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The Holy Qur’an in the Ginanic Literature – An Initial Exploration

This paper seeks to demonstrate the underlying teachings of the holy Qur’an in the Ginanic Literature, therefore it is essential, first of all to describe the nature of the Qur’an, as well as that of the Ginans in order to understand better the relationship between them.

The holy Qur’an is the Divine revelation to the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) and unites the entire Muslim ummah. In its own words in Surah 26, verses 192 to 195: “It is a revelation of the Lord of the worlds, which the True Spirit has brought down upon your (i.e. Prophet Muhammad’s) heart that you may be of the warners in plain Arabic speech.” We further learn from the Qur’an in Surah 56, verses 77-80 that: “This is indeed a noble Qur’an in the Kitab-i maknun or the hidden Book, which none touches except the purified, a revelation from the Lord of the worlds”. Kitab-i maknun is also described as the Kitab-i munir (35:25) or the Luminous Book, which is the source of the Books of all the previous Messengers of God, about whom God says: “And We never sent a messenger save with the language of his people or nation (qawm), that he might make the message clear for them.” (Surah 14, verse 4).


These scriptural references establish that the Prophets through their spiritual elevation, which in the case of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.s.) is described as the Mi`raj, have access to the Kitab-i munir or the Kitab-i maknun and then they express their spiritual experiences in the language of their people. The transition from the luminous spiritual dimension to people’s language requires that such sublime experiences be couched in the language of parables and allegories, thus the Prophets have to “teach the wisdom of the Book”, technically known as the ta’wil or esoteric interpretation. In Shia Imami Ismaili Islam this function of giving the ta’wil or inner meaning of the allegories and parables of the Qur’an is done by the rasikhun fi’l `ilm (i.e. those who are firmly grounded in knowledge). When Imam al-Baqir was asked the identity of the rasikhun fi’l-`ilm mentioned in (3:7), he replied: “The foremost of them is God’s Messenger, for God taught him all that was revealed to him of the tanzil and the ta’wil and he knew the ta’wil of everything that was revealed to him, with no exception. After him, the legatees (i.e. his successors, the Imams) are the rasikhun who know its ta’wil in its entirety.”

To turn now to the Ginans, the focus of this Conference, in Christopher Shackle and Zawahir Moir’s words: “… the word Ginan itself is quite clearly a local phonetic realization of the familiar Sanskrit word jnana – ‘knowledge’. In the hymns themselves, the term Ginan is in fact most frequently used in the basic sense of the higher knowledge to which Ismaili teachings give access.”  Thus, Ginans are a corpus of esoteric literature the main aim of which is to teach ma`rifat or Divine recognition. This assumes great significance in the context of the fact that as “Batiniyyun or esotericists” Ismailis throughout their history have emphasised the esoteric or batini aspect of their faith, harking back to the well-known saying of Hazrat Mawlana Ali (s.a.): “Man `arafa nafsahu faqad `arafa Rabbahu = The one who recognises his/her soul recognises his/her Lord”.

At this juncture a few words on the Ismaili da`wat may be appropriate. During the course of its history, under the guidance of the Divinely designated hereditary Ismaili Imams, there has been a system of da`wat, which at times was openly active and at other times secretly active depending on the historical context. The main purpose of this da`wat or system of conversion was to bring people into the fold of the Ismaili tariqah, through recognising the Imam of the time in the light of the holy Qur’an. Thus this da`wat was highly sensitive to the cultural and intellectual environment in which it took place. For instance in the Fatimid times, the da`is used the language of Neo-Platonism to convey their beliefs whereas in the Persian period Ismaili terminology uses Sufi terms such as Pir, Shah and Jama`at khanah but which have a specifically Ismaili meaning. Similarly, in the Indian sub-continental da`wat, the Pirs and Sayyids used the languages, cultures and the religious mythology of the Hindus to convert them to the Ismaili tariqah. A very apt reference to this is in the Ginan “Eji dei gurke vacha heje thir na rahena” where Pir Tajdin says:

Varan chhatris sur bayetali bhakhiya
Berda kane na sunan ho jirebhai
O brother! Though we have composed Ginans in 36 musical modes and 42 dialects,
The deaf will not listen.

