Last Monday, Oct. 23, we attended Professor Ali Asani’s Athenaeum talk “Hymns of Wisdom: The Ismaili Ginans of South Asia.” After reading the description, we were intrigued for two reasons: the obscurity of the topic and its relevance beyond its specific origin. Who are the Ismailis, and how is it that this little-known minority’s hymns have influenced a multitude of cultures?
While our Western education has provided us with general knowledge of Christianity and familiarity with popular Christian hymns, our curriculum spanned very little into the Islamic equivalent. Professor Asani, aware of this, began his talk with an overview on Ismailism, a branch of Shi’a Islam. He identified their roots, structure, and beliefs before entering into his main discussion on their influential hymns, the Ismaili ginans.
The essence of this tradition lies in the origin of its name, which is derived from the word gyan, meaning “knowledge.” The point of reciting ginans is to transmit emotive knowledge through melodic poetry, which, in turn, guides the audience to transcend the material world and connect with the divine. Asani went on to describe how ginans were originally only listened to in Ismaili prayer halls, Jamatkhanas. Later, recordings led to the integration of ginans into casual household listening.
From there, this obscure tradition gained global popularity and was adopted by many religions, both Eastern and Western. Asani demonstrated this phenomenon by interspersing his talk with various brief audio recordings of the same ginan, appropriated by five vastly different cultures.
Often, throughout the talk, Asani asserted the pluralistic nature of ginans. He also clarified that Ismailis, as a community, encourage the appropriation of its tradition by other cultures because it promotes the idea of a divine unity, which is key to the Ismaili belief. Asani believes that ginans act as a bridge between different cultures and unite people through art. He said that the global appeal of ginans is not just in its enticing musical and poetic nature, but mainly its ability to evoke emotion.
As we departed the Ath, we compared our thoughts on Professor Ali Asani presentation. Scattered with religious hymns and brief song snippets, we agreed Professor Asani maintained a truly unique and intriguing talk. He captured the audience upon the first hymn: the Ath audience turned silent and reflective, and all attention was devoted to lyrics displayed on the screen. We also noted how the music evoked a certain contemplative mood, and the ultimate appeal was not to the “sense,” as professor Asani so eloquently put it, but rather to the “emotion dimension.”
Finally, we thought of Professor Asani’s overarching message: The importance of cultural diversification. Too often CMCers are surrounded by an echo chamber of ideas and like-minded thinkers — Asani pushed us to confront alternative perspectives and varying viewpoints, particularly in the religious sphere. He gave us a sense of how difficult it is to restrict pluralistic religions. That is, to limit religious identities to certain ‘cookie-cutter boxes’ that simply cannot account for the nuances and intricacies of the religion at hand. Professor Asani truly reminded us of the value of cultural diversification and the ability of religious traditions to have a broader impact on different peoples in multiple contexts.