The First Tombstone of Ishan ‘Aziz Khwaja, Qizil Qal‘a, Tajikistan (1997), by Stéphane Dudoignon


Figures 1 and 2: Ishan Ayyub Khwaja b. Ishan ‘Aziz Khwaja showing his father’s tombstone, cemetery of Qizil Qal‘a, 4 August 2004; detail of the inscription at the same date (photos by SAD)

Latin Transcription

Gawhar-i baḥr-i faṣāḥat partaw, aḫtar-i balāġat, ṣāḥib-i iršād-i niyābat yaʿnī ḥażrat-i Īšān ʿAzīz  Ḫwāja ibn-i Mullā Muḥammad-Nabī Ḫwāja wa wālida-yi īšān Bībī Ḥurr al-Nisa bint-i Īšān Sayyid Mīrzā Ḫwāja būda ki ba čand pušt ba ḥażrat-i Sayyid Mīr-i ʿArab wa ḥażrat Zayn al-ʿĀbidīn wa ḥażrat Imām Jaʿfar-i Ṣādiq mīrasand. Īšān dar sāl-i baqar, sana-yi 1888-i milādī muṭābiq-i sana-yi 1396 [sic]-i hijrī dar ʿarṣa-yi wujūd amada [sic], čandī az ʿilm-i maʿrifat ba imdād-i ḫudāwandī ḥāṣil karda, wa baʿd-i marīż-i darāz-muddat dar sana-yi milādī-yi 1978 muṭābiq-i sana-yi 1396-i hijrī, sāl-i nahang, haftum šaʿbān raḫt-i ḥayāt bar manzil-i mamāt kašīda maṭlaʿ-i dīwān-i ʿumraš ba maqṭaʿ anjāmīd. Wa pisarān-i kalānaš Īšān Qāsim Ḫwāja wa Īšān Iḥiyā Ḫwāja wa Īšān Ḥāmid Ḫwāja mībāšand. Wa marqad-i īšān dar Qalʿa-yi Surḫ, ki ḥālā ba Qizil-Qalʿa mašhūr ast, ṭābiʿ[sic]-i šahr-i Qurġan-Tīpa [sic], mībāšad. Ba kūšiš-i [. . .] Īšān Ḥāmid Ḫwāja [. . .].

Traduction française

Gemme d’une mer d’éloquence, étoile des rhéteurs, guide par délégation, Sa Grâce Ishan ‘Aziz Khwaja, fils de Mulla Muhammad-Nabi Khwaja et de Bibi Hurr al-Nisa, fille d’Ishan Mirza Sayyid, lui-même issu de Leurs Grâces Sayyid Mir-i ‘Arab, Zayn al-‘Abidin et l’Imam Ja‘far Sadiq, venu au monde en 1888 de l’ère chrétienne, année du Buffle, équivalente de l’an 1396 [sic] de l’hégire, a un peu étudié le haut savoir avec le secours du Très-Haut avant de quitter ce monde pour l’autre, après une longue maladie, en l’année chrétienne 1976, équivalant à l’an 1396 de l’hégire, année du Dragon, le 7 sha‘ban, joignant le premier au dernier vers du diwan de sa vie. Ses fils aînés sont Ishan Qasim Khwaja, Ishan Ihiya Khwaja et Ishan Hamid Khwaja. Il gît à Qal‘a-yi Surkh, connue de nos jours sous le nom de Qizil-Qal‘a, relevant de la ville de Qurghan-Teppa. Établi par Ishan Hamid Khwaja.