This method of proselytization continued right up to the early times of the 48th Imam, Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah (s.a.) who later on brought conversion to an end. The Ismaili system of da`wat spanning more than thirteen centuries, in which the essence of the Qur’an was expressed in diverse languages and different modes, created a rich heritage of diversity within the unity of the faith of Islam. The Pirs and Sayyids mostly of Persian origin were extremely well versed not only in the tanzil or zahir of the Qur’an, but also in its ta’wil or batin. Inspired by love and devotion for the Imam and confident of the truth of the Ismaili faith, they travelled on foot or animals across high mountains and vast deserts to reach the various parts of India to bring the da`wat-i haqq or ‘invitation to the truth’, which is the original name of the Ismaili da`wat. Da`wat-i haqq translates beautifully into Sat-panth, the true path or sirat-i mustaqim, “the strait way traced by God’s finger for the eternal happiness of the humblest as of the greatest – Abraham, Jesus, Mohammed” as Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah (s.a.) says in his Memoirs.  In Ismaili belief the pure genius of the Pirs, the equivalent in Arabic is Hujjats, is also due to the fact that they are the highest personnel in the hudud-i din or religious hierarchy after the Imam and as such they receive ta’yid (spiritual help) from him, as an Ismaili poet says:

“Az dil-i hujjat ba-hadrat rah buwad;
U ba-ta’yid-i dilash agah buwad,
From the heart of the hujjat to the Imam there is a path;
the Imam is [always] aware of sending ta’yid to his heart.”

This concept is also expressed in various Ginans. For example in the Ginan “Bindrare van man sukh chare re gavantri” Pir Sadardin recounts the story of a cow, who is caught by a lion, but succeeds in persuading him to let her go because her young calf is waiting to be fed. The lion agrees and the cow goes to feed her calf, who enquires why its mother is so pre-occupied and worried. She tells the calf her reason for wanting to return quickly to fulfil her promise to the lion. The calf insists on accompanying the mother and faced with the lion, tells the latter to first eat him. The lion impressed by the impeccable ethical behaviour and the zest for sacrifice of the calf and the cow asks: Who has instructed you thus? They replied: “Etli re sudh budh chaande suraje didhi”, that is, they had learnt this lesson from the sun and the moon. Here in this Ginan the sun stands for the Shah or the Imam and the moon stands for the Hujjat or Pir who receives the light of the sun of Imamat directly. This example also demonstrates how the sequence of words in various languages differs. In Arabic and Persian it would be Shah followed by Pir, which is also correct conceptually, that is, sun and moon or suraj ane chaand, but in the Indian languages it is contrary to this. In the Ismaili Jama`at we are also familiar with the phrase ‘mata ane pita’ in the translations, whereas in the English communications of the Imam to the Jama`at the sequence is ‘paternal and maternal’. Interestingly, the Qur’an in Surah Qiyamah (75), verse 9 states: “And the sun and the moon are united”. Whereas the exoteric people await the uniting or joining of the physical sun and moon, which is impossible because the sun’s extreme temperatures would simply consume the moon if by any cataclysm it were to go near the sun, in the esoteric Ismaili tariqah in the light of what has been mentioned earlier, it can be interpreted as the joining of the institution of Piratan with the institution of Imamat in the time of Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah. Subsequently, the Imam gave the status of Pir only posthumously to his loyal murids, such as Pir Sabzali.

The topic of this paper “The Holy Qur’an in the Ginanic Literature” was inspired by the farmans of Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah (s.a.) as well as the resonance of both the Qur’an and the Ginans in my personal practice of faith over the last three decades. There are some amazing insights in the 48th Imam’s farmans regarding the relationship of the Qur’an and the Ginans. On 5th July 1899 at Zanzibar he said: “Pir Sadardin has composed for you Ginans by extracting the essence of the Qur’an and stating it in the language of Hindustan.” 

On the 13th July 1899, he said: “Pir Sadardin did not show you (the path of) the haqiqati religion all at once. First he explained the counsels of the Hindu faith and subsequently he conflated the path of the Satpanth with it, because of which this religion spread.”

In the same farman he also said: “Do you know which city Pir Sadardin came from? You will know if you read his history. You were Hindus. Pir Sadardin composed Ginans from the exegesis of the Qur’an-i Sharif for you.”

And again: “Were there among you such faithful people who had studied the Qur’an-i Sharif and who were also familiar with the Ginans, I would have shown them each verse of the Ginans in the Qur’an, which they could reiterate to you, but there is no such person!”  

This brings us to the point of discussing some highly instructive affinity in the verses of the holy Qur’an and the Ginans:

In the Ginan “Dur deshthi ayo vanjaro”, Pir Sadardin states: ‘Eji sute bethe bhai rah chalanteji Naam Sahebjiko lijiyeji = Sleeping, sitting O brother or walking along the way, take the Name of the Imam’.

