By: Sadruddin Noorani, Chicago, USA
In human cultures, communities perform special rites and ceremonies to mark events in the lives of individuals such as birth, marriage, and death. These rituals are called rites of passage because they mark the transition of a person from one stage of life to another. These milestones indicate both where we have come from and where we are headed and are intimately connected to our respective community’s culture, customs, and traditions, as well as to our faith and our ideals.
A consistent feature of the Ismaili Muslim tradition has been the complementarity between practices that are specific to Ismaili tradition and those that are part of the Shari’a, common to all Muslims. It is therefore noteworthy that rites of birth, initiation, marriage, and death, as practiced by Ismaili communities across regions and periods of time, reflect certain elements specific to each denomination. Many of these rites involve Qur’anic recitations, prayers, and other devotional practices. For example, Surah al-Fatiha is recited both in our marriage ceremonies as well as during funeral ceremonies and in many parts of the world, Chaanta is offered in bay’ah ceremony as well as during funeral ceremonies. We see both similarities as well as diversity in the way we experience these rites of passage across various Ismaili traditions.
In religious traditions, rites of passage play an important part in the lives of individuals, families, and communities. Since human life is considered sacred from a religious perspective, its journey from one stage to another holds deep meaning. The birth of a child is celebrated as a gift of life. Marriage marks the bonding of individuals and provides a basis for the creation of new families. Death is commemorated as the passing of an individual from physical life into another eternal state of being.
Rites of passage in a community, like other rituals, serve many purposes. For instance, they are said to ease the passage of individuals and families during periods of change. They are viewed as providing support, comfort, and guidance at the critical times of birth, marriage, and death. The rites are also an important means of strengthening relations between members of a community: they bring people closer together through participation in events considered important in the community and whose purpose is to bring believers closer to the Divine.
Devotional Poems as Prayers
Ginans are a collection of devotional poems, sung by Ismaili Muslims of the Indian Subcontinent and a number of other communities who once saw themselves connected to the satpanth tradition, a phrase, meaning True Path, derived from the Sanskrit word jnana (ja-nana) meaning spiritual or mystical knowledge. Ginans are a rich tradition that assist murids in relating to Allah, the Prophet and Imam. In addition, they provide a historical link to the Pirs, Sayyids, and Waliullahs, with whom the texts are associated. The languages of the ginans include Gujarati, Sindhi, Kutchi, Siraiki, Punjabi, Hindi and Multani. Often, multiple languages are used in the same ginan.
Traditionally, ginans may have been associated with particular raags, melodies or series of raags, which in turn were associated with time of the day and particular emotions. Some ginans, given their specific themes, are recited on certain occasions or to invoke a particular engagement like supplication through Venti (pleading).
Ginans vary widely in their content and include, amongst other items, moral instructions, inspirational allegories, reverence towards Allah’s majesty, metaphors and stories, and at times, reference to rites practiced by the community. Some ginans can also be understood as intense, personal supplication of the Pirs and Sayyids who longed for a deedar of their beloved Imam living in a distant land. For example, in the ginan “Saheb’ji tu’n mor’e ma’n bhave” attributed to Sayyid Muhammad Shah (d. 1813), we hear an intimate conversation with his Lord, where Sayyid Muhammad Shah recounts his spiritual journey and proclaims his desire to be close to his Beloved:
“My Lord, My heart is fond of you. I think of no-one else. None else pleases my heart.
My Lord, My heart is fond of You. So readily, my Lord, You give me whatever I ask of You.
You indulge me in so many ways, My Lord.
Leaving You, at what other door am I to knock? My Lord, my heart is fond of You.”
A ginan such as this, while a personal expression of the author, invokes a strong resonance in the reciter allowing us to join the prayer alongside the poet. In this respect, ginans are a key part of a larger, very rich tradition of devotional poetry amongst the Ismailis that is both a personal expression of various authors as well as a medium for the community to participate in the expression.
