Literary Reading: The Ginanic Literature of the Ismailis

A Very Brief Introdution

In their essay entitled “The Ismailis in History” scholars Aziz Esmail and Azim Nanji note that Ismaili Pirs (representatives sent by Ismaili Imams to propagate the faith) from Iran arrived in Northern India in the 13th/14th century, and started preaching on a substantial scale. The Pirs started their work in Punjab, Sindh and Kashmir and spread southwards. Pirs Shams, Sadr-al-Din and  Hasan Kabir-al-Din are some of the more prominent Pirs.

 The preaching carried out by the pirs was embodied in the community’s indigenous religious literature called ginans which is defined as contemplative or meditative knowledge.

 The authorship of ginans is attributed to these and other Pirs and Seyeds and continued from 13th to the early decades of the twentieth 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.

 The 47th Ismaili 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 selected individuals within his community.

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 Gujarati script.

 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.

Ginans contain moral and religious instructions, mystical poems and legendary histories of the pirs. 

The ginans constitute an important source of literature for Ismailis in India, Pakistan and East Africa. As thousands of Ismailis from these countries have now settled in Europe and North America, the ginan tradition continues to be alive in these newer Ismaili settlements.

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