Ginans are a vast collection consisting of several hundred 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. Derived from the Sanskrit jnana, meaning contemplative knowledge, ginans refer to the poetic compositions authored by Nizari Ismaili pirs or preachers, who were sent by Imams residing in Persia to the Indian subcontinent as early as the 11th century to teach the Ismaili interpretation of Islam.
As a result of the discontent among the descendants of Pir Kabir al-Din as well as the jama’at, Imam Mustansir billah III (Gharib Mirza) (d. 1498) suspended the appointment of pirs and sent a book of guidance instead, the Pandiyat-i-Jawanmardi, a compilation of the guidance of Imam Mustansir bi’llah II (d. 1480). Subsequently, the work of the da’wa continued locally by a line of sayyids, generally regarded as the descendants of Pir Hasan Kabir al-Din.
Pir Sadr al-Din, who is credited with authoring the largest number of ginans, played a key role in spreading the da’wa in the Indian subcontinent. He worked during the time of Imam Islam Shah (r. 1369/70 to 1425/26) whom he visited regularly in Persia. Pir Sadr al-Din is credited with establishing the first Nizari jama’at-khana in Kotri, Sind, and subsequently in Punjab and Kashmir, appointing their mukhis or leaders. The term is derived from the Sanskrit word mukhya meaning most important or chief. The specific form of the Nizari Ismaili interpretation of Islam came to be known by the translation of the Qur’anic term sirat al-mustaqim, rendered as Satpanth, (sat panth, ‘true path’).
Pir Sadr al-Din is reported to have been affiliated with the Suhrawardi Sufi order that was prevalent in Multan at the time. As in Persia during the post-Alamut period (13th to 15th century), Nizari Ismailis observed taqiyya (concealment) under the cloak of Sufism in order to avoid persecution. In addition to being centres of Nizari Ismaili activities, Multan and Uchchh were also the headquarters of the Suhrawardi and Qadiri Sufi tariqahs.
The Suharwardi tariqah was the most prevalent during the 13th and 14th centuries while the Qadiri order began to acquire prominence in the 15th century. As a result, close relationships developed between the two esoteric traditions in South Asia, especially in Sind. “The adoption of Sufi terminology, such as murshid and murid by the Nizari Khoja community as well as strong parallels between the poetic and mystical expressions found in the ginans and in Sufi poetry composed in Panjabi and Sindhi facilitated Satpanth-Sufi relations.”1 This enabled the Khojas to blend into the culture and social structure of Sind, attracting less attention as Ismailis thus escaping persecution. The Nizari Khojas were also safeguarded in the Indian subcontinent against Sunni persecution by the Hindu elements which were an integral part of the Satpanth tradition.
The close relationship between Khojas and Sufis of the Indian subcontinent is evidenced in a long poem in medieval Hindustani titled Bujh Niranjan (Knowledge of the One), believed to have been composed by Pir Sadr al-Din. This poem, about the mystical path, is thought to have originated in the Qadiri Sufi circles and then entered the ginan literature of the Khojas. “Its mystical themes and terms readily lent themselves to Isma’ili interpretations even though there are no specifically Isma’ili elements in this poem.”1
Pir Sadr al-Din is reported to have died between 1369 and 1416. His mausoleum lies in Jetpur, near Uchchh.
1Farhad Daftary, The Ismailis: Their History and Doctrines, Second Edition, Cambridge University Press, 2007
Ali Asani, THE BUJH NlRANJAN, AN ISMAILl MYSTICAL POEM, Harvard Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 1991(accessed March 2017)
John A Subhan, Sufism, its Saints and Shrines, Lucknow Publishing, 1960 (accessed March 2017)
Ginans: A Tradition of Religious Poetry, The Institute of Ismaili Studies (accessed March 2017)
Compiled by Nimira Dewji
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