The Faith of My Forefathers

“I Wish I’d Been There”

by Ameer Janmohamed

Writer has lived life to the fullest

To single out one scene, incident or event in Ismaili History which I would have liked to have witnessed is not easy. Even with a rudimentary knowledge of Ismaili history, I know that its fourteen hundred year span is rich with occasions which may be singled out for celebration.

For me one of the more glorious and epochal periods in Ismaili History is the current era of our 49th Imam, Shah Karim Al-Hussayni Aga Khan. I do not have to Wish I’d Been There, for it is my good fortune to be right here and witness the events of this Imamat unfold in real time.

Our Imam has taken the role of Imamat to unprecedented heights. Never before has the rest of the world so overtly acknowledged the Imam’s vision. We know that world leaders, organizations and decision makers consult with him, and make demands on his time. And yet the Imam remains steadfast in his commitment to his followers who are now spread throughout the world, and he has their unstinting fealty and devotion.

It is said that His Highness the Aga Khan, amongst other things, will be remembered by historians as the benign face of Islam who did so much to bridge the gulf between the Muslim world and those who do not comprehend its diversity.

But the object of this particular exercise in this series  is to Summon the Past into the Present. In this context I would say I would like to have been present in India during that period in the 14th Century when Pir Sadr al-Din and successors introduced the Ismaili faith to my ancestors.

Pir Sadr al-Din, in the time of Imam Kassim Shah (1310/1370), came as a foreigner to a new land. He and successive Pirs mastered Urdu, Hindi, Gujarati, Sindhi, Punjabi, Cutchi and Khojki to an extent where they could communicate fluently, in prose and verse, with inhabitants of various regions on the sub-continent in their own languages and dialects. They disseminated knowledge or gnan in the form of devotional hymns which we call Ginans, and astonishingly, for people of non-Indian origin, set many of these Ginans to Indian classical ragas. These Ginans in their timelessness have endured, and in their content and musicality, are as valid today as they were when they were first written.

Ginans are my passion. I have recited Ginans in numerous Jamatkhanas in 12 different countries of the world. Each time I have experienced this indescribable thrill when members of the Jamat in diverse places have joined in with me in reciting the Ginans, for they have known the words and the ragas. From Mumbai to Melbourne, Miami to Mombasa, Karachi to Kampala, Pune to Portimao, from Andheri to Upanga, each time I have had this exalting experience. One is suffused with a feeling of oneness and community each time one is privileged to undergo this experience.

And then one recalls that we all share this common ethos, this Ginan culture. All those who recite Ginans in a like manner are descendants of ancestors who too were introduced to the faith by the Pirs when they came to Jampoo Deep back in 14th Century – and later. The Ismaili diaspora has taken us to many and diverse lands. This heritage continues to permeate our lives no matter which country we call home.

Yes indeed, I wish I’d Been There when all this began.



About the Writer: (Alijah) Ameer Kassam Janmohamed is the author of A Regal Romance and Other Memories and the three volume set of  of  AKJ Collection of Cynical Wisdom. His wonderfully written A Regal Romance, published in London in 2008 by Society Books,  is a rich tapestry of vividly told personal and family vignettes from 19th century onwards as well as insights of life in Kenya before and after independence.

Mr. Janmohamed has a vast record of services to his credit. He was initiated into the Rotary club in Mombasa when he was a youth, and subsequently got elected as President and later as District Governor of Rotary International, a position which covered nine African and Indian Ocean countries. He continued to be involved with the Rotary after he moved to London, UK, in 1973, and acted as the President of the Kensington Club in 1981/1982. Today, he is one of the oldest two surviving members of this chapter.

Within the Ismaili community he has served as a past Governor of the Institute of Ismaili Studies and director of the Zamana Gallery, both in London. In Mombasa, he served in the capacity as Kamadia and Mukhi of the Chief Jamatkhana between 1962 to 1966, and later served as the President of the Mombasa Provincial Council from 1968-1971. He was also a director of the  Diamond Trust. He is an alumnus of the Aga Khan High School, Mombasa.


1. For a complete list of readings, and to contribute to this series, please click  » I Wish I’d Been There

2. We welcome feedback/letters from our readers. Please use the LEAVE A REPLY box which appears at the bottom of this page, or email it to Your feedback may be edited for length and brevity, and is subject to moderation. We are unable to acknowledge unpublished letters.

11 thoughts on “The Faith of My Forefathers

  1. Dear Ameer,
    So enjoyed revisiting the impact that ginaans have made in our life, in our understanding of music and its effect. It has also increased our vocabulary for in our ginaans there are words that we do not use every day . for example I am always thrilled by the idea of the ‘soul’ deferred to as ‘hans’–a pristine white swan, so graceful,elegant and gliding unhindered, makes me hope that yes indeed the soul’s journey is such.
    Yes, our Imam’s vision is a great one indeed.

  2. Ameer, Ya Ali Madad.

    All I can say is “excellent” as I have no other words to describe.

    Take care,


  3. Thank you for sharing your article on with me. You have articulated your thoughts very well and and explained how fortunate we all are at the present time to have the “good fortune to be right here and witness the events of this Imamat unfold in real time.”

    And yes, it was also very wonderfully acknowledged that our Imam will be remembered by historians for doing so much to bridge the gap between the Muslim world and the rest of the world.

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading the article. All the best to you.


  4. I am aware of the greatness of the ginans but I feel that a lot of the younger generation due to not understanding the language do not get the meaning of the ginan. If we could get more meaning books made available that would be great.

    • Over the past few years a number of books with Ginan translations have been published. G. Allana of Pakistan published “Ginans of Ismaili Pirs – Rendered into English” several years ago; Tazim Kassam produced Pir Shams’s compositions in “Songs of Wisdom, Circles of Dance” (State University of New York Press, SUNY), the IIS published Dr. Aziz Esmail’s outstanding “A Scent of Sandalwood”, SOAS in London published “Ismaili Hymns from South Asia: An Introduction to the Ginans” by Christopher Shackle and Zawahir Moir. There are also some excellent works by Dr. Azim Nanji (The Nizari Ismaili Tradition) and Dr. Ali Asani (Ismaili Devotional Literature of South Asia).

  5. Ameer, I thank you for your article, and would like to take 1% of the credit since I requested you to contribute. The Aga Khan High School, Mombasa is proud to have you as an alumnus!

    “In good writing, words become one with things.”
    Ralph Waldo Emerson

  6. Amir Bha:

    This is a well written article. Please continue to ensure that your talent in research and writting is not wasted. Being from the same Jamatkhana and often sitting next to you in both the early morning and evening sessions, I am fortunate enough to be touched by your unique style of ginan recitals.

  7. Very well articulated, Mr. Janmohamed. We are eager to hear you recite the Ginans one day when we visit the UK.

  8. I am startled and joy flowed through my mind reading the first few paragraphs about Mowlana Hazar Imam.

    I have never known the author; therefore, I thank Simerg for introducing us to a really wonderful leader of our times.

    Felicitations to Mr. Janmohamed!!

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