“They [Ismailis] with amazing care and devotion kept through ages burning that Light, mentioned in the Qur’an, which God always protects against all attempts of His enemies to extinguish it. I rarely saw anything so extraordinary and impressive as this ancient tradition being devoutly preserved....”
During his travels in Persia in 1912, Ivanow heard about a community called Ismailis, but he disbelieved it. At the time, it was universally accepted that Ismailis in Persia had been wiped out by the brutality of the Mongols. Upon further investigation, Ivanow confirmed the existence of Ismailis in various localities in Persia, and encountered many of them. He stated:
“I came in touch with the Ismailis for the first time in Persia, in February 1912….
My learned friends in Europe plainly disbelieved me when I wrote about the community to them. It appeared to them quite unbelievable that the most brutal persecution, wholesale slaughter, age-long hostility and suppression were unable to annihilate the community which even at its highest formed but a small minority in the country…
Only later on, however, when my contact with them grew more intimate, I was able to see the reasons for such surprising vitality. It was their quite extraordinary devotion and faithfulness to the tradition of their ancestors, the ungrudging patience with which they suffered all the calamities and misfortunes, cherishing no illusions whatsoever as to what they could expect in life and in the contact with their majority fellow countrymen. They with amazing care and devotion kept through ages burning that Light, mentioned in the Qur’an, which God always protects against all attempts of His enemies to extinguish it. I rarely saw anything so extraordinary and impressive as this ancient tradition being devoutly preserved in the poor muddy huts of mountain hamlets or poor villages in the desert.
Of course, this tradition was not what it was at the time when it was in the forefront of the civilised world of its time, under the early Fatimid Caliphs of Egypt. Much has been forgotten and lost. But what is most valuable is that the spirit which animated those ancient philosophers and devotees has not become extinct. The illiterate peasant, often famishing and always suffering from privations and oppression of the changing regimes, in his inner consciousness, preserves the spark of the same light, which illuminated the path to the cultural progress of many people.”
Vladimir Ivanow (1886-1970), the leading pioneer in modern Ismaili studies, was born is St. Petersburg. He studied Arabic and Persian history, as well as Islamic and Central Asian history, at the Faculty of Oriental Languages, University of St. Petersburg, from where he graduated in 1911. Subsequently, he conducted field research on Persian dialects and folk poetry in Iran for several years.
In 1915, he joined the Asiatic Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg as an assistant keeper of oriental manuscripts. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, Ivanow settled in Calcutta, India, where he catalogued the extensive Persian manuscript collections of the Asiatic Society of Bengal.
In 1931, Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III employed Ivanow to conduct research into the literature and history of Ismailis. Ivanow found access to Ismaili manuscripts held in numerous private collections, which he described in his A Guide to Ismaili Literature, the first catalogue of Ismaili sources published in modern times. Ivanow was also instrumental in the creation of the Ismaili Society in 1946, in Bombay (now Mumbai), under the patronage of Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III. The bulk of Ivanow’s numerous publications and translations of Ismaili texts appeared in the Ismaili Society’s series of publications.
Ivanow spent the last decade of his life in Tehran where he was buried. ‘He stands as the unrivaled founder of modern Nizari Ismail studies.’1
1 Farhad Daftary, Historical Dictionary of the Ismailis, Scarecrow Press Inc., 2012
My First Meeting with the Ismailis in Persia, Vladmir Alekseevich Ivanow, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accessed February 2017)
Compiled by Nimira Dewji
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