Varas Ismail Gangji: The Turning Point

“I Wish I’d Been There”

By Late Maleksultan J. Merchant
(d. January 2021, at age 89)

Life of service to the Jamat

During the course of my career, I have had the immense happiness of teaching and explaining Ginans to my students and members of the Jamat alike. With zeal, enthusiasm and conviction we acknowledged the profound ethical and spiritual truths contained in Ginans, which provide guidance and inspiration in our daily lives.

I would like to share one incident that I have narrated frequently during the course of my career and which I Wish I’d Been There to witness in the late 19th century. It was an evening that became a turning point in the life of Varas* Ismailbhai Gangji.

The Ginan “Eji Sheth kahey tamey sanmbharo vanotar, vanaj rudo kari lavajo ji…”, composed by our revered Pir Sadardin, is being recited melodiously and in a state of total contemplation at Batwa Jamatkhana, Saurashtra, India. The recitation of verses 9 and 10, quoted and roughly translated hereunder, will affect Ismailbhai poignantly enough for him to change his ethic, and to turn to a life espousing noble values: this depicts the value of our Ginans, Our Wonderful Tradition, on those who reflect upon them deeply.


Eji Khota tara trajwa-ne dandi-ma kanetar: Katla khota tara bhariji…(9)


False is thy scale with a fault in the beam: Faulty your weighing and measuring


Eji Ochoo didhu aney ad keru lidhu: Jivda-ni chinta na kidhi…(10)


Less you gave in weight and (dishonestly) took more: not caring a wee bit for your soul

As each verse echoes deeper into the hearts of the Jamat, Ismailbhai is particularly overcome with emotions. He listens to each and every word with rapt attention, and just as the Ginan finishes, he feels a call for an awakening. He gazes at Imam-e-Zaman’s picture in the fullness of his heart and piteous repenting eyes. A firm resolve has silently been born within, and he vows to implement his lesson instantly.

He rises up and proceeds straight to Mukhi Rai Rahimtulla of the Jamat. With palms joined in humble supplication, he stands in silence before Mukhisaheb.

“What ails you?” inquires the Mukhi. From a middle class family, Ismailbhai earns his living as a salesman of cotton, travelling from town to town with his bag of commodities slung over his shoulder. But only he knows how he has asked for an increased price, and what tactic he has contrived to do so.

In reply to Mukhisaheb’s question, he replies gently:

“Mukhisaheb, I must have erred a number of times in the course of my vocation for the livelihood of the family and myself. Today’s Ginan has inspired a new life in me; forgive me and I vow that from this day forward that I shall live a new life treading always the path of righteousness.”

Mukhisaheb gazes steadily at Ismailbhai. He can feel true sincerity and repentance flowing from Ismail’s heart and grants the pardon that he is seeking. A heavy load is lifted off Ismail’s heart as he hastens home. Standing before his mother he says: “From this day on I will no more engage in my present occupation.”

“Why Ismail! what has happened?” she inquires.

“In the sort of calling I pursue,” the son answers, “there are times when one has to take refuge in falsehood and deceit. I have firmly resolved, therefore, not to follow my present vocation any longer, and what is more, I have already made my confession and expressed my resolve to the Jamat.”

“I now ask of you, Mother,” he continues, “to invoke your blessings upon me that your son may no longer deviate from the path of virtue.” A flood of tears courses down his face as he speaks.

“Bravo, my son!” says his mother, “this day you have, indeed, proved to me what a worthy son I have. Have no misgivings as to how we are going to find our livelihood now; one who walks the path of truth never comes to grief. Truth befriends the honest man; falsehood may befriend man for a time, but ultimately betrays him forever. So, treading the path of Truth you will always be happy.”

Watching his transformation with conviction, especially through the understanding of the concepts embedded in our golden treasure of Ginans, is why I Wish I’d Been There on that extraordinary day.

After this epiphany, Ismailbhai’s life and new career in the Treasury Department of the State of Junagadh advanced from success to success that he was appointed head of the Public Treasury. He remained humble to the core and always attributed his progress to the Grace of his Imam.

