Pir Shams Sabzwari and his Call to Satpanth: An Odessey of Mystical Hymns

O my Lord! Now I am in love with you, my heart is filled with love for You.

Let Your eyes meet mine, O my Lord! Now I am in love with You!

O my Lord! Peer Shamsh is thirsty for (the vision of) your face.

Bless me with the grace of Your Vision, O my Lord!

O my Beloved! I am in madness for the love of Your mysteries and secrets.

Love for You has overwhelmed my intellect, O my Lord!

O my Lord! Now I am in love with You! [1]

THESE words are of a fourteenth century mystic, an Ismaili dai, who infused with love and contemplation for a total bond with the divine, expresses his thirst for the spiritual enlightenment. Born in Sabzwar in Iran and having spent early years of his life there, in his early thirties, Pir Shams was assigned at the Da’wa of Badakshan and Northern India, succeeding to his father Pir Salahuddin. This appointment marked the beginning of a long journey of his mission that continued throughout his life, devoted solely to the cause of Ismaili Islam. Starting from Daylam, he arrived at Badakhshan, where he is said to have brought many followers of Momin Shahi sect into the Qasim Shahi Nizari Ismaili fold.

Although his missionary work ranged from Badakshan to Kashmir, and from Punjab, Sindh to Gujerat, he was particularly active in Multan and Uchchh, in Sindh, and his mausoleum at Multan is locally known as that of Shams-i Tabrez. He had  immersed himself completely in the work for the cause of Ismaili Islam. According to one tradition, on his journey through these lands, all the while preaching Ismaili faith and converting groups of non-Muslims to Ismaili Islam, he is said to have established 84 Jamatkhanas.

As a prominent figure of Ismaili mission in Indo-Pak continent which was initiated by his forerunner Pir Satgur Noor, whose teachings had already swept through the region a few centuries before, Pir Shams Sabzwari appears to have provided an enormous contribution to the spread of Islam in this piece of continent. He  appears to have played a seminal role in the establishment of Isma’llism, particularly, in Sindh. A glimpse of his missionary activities survive today in his own vernacular religious literature in the form of Ginans, Garbis and Granths. Volumes of his works have been preserved till today by his devoted proselytes and passed on from generation to generation either verbally or in the form of manuscripts. Infact, these writings are the major source which provide us with his story, his birthplace, the places he had visited, and finally the relics and accounts of his remarkable achievements.

His Ginans are abundantly rich in vocabulary with different dialects of various indigenous languages Hindi, Gujrati, Sindhi, Seraiki, and Punjabi. Pir Shams, like other dais of sub-continent, has also adopted a way according to the local cultural and religious contexts in order to convey his message of his Call to the recognition of Imam of time. Volumes of literature that were developed and composed by him were to be addressed in a vernacular style of language that should be familiar to and parallel with the understanding of his audience, whose majority were Hindus.

While preserving the fundamental belief of Ismaili system of thought of Zahir and Batin, he used a  symbolical language full of metaphors with an effort to indigenize the symbolism to the literary tastes of local audiences. Ginans in Satpanthi tradition, are believed to be sacred hymns composed by Pirs, having the deep religious and spiritual importance, the meaning of  which is centered by the actual vocalization or recitation of a Ginan in its traditional tune set by the Pirs themselves. Below is given an audio of his ginan: Ab Teri Mahobat Laagi, the translated lines of which have been given at the opening of this post.

Noteworthy in his message is the recurring emphasis on mysticism and his Call to the recognition of Imam of time as the Divinely appointed Guide. Although his message in his works is full of mystical and Sufi symbolism, however, the recognition of Imam is always the focus and fountainhead of his message. On one hand he invites his audience, who are mostly Hindus, to recognize the true Guide and Imam of time, but on the other hand he also encourages his followers to seek the mystical path to know the true knowledge of God. He encourages to meditate and chant upon Ism-e-Azam. The true spiritual bliss, however, can only be achieved, he says, through recognition of Imam of time and absolute devotion to him, while concentrating on Ism- e -Azam continuously. One of his works called Braham Prakash (meaning the Divine Enlightenment)  is full of his mystical teachings and spiritual advice to meditate regularly and love the Lord so that divine union may be achieved.

kehee veedhee karee a(m)bar gaaje,                                                                                                        
kahee veedhee karee betthaa chhaaje!

kehee veedhee karee barase mehaa,                                                                                                      
kahi vidhee karee rahetaa purush vann dehaa!

By what miracles are the skies thundering, and
By what miracles one sits in a palace without the presence of a palace?

How can rains fall without the clouds, and
How can a person remain bodyless?(verses 67-68)

He continues to share with his audience his spiritual experiences and explains how does light of the ecstasy of eternity can be achieved. The experiences that he shares may be regarded as the initial stages of the spiritual bliss, as final stages of marifah,  cannot be described through human dialect and discourse as he says: “maheema adhik kahi na jai”

nahee tur jahaa(n) hay bee turaa,                                    
nahee(n) sur jahaa(n) hay bee suraa!

nahee ga(n)g jahaa(n) haybee ga(n)gaa,  
nahee(n) sa(n)g tahaa(n) haybee sa(n)gaa!

You hear a flute without the presence of a flute, and
You hear music without the presence of musicians.