English Translation

Gem of a sea of eloquence, star of rhetors, guide by delegation, His Grace Ishan ‘Aziz Khwaja, son of Mulla Muhammad-Nabi Khwaja and Bibi Hurr al-Nisa, daughter of Ishan Mirza Sayyid, himself a descendant from Their Graces Sayyid Mir-i ‘Arab, Zayn al-‘Abidin and Imam Ja‘far Sadiq, who came into the world in the year of the Ox, equivalent to the year 1396 [sic] of the Hegira, studied a little gnosis with the Almighty’s help, before leaving this world for the other, after a long illness, in the Christian year 1976, equivalent to the year 1396 of the Hegira, year of the Dragon, on the 7th of Sha‘ban, joining the first to the last verse of the diwan of his life. His eldest sons are Ishan Qasim Khwaja, Ishan Ihiya Khwaja and Ishan Hamid Khwaja. He lies in Qal‘a-yi Surkh, known today as Qizil-Qal‘a, under the town of Qurghan-Teppa. Established by Ishan Hamid Khwaja.


This first tombstone of the Tajik Mujaddidi Naqshbandi shaykh Ishan ‘Aziz Khwaja b. Mulla Muhammad-Nabi (1888–1976) was erected in 1997 on his sepulchre in Qizil-Qal‘a, a suburban village of Qurghan-Teppa in the southwest of Tajikistan, by his son and successor Ishan Hamid Khwaja (1925–2003). Signed by the latter, the inscription mentions the shaykh’s three ‘elder sons’ (i.e., through his first marriage), including the signatory; it makes no mention of the present-day tomb keeper, Ishan Ayyub Khwaja, the late son of ‘Aziz Khwaja’s second wife. This omission reflects the role played in the lineage by women in the transmission of knowledge and charisma: Ishan Hamid Khwaja’s mother (born c. 1936) was the daughter of Damulla Muhammadi-Qumsangiri (b. 1932/3), a famous faqih and mufti from the Ilak River Valley in Qarategin (present-day Rasht), the cradle of the family; a renowned bibi khalifa (female teacher of religion and ethics), ‘Aziz Khwaja’s first wife was reputed also as an embroiderer (duzanda) – a key virtue, within a Sufi tradition which, in the Soviet period especially, valued manual work. (Hamid Khwaja himself was known as a good carpenter.)

Overall, as is often the case in the sacred lineages of post-Soviet Central Asia, hagiographers and memorialists emphasise not so much the spiritual lineage (silsila) of the master as his double family tree (shajara). The gravestone’s inscription barely evokes ‘some’ background in gnostic studies (chandi az ‘ilm-i ma‘rifat. . .), acquired ‘with divine help’. A curious assertion, for a master endowed, according to his successors, with classical initiation to Islamic gnosticism (‘ilm-i hal) – in Saray, at the source of the Ilak River, with a local scholar of Islam, first, then with his maternal uncle Ishan Parsa Khwaja b. Ishan Qiyath al-Din, who became his pir in the Naqshbandiyya. His paternal ancestry, however, provides Ishan ‘Aziz Khwaja the pedigree of a professional scholar of Hanafi Sunni Islam. His maternal lineage relates him to the genealogy of Prophet Muhammad, through the Imams Zayn al-‘Abidin and Ja‘far Sadiq, as well as through Shaykh ‘Abd-Allah Yamani, alias Mir-i ‘Arab, the Yemen-born founder of the early-sixteenth-century eponymous madrasa in Bukhara which, active throughout the Soviet period, could symbolise the continuity of Islamic confessional learning in Central Asia.

Ishan ‘Aziz Khwaja, by the way, is celebrated here principally as an embodiment of Persian high culture (‘gem of a sea of eloquence’, ‘star of rhetors’. . .) and of its perpetuation in the Soviet South. His death is evoked by a prosodic metaphor (he joined ‘the first to the last verse of the diwan of his life’) that refers to gnostic poetry as it continued to be cultivated in the twentieth century. Among the poets of this time: the Naqshbandi masters Shaykh ‘Abd al-Rahim Dawlat Ilaki (c. 1881–1947) and his own disciple Damulla Iskandar Bidaki (1895–1989). All belonged to related branches of the Dahbidi lineage who had settled, until the late 1940s, along the banks of the Ilak, a small mountain river of the Qarategin Upper Valley, before being all resettled to the southern cotton-growing lowlands of the Tajik SSR: there, a granddaughter of Shaykh ‘Abd al-Rahim Dawlat’s wedded Ishan Hamid Khwaja in second marriage. In the plain of Qurghan-Teppa, they faced the hegemony of Uzbek-speaking Muslim religious staff, trying to impose themselves, in the limbo of the kolkhoz economy, as restorers of Persian heritage – as shown here by Hamid Khwaja’s interest in Persian toponymy.