Imam Shah Aga Hassanali Shah soon after visited Ahmedabad. Ismailis converged into the city from all over and Ismailbhai placed himself at the disposal of the Holy Imam and the Jamat. For the first three days of the visit, however, he sensed that the Imam did not appear to be pleased with the service he was rendering. These hours and days seemed like forever for Ismailbhai as he underwent untold suffering in his heart wondering why the Imam appeared to be displeased with him. He supplicated in his heart, “forgive me Imam-e-Zaman, and cast but one kindly look upon me!”

On the fourth day, the Imam summoned him for an audience. He stood meekly before his Mawla, gazing steadily at his holy face refulgent with Divine Light, while a myriad of feelings rose and sank in his heart. But this apprehension was soon to be over. “Ismail,” said the Imam graciously, “we confer upon you the title of Varas.” Ismailbhai (now Varas) was startled at the abruptness of this.

The Imam continued: “We lay upon you the responsibility of the organisation of the whole of Kathiawad.” The Imam added, “We have noticed in the past three days how patiently you can bear all things, and it is with this quality of patience and forbearance that we know you can take care of the Jamat. It is in virtue of this that we appoint you Varas for all Kathiawad.”

Varas Ismail then most humbly submitted: “Khudavind’s spiritual gift and bounty this day have been boundless. But the great onus that Khudavind places upon me is too heavy for an insignificant creature such as I am. I do not possess the merit to undertake such a great responsibility.”

Imam-e-Zaman rejoined in affectionate tones: “Varas, put your mind at rest on that score. We shall inspire you with the spirit that will carry you to a successful end in the cause of what is enjoined upon you. The inspiration will be ours, but the renown yours.”

“Amen!” said the Varas with not a word more.

Varas Ismail dedicated his time to bringing peace and harmony in the Jamat. He developed higher understanding of himself through special prayers. He became an example to others by his actions, manners and habits. Varas Ismail Gangji’s life is replete with many other incidents of service, faith and obedience.

When he passed away in 1883, the entire Junagadh came to his burial service. “A noble personality of Saurashtra illuminated the soil of Saurashtra and has this day departed from us. He has taken his flight to the very pinnacle of spiritual life,” was a remark made by Chief Officer of the State during the funeral service.

This is a remarkable incident: from the moment the Ginan commences to its completion, we see its impact in Vazir Ismail’s approach to life.

In hearing the rendition, whether due to the voice which recited it, or that particular time, Ismail’s mind that day, was open. “When the student is ready, the teacher arrives” as the adage goes, and, at this particular event, Ismail was ready. It must have been a profound release of his conscience. To extricate oneself from the chains of unethical practice, must have required peace and conviction. Then freedom was a sweet victory to savor. I Wish I’d Been There for this opportune moment that Ismailbhai seized to transform his life.

Not everyone is fortunate enough to be overtly rewarded for one’s ethical stance as Ismailbjhai later was. He was conferred the title of Varas by the Imam of the Time after a true test of patience and forbearance. In this way, Varas Ismail’s life and example were a source of inspiration for me and formed the basis for my own service to the Jamat and the Imam of the Time.

Finally, in these current times of economic turmoil that we watched unfold, we might be reminded of other Ginans that speak to the struggle of choice: profiting at another’s expense is absolutely the antithesis of what the Imam also continues to stress: to remain ethical in our relationships, personal, professional, business, transactional, even jamati, to be transparent and not to be forgetful. Indeed whereas the Ginans are in the Indian languages, especially now in the context of the global jamat, we need to have the appropriate translations from which to reflect, which Varas Ismail did over 125 years ago.



*Note: The title Varas and Vazir are synonymous, the latter being the more recent designation.