You see the flow of a river without the presence of the river (Ganges),
You feel the presence of company without the presence of people.(verses 71,72)

While wandering through mountains of Badakhshan, Gilgit and then the ranges of the Himalayas, he finally came to the land of five rivers – called Punjab, and stayed in Multan and finally breathed his last breath there in 757/1356. His shrine was built by his grandson and was rebuilt by one of the Ismailis in 1718. In his Granth Momam Chetamani, Syed Imam Shah, one of the later Pirs, alludes to Pir Shams and his legends that he performed during his stay in Multan and Utch. The legends are still associated by local people to Pir Shams who is often confused with another figure of his contemporary times Shams Tabrez, the mentor and teacher of Rumi.

Many of his followers in Punjab, who responded to Call of Pir Shams and accepted the Nizari Imam as their Imam, have been known as Guptis, and Shamsis. According to one  ginanic tradition, once passing through the lands of Indo-pak continent, he came to a village called Analvad, during a glaring festival of Dasera of Hindus. He stayed there in a temple for a ten consecutive nights singing 28 garbis, mystical songs that are still sung in their traditional tunes. He observed that Hindus of that town worshiped a goddess, Mata Bhawani; they worshiped, he describes, the idol of their goddess by singing songs while in standing position. In the heart of all proceedings, he went into the gathering and started singing his garbis, as he says in his first garbi: Then the Guide sung the songs which contained the Divine knowledge and wisdom. He told them to abandon idol worship and summoned them to recognize the Imam of time. The people started gathering around him and listening to his poems, as he says in his sixteenth garbi:

On the eight night the people of the town have come,
this is seen by all the fellow dancers!

The Guide Shams sings sweet verses,
and all gather and listen to it![2]

According to the tradition, on the tenth night a bulk of Hindus in the town, including Brahamins, having been inspired by the message and spiritual power within his garbis, and watching many miracles performed by him, converted to Ismaili Islam and accepted him as their true Guide (Satgur). Having completed his a ten-day stay there, he finally sung his last garbi ‘Evi Garbi Sampuran saar’ which starts with these words:

Such (wonderful) songs are now complete and perfect,                            
the Guide Shams has spoken about matters to reflect upon!

Whoever listens to them with one mind,
has indeed attained many thousands of virtues!

A pivotal concept in the Ismaili teachings is that the refinement of one’s inner character and service to humanity  are seen as essential facets of life. We find these teachings in the message of Pirs of the past as a core principle. For example we can see how Pir Shams in his Ginan “Chaud Ratan” ( the fourteen jewels ) teaches his disciples by giving some rules about how to enrich their lives with the ethical values:

  • (To acquire) The knowledge of how to be modest, tolerant, merciful, and tenderness toward, and recognition of the Imam of the Time and the Pir, with a pure and true heart.
  • To serve the Gur, or the stranger (guest) who comes to your door. Blessings are due to him who serve both well.
  •  To serve one’s father and mother affectionately and lovingly. Keep this previous jewel in thy heart.
  •  Not to turn away any stranger who comes to thy door in need. O believers, do not let him go away without his need being satisfied.
  • To go to the rescue of anyone in distress and calamity as soon as you hear the call, helping him with food or water, or whatever he needs. In reward for this you will surely enter Paradise.
  • To donate everything for the sake of God, spontaneously and with good will. This will bring much reward in future life. The donor will enjoy the fruit of it forever.

This is what is the message of Imam of time as well, and all Ismailis are bound to this covenant to fulfill the mandate of Imamat to as much as they can. They are not only expected to reflect and pray daily in their personal lives, but also to make efforts to infuse their surroundings where they live with the spirit of humanity, tolerance, love and compassion; they are asked, not only to deepen their knowledge and educate themselves but to also share their knowledge to the society. As present Imam Shah Karim al- Hussaini has said:

[The Sura of Light from the Qur’an] tells us that the oil of the blessed olive tree lights the lamp of understanding, a light that belongs neither to East nor West. We are to give this light to all. In that spirit, all that we learn will belong to the world.

-Address to the Asia Society, ‘The Physical Structure of Islam’, ‘Islamic Architecture: A Revival’ (New York, USA)

“..You should leave the world in a better environment than you found it. You have a responsibility of legacy of God’s creation of the world, to improve that legacy from generation to generation. So there’s an ethical premise to it.”
-Interview featured in PBS/E2 Series’ ‘A Garden in Cairo’ (USA) 

Ismailis through the covenant of bayah to the Imam of time are thus required to strive for their own spiritual and intellectual growth, on one hand, and then work for the betterment of humankind by following the rules of love, compassion, tolerance and humility to make this world a better place.With this spirit, they are working to shape the endeavors of Imam of time into reality and they have succeeded in that to a great extent in many parts of the world.


The translations of the ginans provided in the post are taken from ismaili.net

The audio of ginans provided in the post are in voice of Nazia Amin Muhammad


[1] Ginan: Ab Teri Mohabat Lagi

[2] Teeth Aatthmee Aavyaa Gaam Naa Lok – Garbi 16, verse#2

Previously on Ismailimail…

Author: Sujjawal Ahmad

Sujjawal is an invited blog author at Ismailimail. In his professional life, he does research at the Aga Khan University's Centre for Regenerative Medicine and Stems Cell Research. With his true passion for molecular medicine, he has realized how efforts to make a positive impact at multiple scales, personal, local, and global, are all intertwined. Sujjawal finds it extremely exciting to develop a deep love of cultures and people around the world. The stories that are about humanity, emotion, that compel us as individuals, connect our hearts and minds are the kinds of stories Sujjawal has always gravitated to, and the kinds he tells. Reach out to him via email: sujjawalahmed@gmail.com

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