In the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the presence of another radical Islamic organisation, the Islamic State – Khorasan Province or ISKP, has become a matter of worry across the world. The ISKP had claimed the attack on the Kabul airport last month. The group, being ideologically opposed to the Taliban, has a vision of the region with much bigger implications for India.
The ISKP envisions the creation of a historical region that went by the name of Khorasan. Historically, the region being referred to as Khorasan had varying borders depending on its political rulers. But scholars do agree that the origins of the term, which means ‘rising sun’, lies in the Sasanian Empire in what is modern day Iran. Khorasan, under the Sassanians, comprised the north eastern part of Iran. At the same time, there was a persistent notion of a Greater Khorasan, comprising large parts south of the Aral Sea.
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“Theoretically, then, the eastern frontier of Khurasan went as far as China, but in fact it seldom extended very far past Balkh into the district known as Turkharistan (roughly analogous to ancient Bactria),” writes historian Elton L. Daniel in his book, ‘The political and social history of Khurasan under Abbasid rule, 747-820’ (1979). So, despite its varying notions in the Islamic world, Khorasan seldom crossed beyond the region that is modern day Afghanistan.
In recent years, the first time the term ‘Khorasan’ was adopted by a radical Islamic group was in 1996 by Osama Bin Laden of Al-Qaeda. At this point, Afghanistan was the base of operations for the larger goals of establishing an Islamic Caliphate after driving the United States out of Saudi Arabia and destroying Israel. Bin Laden, operating from Afghanistan, proclaimed that he had found a safe refuge in Khorasan. Later, the same term was adopted by the ISKP, which claimed Khorasan to be the land encompassing Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Central Asian republics, northwestern or sometimes all of India, and Russia.
ISKP fighters (Wikimedia Commons)
“Both Al-Qaeda and the ISKP are in fact not based in Khorasan. Historically speaking, Khorasan never went south of the Hindu Kush. But the allies of Al-Qaeda and ISKP are Pakistani Jihadi groups who wish to include Kashmir in their area of operations. They are not interested in the Arab world issues, and are rather looking east,” explains Dr. Amin Tarzi, director of Middle Eastern Studies at Marine Corps University, in an interview with Indianepxress.com. Consequently, these groups hark back to Islamic history to find political currency in the significance of Khorasan. Indeed there was much to appropriate here, as the region of Khorasan is of special significance in the political and cultural history of Islam as well as in Islamic theology.
Why Khorasan is special to Islam
Modern scholars of Islamic history agree on this idea that between the seventh century CE when the Sasanian Empire collapsed with the Muslim conquest and the 13th century CE, Khorasan went from being in the margins of empire to becoming the centre and then again withdrawing to the margins. “Its very name (literally Khurasan means the land of the rising sun) hints at its marginal position vis-a-vis the centre of the Sasanian Empire, which was first in Fars, then in Iraq,” writes historian of medieval Iran David Durand Guedy in his article, ‘Pre-Mongol Khurasan: A historical introduction’ (2015).
The Encyclopaedia Iranica notes that during the Arab Islamic invasion, Khorasan seemed to have corresponded to an ‘abstract geographical entity’. “The Arab armies did not limit their conquest to the boundaries of Sasanian Khorasan, but rapidly passed the Oxus River through the Kara Kum desert and advanced through Sogdiana toward the northeast, to stop later on the Talas River around 750 CE,” it suggests.
In his article, Guedy explains that the biggest impact of the Arab conquest was the unification of the territories that were previously divided under the common umbrella term called ‘Khorasan’. He also writes that unlike other provinces, “Khurasan also saw the massive installation of Arab settlers, perhaps as many as 250,000, which reflects both its strategic importance as well as its potential wealth.” He adds: “Logically the the conversion of the local population to Islam began there earlier.”
Rocco Rante, archaeologist at the department of Islamic Art in the Louvre Museum says that “excavations in the area show cultural and technological similarities, proving that the Greater Khorasan area came to be unified from Herat to Balkh. Sometimes we can find similar objects from the other side of the Oxus River as well.”
Speaking about the strategic importance of the Khorasan region to the Islamic Caliphate, Daniel says, “All the major trade routes went through this area.” “Controlling it was important to control the world economy.” Politically, he says, the area was crucial to the Caliphate because “it was the military frontier for Islamic expansion eastwards.” “Khorasan was also the richest province in terms of the amount of taxes it paid to the Caliphate. Financially, militarily, and commercially, this area was critical for the Caliphate,” says Daniel who is Director at Ehsan Yarshater Center For Iranian Studies in Columbia University.