About the writer: Alwaeza Rai Saheba Maleksultan J. Merchant (1931-2021) was born in Bandra, a suburb in Mumbai on June 9, 1931. She appears to have been drawn from an early age to teach. She began taking religion classes at Bandra Sindhi Night School, Fidai Girls Academy, Andheri, and the Diamond Jubilee High School, Mumbai in her late teens. This led her to join the Ismailia Association for India’s first Waezin Program in 1951-52 where she qualified as an Honorary Alwaeza. Soon after her marriage to Alwaez (Rai) Jehangir A. Merchant, the couple decided to take up a post as Religious Education Teachers with the Ismailia Association for Portuguese East Africa (Mozambique). They were based in Lourenco Marques from 1954-1962.

profile continues after photo…

1958, Lourenço Marques: His Highness the Aga Khan, 49th Ismaili Imam, then 21 years of age, pictured with leaders and teachers of Lourenço Marques at the front staircase of the Jamatkhana entrance. Mrs. Merchant is in second row at left, and Mr. Merchant is seen immediately behind Mawlana Hazar Imam. Photo: Jehangir Merchant Collection.

India’s annexation of the Portuguese colony of Goa resulted in a retaliatory measure by the Government of Portugal against Indian Citizens residing in Mozambique. They were expelled from Mozambique, but not before Alwaez was interned in a camp with thousands of other Indian Nationals for 5 months while Alwaeza was admitted to a hospital for her third child’s birth. The family then moved to Dar-es-Salaaam, Tanzania, where Alwaeza served with the Ismailia Association for Tanzania as a religious education teacher and Honorary Alwaezin from 1962-1972.

In 1974-75 the couple were assigned to undertake an extensive wae’z tour of East Africa, Europe, U.K, U.S.A. and Canada on behalf of the Ismaili Supreme Council under late Diwan Sir Eboo’s leadership. They assumed professional positions with the Ismailia Association for the U.K in 1975 where Alwaeza implemented a nationwide Religious Education System, for which she continues to be warmly and affectionately remembered for her legacy.

Update: Alwaeza Maleksultan passed away in January 2021 at the age of 89. Her husband Alwaez Jehangir passed in May 2018, also at the age of 89.  (Obituaries and tributes at Maleksultan and Jehangir)


Author’s note: I have adapted much of the above narrative from a very detailed paper on the life of Varas Ismail prepared by the late A.W. Dharsee, of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. Mr. Dharsee was an intellectual and a scholar in his own right and contributed to the understanding of the Ismaili Tariqah among Ismailis and non-Ismailis alike. He wrote several articles on Imamat which were published in special community related supplements in The Tanganyika Standard. His son-in-law and daughter are the popular Toronto Waezins, Alwaez Shamshu and Alwaeza Gulshan Allidina, who are often referred to as the waezins from Madagascar.


1. Please click I Wish I’d Been There or visit the home page for links to other published articles in this special series.

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17 thoughts on “Varas Ismail Gangji: The Turning Point

  1. What a wonderful account of such a humble man who achieved greatness in the eyes of God by means of service.

    Much like yourself, Mrs. Merchant. What a powerful article and I am only sad that I never had the chance to hear you. But your knowledge remains available to all for many many years to come and you have inspired and changed so many lives both you and your husband. Thank you for this very powerful account from our ginan.

    • Dear Malik:

      When I saw this article I remembered our talk re Diamond Jubilee of 1947. Pir Varas was our great great grandfather. One of his 5 daughters was married to Kanji Gova Rayani, my great grandfather from Manjedvi near Junaghadh.

      Best Regards

  2. Dear Mrs.Merchant,
    It was a delight to read your article as such inspirations are very rare these days.
    Indeed Ginans are a treasure trove for the Ismailis which only needs to be opened up to be known.
    I feel honoured to have a recent acquaintance with Mallik through his website.
    Do share more of your knowledge with us.

    My deepest regards and wish you a speedy recovery.
    Toral Pradhan

  3. You are obviously a dedicated teacher who is loved by all. Your tremendous contributions to the Ismaili community are indeed a treasure that will be chesrished forever.

    We wish you a rapid and full recovery.

  4. Ya Ali Madad
    Thank you for sharing this wonderful life of your mother. I pray she remains in good health and hope she can share more of her experiences with the readers. It’s so sad that I have not had an occasion to hear a waez in jamatkhana for the last 5 years and maybe 3 in total over the last 20 years. I have been in Brampton Jamatkhana.

