Imadaddin Nasimi wrote heretical poetry in 14th century Azerbaijan. Despite being banned, his altruistic poetry was incredibly popular and helped give rise to the Azerbaijani language.

He evaded capture for many years but when he saw a man being tortured in his place, he swapped places. His poetry is still held in high esteem across the Islamic world, particularly in Azerbaijan and Turkey.

His grizzly execution is still the stuff of legends.


Further Reading and Sources:

  • Azerbaijani Classics - Imadaddin Nasimi poetry


It's the early 15th century. A hooded man wanders through the crowded markets of Aleppo,
the strong scent of Arabic spices waft through the narrow streets. The man makes his way
around a corner, politely turning down the request to look at the wares of one of the
street sellers.
Around the next corner, the street opens up to a large public square. A crowd has gathered
and raised a wooden platform. On the platform is a large wooden board, and a defeated looking
man is stretched across it, his arms and legs stretched out and bound by cloth. Standing
over him are two stern-looking moolahs, their pure white beards and turbids shining in the
mid-morning sunlight. A burly looking man stands in the corner of the platform. Next
to him, a pair of red-hot steel tongs are resting in an urn full of charcoal.
As the onlookers fan around the stage, jostling to get the best view, one of the moolahs addresses
a man tied to the wooden board.
For the distribution of heretical writings you are sentenced to death by flaying. Do
you deny these works are yours? The moolah waves a stack of leaflets in front of the
prisoners eyes, but he doesn't even stir.
The crowd begins to whisper amongst themselves. Everyone watching knew the writings well.
Many had the very same leaflets hanging in their homes. The moolah throws a stack of
paper to the ground, and the wind catches one of the pages and it lands in front of
the hooded man. He catches a glimpse at one of the lines.
To see my face you need an eye that can perceive true God. How can the eye that is short-sighted
see the face of God?
The hooded man recognizes the words instantly. He should. He wrote them. Without an ounce
of apprehension the man steps forward from the crowd, pulling his hood down. I am the
author of the words, not this man. The punishment should befall me, not him.
This is the story of Imadim Naseemi, martyr of the Harufi.
In the late 15th century, the Caucasus, today made up of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia and
parts of Russia, were a mesh of autonomous petty kingdoms. All these kingdoms shared
the same problem. They were on a collision course between two empires, the Ottomans in
the east and the Timurids in the west. One of these petty kingdoms was known as Shervan
and today is located in eastern Azerbaijan.
It's in the town of Shervan where today's story starts. We don't have too much info
about Naseemi's early life. Even the name Naseemi is just a pen name, a name used by
authors to make themselves more distinctive.
It's likely that he was born in the town of Shamaki, which today is just a little west
of the capital of Baku. His family supposedly could trace their bloodline back to the prophet.
We know this because he was at times referred to with the honorary title of Sayyid, usually
reserved for those with holy blood.
From a young age he was said to be a talented poet, writing in Azerbaijani, Arabic and Persian.
Performance wise we only have artists' impressions, but they draw a portrait of a thin man with
a fair complexion, long nose and high cheekbones. He was almost always usually also drawn with
a neat short black beard and a flat topped messy turban. We've got a picture on our
website or you can just look at the podcast picture.
Growing up in the Caucasus, Naseemi would have been exposed to all number of religious
doctrines and ideas. The position of the region, as well as the lax central government, made
for good fertile grounds for new ideas to grow. At some point in his early life, he
found a mentor, Al Harufi, who had a profound effect on his life. Al Harufi was the founder
of an Islamic school of thought that differed from the practices of mainstream Shia Islam.
This school of thought was known as Harufiism.
The Harufi movement likely started in Persia, but like other radical ideas it was in the
Caucasus where it really found success. I'm not an Islamic scholar, believe it or not,
but I'll attempt to give a summary of it. Harufiism was based on the idea that the key
to understanding the Quran was linked to specific numbers and those numbers were linked to elements
within the universe. The number 7 was particularly important. The human face has two nostrils,
two ears, two eye sockets and a mouth, a total of seven orifices. The human head has four
sets of eyelashes, two eyebrows and the hair found on top of your head. These were known
as the seven maternal lines as they derive from Eve. On the flip side we have hair growing
on each side of the face, two sides of the moustache, hair growing out of each nostril
and the hair between the lower lip and the chin, or the so-called paternal lines as they
