13th-century local history from Balḵ in eastern Khorasan, with a collection of biographies of Balḵ’s early Islamic scholars and mystics. It differs from many other local histories of medieval Islamic cities in that it comprises a mix of historical, topographical, and prosopographical information,  covering six centuries from the advent of Islam to the late 12th century.


FAŻĀʾEL-E BALḴ, a thirteenth-century local history from Balḵ in eastern Khorasan, with a collection of biographies of Balḵ’s early Islamic scholars and mystics (Figure 1).

The Fażāʾel-e Balḵ is the earliest surviving local history of Balḵ, a major city and district in Khorasan. The Fażāʾel-e Balḵ differs from many other local histories of medieval Islamic cities (see Historiography iii) in that it comprises a mix of historical, topographical, and prosopographical information on a select number of ʿulamāʾ of Balḵ, covering six centuries from the advent of Islam to the late 12th century. The Fażāʾel-e Balḵ survives in a Persian adaptation of the lost Arabic original that was authored by Šayḵ-al-Eslām Ṣafi-al-din Abu Bakr ʿAbdollāh b. ʿOmar b. Moḥammad b. Dāvud al-Vāʿeẓ al-Balḵi in 1214. ʿAbdollāh [b. Moḥammad] b. al-Qāsem al-Ḥoseyni translated the book into Persian in 1278 under the patronage of a certain Abu Bakr ʿAbdollāh b. Abi’l-Farid al-Balḵi (Fażāʾel-e Balḵ, p. 4).

There are four known manuscripts of the Fażāʾel-e Balḵ. The oldest, dated from the late 14th or early 15th century, is held at at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris under the call number Persan-115 (Blochet, pp. 316-17; Storey, I/2, pp. 1296-97; idem, II/1, pp. 122-23; Storey/Bregel, II, pp. 1053-54). The manuscript lacks the incipit and the last third of the book. A second, uncatalogued manuscript belonged to the private collection of Ḵalil al-Raḥmān Dāvudi in Lahore. This second most complete manuscript of the work dates probably from the 17th century (Nawšāhi, p. 61). Two manuscripts are kept in one binding in the Russian Academy of the Sciences in St. Petersburg under the call numbers C453-1 and C453-3. This latter is the most complete of the four manuscripts. The binding of these last two manuscripts is sealed by Moḥammad Šarif b. Mollā Ḥasan Ḵvāja al-Boḵāri with the date 1866 (Miklukho-Maklai, II, pp. 86-93).

Charles Schefer was the first editor of the Fażāʾel-e Balḵ, transcribing the first and second parts of the work, i.e., the historical and geographical sections, as found in the Ms. Persan-115, together with a commentary (Schefer, I, pp. 66-103 [Persian text], 69-94 [editor’s notes]). Ṣādeq Kiā published an abridgement of Schefer’s transcription in 1938 (Kiā, pp. 26-31). In 1963, ʿAli Šariʿati composed a theis on the Fażāʾel-e Balḵ, providing a transcription and abridged translation into French of its third part based on the Ms. Persan-115 (Mazinani-Shariati; cf. Rahnema, pp. 118-20). ʿAbd-al-Ḥayy Ḥabibi published a critical edition in Tehran of the whole work on the basis of the Ms. Persan-115 and the two manuscripts kept in the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. This edition is currently under revision by the Balkh Art and Cultural Heritage Project (http://www.balkhheritage.org).

There are considerable questions on the title and authorship of the work. It is possible that the title, Fażāʾel-e Balḵ, was assigned to the text by European cataloguers de Carcavy and Poterie in 1668. The Fażāʾel-e Balḵ refers to earlier, extinct versions of local histories and ṭabaqāt works focused on Balḵ (Fażāʾel-e Balḵ, p. 10; Azad 2012, pp. 88 ff.). The Fażāʾel-e Balḵ’s historical narrative ends in 1188-89, which may explain why Ṣafi-al-din makes no direct reference to the advent of the Mongols, who occupied the city of Balḵ in 1212. Thus, the book must have been written between 1188 and 1214, most probably in the 1190s under the Ḵᵛārazmšāhi rule. The 13th-century geographer Yāqut (I, p. 143) attributes to the 9th-century geographer, Abu Zayd al-Balḵi, a book entitled Fażāʾel-e Balḵ which was lost in his time, while Ṣafi-al-din refers to a Manāqib-e Balḵ by Abu Zayd Balḵi which is different from his own work, the Fażāʾel-e Balḵ (Fażāʾel-e Balḵ, p. 54). Large parts of Ṣafi-al-din’s Fażāʾel-e Balḵ are found in later texts, such as the Baḥr-al-asrār (ca. 1645) by Maḥmud b. Amir Vali’s and the 18th-century Jarida by Moḥammad Moʾmen Balḵi.

Information about the author comes only from the book itself. Accordingly, it is known that Ṣafi-al-din was ten years old in 1179-80 (Fażāʾel-e Balḵ, pp. 36-7). He visited tombs of Balḵ’s saints in 1186-87 in Bukhara and “Fāryāb of Jowzjānān” and traveled six years later to Vāšgerd located in Badaḵšān. The transcription of his speeches was completed in 1214 (idem, pp. 130, 166, 12). The identity of the Persian translator, ʿAbdollāh [b. Moḥammad] b. al-Qāsem al-Ḥoseyni, is equally obscure. He seems to have a good grounding in religious scholarship, given his Arabic skills as well as his solid knowledge of the method of historical falsification used in Islamic scholarship. (Fażāʾel-e Balḵ, pp. 18-19, 371). 