In his composition, Pir Hasan Kabirdin says: ‘Eji khadiya padiya letiya bethiya mede bhaive, hardam sami rajo sambhariye = O my brother! Standing or lying down, reclining or sitting, remember Mawla all the time’.
Let us look at the Qur’anic verses 190-191 in Chapter 3 or Surah Al-i `Imran, which reads: “The men of intellect are those who remember Allah standing, sitting and reclining (Uli’l-albab allazina yaz-kurunallaha qiyaman wa qu’udan wa `ala junubihim …).

The similarity in the words is obvious, perhaps what is not so obvious is the fact that the emphasis after the declaration of qiyamat at Alamut was on the esoteric practice of the faith, one pillar of which was to encourage followers to be da`aimu’z-zikr, that is to remember God constantly. This is a recurring theme of the Ginans and many will instantly recall Imam Begum’s “Har dam zikr karna” and “Har dam jampo Pir Shah nun jaap, japanta rahiye”.

Another theme is in the Ginan of Sayyid Imam Shah: ‘Uth baythere kiya suta, tera sona bhalera nahin, tera Shah Pir kadi na sove, tuje sona kyun bhave, tera Mawla kadi na sove, tuje sona kyun bhave = Get up and sit (in meditation/bandagi/`ibadat), why do you sleep? Sleeping is not beneficial. Your Shah Pir never sleep so why does sleeping please you? Your Mawla never sleeps, so why does sleeping please you?’
This immediately reminds us of the Ayatu’l-Kursi which is universally known as the greatest of the Qur’an’s verses, that is the a`zamu’l-ayat, which runs as follows: “Allahu la ilaha illa hu al-Hayyu’l-Qayyum, la ta’khuzuhu sinatun wa la nawm = Allah! There is no God save Him, [He is] the Everliving, the Everlasting, neither slumber nor sleep overtake Him.” (Surah 2:255)

The key word Kursi, which translates as Pedestal, and in Ismaili ta’wil symbolises the Universal Soul is in the above verse. The Qur’anic word `Arsh, which translates as the Throne, symbolising the Universal Intellect, is mentioned twenty-two times in the holy Qur’an. These purely Arabic words, filled with esoteric meanings appear in the Ginan of Pir Sadardin entitled “Sakhi maha pad keri vaat ke ko’ik janere”, where vernacularising these two words he says: ‘Sakhi Aras Kurasna kot, ke joya nirkhire, Eva sapt dip navkhand, ke joya parkhire = Friend, I beheld the place of the lofty Throne and the Pedestal, I recognised the seven islands and nine continents’.

Another theme is the falsity and temporality of this world, both in the Ginans and the Qur’an. Pir Sadardin says “Juthire dunya tame kani bhulo = this world is false, a delusion, do not forget”. Sayyid Muhammad Shah describes the limited nature of this world and says: “Ugamiya sohi din athamiya, hanre phuliya sohi karmae, chuniya mindar dhali pade, hanre janamiya sohi marjae = The day which dawns will end, the blossoming flower will wither, the buildings will crumble and everyone who is born will die”. This is mirrored in the Qur’an in Surah Hadid, 57, verse 20:

“Know you (all), that the life of this world is but play and amusement, pomp and mutual boasting and multiplying, (in rivalry) among yourselves, riches and children. Here is a similitude: How rain and the growth which it brings forth, delight (the hearts of) the tillers; soon it withers; you will see it grow yellow; then it becomes dry and crumbles away. But in the Hereafter is a Penalty severe (for the devotees of wrong). And Forgiveness from God and (His) Good Pleasure (for the devotees of God). And what is the life of this world, but goods and chattels of deception?”

In the Ginan “Jirewala Satgur sathe gothadi kije” Pir Sadardin uses the refrain: ‘Re wala aaj Hari (Ali) mare angane aaviya, sathe anant karod dev laviya; chaud loke vadhaviya = Ali has come to my threshold accompanied by countless elevated souls”. The holy Qur’an’s equivalent is in Surah 89, ayat 22: “Wa ja’a Rabbuka wa’l-malaku saffan saffa = And your Lord shall come with angels rank upon rank.”

