Nasir Khusraw was born in 1004 AD, in Qubadiyan, then Greater Khorasan (near the present-day city of Balkh in Afghanistan). He was well versed in all the branches of natural science, in medicine, mathematics, astronomy and astrology, in Greek philosophy and the writings of al-Kindi, al-Farabi and Ibn Sina; and the interpretation of the Qur'an. He had studied Arabic, Turkish, Greek, the vernacular languages of India and Sind, and perhaps even Hebrew; he had visited Multan and Lahore, and the splendid Ghaznavid court under Sultan Mahmud, Firdousi's patron. Later on he chose Merv for his residence, and was the owner of a house and garden there.
Until A.H. 437 (1046 AD), he worked as financial secretary and revenue collector for the Seljuk sultan Toghrul Beg, or rather of his brother Jaghir Beg, the emir of Khorasan, who had conquered Merv in 1037. About this time, inspired by a heavenly voice in a dream, he abjured all the luxuries of life, and resolved upon a pilgrimage to the holy shrines of Mecca and Medina, hoping to find there the solution to his spiritual crisis.
The graphic description of this journey is contained in the Safarnama, which possesses a special value among books of travel, since it contains the most authentic account of the state of the Muslim world in the middle of the 11th century. The minute sketches of Jerusalem and its environs are even today of practical value.
During the seven years of his 19,000-kilometre journey (1046-1052), Nasir visited Mecca four times, and performed all the rites and observances of a zealous pilgrim; but he was far more attracted by Cairo, the capital of Egypt, and the residence of the Fatimid caliph-imam Ma'ad al-Mustansir Billah, the Imam of the Ismaili Shi'a Muslims, which was just then waging a deadly war against the Abbasid caliph of Baghdad, and Toghrul Beg the Seljuk, the great defender of the Sunni creed. At the very time of Nasir's visit to Cairo, the power of the Egyptian Fatimids was in its zenith; Syria, the Hejaz, Africa, and Sicily obeyed al-Mustanir's sway, and the utmost order, security and prosperity reigned in Egypt.
At Cairo, he learned mainly under the Fatimid da'i Mu'ayyad fid-Din al-Shirazi, and became thoroughly imbued with the Shi'a Isma'ili doctrines of the Fatimids, and their introduction into his native country was henceforth the sole object of his life. He was raised to the position of da'i and appointed as the Hujjat-i-Khorasan, though the hostility he encountered in the propagation of these new religious ideas after his return to Greater Khorasan in 1052 and Sunnite fanaticism compelled him at last to flee. After many wanderings he found a refuge in Yamagan (about 1060) in the mountains of Badakhshan, where he spent as a hermit the last decades of his life, and gathered round him a considerable number of devoted adherents, who have handed down his doctrines to succeeding generations.
Safarnama (The Book of Travels) is his most famous work. He visited tens of cities in about seven years (1046, March 6 – 1052, October 23) and wrote comprehensively about them: colleges, caravanserais, mosques, area, population, scientists, kings, usual people and his interesting memories. After 1000 years, his Safarnama is still readable for Persian-speaking people.
Among his other works, most of the lyrical poems in his Diwan were composed in his retirement, and their chief topics are an enthusiastic praise of Ali, his descendants, and al-Mustansir in particular; passionate outcries against Khorasan and its rulers, who had driven him from house and home; the highest satisfaction with the quiet solitude of Yumgan; and utter despondency again in seeing himself despised by his former associates and forever excluded from participation in the glorious contest of life. But scattered through all these alternate outbursts of hope and despair we find precious lessons of purest morality, and solemn warnings against the tricks and perfidy of the world, the vanity of all earthly splendour and greatness, the folly and injustice of men, and the hypocrisy, frivolity and viciousness of fashionable society and princely courts in particular.
It is the same strain which runs, although in a somewhat lower key, through his two larger mathnavis, the Rawshana-i-nama (or Book of Enlightenment, also known as Shish Fasl), and the Sa'datnama (Book of Felicity). The former is divided into two sections: the first, of a metaphysical character, contains a sort of practical cosmography, chiefly based on Avicenna's theories, but frequently intermixed both with the freer speculations of the well-known philosophical brotherhood of Basra, the Ikhwan al-Safa, and purely Shi'ite or Isma'ili ideas; the second, or ethical section of the poem, abounds in moral maxims and ingenious thoughts on man's good and bad qualities, on the necessity of shunning the company of fools and double-faced friends, on the deceptive allurements of the world and the secret snares of ambitious men craving for rank and wealth. It concludes with an imaginary vision of a beautiful work of spirits who have stripped off the fetters of earthly cares and sorrows and revel in the pure light of divine wisdom and love.
If we compare this with a similar allegory in Nasir's Diwan, which culminates in the praise of Mustansir, we are fairly entitled to look upon it as a covert allusion to the eminent men who revealed to the poet in Cairo the secrets of the Isma'ili faith, and showed him what he considered the heavenly ladder to superior knowledge and spiritual bliss.
A similar series of excellent teachings on practical wisdom and the blessings of a virtuous life, only of a more severe and uncompromising character, is contained in the Sa'datnama; and, judging from the extreme bitterness of tone manifested in the reproaches of kings and emirs, we should be inclined to consider it a protest against the vile aspersions poured out upon Nasir's moral and religious attitude during those persecutions which drove him at last to Yumgan.
Of all other works of the author, the Zaad al-Musafirin (or Travelling Provisions of Pilgrims) and the Wajh-i-Din (or The Face of Religion) are theoretical descriptions of his religious and philosophical principles; the rest of them can be dismissed as being probably just as apocryphal as Nasir's famous autobiography (found in several Persian tadhkiras or biographies of poets), a mere forgery of the most extravagant description, which is mainly responsible for the confusion in names and dates in older accounts of our author.
Another work of Nasir Khusraw is the Persian philosophical work "Gushayis wa Rahayish" which has been translated to English by F.M. Hunzai under the title "Knowledge and Liberation".
The poetry of Nasir Khusraw is replete with advice and wisdom. Being the representative of the Fatimid Imams in Khorasan, Nasir guided his followers through his poetry. His Persian poetry is enjoyed by the average Persian speaker of today and is taught in grade school.
نشنیدهای که زیر چناری کدو بنی --- بر رست و بردوید برو بر به روز بیست؟
پرسید از آن چنار که تو چند سالهای؟ --- گفتا دویست باشد و اکنون زیادتی است
خندید ازو کدو که من از تو به بیست روز --- بر تر شدم بگو تو که این کاهلی ز چیست
او را چنار گفت که امروز ای کدو --- با تو مرا هنوز نه هنگام داوری است
فردا که بر من و تو وزد باد مهرگان --- آنگه شود پدید که از ما دو مرد کیست