In the Persian language qasidah ‘Dam Ham-e Dam Ali Ali’ attributed to Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, the author puts heartfelt words to his own sentiments and engages in prayer when he recites:
“You are the pure Adam; You are the beautiful Yusuf,
You are Khidr, the guide on the path of God; Ali Ali says every breath of mine
You are the Master of Shariat, You are the Pir of Tariqat,
You are the truth of Haqiqat, Ali Ali says every breath of mine.”
Mawlana Hazar Imam (Aga Khan), wants us to know that as these traditions from different parts of the world become more widely known they must be understood and must be shared amongst the Jamat.
Ginans, qasidas and other devotional poetry, are types of prayers, for they remind us of the Divine. They invite us to let go of ourselves for just a few minutes each day when we are by ourselves or join in harmony with the community. They facilitate the expression of our devotion, our love, and our dedication to God and His creation through poetry, melody, and rhythm.
Worlds of Hidden Meaning and Esoteric Search
Historically, the esoteric traditions in Muslim societies have formed an important school of interpretation of Islam. Central to the vision espoused by these traditions have been the principles of Zahir and Batin, the importance of a spiritual guide, and the inner quest for enlightenment. Esoteric means that what is written is not understood by all, therefore, we have an Imam-of-the-Time to guide us.
While there are external meanings – zahir – associated with many concepts, there are also inner or essential meanings – batin.
What is our first impression when we read a story, look at a painting, or listen to a song? We come across its outer meaning. But when we look or listen more closely, we often uncover other meanings, which were hidden from us at first. Different people may find different meanings in the same piece of writing.
There are many layers of meaning in everything around us. It is as though our universe is covered with hundreds of veils. Each time we lift one of these veils, we learn something new. Beneath each veil, we find another mysterious veil waiting to be lifted.
In a hadith, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has said:
“Truly, there exist seventy thousand veils of light and darkness before God. If He were to lift them, the light of the majesty of His face would overpower all creation within sight.”
It indicates the importance of learning the Qur’an with a clear understanding of its meaning. The meaning is the foundation of our concept of Islam, because our concept is esoteric.
What is Esoteric Search?
Mawlana Sultan Mohamed Shah (a.s.) has said:
“Islam is fundamentally, in its very nature, a natural Religion. Throughout the Qur’an, God’s signs – Ayats- are referred to as the natural phenomenon… Over and over, the stars, the sun, the moon and earthquakes, fruits of the earth and trees are mentioned as signs of divine power, divine law and divine order.” Source: Aga Khan lll: Selected Speeches and Writings of Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah, Edited by K. K. Aziz., Kegan Paul International, 1997, Vol ll, pp. 1290
When we reflect on the signs around and within us, we discover that our universe raises many questions. In the face of this mystery, human beings have asked many questions, ranging from the factual to the philosophical. For example:
* Who are we and where do we come from?
* What is the purpose of our lives?
* Why is there evil and suffering in the world?
* What happens to us when we die?
These are the types of questions asked by most human beings, but they are difficult to answer. As we ask these questions, however, we embark on a special journey or a spiritual search.
In another hadith, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) has said:
“Whoever goes out in search of knowledge is upon the path of God until he returns”
Sometimes on a journey, we see the horizon, which appears to be where the sky and the land meet. However, as we move toward the horizon, we begin to see things, which were initially hidden, from us. We discover yet another horizon waiting for us. In the same way, as we continue our search, we may begin to understand things in new ways, and yet have new questions.
That is the meaning of esoteric search. It is a long and arduous journey, one which we cannot abandon halfway.
In one of his speeches Mawlana Hazar Imam (Aga Khan lV) quoted the poet, Dr. Mohammed Iqbal, who beautifully summarizes the meaning of search in Islam. The poet said:
“The journey of love is a very long journey,
But sometimes with a sign you can cross that vast desert.
Search and search again without losing hope,
You may sometimes find treasure on your way.”
All human beings have the urge for spiritual quest, or to seek answers to difficult questions about ultimate meaning and purpose of life in undertaking a spiritual quest, we are awakened to the need of a guide who facilitates the individual murid’s journey towards self-understanding.
Esoteric Search: Ta’lim Curriculum
Ginans: A Tradition of Religious Poetry, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
Happy Chand rat Mubarak all our Ismaili jamat.