Harvard Course on Ismaili Ginans & Muslim Devotional Literature by Dr. Ali Asani

Harvard University is offering a brand new course by Professor Ali Asani on Muslim Devotional Literature in South Asia, featuring the study of the Ismaili Ginans in their historical, cultural, and devotional contexts. The Ginans stem from the Satpanth Ismaili tradition of South Asia and Ismaili tradition attributes the authorship of the Ginans to the Pirs (the babs or supreme hujjats of the Imam) and Sayyids descended from the family of the Ismaili Imams and who were active from the 12th century to the 19th century.

The status of the Ismaili Pirs, to whom numerous Ginans are attributed, is described by the Ismaili Imam Shah Gharib Mirza (known also as Shah al-Mustansir bi’llah II):

The Pir is the person to whom the Imam of the time has granted his position, which makes him the highest amongst the creations (ashraf-i makhluqat). And whenever he (the Imam) has chosen the Pir, and appointed him, he (the Pir) must convey to others the knowledge in detail (ma‘rifat-ra ba-tafsil bi-guyad). You must attain perfection in knowledge of the Imam through him. But if he (i.e. the Imam) has not appointed a Pir, you must come to know some person amongst the possessors of knowledge (sahiban-i ilm) whom he has commissioned to guide and to preach to people (ba-dalalat wa da‘wat) so that you may attain through the guidance and summons of such a person (irshad wa da‘wat) the recognition of the Imam (ma’rifat-i Imam). Thus you will not remain in wretchedness, attaining through the illumination of his knowledge (rawshana’i-y-i ilm-i u) the recognition of the Imam. And whenever there is a Pir, the teachers will take up summons (da’wat), by his permission, remaining under his control and order.

Imam Shah Gharib Mirza (Mustansir bi’llah II),
(Pandiyat-i Jawanamardi, tr. W. Ivanow, 26)

Dr. Shafique Virani also explains the mission and context of the Ismaili Pirs in South Asia and how they claimed direct descent from the Ismaili Imams:

The family of Pirs claimed descent from Isma’il b. Ja’far, but through a line different from that of the Imams, and provided the most gifted and dedicated exponents of Ismailism in South Asia. The leaders of the community seem to have continuously been appointed from their ranks. Their activities are alluded to in a contemporary Iranian source, the anonymous treatise entitled Epistle of the Right Path. Describing how the Imams from ‘Ali through Isma’il were manifest (zahir) while those from Isma^il through Mahdi were concealed (mastur), it continues:

Mawlana Isma’il manifested in the cities of Uch and Multan, leaving indications among the people of India and displaying marvels. A community from among that Imam’s descendants still remains in that realm, and by means of those indications those people will never entertain doubts.

Shafique N. Virani, The Ismailis in the Middle Ages, 99)

Course Title: Muslim Devotional Literatures in South Asia: Qawwalis, Sufiana Kalam (Sufi Poetry) and the Ginans
Course Number: RELIGION 1814
Professor: Ali Asani
Course Description: This course explores traditions of Islamic spirituality in South Asia through the lens of three genres: the qawwali, concerts of mystical poetry; sufiana kalam, Sufi romantic epics and folk poems; and the ginans, hymns of esoteric wisdom recited by the Satpanthi Ismailis. Since these genres represent examples of language, symbols and styles of worship shared across Islamic and non-Islamic denominational boundaries, we will also examine their relationships with other Indic traditions of devotion, particularly those associated with the so-called sant and Hindu bhakti movements. Special emphasis will be given to the impact of contemporary political ideologies, globalization and the revolution in media technology on the form and function of these genres and their relationship with contemporary communities of faith in South Asia and beyond. (See Harvard University Website)

Some of the Readings on the Ismaili Ginans from this new Harvard Course are listed below:

Ali S. Asani, The Buj Nirinjan: An Ismaili Mystical Poem. Read on Google Books.

Aziz Esmail, The Scent of Sandalwood: Indo-Ismaili Religious Lyrics. Read on GoogleBooks.

Tazim R. Kassam, Songs of Wisdom and Circles of Dance: Hymns of the Satpanth Ismaili Muslim Saint, Pir Shams. Read on Google Books.

Zawahir Moir & Christopher Shackle, Ismaili Hymns from South Asia: An Introduction to the Ginans. Read on Google Books.

Ali S. Asani, Ecstasy and Enlightenment: The Ismaili Devotional Literature of South Asia. Read on Google Books.

Shafique N. Virani, “Symphony of Gnosis: A Self-Definition of the Ismaili Ginān Tradition”, in Reason and Inspiration in Islam: Theology, Philosophy and Mysticism in Muslim Thought, ed. Todd Lawson, 503-521. Read on Shafique Virani Website.

Zawahir Moir, Tazim R. Kassam, Franscoise Mallision, Ginans Texts and Contexts. Read on Google Books.

Karim Gillani, Sound and Recitation of Khoja Ismaili Ginans: Tradition and Transformation. PhD Dissertation, University of Alberta 2015. Read on University of Alberta Website.

Ali S. Asani, “From Satpanthi to Shia Ismaili Muslim”, in A Modern History of the Ismailis, ed. Farhad Daftary. Read on Harvard Website.

Shafique N. Virani, “Taqiyyah and Identity in a South Asian Community”, The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 70, No. 1 (February) 2011: 99–139. Read on the Harvard Website.

More academic studies on the Ismaili Ginans are available on Ginanic Studies courtesy of Karim Tharani.

