Over the centuries, Ismaili thinkers have engaged with diverse theological and philosophical systems. They were “comfortable in expressing key concepts related to revelation within a wide range of contexts. In the late tenth and eleventh centuries, some Fatimid thinkers and preachers (da’is) … [explained] Ismaili concepts by creating a philosophical synthesis of Neoplatonic and Gnostic ideas. Others, such as renowned jurist Qadi al-Nu’man (d. 974), adopted a legalistic framework that would resonate with Sunni counterparts, while thinkers like Hamid al-Kirmani (d. after 1021) drew upon Jewish scripture. In the Iranian context, we discern within Ismaili discourses a synthesis of Manichean and Zoroastrian elements [religious traditions of ancient Iran] (Asani, A Modern History of the Ismailis p 44).
A similar embrace of religious and cultural identity occurred among the Khojas of South Asia. From at least the time of the Fatimid empire (909-1171) in Egypt, the Ismaili Imams dispatched da’is to the Indian subcontinent “to summon humankind to a recognition of the spiritual supremacy of the Prophet’s family. This activity continued when the Nizari branch of the Imams moved to the fort of Alamut in 1094 and was maintained even after the Mongol onslaught wiped out this Ismaili state in 1256″ (Asani, Medieval Ismaili History and Thought p 267-8).
The Pirs “were no ordinary missionaries …they were spiritually enlightened individuals whose religious and spiritual authority the Isma’ili Imams had formally endorsed by bestowing on them the title of [Pir]” (Asani, Ecstasy and Enlightenment p 84). One could not become a Pir through inheritance unless he had been so designated by the Imam of the Time. Hence, the Pirs became tangible symbols of the Imam’s authority in South Asia” (Asani, Medieval Ismaili History and Thought p 267-8). “They were second only to the Imam himself in the Ismaili hierarchy” (Virani, “Symphony of Ginans,” Reason and Inspiration in Islam p 502-3).
At the time Pirs worked in the subcontinent, the field of devotional poetry was flourishing, with figures such as Narasimha Maeta (15th century), Mirabai (1498-1557), Narhari (17th century), Kabir (1440-1518), Guru Nanak (1469-1539), among others. A tradition of mystical poetry was also developing among the Sufis in the subcontinent. Pirs used the subcontinent’s many languages, folk songs, myths, and traditional music to articulate the core concepts of Ismaili doctrines. Compositions were also influenced by the various communities’ needs to assimilate the practices of the dominant local populace in order to avoid persecution.
The form of Nizari Ismail tradition in the subcontinent came to be known as sat panth (‘true path’). The term panth, an Indic term meaning path, doctrine or sect, is popularly used in the names of groups that crystallised around the different religious personalities of medieval India. For example, followers of the poet Dadu call their movement Dadupanth while those of Kabir use the term Kabirpanth. The term satpanth used by the Ismaili Pirs echoes the Quranic concept of sirat al-mustaqim (the right path).
From the Sanskrit jnana, meaning contemplative knowledge, ginans are a vast collection comprising several hundred poetic 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.
Through the medium of ginans, composed in several vernaculars of the subcontinent, 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 Quran to the external (zahir) aspects. The literature is also shared by the Imamshahi community in Gujarat, who are believed to have split off from the Nizari Ismailis in the sixteenth century (IIS).
Pirs utilised “a variety of frameworks to formulate two core teachings of Satpanth. First, the role of the imams and pirs as teachers on the path to spiritual enlightenment, the goal of which was to ‘see’ the Divine Light or nur, an idea resonating with the Qur’anic notion of ‘seeing the face of God’ (2:115). To explain enlightenment as an inward journey, ginans were composed in language associated with the Sufi tradition (murshid, dhikr, didar, etc.), as well as vocabulary from other Indic traditions of spirituality. The ginans urge listeners “to seek liberation from the transitory material world through constant contemplation of the Divine Name [e.g. garbi by Pir Shams titled jampjo din ane raat], a blessing bestowed upon those who are on the true path … by the True Guide (Sat Guru) identified ambiguously as the pir or imam.