Similarly in Pir Hasan Kabirdin’s Ginan “Kalpat jalpat maya e mohi”, the refrain runs: “So Allah gun tera, piya gun tera, saheb gun tera, Ya Shah avgun bahot hameraji, sab gune bandeke fazal karo mora Saheb = O Allah! O Beloved! O Mawla! All praise is due to you, my faults are innumerable, my sins many, O Lord! Have mercy. Let us juxtapose this with the cry of Hazrat Dhu’n-Nun, better known as Hazrat Yunus: “La ilaha illa anta Subhanaka, inni kuntu mina’z-zalimin!” = There is no God but You who is free from all attributes, indeed I am among the wrong-doers” (Surah 21:87).

The Qur’an is mentioned by its name in several Ginans. One important reference is Pir Sadardin’s “Eji Allah ek khasam sabuka” in which verse two reads: ‘Eji Nabi Muhammad bujo bhai, to tame pamo Imam, mushri(a)k man to kaffir kahinye, moman dil Qur’an’. This resonates in the Qur’an as “But it is clear revelations in the hearts of those who have been given knowledge and none deny our revelations save the wrong-doers.” (Surah 29, verse 49).

An extremely interesting example of the affinity of the Qur’an with the contents of Ginans is to be found in Pir Shams Ghazi’s Ginan “Ek tirath vend-da” in verse 5 he says: “Esa dar mede Saheb rajeda sendada, suide dafe vich hasti mavna, vira mavna = My Lord Mawla’s door is as if the elephant passes through the eye of the needle”. Here the Pir uses the common animal of India, the huge elephant passing through the needle’s eye to demonstrate how hard it is to follow the Satpanth. This is no doubt an allusion to the Qur’anic verse 40 in Surah 7, where it states: “Lo! Those who deny Our revelations and scorn them, for them the gates of heaven will not be opened nor will they enter the Garden until the camel goes through the needle’s eye.” Remaining with the theme of animals, in Man samajani (Edification of the self) it is stated: “The great pundit reads everything. Just like an ass carrying a load of fragrant sandalwood, what can he know of the precious cargo hoisted upon him?”  In the same vein, the holy Qur’an in Surah 62, ayat 5, God says: “The likeness of those who are entrusted with the Law of Moses, yet apply it not, is as the likeness of the ass carrying books.”

All the examples I have cited so far show that many themes and teachings of the Qur’an, if not exactly copied word for word, are reflected in the content of the Ginans. However there is scarcely any mention of the shari`a practices of Islam such as salat, sawm, hajj etc. Where the Persian equivalents namaz and roza are used they are very much in the esoteric sense of inner purification and prayer. For example, in the Ginan of Pir Shams, he says: “Man mera musalla, Allah mera qazi; kaya meri masita. Eji andar beth men namaz gujarun; murakh kiya jane ta`at hamari = My heart is my prayer carpet, Allah is my judge; my body is my mosque. I sit and perform my namaz inside; how can the ignorant understand my ta`at or obedience.” Similarly in Man samajani, Pir Shams describes the roza or fasting of all the organs of the body, starting with the head, the eyes, nose, mouth, tongue, ears, heart, nafs (soul), hands and feet. He says: “Das roja je dhare bhai, te chhe moman vir re bhai = Whoever achieves the ten fasts, he/she is the valiant mu’min”.

It is important to point out that during the Alamut period of Ismaili history, the most significant event of `Idu’l-Qiyamat transformed the religious practices of the Ismailis who have always been called the Batiniyyun or esotericists. The Ismaili dacwat emphasised its esoteric or ta’wili form, after the declaration of the qiyamati teachings by Imam Hasan cala dhikrihi’s-salam (d. 561/1166).
Comparing the difference between the two periods of tanzil or sharicat and ta’wil or qiyamat, Nasir al-Din Tusi (d. 672/1274) says that in the former period, obedience is performed within the confines of set timings, and worship is immersed in fixed timings, whereas in the latter time, obedience is performed with the removal of the fixed timings and the entire time is immersed in [a state of] obedience.
This difference in the nature of worship and obedience is clearly explained by Imam al-Mustansir bi’llah al-Husayni (d. 885/1480) in his faramin. He says:

“The whole year you must fast, just as the zahiris (the literalists) fast one month. The meaning of this fast is riyazat (spiritual exercise). Watch yourselves, keep yourselves away from bad qualities, evil and indecent actions and devilish acts, so that the mirror of your hearts may be gradually polished.

Also know that in those thirty days during which the zahiris fast, the cid is only for one day. They fast thirty days in order to attain that one day and that again is a symbol. Just as they fast thirty days in order to attain one day, so you must undergo the entire life of difficulties, pain, have patience, do riyaÒat and keep fasting internally in order to attain the beatific vision (liqa’/didar) of your Lord.”

