Life Story of Akhun Bandishoh Sumonzoda (1883-1984), by Sultonbek Aksakolov
Known as a religious teacher (okhon, ākhūn) or scholar (‘ālim-i dīn), Bandishoh Sumonzoda (1883–1984) is celebrated, in the Upper Badakhshan Autonomous Region of Tajikistan, as one of the most prominent Nizari Ismaili Shia literati of the post-WWII decades. In a list of non-accredited religious personnel established in 1956 by the Soviet Commissioner for Religious Affairs for this region, he is mentioned as a ‘sorcerer’ (Rus. znakhar’) operating in the village of Rawmed where, though, he ‘did not conduct religious rituals’ — which means that Okhon Bandishoh did not fulfil the functions of a khalifa (lit. vicar, a local congregation leader), a task his son Sumon Bandishoev (1936–2021) also declined.
Bandishoh had received his religious education in the family school (maktab) of Khalifa Buri, a master of local repute in the Bartang Valley of Badakhshan. He later dedicated his life to learning, including Qur’an reading and exegesis, and the Nizari Ismaili Shia literature. After a while, he was entrusted by his master (pir) to guide his local community (jama‘at) and to collect the māl-i sarkār (the tithe collected by the Ismailis for the Imam of the time). Throughout the Soviet period, however, Bandishoh made a modest living, as a kolkhoz employee, while teaching religion.
According to his son, he had progressive views on learning, seen as a vector of progress, and believed in modern science as a factor of development. According to the same testimony, he was often consulted, by mail, by Ismaili Shia religious leaders from different parts of Upper Badakhshan, who asked him for advice on issues of ritual or dogma. Bandishoh used to answer them by the same way. In parallel, he taught secretly to his son and closest relatives. He made a reputation, too, as a copyist of texts of the Ismaili doctrine such as the Wajh-i Dīn (the ‘Face of Religion’) by the mediaeval Ismaili thinker Nāṣir Khusraw or a manual for religious ritual, the Charāgh-Nāma (‘Book of Light’) and other texts then spread among the Ismailis of Soviet Badakhshan.
Similar stories on the life of Okhon Bandishoh were recorded by the journalist and writer Lutfisho Dodo (b.1943) in an account of his travel to the Bartang Valley, where he recorded information from the master’s son and relatives. Bandishoh is portrayed there as a pious and modest man of learning, who had never spoken loudly or showed anger to people. He was listening to all, whatever their level of religious instruction and, although he could show unhappy with the way people started to dress in European style, he never spoke publicly against the Soviet antireligious propaganda — reserving his critiques to his closest relatives.
When he passed at 101, it is told that the news about his death was announced in the radio programmes broadcasted from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Arab countries. According to the testimony of his family members and disciples, Okhon Bandishoh was recognised for his eruditeness, even by those Soviet Tajik human science researchers who used to visit him. The locals attributed miracles to him, notably healing through the recitation of orisons (duʿāʾ) and the writing of amulets (tumār, tishtāb) in Persian. Well after his death, they continued to visit his son Sumon for the same services. In present-day debates and public discussions about Ismaili Shia religious rituals and dogmas, reference is still made to Bandishoh as a source of authority, while the people of the Bartang, Rushan and other upper Valleys of Badakhshan continue to utilise his and his son’s talismans.
Extract from the travelogue by Lutfishohi Dodo, Bartang, Minbari Badakhshon [Bartang, the Cathedra of Badakhshan], Dushanbe: Sukhan, 2019, 99 p.
A trip to Rawmed (p. 56)
The purpose of my visit to Rawmed was to become more closely familiar with the life of Alloma Bandishoh. Okhon Bandishoh was known as a sage [donishmand] and as a scribe with a nice handwriting [mirzoi khushqalam], not only in Bartang but throughout Badakhshan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Scientists were looking to meet this most eminent scholar of the time [allomai zamon]. Scholars from India, Afghanistan and all the corners of Badakhshan used to visit him and benefit from this venerable person’s conversation. They received a lot of high knowledge [ma‘rifat] from him. Most of the time, they came to this eminence in order to receive the solution to a debated issue. They trusted him so much that whatever his conclusion, it was adopted by all [. . .].
