xiv. ISMAʿILISM IN GINĀN LITERATURE
A conspicuous feature in the intellectual history of Nezāri Ismaʿili Shiʿism has been the fundamental impulse to translate the concept of the Imam, which is the central aspect of their faith, within the frameworks of the various philosophical and theological systems it encountered as the movement spread geographically. As a result, Ismaʿili religious texts are frequently characterized by their use of motifs from multiple streams of thought. Thus, works written during the political heyday of Fatimid Ismaʿili rule in Egypt and North Africa in the 9th and 10th centuries draw upon Islamic, Gnostic, Neoplatonic, and Manichean elements to elaborate the concept of the Imam. Similarly, Ismaʿili treatises written in Persia and Central Asia from the 15th century onward explain the significance of the Imam utilizing the Sufi discourse that had become so widespread in these areas.
Not surprisingly, Nezāri Ismaʿili texts from the Indian Subcontinent exhibit a similar adaptive response to the region’s complex religious, literary, and cultural environment. A significant element in this response was the creation of a unique genre of devotional songs called gināns. The Indic term ginān is commonly believed to be derived from Sanskrit jñāna “knowledge derived from meditation.” Composed in the several northwestern Indic languages (such as Gujarati, Sindhi, Punjabi, Hindi) and sung in various Indian rāgas, or melodies, gināns form an important element in the liturgy and devotional life of the subcontinent’s Nezāri Ismaʿili communities to our day. The authorship of these devotional hymns is traditionally attributed to Ismaʿili dāʿis (q.v.), or pirs, of Persian ancestry who were sent to the subcontinent by Ismaʿili Imams living in Persia, in order to propagate the Is-maʿili form of Islam and to provide spiritual guidance to Ismaʿili communities living there (Daftary, pp. 414-15, 442-43).
There is very little accurate information about the reputed authors of the gināns and their activities, as most of what we know about them derives from hagiographic accounts. As a result, we are not certain about significant biographical details such as birth and death dates of many pirs, particularly the earlier ones. In any case, the vast majority of gināns are attributed to the four great pirs who lived between the 12th and 15th centuries: Pir Satgur Nur, Pir Šams, Pir Ṣadr-al-Din, and Pir Ḥasan Kabir-al-Din. A fifth figure, Emāmšāh, who lived in the late 15th and early 16th century, was allegedly the founder of a “schismatic” movement that broke away from the main group to form a separate sect. Each pir was regarded as a tangible symbol of the Imams’ authority in the subcontinent, the “door” to the Imam, without whose guidance and instruction access to religious truths would be impossible. Hagiographic accounts assert that, to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers between themselves and the local populations, the Ismaʿili pirs composed songs to explain fundamental Ismaʿili doctrines to Indian disciples in their native languages and idioms. It is these songs that eventually came to constitute the corpus of what is now called the ginān literature.
In more recent times, community traditions have come to regard these compositions as providing the faithful with an understanding of the “true meaning” of the Qurʾān and serving to penetrate its inner or spiritual (bāṭen, q.v.) significance. The pirs were not ordinary missionaries and evangelists; in the community’s understanding they were spiritually enlightened individuals whose religious authority had been endorsed by the Imams living in the “west” (i.e., Persia). In order that their Indian disciples should fully comprehend the theological significance of the Imam, the pirs taught that the Imam, specifically ʿAli b. Abi Ṭāleb (q.v.), was the long-awaited tenth incarnation (avatāra) of the deity Vishnu. In this manner they created an ostensible correspondence, or bridge, between the Is-maʿili concept of the Imam with the concept of avatāra as understood in the Vaishnavite form of Hinduism. The translation of the Ismaʿili concept of Imam into a Vaisnavite framework is best represented in the classic ginān, Dasa Avatāra “Ten Incarnations,” of which there are several versions attributed to different pirs (see Khakee).
In the gināns the pirs exhort their disciples to follow Satpanth “the true path,” the name used in the texts to refer to the Ismaʿili tradition. The essence of Satpanth lay in its emphasis on the esoteric and spiritual over the exoteric and material, and the interiorized form of religious practice over mere ritual practice. Satpanth teachings asserted that attachment to the material and transitory world along with negative, egotistical qualities such as anger, greed, and jealousy result in individual souls being trapped in endless cycles of rebirth in the material world. The spiritual enlightenment that is necessary to break these cycles of rebirth is, however, possible only through the allegiance to the Imam (often called Sat Guru “True Guru” or moršed “[Spiritual] Guide”) and his representatives the pirs. It is the Sat Guru who provides the guidance necessary for an ethical and moral life and who also bestows on the disciple the sacred word (shabd/nam/bol) on which to meditate. If successful in the spiritual quest, the disciple would be blessed with the vision (didār/darshan [< Sk.. darśana]) of the Divine Light, the most sublime experience of the spiritual life.
A key aspect of Satpanth Ismaʿili tradition is the spiritual relationship between the Imam and the individual disciple (rikhīsar [Ind.], moʾmen, morid), often portrayed as a bond of love. Indeed, the tradition views love and devotion to the Imam as important preconditions for spiritual enlightenment and salvation. Borrowing images and metaphors from the realm of human love, the pirs frequently invoke in gināns the symbol of the virahinī (Ind.), or woman separated from her beloved, and the viraha, or the longing she feels for him. Based on this symbolism, many gināns represent the disciples of the Imam as virahinīs longing for their beloved Imam. While the representation of the soul as a female longing for vision (didār/darshan) of the Imam is certainly unusual by the standards of the Arabic and Persian literary traditions, it is perfectly in keeping with local Indian literary conventions. Traditions of Indian devotional poetry contemporaneous with the gināns, such as the sant, bhakti, or Sikh traditions, all employ the symbol of the virahinī. Even Sufi poetry written in the Indian vernacular languages adopts this Indic topos. In this way, the gināns explicate core Ismaʿili ideas about the Imam within religious and devotional frameworks that strongly resonated with the broader Indian religious ethos.
Ali Sultaan Ali Asani, “The Ismāʿīlī Ginān Literature: Its Structure and Love Symbolism,” MA thesis, Harvard University, 1977.
Idem, Ecstasy and Enlightenment. The Ismaili Devotional Literature of South Asia, London, 2002.
Farhad Daftary, The Ismāʿīlīs: Their History and Doctrines, Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne, 1990, esp. pp. 414-15, 442-43, 478, 479, 484-85.
Wladimir Ivanow, ed., Collectanea I, Leiden, 1948, pp. 1-145.
Tazim R. Kassam, Songs of Wisdom and Circles of Dance: Hymns from the Satpanth Ismāʿilī Muslim Saint, Pīr Shams, Albany, N.Y., 1995.
Gulshan Khakee, “The Dasa Avatāra of the Satpanthi Ismailis and the Imam Shahis of Indo-Pakistan,” Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 1972.
Azim Nanji, The Nizārī Ismāʿīlī Tradition in the Indo-Pakistan Subcontinent, Delmar, N.Y., 1978.
Christopher Shackle and Zawahir Moir, Ismaili Hymns from South Asia: An Introduction to the Ginans, London, 1992; rev. new ed., Richmond, 2000.
(Ali Sultaan Ali Asani)
Originally Published: December 15, 2007
Last Updated: April 5, 2012
This article is available in print.
Vol. XIV, Fasc. 2, pp. 204-205