Ginans: The Rich Heritage of Shia Imami Nizari Muslims
The Great Pirs and Their Work
According to Aziz Esmail and Azim Nanji, Ismaili Pirs from Iran arrived in Northern India in the13th/14th century, and engaged in preaching on a substantial scale (1). The Pirs started their work in Punjab, Sindh and Kashmir and spread southwards. The important Pirs in the Ismaili tradition are Pir Shams, Pir Sadr-al-Din and Pir Hasan Kabir-al-Din and a new community known as Khoja, from the term Khwaja, came into existence.
The Development and Preservation of the Ginan Tradition
According to Farhad Daftary, the preaching (da'wa) carried out by the pirs was embodied in the community's indigenous religious literature called ginan (2). The word ginan is derived from the jnana, a Sanskrit word generally defined to mean contemplative or meditative knowledge. The authorship of ginans is attributed to various Pirs and continued from 13th to the early decades of the present century. They amount to a total of 800 separate compositions of different lengths.
Originally, the ginans were transmitted only orally, but in time, starting at least 16th century, they were collected and recorded in writing. Imam Shah Aly Shah Al-Husayni, also known as Aga Khan II, made a special effort to collect ginans by assigning the task of locating and acquiring relevant manuscripts to a specific group of Indian followers (3). The ginans exist in a number of Indian languages, including Sindhi, Gujarati, Hindi, Panjabi, and Multani. The bulk of the recorded corpus of the ginan literature has survived in Khojki script, one of the earliest forms of written Sindhi. Since the middle of last century, an increasing number of ginans preserved by Nizari Khojas has been published in Gujrati script.
Contents of Ginans
The ginans were written in verse form and recorded in several Indian languages and constitute a markedly Nizari (after Imam Nizar) and mystical (esoteric) vision of Islam. The ginans are meant to be sung and recited with a melody. In some cases, the ginan manuscripts specify the melodies or ragas according to which the ginans should be sung (4).
Ginans contain moral and religious instructions, mystical poems and legendary histories of the pirs (5). These ginans constitute an important source of literature for Ismailis in India, Pakistan and East Africa. As the Ismailis from these countries have now settled in Europe, Canada and the USA, the ginan tradition is still alive in the Ismaili communities residing in these countries.
Transmission of Ginans
The ginan tradition suffered a severe set back in East Africa in the early 50's when the medium of instruction in Aga Khan schools was changed from Gujarati to English and Gujrati was not offered as a second language. Subsequently, a large number of individuals who are now in their middle age, can speak Gujrati and other Indian languages, but cannot read and write the language. The younger generations have almost no command of Gujrati language and there is a need to transliterate the ginans into Roman script to reduce the rate of loss of this unique tradition. The transliteration of ginans is absolutely necessary because the ginans have to be sung in their original language. Some positive efforts have been made to transliterate ginans however, a much greater task facing the community is the translation and explanation of ginans in order to realize their true value.
My interest in Ginans
I was born and raised in Tanzania and was fortunate to attend His Highness The Aga Khan School in Iringa, Tanzania, in which religion was taught as a subject. Since a very young age, I have been interested in learning and singing ginans and Kalame Mowla. However, I had a major handicap as I could not read Gujrati. When I was in Grade 12, I attended two, 1-hour evening classes in which the religion teacher, Alwaez Nizar Chunara, taught us the basics of Gujrati. In 1972, I started transliterating Kalame Mowla into Roman script letter by letter. It took me more than two years to complete the work which was published by H. H. The Aga Khan Shia Imami Ismailia Association for the United Kingdom in 1975.
The ginans of our great Pir Hasan Kabirdin (rahemutullah alayhi) are my favorite because this great Pir yearned for the didar of the Holy Imam from a young age. The approach of love demonstrated by this great Pir inspired me to transliterate Ana(n)t Akhado.
My Transliterations of Ginans
The Ana(n)t Akhado, consisting of 500 verses, was written on a piece of cloth and shaped into a turban (verse 48). Before it was presented to Imam Islamshah (a.s.), Pir Hasan Kabirdin (r.a.) performed intense supplication (giryah-u zari) and composed a granth, Ana(n)t na Nav Chhuga, consisting of 90 verses. This work shows the Pir's ardent love, utmost humility and submission to the Holy Imam, and his intense craving for spiritual (ruhani) and intellectual (noorani) didar. Moti Venti is a ginan of 50 verses composed by Pir Hasan Kabirdin (r.a.) and its theme is similar to that of Ana(n)t na Nav Chhuga.
Benefits of Ginan Transliterations
Spiritual progress is only possible if one is humble, tolerant and modest. All Pirs and Prophets performed supplication (Giryah-u zari) to come closer to He who is above all else. Giryah-u zari means to weep or cry in the presence of God to demonstrate humility with remorse for one's excusable and mortal sins and to beg for pardon, forgiveness, guidance and mercy from the Divine Court. It is a correct practical form of repenting from all kinds of sin and is a foundation for righeousness (taqwa) and humility, and is the best control of pride and arrogance.
Pir Hasan Kabirdin (rahemutullah alayhi) yearned for the didar of the Holy Imam and used to perform giryah-u zari. This is clearly demonstrated in two of his other great works, Ana(n)t na Nav Chhuga and Moti Venti. I have transliterated these works so that we may learn the art of giryah-u zari through the Holy Ginans.
The transliteration of great works of Pir Hasan Kabirdin (r.a.) will enable the Jamats of Indo-Pakistan origin to maintain their rich heritage and contribute to an understanding of the evolution of the Ismaili Tariqah over 1400 years. I also hope that it will inspire the members of the Jamat who can understand Gujrati, but cannot read it, to explore the spiritual dimensions of the great works of Holy Pirs.
Let us pray (Sura 20, Ayat 114) 'Ya Rabbi Zidni Ilma!' ('O Lord! Increase me in knowledge.') and seek spiritual help (ta'yid) to understand our great faith.
- Esmail A. and Nanji A. The Isma'ilis in History, 252.
- Daftary, F. The Isma'ilis - Their history and Doctrines, 442.
- Ibid. 442.
- Ibid. 443.
- Ibid. 443.
- Daftary, F. The Isma'ilis: Their history and Doctrines. Cambridge, 1990.
- Esmail, A., Nanji, A. "The Ismailis in History", in Isma'ili Contributions to Islamic Culture, ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Tehran, 1977, 225-258.
[ Ginans Section ]
Article by Dr. Noorallah Juma
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