The importance of this area also stems from the fact that it was the cradle of the Abbasid Revolution, a critical moment in Islamic history. Hitherto the Islamic world was ruled by the Umayyads, an Arab dynasty. Non-Arabs in the region, including those who had converted to Islam, were particularly distressed by the discriminatory treatment meted out to them under the Umayyads. The Abbasid dynasty that stood up in opposition to them claimed descent from al-Abbas, an uncle of the Prophet. Under the leadership of Abu Muslim, a Persian general, the Abbasids toppled the Umayyad dynasty.
“This was an extremely significant event because this is when the idea that in order to be Muslim one also had to be Arab is rejected. The idea of Islam as a multi-national, multi-ethnic religion grew out of these events,” says Daniel.
Thereafter, leaders of the Caliphate were no longer Arabs. They were Iranians and other Easterners drawn in from Central Asia. The centre of the Muslim world shifted from Baghdad to Khorasan region, that now became the linchpin of the Muslim Empire.
Under the Abbasids this region acquired a newfound cultural significance. Rante explains that it would be incorrect to assume that the material cultural productions at Khorasan were superior to that in other parts of the Muslim world. However, after the Abbasid revolution, Khorasan assumed a political role way more important than what it was before.
The Encyclopaedia Iranica suggests that “it was from the province’s association with the Abbasids that hadiths or traditions came into circulation like the one attributed to the Prophet: “Khorasan is God’s quiver; when He becomes angry with a people, he launches at them the Khorasanis.”
Consequently, Khorasan also became a space for intellectual productions, with the city of Nishapur at the centre of it. The multi-ethnic nature of Islam here was one of main reasons behind the region producing exciting new works in philosophy, science, and literature.
“Nishapur’s lively intellectual climate was not solely the product of legal and theological disputes and civil strife. The presence there of articulate Zoroastrians and Christians also played a role, as did, the submerged traditions of Buddhism and the ongoing intellectual contacts with India,” writes S.Frederick Starr, an expert on Russian and Eurasian affairs in his book, ‘Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane’ (2013).
One of the first philosophers to emerge here was a polymath by the name Abul-Abbas Iranshahri who brought to his philosophy a deep knowledge of Christianity and Zoroastrianism. He is known to have produced works on astronomy as well and firmly believed in the rational intellect of humans to approach questions of existence.
One of Iranshahri’s students, Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, is noted by Starr in his book as being the “greatest medical clinician of all times”. Then there was the ninth century scholar, Jabir Ibn Hayyan who is known to have authored an enormous volume of works dealing with Chemistry, alchemy, magic and religion.
“Khurasan produced more than its share of skeptics and radical freethinkers,” writes Starr. This was no surprise as people of this region were reading, editing and translating religious texts for a while now. Several of these freethinkers focused their attack squarely on Islam.
For instance, there was Abu Hasan Ahmad Ibn Al-Rawandi born around 820 CE in Lesser Merv (what is now northern Afghanistan). As Starr writes, Rawandi used “logic and reason to plumb the nature of religion” and is supposed to have mastered the art of “using the Bible against the Bible and the Quran against the Quran to show ‘The Futility of Divine Wisdom’, the title of one of his diatribes against all revealed religions.” He wrote close to 114 books and treatises on philosophy, politics, music, grammar, but none of them survive today, nor does any of his poetry.
No discussion of intellectual productions in Khorasan is complete without referring to the ‘Shahnameh’, an epic written by the Persian poet Firdawsi in the 10th century CE. The Shahnameh provides a mythical and historical account of the Persian Empire. It is believed to be one of the longest epic poems of the world, and is deemed to be part of global cultural heritage.
Page from a manuscript of the Shahnama of Firdawsi (d. 1020) (Wikimedia Commons)
When the Abbasids were defeated by the Mongols in the 13th century, the Khorasan region once again lost its centrality and went into the periphery. “The next time this region becomes important is under the Timurids. But by now the name ‘Khorasan’ is no longer in usage. The centre of the empire shifted to Bukhara (in present day Uzbekistan) and Balkh (in present day Afghanistan) and the region of Khorasan lost the political significance it had before,” says Tarzi. “It had to do with geopolitics and changing of the empires.”