derive from Adam. These reoccurring patterns and numbers tied to the Quran in various esoteric
ways, and it was through perceived linkages like this the movement was based off.
The Harufi sect wasn't the first or last to believe in hidden universal codes that
would unlock the word of God, and neither would this phenomenon only be found in Islam.
But something about these teachings awoke something in Nasimi, something that he would
eventually be willing to die for. The takeaway from Harufism is that an element of God is
present within every atom of every person, or summarized, God is within us. Al-Harufi
made the claim that every person was a manifestation of God's force in the same way that Adam,
Moses or Muhammad were. As you can probably guess, this view was not shared by mainstream
Islam. The notion that an ordinary person was equal to the prophet was outright blasphemous
and threatened to take power away from the Islamic elite. This could not be tolerated.
Despite misgivings from the clergy, the movement was popular with the common folk. After all,
who wouldn't love to be told that they're as important as the prophet? Al-Harufi gained
many followers, and his travels took him all through the Caucasus. He and his growing entourage
traveled frequently through Shevan. Standing tall in the town square, he and his followers
attracted large crowds speaking about the wonders of God, and insisting to the townsfolk
that they were not only created in God's image, but with fragments of God himself.
One day, as Nasimi went about his business, he stopped to listen to this enigmatic preacher.
The message immediately struck a chord in the young man, and he was hooked. Since a
young age, Nasimi had showed terrific prowess as a poet. He had the raw talent and now,
invigorated by these teachings, he would help spread Harufism through his gift of poetry.
Al-Harufi too knew a good thing when he saw it, and recognized Nasimi's skill as a poet
quickly. Soon, Nasimi was part of Al-Harufi's closest disciples. He began to become a crucial
part of helping spread the movement. Nasimi's poetry revolved around themes that common
people could relate to. The idea that the human body was the perfect blend of the spiritual
and physical realm was a reoccurring theme. He dedicates many poems to specific features
of the human face and the beauty and divinity that can be seen within the human form, particularly
the female form.
To the clergy at the time, Nasimi's poetry was unorthodox at best and heretical at worst,
but to the receptive ears of Al-Harufi's followers, they loved it. Have a listen to
some of these and imagine how thoughts like this could threaten the stability of the religious
order. As a reminder, these are translations and would have obviously sounded different
in Arizabajani or Persian.
Do you not say that God is everywhere? Why do you distinguish then between the tavern
and the mosque?
Nasimi's saying here that love of God is found within one's self and that earthly
buildings are irrelevant to a true believer. Another, O heart, reject vain promises, let
us spend this moment in pleasure. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow is unknown, and so this
moment is pleasure. And here he says that time on earth should be enjoyed, not spent
waiting for the paradise that's promised in the Quran. In between reoccurring themes
around love and worship, he peppers these out with occasional outbursts of anger at
the world.
Like a rotting corpse the world is, who would have it is a kur. Be not such a scavenger
and carrion, do not desire.
Nasimi's poetry was unique in a number of ways, but perhaps the most unique part you
wouldn't have noticed. The most unique part is that many, many of his works were written
in an obscure dialect that came to be known as Azerbaijani. Azerbaijani was based on
a Turkish language and at this point it was virtually unheard of for Islamic poetry to
be written in anything except Persian.
While Nasimi was fluent in both Persian and Azerbaijani, Azerbaijani was his native tongue.
Due to the sheer popularity of his poetry, many others began to learn to read or write
in this new script, either in hope of replicating Nasimi's style, or for greater access to
all of his other works that they currently couldn't read.
Nasimi's poetry became instrumental for spreading the message of Harufiism. Al Harufi
would preach in the towns, planting the seeds of belief, and Nasimi's poetry would be
the legacy left behind the town once Al Harufi had moved on. Through this, his teachings
were spread far and wide. For the poor and downtrodden, hearing that they were partially
divine was an enticing concept, and eventually the message reached the ears of the great
conqueror and mighty Islamic warlord Timur, or Tamerlane.
Timur was not impressed. Either the message of Harufiism didn't appeal to him, or more
likely he preferred to maintain the stability of the provinces he had recently conquered.
New ideas could incite rebellion, and rebellion was expensive to put down. Whatever the reason,
Timur quickly declared Harufiism heretical and ordered that Al Harufi was to be put to
death. It's unlikely that Nasimi and Harufi were