    We are losing one of the most important facets of enlightenment about our faith. Thank you so much for filling in the gaps.

  5. I am awed about the life of PIR Varas Ismail Gangji whose daughter was married to my great grandfather Kanji Gova Rayani and the mother of my grandfather Dadabapa Alibhai Kanji.

  6. What a trully awe inspiring article. Thank you Mrs. Merchant for bringing back to life the true meaning and gift of the traditions of Holy Ginans.

    I wish you a long and healthy life and success in all your teachings.

    Shirin (London, UK)

  7. Dear Mrs. Merchant,

    I would like to thank you on behalf of all the students who benefited from the Maths and Science after school classes you had organized.

    With Ya Ali Madad

    Dr. Nazir Nensi

  8. Dear Alwaeza,

    Thank you so much for such insightful and wonderful article. You are lucky person and may Mawla always keeps you spiritually as well as physically healthy and bless you with great deal of barakat!
    With Ya Ali Madad,
    Jamshed from Tajikistan Jamaat

  9. Ya Ali Madad

    I came across this article for the first time today and was really surprised to read your personal history. Having known you and your family and the excellent work you had done in Dar and UK I was fascinated by your history and seva. You both are a wonderful example to the Jamat.


  10. Thank you Mrs. Merchant for sharing with us the life of such a great human being.
    I was completely indulged and I shall also try to adopt the attributes of Varas Sahib.

    Thanks once again.

  11. Dear Alwaez and Alwaeza,

    Having worked with you in London for many years we remember the Bait ul=Ilm (then referred to as Mission Class)which you started in what were at that time mobile jamatkhanas. Remember the ginan competitions, waez series, production of Ilm magazine and the play Hassan Ibn al-Sabbah that we produced at the Commonwealth Institute? So many youths owe a lot to their religious training under your tutelage!

    And now that your children have taken on the mantle (Alnoor at IIS and Malik here at Simerg) it is with great honour that we salute your devotion to the Imam and His Jamat.

    Firoz and Zubeda

  12. This is wonderful. It reminds me of our family’s past. Coincidently, Pir Varas Ismail Gangji is my dad, Mohamed Damji Dhanani’s maternal grand father (Nana Bapa) and I am so proud of him!

    Ashak Dhanani

  13. Dear Alwaez and Alwaeza Mr and Mrs Merchant: I really enjoyed reading your contribution to this series and the incident you mention still holds true for the community today !! Also your own background, especially in Dar, where I can still remember the few months I spent as a young boy boarder in your home in 1963!! I still carry the spiritual home influence with me to this day – thank you – have been in touch with Malik over the last few months – hopefully we can meet in person one of these days to catch up – Zahir (Ali)

  14. Alwaeza,

    I appreciate this article.

    “and it is with this quality of patience and forbearance” reflects the teachings of the Imam from the very beginning:

    Hazrat Ali said: “No honour is like knowledge. No belief is like modesty and patience. No attainment is like humility. No power is like forbearance. And no support is more reliable than consultation.”
    History repeats the same lesson until the student is ready. Inshallah. Very appropriate…thank you!

  15. Dear Al-Waeza,

    It was a complete con-incidence when I found out about your son Abdulmalik’s website: and we, since then have had a lot of dialogue while I live in Birmingham, UK! I found out that you and Al-Waeez Jehangir Merchant are indeed his parents! I remember both of you very well having heard many of your Waeezes, in UK

    I remember this Ginan you had pointed out that changed Varas ismail Gangji’s life. I wish you both a long life with good health.

    May Allah be with you always!

  16. Dear Mrs. Merchant,

    It was great to see your photo and to read the story of Vazir Gangji. It has been a long time – I was your student at Agakhan Girls school in Dar-es-Salaam in the 1960’s.

    Sometime I do think about you as my teacher, and how good you were in teaching the religion which our children miss in their life due to living in Canada.

    Hope some day we might meet in Toronto.

    Thanks once again to see your photo and you have changed so much with your looks too.

    With Ya Ali Madad

    Almas Nathoo

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