Engraved and inked in Persian language (Arabic script), although not calligraphed, the inscription’s long text (165 words) was an exception in early post-Soviet Tajik gravestone practice, even among sacred lineages. Partly erased, already, in the early 2000s, it mixes Arabic loanwords (38 of the total, not counting proper names), minor spelling mistakes (amada for āmada, ābiʿ for tābiʿ) and transcriptions from modern colloquial Tajik (for ex., of the place name Qurġan-Tīpa). A careless error by the copyist can be noticed on the shaykh’s birthdate, 1888 of the Christian era, which corresponds to 1305–06 instead of 1396 of the Hegira, as indicated on the tombstone, the date of his death (7 sha‘ban 1396) corresponding to 3 August 1976. If the reference calendar is that of the Soviet Registry, the author mobilises two others: not only the Hegira lunar calendar common in the Sunni world, but also the Chinese zodiac – which tells us that the buried shaykh was of the year of the Ox . . . as was his successor Ishan Hamid Khwaja: a sign whose recognised virtues (patience, perseverance, honesty, taste for work. . .) seem to have been specially praised in Ishan ‘Aziz Khwaja’s dynasty.

 Sources and references

Stéphane A. Dudoignon, interviews with Ishan Sayyid Khwaja b. Ishan Hamid Khwaja and with disciples of Ishan Hamid Khwaja, at the mosque of Nawabad, district of Qurghan-Teppa, 4 August 2004; with Ishan Ayyub Khwaja b. Ishan ‘Aziz Khwaja, 4 August 2004 and 5 November 2005; and the articles by the same author: ‘From Revival to Mutation: The Religious Personnel of Islam in the Tajik SSR, from De-Stalinization to Independence (1955–1991)’, Central Asian Survey 29/4 (2011), pp. 53–80; ‘Īshān ʿAzīz Khvādzha’, in S. M. Prozorov, éd., Islam na Territorii Byvshei Rossiiskoi Imperii: Entsiklopedicheskii Slovar’, 2, Moscow : Nauka – Vostochnaia literatura, 2018, pp. 39–42; ‘A Surrogate Aristocracy? Sufi Adab, Modernity, Rurality and Civilisation in Ex-Soviet Central Asia’, in C. Mayeur-Jaouen, ed., Adab and Modernity: A ‘Civilising Process’?, Leiden: Brill (Islamic Literatures: Texts and Studies), 2020, pp. 527–51 ; ‘Fragments de Gnose Musulmane Soviétique: Quelques Ghazals du Dīwān de Shaykh ʿAbd al-Raḥīm Dawlat Īlākī (1881–1947)’, Journal of Sufi Studies 10/2 (2021), pp. 197–214; ‘Holy Virgin Lands? Demographic Engineering, Heritage Management and the Sanctification of Territories in ex-Soviet Central Asia, since WWII’, in E. Tasar, A. J. Frank, J. Eden, ed., In the Khan’s Oven: Studies on the History of Central Asian Religions in Honor of Devin DeWeese, Leiden: Brill (HdO), 2022, pp. 358–408

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  1. 14/02/2022

    […] The First Tombstone of Ishan ‘Aziz Khwaja, Qizil Qal‘a, Tajikistan (1997), par Stéphane Dudoignon, sur le carnet Red Gold ; […]

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