Baba Ismail: The First Shamsi Convert in the History of the Gupti Ismailis of Punjab

By Khizar Hayat

The Shamsi Ismailis in Punjab, who were converted by Hazrat Pir Shams Sabzwa’ri, mostly practiced the Ismaili faith in solitude in the garb of the Hindus, and became known as the Gupti (secretive). These Gupti Ismailis mostly resided in different cities, towns and villages in Punjab and Frontier. [1]

In 1910 a young man in twenties went to see the 48th Ismaili Imam, Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan III (1877 – 1957), at the  Aga Khan Palace, Poona (see author’s update note below – editor). Fortunately, he got the opportunity to have a personal audience with the Imam of the time. When asked for the purpose of his visit, he said (in Urdu) “Ya Mawla, I am a Shamsi Ismaili from Multan and wish that Mawlana Hazar Imam give me a Muslim name.” Mawlana Sultan Mohammed Shah looked at him and asked “Tumhara kya naam hai” (What is your name). “Wazir Chand,” he replied.

Mawla laughed aloud and said “tum bahut hoshyar aur imandar ho” (you are very intelligent and faithful). Putting his finger in the center of Wazir Chand’s chest the Imam said, “Tumhara naam Muhammad Ismail” (Your name is Muhammad Ismail).  Muhammad Ismail (formally Wazir Chand) thus became the first convert Ismaili in the history of Gupti Ismailis of Punjab and Frontier, who was given a Muslim name by the Imam of the time. [2]

Portrait of Rai Muhammad Ismail. Photo: Khizar Hayat collection.

After this event, in January 1912, the Imam summoned eight prominent leaders of Shamsis from Punjab and Frontier at the Poona Palace, and gave them Muslim names. In the years 1912, 1914 and 1916, in accordance with the instructions of the Imam of the time, Pir Sabzali and missionary Muhammad Husayni Asani went to Punjab and Frontier and changed the name of the Shamsis (the Gupti Ismaili Jamat), who pledged to practice the Ismaili faith openly. [3]

Once again, after forty years, in 1950, that young man had an opportunity to meet Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah at Governor House, in Karachi. The Imam immediately recognised him and said “Tum Muhammad Ismail ho?” (Are you Muhammad Ismail?) He replied, “Baly Khudawand” (yes Khudawand). He then had a long meeting with Imam before leaving the next day for Multan.

While crossing the road near Multan Railway Station, Ismail was struck by a heavy truck and was taken to Nishtar Hospital, Multan, in a critical condition. The doctors gave 24 hours for his life. When he became conscious, he said to his son, “Don’t worry I will be alright, I will live another twenty years,” and he made it. Miraculously, he recovered quickly and lived a normal life. Muhammad Ismail was awarded with the title of “Rai Sahib” by Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, and was known as Baba Ismail all over Punjab. He devoted his whole life in the love of Imam-e-Zaman. Almost twenty years later he left this world taking his last breath inside the Pak Darwazah Jamatkhana in Multan, on September 19, 1969 at 4.00 A.M.

I had met him in early 1969 for the last time when he visited our home in Nazimabad, Karachi. He astonished me with his great memory of the past and an amazing knowledge of the Mathnavi of Rumi. Baba Ismail was the youngest amongst the five brothers and two sisters – one of them was my grandfather, Karim Bukhsh, and one of his sisters was Lady Mariam, the beloved mother of the late Rai A.M. Sadruddin, who edited Nairobi’s Africa Ismaili. During his visit to our home he told us how he could still feel the touch of Imam’s finger in the middle of his chest, even though the incident had taken place some sixty years earlier. This has remained for me an unforgettable  moment from the life of a simple devout man.

Date posted:  Saturday, August 4, 2012.

Date updated: Friday, June 21, 2013 (The article now reflects the change mentioned in the following note from Mr. Hayat).

Dear Readers:

During my recent visit to Pakistan [January 2013] I came across some important written material documented by my late beloved father, Shamsuddin son of Karim Bukhsh regarding Baba Ismail. I feel it necessary to point with respect to the above piece which was originally published on August 2012.

The material belongs to two different diaries which were written in Urdu language by his hand. None of them has any citation of date and place. However, the writing shows that the diaries were written in two different time periods. The first one is on the letter head of the Eskay industries and is comprised of 9 pages, whereas the second one is a Note Book, which is comprised of 46 pages. It seems that the former was written in 1970s and the later was penned during 1980s.

The material in the diaries confirms that the Wazir Chand (Baba Ismail) had an audience with Mawlana Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah. However, it reports that the audience was held at Aga Khan Palace, Poona, and not at Walkeshwar, Bombay, as mentioned in my original version of August 4, 2012. Thus it was at Poona, when in the presence of Haji Kamadia, Wazir Chand was given the name Muhammad Ismail. Since the sources of the material come from Wazir Chand’s nephew and his adopted son I would consider this information as a correction to my original reference to Walkeshwar.

Khizar Hayat
June 21, 2013.

Copyright: Khizar Hayat/Simerg. August 2012.

_____________

Notes:

[1] N.W.F.P (North West Province Frontier), now known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

[2] Muhammad Ismail is the youngest brother of my paternal grandfather, who related this instance quite a few times.

[3] Shamsis: The Gupti Ismailis of Punjab and Frontier by Alwaez Khizar Hayat.

