Religious Conversion and Communal Identity in Central Asia: The Ismailis of Badakhshan

In this presentation I address the question of how minority religious communities are able to successfully endure and proselytize under adverse conditions of persecution. I examine this through the example of the Ismaili Shiʿi community of the Badakhshan region of Central Asia, a community which, despite many centuries of violent repression, has retained its status as one of the largest religious minorities of the Iranian world. I investigate the inter-related practices of shrine patronage and the elaboration of religious conversion narratives connected with Ismaili saints, and demonstrate how these practices intersect within a cyclical process of appropriation and re-appropriation of the sanctity of these saints among both Ismaili and non-Ismaili communities. This process provides a critical source of symbolic capital for Ismailis and a tool for communal survival and proselytization. Finally, I demonstrate how this framework can address the seeming paradox of why Ismailism, which is often depicted in scholarship as a quintessentially intellectual and literary tradition, has found its deepest roots in “peripheral” regions beyond the political and cultural centers of the Islamic world.