Pilgrimage to the Grave of Okhon Bandishoh (p. 60–64)
I sat on a litter in Sumon’s little house. I knew that Okhon Bandishoh was no longer alive, but wanted to talk with his son and with those who had been close to him. Sumon met me in the courtyard and I told him the purpose of my visit. The house is on a hill. Sumon invited me to sit back down. Two hundred metres below, the course of the Bartang could be seen with a few houses along its banks. A green and blue meadow was visible, spread like a flowery carpet between the river and the house.
‘My father, in the prime of his life, used to sit in this grass and read books during breaks. In his old age, he did not leave the place the whole day long. (This is a place where nobody gets tired even after hard work, since a gentle breeze blows continuously from the river, and uplifts the spirit.) His high knowledge was recognised by all. Nevertheless, he was very modest [khoksor]. (I think that one’s humility is in proportion to one’s knowledge and culture. It is the highest step of humanity. It is these two sacred things that bring a human being to this stage.) He did not talk loudly, did not look down on anyone, and was listening with attention even to the chatter of an ignoramus. He used to support those in needs. Times had changed. Indeed, life was improving for people, as planned by Soviet policy. The way of life also had changed. New fashions had made their appearance, which did not belong to us.’
Then we were joined by the teacher Safar Fayzulloh. He had been a silent witness to our ‘circle’ for several minutes.
‘Okhon Bandishoh could see all these new trends’, said the teacher, ‘but although he did not like them, he never said a word, no matter how much it cost him. He was a wise and farsighted man, he knew that his every step was being watched, that an inappropriate word could harm him and his family. For this reason, he used to express his views only to us, the teachers closest to him, or to my parents, who were his relatives. “It is nice to connect to this time but people should learn science and culture instead of going half-naked. May be this time wants to teach us to wear that, but perhaps should we refrain from doing so, otherwise the purity of national culture will be lost [kulli pokizagii farhangi millat ba komi adam meravad].”’
The Eminence of his time, Okhon Bandishoh passed away in 1984, aged 101. Safar Fayzulloh mentioned that radio stations from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Arab countries spread the news of the death of this venerable man, expressing their condolences to his relatives and the people of Badakhshan. The dispatches were all the same: One of the greatest sages of Islam, Okhon Bandishoh, has passed away.
On that evening, I walked with Safar Fayzulloh and Sumon till the end of the village. Rawmed is incredibly beautiful, an authentic mountain village. One could hear distinctively, from time to time, the noise of planes flying above from, let’s say, India, Pakistan, Iran or even Arab countries to Central Asia or Russia, but not a single car sound in the village, which did not have a single road. Uncle Safar, moving again our conversation to Okhon Bandishoh, insisted that he used to respect all his interlocutors:
‘If he met learned persons, he could converse for hours. He liked them as much as he liked himself. When at home, he used principally to read the works of classical poets [kitobhoi shoironi klassiki] or the holy Qur’an; other books he used to read when he was in the Treasure House [ganjur] or in the forest.
‘Once in autumn, he had gathered grain and taken it to the mill. Then, his son Sumon was not in the village. When I heard this, I rushed to the mill. Okhon Bandishoh was deep in thought. I greeted him, asked him how he was doing. He replied that he was well, thanks to God. We talked for a while and I told him: “You should go and rest, I will stay here. I will bring you the flour tonight.” (In the mill, there were five sacks of flour, thirteen of grain.) The Okhon refused: “You should rather go. You came by foot from Jadud, you must be tired.” (I was then teaching at the school of Jadud.) I left him no choice. “In this case, Okhon told me, we should go to my place and do a little reading, then you will come back to the mill. Don’t be afraid, it works well: it was broken two days ago, but it has been repaired.” I agreed. He read to me for two or three hours. Then he gave me a book to read aloud. After this, I wished him good night and went back to the mill. It took me until morning to drag the sacks of flour.’
As we were continuing to remember Okhon Bandoshah with Safar Fayzulloh and Sumon, when the conversation came to his skills as a scribe [mirzoī], Sumon put on the table copies of the Wajh-i Dīn and of the Safar-Nāma of Nāṣir Khusraw, as well as other books. Okhon Bandishoh had copied them so beautifully that, with such a beautiful handwriting that, as they say, a blind person could have read them. Sumon told that his father never went anywhere, it was the people who came to see him.