Why Khorasan is important to Islamic extremists
The next time that the term ‘Khorasan’ emerged in popular consciousness was in 1932 when the prominent Afghan historian and politician Mir Ghulam Muhammad Ghobar in his writings, called Afghanistan as ‘Aryana’ (land of the Aryans) in pre-Islamic times and as ‘Khorasan’ after the Islamic conquests. “After modern Afghanistan is born the Afghans proclaim Abu Muslim, the Abbasid general as their hero. This was done not for religious reasons but for a nationalist cause to stand up against the Arabs,” says Tarzi. The Afghans even changed the birthplace of Abu Moslem to a village in Afghanistan called Sar-e-Pol rather than the conventional location near Isfahan in Iran. Tarzi explains that in the mid-20th century several books and historians in Afghanistan repeatedly referred to their country as ‘Khorasan’, much of which, he says, was based on very thin historical evidence.
In the 1980s and 90s, the term emerged once again, this time though it is Islamic extremism that usurps its symbolism. Tarzi in an article published in 2020 explains that “from the initial phases of the Afghan Mujahideen political campaigns against the Soviets (1979-89) to the internal conflict with the Taliban (1994-2001), Khorasan became a term of reference used by some of the local, mainly non-Pashtun groups to propagate the idea that their armed struggle went beyond freeing the country from the foreign yoke and communism or the Taliban. For them, it was a call to return the country to its pre-1747 political makeup, the time before modern-day Afghanistan emerged as a political unit ruled by Dorrani.”
After the departure of the Soviets from Afghanistan, the focus of the Al-Qaeda formed in the 1980s shifted to a more global jihadist agenda. Afghanistan served as the base for Bin Laden and it was from here that he proclaimed his safe refuge in ‘Khorasan’. Scholars explain that the theological aspect of the Al-Qaeda’s use of the Khorasan symbolism is based on a few hadiths (traditions or sayings of the Prophet) that associated the region with future events. “The most referenced hadith, of which there are several renditions, conveys the message that there would emerge from Khorasan an army carrying black banners that no one would repel until it raised its banners Ilia (the name used in early Muslim sources for Jerusalem),” writes Tarzi.
Taken in this context, perhaps it is no surprise as to why Al-Qaeda chose to represent itself with a black flag. They even published a magazine, ‘Talai ‘i Khorasan’ (Vanguard of Khorasan) detailing the virtues and significance of Khorasan in Islamic thought.
With the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Jihadish organisations, including many in the ranks of Al-Qaeda were prompted to shift focus westwards. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was formed, which no longer looked east to fulfill its destiny and the idea of ‘Khorasan’ once again waned. It emerged once again in 2015 when the ISKP was born. To them, Khorasan, the region, encompassed the fluid borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan and went on to include countries like Iran, other Central Asian republics, parts of Russia and parts of India. Members of the group, explains Tarzi, included disgruntled jihadists in Afghanistan who were against Pashtun nationalism and those in Pakistan working against India to occupy Kashmir.
Even though the ISKP claims to be an offshoot of ISIS and while they both wish to create an Islamic world, in their aims and vision they both are remarkably different. “The ISKP is clearly looking towards India. Their map of Khorasan includes large parts of north India where the Mughals ruled and they do not include most of southern India,” says Tarzi. He reiterates that “even in the heyday of Islamic rule in India, it was never called Khorasan… India was called Al-Hind”.
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Speaking about the implications of the ISKP’s vision for India, Tarzi explains that firstly one needs to see to what extent their ideology resonates with radical Islamic groups within India. “Secondly, they would need support from a different country to germinate further. This is dependent on international relations among countries in the region. So, if India’s relations with one of its neighbouring countries deteriorates they might find support there,” says Tarzi.
At present the ISKP stands firmly diminished in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. This is one of the reasons for the Taliban finding favourability among the Chinese and the Russians. While the Taliban’s extremist ideology is definitely seen as worrying, it is recognised as being restricted to Afghanistan, while the ISKP is seen as a much bigger regional threat.
It is indeed interesting that the symbol of Khorasan that the radical Islamic groups employ harks back to a time and space of intellectual enlightenment and cultural productions. “It is true that Islam has made so many positive contributions to the history and development of this region,” says Tarzi. “These extremist organisations do not have that kind of a vision. Their only vision is to create fear and work for whoever pays them.”
Elton L. Daniel, The political and social history of Khurasan under Abbasid rule, 747-820, Bibliotheca Islamica, 1979
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Rocco Rante (ed.), Greater Khorasan: History, Geography, archaeology and material culture, De Gruyter, 2015
S. Frederick Starr, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane’, Princeton University Press, 2015
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Amin Tarzi, Khorasan in modern Islamist ideology, in ‘Encyclopaedia Iranica’, Brill Publishers, Fascicle XVI/6, 2020