Alwaez Khizar Hayat

About the writer: Khizar Hayat has been an Honorary Alwaez (missionary) since 1962, and  served Ismaili institutions in Pakistan and Canada in numerous capacities. In Pakistan, he served as a member of the Executive Board for Ismailia Association (now known as the Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board or ITREB) from 1973 until 1976. During this period he obtained his Masters Degree in History from Karachi University, and then relocated to Canada in 1976 where he has lived ever since. He served in Canada as an active member with the Ismailia Association (now ITREB Canada) from 1979 to 1997, during which time he also arranged exhibitions on the life of Imam Sultan Mahomed Shah in numerous Canadian and American cities. In 1992, he founded and edited a fine Islamic magazine, Qalam, which ceased publication in 1994 due to lack of financial resources. Currently, in his retirement, Alwaez Hayat is dedicating his time to the study of the life of Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah from his home in Brampton, Ontario.

_____________

Related articles:

A Unique Moment in the Life of the Punjab Jamat by A.M. Rajput

Eloquent Persian Quatrain by 48th Ismaili Imam Graces a 1923 Invitation For Talk About Imamat by Malik Merchant

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21 thoughts on “Baba Ismail: The First Shamsi Convert in the History of the Gupti Ismailis of Punjab

  1. I am completely astonished to read your hard work and research you have done in your carrier. Excellent hard work.

  2. There were quiet a few Hindu famalies who were Gupti Ismailis in South Africa.
    As a child in Uganda I remember my late Dearest Grandfather mentioning of one such family named Karshan who were supposed to be related to us. If my memory serves me right, the reason that I was given for them to be staying in hiding was that no one in their immediately local community would marry the family children, if they found out that the parents really was Muslims. The way my grandfather found this out was because he (my g’father) was go between the Family and the Mukhis for services to the Imam. Apart from the Karshans there were other Ismaili gupti families.

    Facinating History!

  3. A fascinating account of an extraordinary time in the Imamat of our beloved 48th Imam who was very generous with his time and availability to the crypto Ismaili Muslims. Being the beneficiary of the benevolence of Imam of the Time and Age to my own forebears in the “ GRAND FAMILY OF GHADI KAPURA” or Bada Ghar, as is famously known in the Shamsi Ismaili Circles of United Indian Northwest Geography, I share your pride and congratulate you for articulating a very inspiring piece of history.

  4. Thank you for capturing aand sharing some great history. I look forward to many more articles from you Abu.

  5. Great work Bhaijan – what I used to hear from our parents has now been recorded very well. I hope this historical contribution will continue.

  6. Dear Mamujaan,

    We have always heard a lot about him (Lala Wada) but a lot of stuff was still unknown to me. Thank you for sharing this piece – it really makes us proud of being his great grandchildren.

  7. Excellent article. I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya and we had a Hindu neighbour who practised the Ismaili religion and my mum explained to me that the person was a ‘Gupti Ismaili’.

    Shirin Hirji
    London, England

  8. “Gupti mostly practiced the Ismaili faith in solitude in the garb of the Hindus, and became known as the Gupti (secretive). These Gupti Ismailis mostly resided in different cities, towns and villages in Punjab and Frontier.”

    The above statement is not quite true. There were and perhaps are many Guptis in Gujarat state and other part of India. The author only noted Punjab province which is true for Shamsi Guptis but if you counts all Guptis then it must be noted that guptis resided in the Gujarat state during the time of Imam Sultan Mohammad Shah (s.a.) and there may still be any guptis even right now living there. They look like Hindus, have Hindu names and practice the Hindu rites of birth and death but they secretly pray 3 times du’as at their home.

  9. Thank you Khizar Hayat for putting this very relevant story in the public domain. worth reading. I have just about finished reading the article by Dr. Rajput on the Ismailis of Hunza published in Africa Ismaili Vol 5 edited by A M Sadruddudin. It would be a pleasure to meet and learn more from you

  10. It is really very heart touching story which describes our history and shows us that how our grand parents served their life…..Thanks for sharing

  11. Sharing such personal accounts of devotion, dedication, service to the community and love for the Imam and to see such dedication continue through the next generation is great. Thanks to Rai Muhammad Ismail family members and Simerg

  12. Very interesting article. I am the daughter of Vazeer Dr. Pirmohammed Hoodbhoy. Unfortunately, I was only 8 years old when he passed away. I still hear stories about his life from people who lived during his time in Karachi, Pakistan. Hopefully, you will publish a piece about him in the future.

  13. Very well written – Thank you for putting this in writing for the benefit of my generation and our future generations. Looking forward to your next article.

  14. A pleasure to see a piece about Baba Ismail – a good move to record history which is much needed at present times. Well done bhaijan.

  15. Thank you for the article. For the past week I have been thinking about compiling the family tree of my great grandfathers. Baba Ismail was also one of our great grandfathers. Any help with the tree for Baba Ismail’s father (SHAM) would be appreciated. I am from the family tree of HARSUKH; the elder brother of SHAM. I live in Rawalpindi, Pakistan and can be reached at pkhalilullah@hotmail.com.

  16. It is indeed a pleasure to read about my ancestor, Baba Ismail. Lady Mariam, Baba Ismail’s sister and Rai A.M. Sadruddin’s mother, was my great-grandmother. Thank you, Khizar, for recording this wonderful story about our family.

    In my grandfather’s brief biography, published in a June 1972 issue of Africa Ismaili — which he founded and edited, my grandfather wrote about the circumstances by which his father was also given his name by Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah. A version of this account can be read on this website by clicking on http://simerg.com/about/voices-sir-sultan-muhammad-shah-aga-khan-iii-eloquent-persian-quatrain-by-48th-ismaili-imam-graces-a-1923-invitation-for-talk-about-imamat/

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