together once he was captured. It seemed like eventually the two parted ways and promoted
the movement in their own special way. With Timur's men hot on his trail, Al Harufi
is captured and killed. It's not recorded how, but skinning seems likely, considering
the charge of heresy. In the 1973 Azerbaijani film Nasimi, Nasimi
is depicted as standing by idly while Al Harufi is pulled apart by horses, but in reality
nothing suggests the two were even in the same city at this time.
Nasimi's fears of being unguided without his mentor are made clear in the poems he
penned once he learnt about his mentor's death.
My sores I healed when I perceived your presence, O Fazlallah. I sorely miss you now. Of other
ways of healing, what need have I? Even after the death of its founder, interest
in Harufiism endured, and he continued to pen more poems under his alias, Nasimi. The
alias became so well known that the man's original name has now been lost to history.
The authorities worked hard to keep a lid on Nasimi's poetry, but the underground
replication of his works continued. As the heat became too much to bear, Nasimi finally
decided to leave his homeland and move to Aleppo, Syria, never to return again.
Just like in the Balkans, his poetry found an audience, but Aleppo had a stronger centralized
government and followed a more orthodox interpretation of Islam. As quickly as Nasimi arrived, he
was on the governor's hit list once again and forced to live under another alias.
According to legend, as Nasimi strolled through Aleppo, he heard of a man who was about to
be executed for heretical poetry. Already aware that it was his poetry, he followed
the crowd to the spot. The man was due to be skinned alive, specifically for writing
the line, To see my face, you need an eye that can perceive true God. How can the eye
that is short-sighted see the face of God? The man did not deny writing the lines. It's
possible he was made to confess prior to the public spectacle.
Nasimi knew the words were his, and without a second thought, stepped forward to interrupt
the execution, calmly explaining that the words were his and so the punishment should
be too. The crowd was dumbstruck, the shocked prisoner was released and Nasimi took his
place. The guards stripped him down to his underwear and bound him to the long wooden
board the prisoner was previously attached to.
Starting from his ankles, two men slowly peeled his skin from his body using hot metal tongs.
As his skin hung from bones like peeling tree bark, Nasimi did not make a sound. In fact,
when the executioners began to make their way up his body towards his ribs, Nasimi began
reciting his poetry but changed up some of the verses, mocking the men who were skinning
him. The crowd did not know how to react to the bizarre spectacle. Some laughed, others
cried, but all were impressed with the resolution shown by Nasimi.
According to some legends, as he did not die despite the torture, he was released and casually
threw his flayed skin over his shoulder and walked away from the execution, the crowd
parting as he moved through them. This iconic scene has been recreated in painting several
times over the years. We've actually got a few of the artist's impressions on our
With the death of its founder, and now its most well-known poet, Haruffism went underground.
The idea of internal divineness fell from popular memory for the time being. The Haruffi
movement would survive in small pockets across the Caucasus, but its time in the limelight
was largely over. Despite this, many core ideas of the movement would go on to influence
other forms of Islamic mysticism. The most well-known of these is the Bektashi order,
which still exists today in modern Albania.
Far from the persecution he endured during his life, Nasimi's unique style of poetry
is now celebrated all across the Islamic world. While he is not a household name like Rumi,
Nasimi's poetry, which once carried a death sentence for anyone caught with it, is now
available in many, many different languages. Apart from Azerbaijan, Nasimi enjoys a significant
amount of fame in Turkey and in 2019, on his 650th anniversary, his portrait was printed
on the 2.5 lira coin.
Nasimi brought prestige to Azerbaijan, not through the bluntness of war but through the
subtleness of poetry. From his death to the present day, the Azerbaijani language, like
its people, would face pressure to abandon the use of the language and adopt that of
its overlord. In 1875, the first Azerbaijani newspaper began publication within the Russian
Empire. With the fall of the USSR in 1991, Azerbaijani became the official language
of the new country. Without Nasimi's influence, would the language have been widespread enough
to survive?
I'll take us out today with an extract of one of my favorite Nasimi poems around personal
improvement and introspection.
Since ailments congregate upon a body that is lame, aim to be perfect, for perfection
is not prone to flaw. Do not succumb to sorrow for the world that we despise, for no one
in the world has found a balm to heal this sore. Renounce all greed and envy, far remove
yourself from these, for saved shall be the soul with which from such infamy withdraws.