabouts of Imam Shams Uddin may tell that he was guided and given responsibility to act in that order….

      We need to accept that Halegu Khan who was supported by other Muslim sects to fight against Ismailis, also sooner or later captured their fortress. After all, Ismailis trust Imam for his divine eyes and to foresee things….(Those Muslims who supported Halugeu Khan suffered brutal defeat at his own hand, as ashes of Baghdad is a good example)

      It is also important to mention with reference to Imam’s words to Nasir Tusi about saving his work, that today some Ismaili works survive, while the rest was engulfed in flames

  4. That was a fascinating window into what was going on at the time. I wish our kids could see more of these events displayed on a movie screen much as we see the old western heroes so they could appreciate what our history has to offer.

  5. Absolutely brilliant and moving piece. Showing the inner workings and planning going on before the fall of Alamut and the subsequent actions of Khwaja Nasir al-Din Tusi. I would be greatly interested to know the sources of some of the details you included.

    It is most interesting how after Alamut, Tusi has basically poured Isma’ili concepts into Twelver theosophical thought – the most direct expression of which is the transcendental philosophy (hikmat ilahi) of Mullah Sadra, who himself based a lot of his ideas on Tusi’s Aghaz wa Ajam.

  6. Masterpiece of literature honoring the present series. I wish we can have opportunity to hear more from Professor Babul. There has been a lot of controversy about Tusi and this piece clears some points about Tusi’s allegiance to Imam of the time.

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