Pir Sabzali’s Travelogue: An Insight into the evolution of Ismaili communities in last 100 Years

Qurratulain Nasiruddin and Faheem Hussain Sabzali

Several religions have flourished on the geographical belt touching Indian Ocean. Of which, Ismailism is one of the Muslim communities which flourished over a period of Thirteen centuries. Today, the followers of Ismailism, called as Ismailis or Aga Khani, constitute the second largest Shia community after the Twelvers in the Muslim world and are now scattered in more than twenty countries of Asia, Africa, Europe and America.

Pir SabzAli, who grew up in the coastal town of Gwadar, was a 20th century Ismaili preacher and a traveler. As part of his association with the Shia Ismaili Muslim community he undertook a religious mission that took him from Gwadar to the far flung colonial regions that are now part of Northern Pakistan, Tajikistan (Badkhshan) and China. His travelogues and available manuscripts serve as important historical narratives to look at the demographic and topographical details of the mentioned regions and, a medium to compare them to the contemporary times. Furthermore, the road journey taken by Pir Sabzali offers a map of routes and paths joining and linking diverse communities and traditions settled around the Ocean.

This paper is a working document based on desk-based research of the travelogues and manuscripts established on the mission and journey of Pir SabzAli. The researchers also carried out ethnographic study by visiting some of the existing communities where Pir SabzAli carried out his mission and, interviewed the communities to seek their insights upon his mission and its influence in contemporary times. The findings take two dimensions for discussions. Firstly, the topographical and demographical details of the places where the mission was carried out and, the hardships faced by Pir Sabzali as a traveler due to weather, socio-political insecurities and challenges in the selected regions. Secondly, the nature and impact of his mission on the Ismaili communities in the Northern areas of Pakistan after almost 100 years has given birth to transregional Ismaili communities whose evidences still reflect through some of the rituals and practices of contemporary Ismaili communities. Furthermore, his preaching played a significant role in assembling and bringing uniformity in the practices and rituals of Ismaili communities scattered over various regions. Nonetheless, his mission faced critics and oppositions from some communities.

Thus, the paper introduces travelogues as a medium to learn about evolution of communities and spaces over a period of time. In specific, the paper takes readers on the footsteps of Pir Sabzali’s whose mission influenced the evolution of Ismaili communities and resulted in some of the customs still alive.