God has treasures beneath His Throne, the keys of which are the Tongues of Poets.
Hadith of Prophet Muhammad
Poetry is the voice of God speaking through the lips of man. If a great painting puts you in direct touch with nature, great poetry puts you in touch with God.
Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III
Ginans are a vast corpus of poetic compositions whose authorship is attributed to preachers, Pirs, sent by Imams residing in Iran to the Indian subcontinent around the eleventh century to teach the message of Islam to non-Arabic speaking people. Ginans served as literary vehicles for conveying Ismaili doctrines that focus on penetrating to the inner (batin) message of the Qur’an, into the framework of the societies of the Indian subcontinent.
At the time, the field of devotional poetry was flourishing in the Indian subcontinent, 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. Hence the traditions of the bhaktas, sants, Sufis, and Ismailis of the Indian subcontinent were all interconnected. “The Pirs used the subcontinent’s many languages, folk songs, myths, and traditional music to articulate its core concepts; they contain emotive enlightenment that can transcend the material to connect to the Divine” (Asani, A Modern History of the Ismailis p 96).
Compositions were also influenced by the various communities’ needs to assimilate the practices of the dominant local populace in order to avoid persecution. The specific form of Nizari Ismaili interpretation came to be known by the translation of sirat al-mustaqim, rendered as Satpanth (sat panth, or ‘true path’).
(More on the panths at Nimirasblog)
Through the medium of Ginans, Pirs provided guidance on a variety of doctrinal, ethical, and mystical themes for the community while also serving to explain the inner meaning (batin) of the Qur’an to the external (zahir) aspects.
(More on themes of Ginans at Nimirasblog).
Like most Indian devotional poetry, Ginans are meant to be sung. Music, therefore, is a vital to invoke specific emotional states such as on special occasions, morning prayers, evening prayers, or at funerals. Each Ginan is distinguished by its raga, or musical mode, with the name of the composer at the end, a characteristic of North Indian poetry. Pir Shams composed the garbi form of Ginans, based on the popular folklife of Gujarat (in western India).
(More on garbis at Nimirasblog).
Composed in the various languages including Punjabi, Multani (Saraiki), Sindhi, Kachhi, Hindustani/ Hindi, and Gujarati, 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 all written in a special script, Khojki, which was known only to members of the community (IIS).
Nanji notes that the compositions of Ginans “pre-suppose individuals aware of the existence of and acquainted with an already well-developed set of Ismaili beliefs and furthermore, possessing a degree of intellectual and spiritual sensitivity necessary to blend these beliefs with those current in the Indo-Muslim society of the time” (The Nizari Ismaili Tradition p 134).
Ginans explain that “to know the truth, which can be done only through true faith, it is necessary to break once and for all, the relentless chain of karma… which make the wheel of re-birth spin on and on. In this way, the idea of re-birth is invoked not to promote it as an object of belief but to promote commitment to the true faith. The idea of myriad rounds of birth (eight hundred and forty thousand…according to ancient Indian belief), invokes the sense of a human ordeal on a formidable scale. This foreboding is turned into a case for seeking salvation through wholehearted commitment, a surrender of body, mind, and soul to the true faith” (Esmail, A Scent of Sandalwood p 66-67), as taught by Sayyida Imam Begum in verse 2 of the Ginan Aye rahem raheman
Regarding the concept of reincarnation, Esmail notes that the doctrine “is a very old one, as is evident in its presence in cultures across the world from Ancient Greece, Africa to India. It is not to be found… in scriptural traditions of Semitic languages. However, it was one of the elements in the extraordinary mix of cultural traditions in the Near East, and was thus one of the contenders in the battle of ideas which shaped the course of the Semitic civilisations. Like the doctrines of the ancient religions of Manicheanism and Zoroastrianism, [religions of ancient Iran] the doctrine of reincarnation was treated by these religious traditions as heretical… in India, it remained all-important, and not only in Hinduism. Popular Islam, including Sufism, retained it, together with a host of other significant, indigenous ideas and symbols….” (Ibid. p 64).
“Figures of Hindu mythology such as Harischandra, Draupadi, and the Pandava brothers served as models of proper behaviour and conduct. In order that some of these figures might be of benefit to new converts, they were assimilated into the Ismaili tradition by being re-interpreted with Ismaili perspectives. For example, in the ginan tiled Amar te ayo (The Command has Come), Harischandra is carried over into the ginan tradition, where he becomes the paradigm of the true devotee who is ready to sacrifice everything for his religion” (Asani, Ecstasy and Enlightenment p 45).