13 thoughts on “Harvard Course on Ismaili Ginans & Muslim Devotional Literature by Dr. Ali Asani

  1. Mawlana Shah Gharib Mirza is also known as Shah al-Mustansir bi’llah III (not II)…
    The Imamat of Mawlana al-Mustansir bi’llah II was between 1464-1476 and Mawlana Gharib Mirza, i.e. Shah al-Mustansir bi’llah III, was between 1494-1497 .Therefore, the author of “Pandiyat ” is Mawlana Mustansir bi’llah II, not Mawlana Shah Gharib Mirza.

    • Please see the latest research by Dr Virani where he shows how Shah Gharib was also called Mustansir and in the Anjudan period he was called Mustansir II. The Pandiyat was actually written by Shah Gharib during the lifetime of his father Imam Ab Al-Salaam as the Pandiyat names Abd Al-Salaam was the Imam of the time and Mustansir II as the author.

  2. According to Farhad Daftary, Mustansir bi’llah II (thirty second Imam) name was Shah Qalandar, while Shah Gharib Mirza was also called Mustansir bi’llah III (thirty fourth Imam). It is true, the Pandiyat ‘s author is Mustansir bi’llah II, but not Shah Gharib Mirza. Please read carefully in Farhad Daftary’ s “The Ismailis, their history and doctrines” (second edition), in The Anjudan revival of Nizari Ismailism section (page 422).

    • Shafique Virani’s research in 2007 has updated Daftary’s research. Shah Qalandar is a Sufi title adopted by the Imam, but the author of Pandiyat was Shah Gharib Mirza who was also called Musttansir billah.

      • Clearly, both Shah Qalandar and Shah Gharib are Sufi titles. The Pandiyat’s author is Mawlana Mustansir billah II, the grandfather of Mawlana Shah Gharib Mirza (Mustansir billah III). The Pandiyat were written during the Imamate of Mawlana Adbi Salam, the father of Mawlana Shah Gharib Mirza.

  3. Olim, the Imam who wrote Pandiyat says in the text “do not mention my name and the name of your Imam Shah Abd al-Salaam.” Now Abd al-Salaam lived AFTER Imam Mustansir II, so Mustansir II cannot be the author. The author must be someone who lived WHILE Abd al-Salaam was the Imam of the time. Therefore, the author logically must be Gharib Mirza (Mustansir billah III) who wrote Pandiyat during the lifetime of his father, Imam Abd al-Salaam.

    • Addmitedly, W.Ivanow and F.Daftary provide more reliable evidence on this. Commenting on “Pandiyat-i Jawanmardi” W.Ivanow writes that “The book, or its greater part, was compiled under Shah Abdu’s-Salam who succeeded Imam Mustansir bi’l-lah and thus really was the Imam of the time when the compiler was engaged in writing. The enigmatic passage on p. 56 may be easily explained if we suggest that Mustansir bi’l-lah told his followers not to disclose his own identity to outsiders, nor of the Imam of one’s time generally. And as the Imam of the time at the moment when the compiler was writing was Shah Abdu’s-Salam, he automatically mentioned his name.”
      Mawlana Shah Gharib Mirza Imamate was only 3 years, while those of Mawlana Mustansir bi’llah II and Mawlana Abd al-Salam were 12 and 18 years respectively. Therefore, it seems more probable that Pandiyat is a compilation of sayings of both Imams, prior to Mawlana Shah Gharib Mirza (Mustansir bi’llah III). The majority of sayings are attributed to Mustansir bi’llah الثاني (thani, II), not ثالث(thalis, III). No doubt, the exact authorship is not that important, since eventually the guidance comes from the same Light.

      • Thank you for your comment, but have you read Shafique Virani’s book which has the latest research on this? According to Sayyid Noor Muhammad Shah, the Pandiyat was sent to the South Asian Jamat by Imam Abu Dharr Ali, the successor of Imam Shah Gharib Mirza. Also Imam Shah Gharib Mirza in the Nizari sources of the Anjudan period is called Mustansirbillah Thani, not Thalith. So any work in the Anjudan period that says Mustansir Thani is actually Shah Gharib Mirza. Now the Imam Mustansir who spoke the Pandiyat farmans says twice:

        “Take hold of the hand of your leader and guide and sit in the house
        of truth, boarding the Ark of the Noah of the time so that you may
        safely reach the shore. That leader and Noah of the time is the Imam
        of your age, Shah ^Abd al-Salamshah. Recognize him and board the
        Ark of Noah, that is, the path of his summons (tariqa-yi da^wat-i u)
        that your faith may be perfected and your spirit preserved from
        calamities.”

        “O faithful believers, Hadrat Mawlana Shah Mustansir bi’llah says: Never
        mention my name nor that of your Imam Shah ^Abd al-Salamshah in
        the presence of the faithless, ignorant ones who harbor an innate enmity
        for the offices of prophecy and imamate.”

        So the Imam who delivered these farmans is speaking of himself and of ANOTHER person – who is the Imam while the author is still living. Fida\i Khurasani, however, quotes a long passage that he attributes to the Imam Gharib Mirza that exactly parallels in style and content similar segments in Counsels of Chivalry.

        Finally, suggesting that the compilor changed the name of the Imam mentioned in Pandiyat to Abd al-Salaam does not make any sense here – the compiler of Pandiyat clearly states that he wrote in the lifetime of the Imam Mustansir bi’llah, noting whatever he said in an assembly. Therefore the only logical explanation is that the author is Imam Shah Gharib, known in the Anjudan period as Mustansirbillah Thani.

        You are right that whoever the author is, the wisdom is from one Light.

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