To ‘translate’ the notion of the Imam in terms that would make sense to audiences from differing contexts, [pirs] embraced a variety of traditions resulting in a formulation that was multilayered. Within a Vaishnavite framework, the imam designated as Ali, was presented as naklanki ‘the one without blemish’ (Arabic mutabhar). This term was a Sat Panth re-framing of the name of Kalki, the long-awaited tenth avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu who would bestow wisdom and salvation upon his devotees by rescuing them from the forces of evil. Within the framework of the sant tradition the imam was represented as the Sat Guru, the true Guide to truth and enlightenment. Within the tradition of the bhakti…, he was the beloved utter devotion from whom would emanate salvation. In a Sufi framework, he was the murshid, the keeper of the mysteries of the batin, whose representatives – the pirs – would guide disciples upon the path. Regardless of the way the imam was represented, the goal was to orient followers to the ultimate spiritual experience – didar – the ‘vision of the divine’ (Asani, Nizari Ismaili Engagements with the Quran).
The use of the symbol of light appropriately points to the role that the esoteric wisdom embodied in the ginans can play in bringing about an inner transformation within the reciter. Such notions resonate with the well-known impact of the aesthetics of the recited Qur’an on its listeners as they commune through sacred sound with the Divine. The unparalleled aesthetic quality of the Qur’an came to be seen as a sign of its divine origin (Asani, Nizari Ismaili Engagements with the Quran p 47).
A composition titled Moman Chetamni (‘A Warning for the Believers’) depicts the Quran as the source of Sat Panth stating [verse 162]:
Sat Panth began from Ali and the Prophet [Muhammad];
follow it more discreetly. This Sat Panth is according to Athar Veda (the last Veda) and you can find its proof in the Quran.
(tr. Ali Asani)
Several ginans elaborate themes from the Quran; a renowned example is the ginan Allah ek khasam sabuka, composed by Pir Sadr al-Din, which outlines in verse form the story of Adam’s creation and Azazil’s refusal to obey God’s command to prostrate before Adam.
The ginan literature “came to be perceived within the community as a kind of commentary on the Quran. Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah has clarified the relationship of ginans with the Quran:
‘In the ginans which Pir Sadardin has composed for you, he has explained the gist of the Quran in the language of Hindustan.’ (Asani, Ecstasy and Enlightenment p 30).
“If there were amongst you individuals who had read the Quran and are well-versed with the ginans, I would be able to point out to you each verse of the ginans from the Quran” (Ibid. p 53).
(More on ginans at Nimirasblog)
Paul Walker notes “the Ismailis have tolerated a surprising intellectual flexibility and leeway. That in turn has allowed men of various philosophical temperaments to enter into and promote with enthusiasm this particular kind of Islam… This fact may explain why the Ismaili movement attracted a number of brilliant and creative thinkers and also why others of equal brilliance seem to lean in their direction” (Asani, A Modern History of the Ismailis p 7).
Ali Asani, “Nizari Ismaili Engagements with the Qur’an: the Khojas of South Asia,” Communities of the Qur’an, Edited by Emran El-Badawi and Paula Sanders, Oneworld Academic, 2019
Ali S. Asani, Ecstasy and Enlightenment, The Ismilai Devotional Literature of South Asia, I.B. Tauris, London, 2002
Ali S. Asani, “From Satpanthi to Ismaili Muslims,” A Modern History of the Ismailis Edited by Farhad Daftary, I.B. Tauris, London, 2011
Ginans: A Tradition of Religious Poetry, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Nimira is an invited writer at Ismailimail, although she has contributed several articles in the past (view previous articles). She also has her own blog – Nimirasblog – where she writes short articles on Ismaili history and Muslim civilisations. When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for those experiencing homelessness, and at a women’s shelter. She can be reached at email@example.com.