The term avatara in Vaishnavism “came to signify the assumptions of different forms, man or animal by God, in which Vishnu came down to earth and lived on it until the purpose for which he had descended into the Universe was fulfilled” (Nanji, The Nizari Isam’ili Tradition p 111).
In the ginan Allah ek kasam sabhuka, Pir Hasan Kabirdin explains (v. 16):
Eji Bhrahmaa, vishanav, maheshar bhaniye,
kal maa(n)he Vishnu(n)Imaam,j
e jiv faramaane chaaliaa,
so pohotaa bahesht makaan
Know the Creator [Brahma], Ruler [Vishnu], and the Destroyer of evil [Shiva]
In the present age Lord Vishnu is the Imam.
Those souls that have followed the Farmans,
have reached the abode of paradise.
One of the functions of avatars “is that they have come, throughout the ages, not only to fight the forces of evil but also to “save” man from the shackles of the cycle of re-birth… Sat Panth is presented as the solution to escape from this cycle and to gain Paradise.” (Nanji, The Nizari Isma’ili Tradition, p 121), as expressed by the Hindu concept of moksha – deliverance and final emancipation from the bondage of existence (Ibid. p 179 n. 89).
The Hindu doctrine had spoken of the coming of the tenth avatar (das avatara). These ten avatars “were fitted into the framework of a cyclical history on the basis of the Hindu concept of yuga, elaborated into the doctrine of the four yugas or Ages, the four cosmic cycles wherein the Universe was periodically created and destroyed. The four yugas were Krita, Treta, Davapara, and Kali (the present age) considered the age of darkness. The tenth avatar would fight the forces of evil in the Kali Yuga (Ibid. p 111-113). In the ginan titled Pahela karta jugmahe Shahna Pir Sadr al-Din addresses the four yugas, describing that in the present age, Lord Sri Naklank (Hazrat Ali) is seated on the throne. Sayyid Muhammad Shah narrates, in the ginan Sahebji tun more man bhaave :
Lord! I have visited and seen all the four yugas, there is none like you (v 2).
(tr. Kamaluddin, Ginan Central, University of Saskatchewan)
Pir Sadr al-Din warns of the danger of Kalinga in verse 4 of the ginan Firat neja tambal vaajshe:
daeet kaalee(n)gaa naa chhaasatth laakh jodhaa…
The devil’s army has a strength of the magnitude of 6.6 million…
Nanji states “Just as in Ismailism, in both its Fatimid and Nizari versions, the forces of evil symbolized by Iblis were set free and disturbed the state of harmony necessitating the coming of a new Lawgiver to offset the forces of evil, so in Hindu doctrine the various avataras had come to earth to put things right. The fulfillment of their doctrine of the tenth avatara however, would find its culmination, not in the standard figure of Kalki [Vishnu’s incarnation the destroyer], but as a form of Ali. He was to be the Mahdi who would kill Kalinga, the embodiment of evil, the Iblis of Hindu mythology” (Nizari Isma’ili Tradition p113).
Pir Imamshah parallels the Four Revealed Books of Islamic Tradition in Moman Chetamni to the Four Vedas, the primary scriptures of Hinduism. All the various chords, merge and centre upon the single figure of the Imam of the Time, the tenth avatara.
Ginan bolore nit nure bharea;
evo haide tamare harakh na maeji.
Recite continually the Ginans which are filled with light;
boundless will be the joy in your heart.
(tr. Ali Asani). Listen
Ali S. Asani, The Ginans: Awakening the Soul Through Wisdom
Ali S. Asani, Ecstasy and Enlightenment, I.B. Tauris Publishers in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, 2001
Azim Nanji, The Nizari Isma’ili Tradition in the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent, Caravan Books, Delmar, 1978
Aziz Esmail, A Scent of Sandalwood, Curzon Press, Surrey, UK, 2002
Shafique Virani, “Symphony of Gnosis : A Self-Definition of the Ismaili Ginan Tradition,” published in Reason and Inspiration in Islam Edited by Todd Lawson, I.B. Tauris in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, 2005
Contributed to Ismailimail by Nimira Dewji. 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.