The Imam then explains the ta’wili or esoteric fasting. He says:

“The fast of the head means to treat one’s own head as the feet of the people, casting out from one’s head the desire for superiority, greatness and pride, because these attributes befit only God, Who is everlasting and the Master of the kingdom. The fasting of the eye is that he must not cast covetous looks at women who are not lawful to him. The fasting of the ear is that he should abstain from listening to slander. The fasting of the tongue is to avoid uttering abuse or slander. The fasting of the heart is to keep it free from doubt. The fasting of [his] foot is to hold it back from wrong steps. Fasting of [his] hand is to keep it away from treachery. Thus, a mu’min (believer) should keep all his body parts in a state of fasting, so that he may not be a wrong-doer (zalim).”

Another very significant characteristic of the post-Alamut period, as pointed out in Dr. Steigerwald’s paper , was the emphasis on the role of the Imam and particularly as explained by Sayyidna Nasir al-Din Tusi in RawÒatu’t-Taslim (Paradise of Submission), the uluhiyyat or the Divinity of the Imam. This message runs throughout the Ginanic corpus and in one Ginan Pir Sadardin warns the believers: “Eji ek feekar munivar tamari chhe aamane, maanas roope Saheb jano ho bhai ji = We have one concern about you mumins, that you will know Saheb as a human being”. Such a discussion of the humanity of the Prophet is also clear in the Qur’an, where the disbelievers challenged his human attributes of eating and walking about the markets (see Surah 25, ayats 7 and 20). In Surah 18, ayat 110, God commands the Prophet to respond and say: Qul innama ana basharum mislukum yuha `ilay-ya = Say: I am only a mortal like you. My Lord sends me the wahy/revelation.”

To draw together all the points covered so far, the Ginanic Literature reflects both the tanzili and the ta’wili aspects of the holy Qur’an. The messages of the Qur’an are seamlessly woven into the vernacular forms of India and use the local idioms which are familiar to the people. The symbols and similes may be contextual to the environment of India but the Pirs and Sayyids were very faithful to the message of the Shia Ismaili tariqah. Mawlana Sultan Muhammad Shah (s.a.) says in a farman dated 13th October 1903 at Ahmedabad: “Just as there are the teachings of Pir Sadardin, in the same way there are the meanings of the Mathnawi, but it is in Farsi, therefore you should learn the meanings.” 

Further about the meaning of the Qur’an Mawlana Jalallu’d-din Rumi says in his Diwan:

“Ma zi Qur’an barguzidim maghz-ra Ustukhwan pish-i sagan andakhtin
Which means:         
“We have extracted the kernel or essence of the Qur’an We have thrown the bones to the dogs”.

To conclude this paper and quoting a Persian poet: “Mathnawi li’l-Mawlawiyi’l-Ma`anawi; Hast Qur’an dar zaban-i Pahlawi”, that is, the Mathnawi of Mawlana Rumi is the Qur’an in Persian, it would not be inappropriate if we say that the Ginans are the Qur’an in the Indian languages. In fact we can look forward to such esoteric poetry within the Ismaili global Jama`at in languages such as Burushaski, Khwar etc.

One very final word is that we often hear members of the Indian sub-continental Jama`at say that since the essence of the Qur’an is included in the Ginans it dispenses them of learning the Final revelation to humankind, the Qur’an. Such a statement does not hold in the present globalised pluralistic world, where we do need to know the Qur’an in its original language as well as in translation, both to communicate with the general ummah as well as demonstrate the true principles of pluralism by sharing a common heritage of the diverse groups in the Ismaili Jama`at. Moreover, if we are today living in a Knowledge Society and we have access to all sorts of technology to help us to learn, we should take every opportunity to learn the foundational Book of the faith of Islam, which as demonstrated in this article will only help the Jama`at of the Indo-Pak background to appreciate the Ginan Literature more.
  • This paper was presented at the International Ginan Conference of the Association for the Study of Ginans in London on 30th October 2011.
  • The topic of this paper has necessitated the use of transliteration in three languages. Time constraints have made it impossible to use diacritical marks consistently.
  • Special appreciation is due to Dr. Shahsultana Rafiq Jannatali and Nasiruddin Khanji for their help in identifying examples from the Ginans which echo Qur’anic verses.
Rashida Noormohamed-Hunzai, London.

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