Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah: Ginans explain the gist of the Qur’an in the language of Hindustan

Ginan bolore nit nure bharea;
evo haide tamare harakh na maeji. Listen

Recite continually the Ginans which are filled with light;
boundless will be the joy in your heart.

Ginans  are perceived as containing knowledge that leads to enlightenment by banishing ignorance.

Ginans are a vast collection consisting of several hundred compositions which have been a central part of the religious life of the Nizari Ismaili community of the Indian subcontinent that today resides in many countries around the world. Derived from the Sanskrit jnana, meaning contemplative knowledge, Ginans refer to the poetic compositions authored by Ismaili Pirs and Sayyids, or preachers, who came to the Indian subcontinent as early as the eleventh century to teach the Ismaili interpretation of Islam.

The Pirs used the subcontinent’s many languages, folk songs, myths, and traditional music to compose Ginans to explain the principles of Ismailism to the non-Arabic speaking peoples of the region. Ginans were composed in six languages: Punjabi, Multani (Saraiki), Sindhi, Kachhi, Hindustani/Hindi, and Gujarati. Through the poetic medium of Ginans, the Pirs provided guidance on a variety of doctrinal, ethical, and mystical themes for the community while also serving to explain the inner (batin) meaning of the Qur’an to the external (zahir) aspects.

Ginans can be perceived as a commentary on the Qur’an. In his pronouncement, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah guided the community in this issue: ‘In the ginans which Pir Sadardin has composed for you, he has explained the gist of the Qur’an in the language of Hindustan.’ (Asani).

Historians agree that the Ginans were first transmitted as an oral tradition. It is not known whether at least some manuscripts may have existed simultaneously — the earliest copy identified so far is dated 1736. The manuscripts were written in Khojki, a script historically developed among the Nizaris of the Indian subcontinent to record their literature.

The number of verses in Ginans varies from four to ten in the shorter ones to over five-hundred in the longer ones. Generally the shorter versions do not possess titles, therefore, the first verses or refrains serve as titles for identification purpose. Some of the longer Ginans have titles that may reflect the main theme or message such as the Bujh Niranjan (Knowledge of the Attributeless Deity), a long mystical poem on the spiritual quest of the soul; Moman Chetamani (A Warning for the Believer), which gives instruction on moral and religious matters, as well as parables of a number of Prophets from the Qur’an.

Bujh Niranjan, Ginan attributed to Pir Sadr al-Din, copied in late 19th/early 20th century. Image: Ali Asani
Bujh Niranjan, Ginan attributed to Pir Sadr al-Din, copied in late 19th/early 20th century. Image: Ali Asani/Ecstasy and Enlightenment

Narrative Ginans contain legendary accounts of the Pirs such as Satgur na Viva and Putla, which describe the activities of Pir Satgur Nur, the earliest Pir to have preached in the Indian subcontinent.

Several Ginans are stories or parables that are meant to be interpreted mystically such as Kesri sinh swarup bhulayo (The Lion Forgot his Lion-form), which describes a lion who has forgotten its true identity on account of its upbringing among a flock of sheep (Listen); Hans Hansli ni Varta (The Parable of the Goose and the Gander) is about the mystical encounter of a male and female goose.

Many Ginans are supplications (venti) for spiritual enlightenment and vision (darshan, didar); some address cosmological matters.

Bavan Ghati (Fifty-Two Passes) deals with questioning of the soul as it passes through fifty-two stages in the after-life.

Unch thi ayo (Coming From an Exalted Place) is a lament of the soul’s fate in the material world and a plea for the intercession of Prophet Muhammad. Listen

Soh Kiriya (One-Hundred Obligatory Acts) and Bavan Bodh (Fifty-Two Advices) provide instruction for proper conduct.

Brahm Prakash (Divine Illumination) includes descriptions of mystical stages and advise on how to attain them.

Hun re piasi tere darshan ki (I Thirst for a Vision of You) draws on the symbol of a fish writhing in agony outside its home in water. Listen.

Hun re piasi tere darshan ki, a Ginan attributed to Sayyid Khan. Manuscript dated 1867. Image: Ali Asani/Ecstasy and Enlightenment
Hun re piasi tere darshan ki, a Ginan attributed to Sayyid Khan. Manuscript dated 1867. Image: Ali Asani

The singing in unison of the entire congregation can have a powerful emotional impact. Asani states “When Wladimir Ivanow, the Russian orientalist, was conducting his researches on the Ismailis of India in the early part of the 20th century, he noted ‘the strange fascination, the majestic pathos and beauty’ of the ginans as they were recited, and observed further that their ‘mystical appeal equals, if not exceeds that exercised by the Coran on the Arabic-speaking peoples.”

Adapted from Ali S. Asani’s Ecstasy and Enlightenment, The Ismaili Devotional Literature of South Asia, I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., London,  2002
Ginan Recitals, University of Saskatchewan

Compiled by Nimira Dewji

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