Ḥabibi’s critical edition contains prefaces by the translator and the author, Chapter 1 (“On the merits of the text [fi faḍāʾelehā al-manṯura]”), Chapter 2 (“On the genre that is peculiar and can be found in the text [fi šamāʾel al-maḵṣusa al-maḥsusa be-hā]”), Chapter 3 (“On the ʿOlamāʾ”), and the Epilogue (Ḵātema). The first chapter, which can be loosely called the “historical section,” is largely a collection of pre-Islamic traditions and selected Islamic historical traditions on Balḵ. The historical section does not continue to the author’s time, but ends with the 9th-century Simjurids. Chapter 2 is essentially geographic, based on the author’s observations. Full of praise, it reads like a personal exposé or tourist brochure on the delights of the city, its notables (religious and secular), and its inhabitants generally. The language is heavily influenced by the Islamic concepts of purity, abundance, and fertility. Chapter 3, which forms the bulk of the work, is a collection of seventy biographies, or rather, hagiographies, of Balḵ’s šayḵs. The focus is on the subjects’ scholarly achievements and writing, while the tone is filled with effusive praise and respectful deference. The biographies are organized chronologically, beginning with a purported companion of the Prophet who was from Balḵ and ending with the Arabic author’s teacher who died there in 1188-89. 

The Fażāʾel-e Balḵ includes important and rare information on aspects of the history of Balḵ in particular and the eastern Iranian world in general. These include the relationship between scholarly and politicl elite circles, the confluence of Šariʿa-minded approach to Islam and local mysticism in Khorasan during the early Islamic centuries, and the topography and sacred geography of the city of Balḵ (Schwarz, pp. 434-43; Madelung, pp. 32-39; Azad, 2013 [forthcoming]). A source-critical study also brings to light a number of minor legal and juridical texts and local rejāl and ṭabaqāt works (Azad 2010, pp. 88-98). 



A. Azad, “The Faḍāʾil-i Balkh and its place in Islamic Historiography,” Iran 50, 2012, pp. 79-102.

Eadem, Sacred Landscape in Medieval Afghanistan: Revisiting the Faḍāʾil-i Balkh, Oxford, 2013 (in press). 

E. Blochet, Catalogue des Manuscrits Persans, Paris, 1905.

P. de Carcavy, and F. de la Poterie, Catalogue des manuscripts de la Bibliothèque du Seu Monseigneur le Cardinal Mazarin, fait par nous, M. Pierre de Carcavy et M. François de la Poterie, en consequence de l’Arest du Conseil de l’Estat du 12e Janvier 1668, Paris, 1668.

Fażāʾel-e Balḵ, ed. ʿA.-Ḥ. Ḥabibi, Tehran, 1971.

Ṣ. Kiā, “Yāddāšti dar bāra-ye ārāmgāh-e Zardošt dar Balḵ,” Irān kudā 10, 1938, pp. 26-31.

W. Madelung, “The Early Murjiʾa in Khurāsān and Transoxania and the Spread of Hanafism,” Der Islam 59, 1982, pp. 32-39.

A. Mazinani-Shariati, “Faḍâïl-i Balkh—“Les Mérites de Balkh”; Notes, corrections, et traduction abregée,” unpublished thesis, Institut d’études iraniènnes, Paris, 1963. 

E. Meftāḥ, Joḡrāfiā-ye tāriḵi-e Balḵ o Jayḥun o muẓāfāt-e Balḵ, Tehran, 1997.

N. D. Miklukho-Maklai, Opisanie tadzhikskikh i persidskikh rukopiseǐ instituta (Collection of Tajik and Persian manuscripts of the Institute of Asian Peoples), 2 vols., Moscow, 1961.

M. M. A. Mudarris, Mašāyikh Balḵ min al-Ḥanafiya wa-mā infaradu bihi min al-masāʾil al-fiqhiya, 2 vols., Baghdad, 1978

Moḥammad Moʾmen Balḵi, Jarida-ye Balḵ, Kabul, 1978.

ʿĀ. Nawšāhi, “Nosḵa-ye now-yāfta-ye Fażāʾel-e Balḵ,” Maʿāref 19/2, 2002, pp. 60-81.

B. Radtke, “Theologen und Mystiker in Ḫurāsān und Transoxanien,” ZDMG 136, 1986, pp. 538-49.

A. Rahnema, An Islamic Utopian: a Political Biography of Ali Shariati, London, 1998.

C. Schefer, Chrestomathie persane à l’usage des élèves de l’École spéciale des langues orientales vivantes, 2 vols., Paris, 1883-85.

P. Schwarz, “Bemerkungen zu den arabischen Nachrichten über Balkh,” in J. D. C. Pavry, ed., Oriental Studies in Honour of Cursetji Erachji Pavry, London, 1933, pp. 434-43. 

C. A. Storey, Persian Literature. A Bio-bibliographical Survey, 5 vols., London, 1927-52.

C. A. Storey and Y. Bregel, Persidskaya literatura. Bio-bibliograficheskiĭ obzor, 3 vols, Moscow, 1972.

Amir Vali, “Baḥr-ol-asrār,” Ms. 1496, India Office Collection, British Library, ff. 305a-32a.

Yāqut b. ʿAbd-Allāh al-Ḥamawi, Eršād al-arib elā maʿrefat al-adib, tr. D. S. Margoliouth, as Dictionary of Learned Men of Yāqut, 7 vols., London, 1923-30.


(Arezou Azad)

Last Updated: April 2, 2014