‘When the October Revolution came to Badakhshan, he did not preach against it. He knew that to publicly oppose such a force was the height of stupidity [raghmi chunin neru voridi maidon shudan az kamoli nodonist]. Later, in the early 1920s, a missionary named Sabzali [Mashnarī Sabzalī] arrived to Badakhshan from Bombay, on the order of Sultan Muhammad Shah [the then Nizari Ismaili Imam], and said: “Don’t touch the Soviets [ba Shūroho narased], they will turn Badakhshan into Hindustan. Anyway, this rule will be short-lived and one day, it will melt like snow.” This is why my father was the first who joined the kolkhoz and worked on the same rank as the others. From one hectare, he harvested forty-two cents of grain. The security organs used to torment other mullahs but they did not touch him because they knew that he did nothing against them. Despite his high knowledge, he was not a khalifa. Our pir* Shāh Safdar, of Sultan in Iskhashim, had forbidden him to do so. He had declared that Soviet times were not a time for khalifas [dar davroni Shuravī davri khalifagī nest]. Whoever wants to take on this burden is free to do so. I was a kid, but I remember that many Europeans used to come to our house and talk at length with my father. These were scholars of Oriental studies and historians. They would submit their books to my father, who would read them and make comments that they would record in their notebooks. They offered him a fee but he never took it. Until the very last years of his life, many people used to come to our house. One of them was an Orientalist and ethnographer from the Soviet Academy of Sciences, Lidia Feodorovna [Monogarova], who she checked on my father very often. She used to come with the Tajik scholar Muhidinnov. She demanded him to listen carefully to the old man and to record precisely what he would tell, since they would never find a person a person more knowledgeable than him. At that time, my father was almost hundred years old. Nevertheless, he had a strong memory. The scholars would publish their conversations with my father in such or such academic journal.’
I look down at the riverbank, the meadow full of flowers. On the opposite bank, about sixty metres from the meadow, lies a gigantic snowdrift which reminds me of verses about Darwaz by a famous Tajik poet, Abdusalom Dehoti: ‘Snow on one side, and on the other ripe cherries: / Amazing, of summer in Darwaz the beauties.’
‘My ancestors, resumed Sumon, came to Bartang in early times. They were living in the village of Dughakhider. Granddad Bunars first settle down here. Our forefathers did not live without books and among them Olim and Awazbek were prominent mullahs. Yodgor, Dawlatbek, and Sumon Senior were very learned, too. Okhon Bandishoh possessed a huge library, which he had received in memory of his ancestors but alas, in Soviet times, out of fear of NKVD, he brought them to the mountains and hid them under rocks. In the 1980s, he secretly brought them back but all had been damaged.’
Safar Fayzulloh joined the conversation again:
‘I was eight, nine years old or so. Once we were at Okhon Bandishoh’s place. Three persons came in, telling that they have an issue. Two of them expressed their opinion on it. Okhon Bandishoh thought for a while and asked them a couple of questions. Then he took a book, opened it and started reading the text aloud, so that the two can hear him well. This was his habit to reply first orally, before opening a book. Beforehand, however, he would mention that the answer is at such page of such book. Despite having profound knowledge, he was not an arrogant person. He did not glory in his knowledge, spoke very little and did not open his mouth without being questioned.’
 Treasure House (ganjur): small storage room built outside the house for valuables, where during the Soviet period many families hid, too, their Arabic-script books and documents.
 In the Nizari Ismaili tradition, the pir (venerable) is a spiritual master.
 Lidia F. Monogarova (1921–2011): Soviet Russian ethnographer, specialist of the populations of Upper Badakhshan.
 Ikromiddin Muhiddinov (1933–2010), Soviet Tajik ethnographer, specialist of the populations of the Pamir, the author of pioneering studies on the farming system of Badakhshan.
 Darwaz: an upper valley and district west of Upper Badakhshan.
 Abdusalom Dehoti (1911–62): Samarqand-born Soviet Tajik writer, renowned for his sapiential poetry.