Imām Begam (c. 1785–1866), was a poet, musical composer and educator of the Nizari Isma‘ili community in India. Born Bībī Tāhira in Kera, Kutch, she was said to be the sole daughter among Saiyad Hashīm Alī Shāh’s five sons. She descended from the religiously influential Kaḍīvālā family, named so for its progenitor, Saiyad Rahmatullāh Shāh, settling in Kadi, Kutch. Imām Begām spent much of her life at home, especially in youth, appearing first in public to see Maryam Khatūn, whom her son, the Imam Ḥasan ‘Alī Shāh, Āghā Khān I, sent to India in 1829 as a pīr, or representative missionary. She joined Maryam, attending her from Karachi to Jhirk and then to Mumbai, where she decided to stay, living on a stipend from the Imam.
Her family’s influence originated in the 12th century Alamut state of Iran, when the Imam there appointed pīrs to establish the Isma‘ili mission in India. They converted locals of Punjab, Sindh and Gujarat, authoring gināns, or devotional hymns, to explain Isma‘ili doctrines and Qur’anic interpretation to Hindus and converts. The pīr-ship’s succession came to be hereditary, and when Pīr Hasan Kabīrdīn died in 1423, the Imam passed over his many sons for his brother Tājdīn. Kabīrdīn’s son Imām Shāh, who had sought the office, was overlooked again when Tājdīn went missing, and when he died, his son posthumously declared him the Imam, establishing the Imām-Shāhī community. In light of this schism, the Imams began exercising more supervision over distant communities, appointing pīrs more rarely, but the descendants of Pīr Kabīrdīn’s sons still continued to have local religious influence. They founded spiritual lineages called the saiyads, preaching and writing gināns, as well as compiling the then orally transmitted gināns, pseudepigraphically attributing many to the semi-mythical early pīrs. The only known ginān composing woman among these saiyads was Saiyadā Imām Begam.
She became known for her religious devotion, avoiding men and never eating meat, although she is best known for her short gināns, of which only ten survive. As is customary, they attribute themselves to her in the final verse, and she composed them to be sung along with a sārangī, a sort of short fiddle. They lyrically express similar themes to her predecessors’ such as renouncing possessions and the material world for God, following the Nizari Imam and darśhan (or dīdār), the sight of or audience with the current Imam, among others. As Indian converts to Isma‘ilism had been largely low-caste Vaiṣhṇavas (whose theology centered the god Viṣhṇu), gināns utilized medieval Hindu concepts and motifs to convey Isma‘ili philosophy. Imām Begam’s gināns are emblematic of this synthesis. In Uṭh jāg man merā, “Awaken, my heart,” giving a count of breaths taken in a day, she prescribes a yogic breathing meditation as a form of dhikr, or remembrance of God. Earlier in the hymn, she references chorāsī lakh, the motif of 840,000,000 rebirths, saying, “Thirty-five and twenty-five, sixteen and eight: you have come and gone eighty-four times. Have you not yet learned?” referencing rebirth to evoke the soul’s prehistory, evolution in life, or purification in the afterlife. In Satgur milīā mune āj, “Today, I have met the true guide,” she indirectly references the dasawtār, or ten incarnations of Viṣhṇu. In Isma‘ilism, the Imam is believed to bear the primordially created light of ‘Alī. This belief is mirrored in the gināns with Viṣhṇu as the primordial light and his avatars as the Imams. In this formulation, Kalki, the tenth avatar, is rather called Naklaṅkī, “impeccable one,” and said to have already come as Imam ‘Alī. Imām Begām gave ‘Alī this appellation in Satgur: “When he [who has attained darśhan] sees every heart, he sees all as one kingdom of the Impeccable Man.”
After a drawn out conflict with the royal Qajar court, the Imam fled Iran, eventually settling in Mumbai and gaining the auspices of the British. His resettlement would cause conflict in the community, as the Imam intended to reign in the eminence of local leaders, including Imām Begam. Around 1860, she organized satsangs, “gatherings of truth,” meetings in which she taught women interpretation of the gināns, held at what is now the Karimabad jamā’at khānā, or gathering hall, in Mumbai. These meetings became so popular that it actually caused her trouble. The local women became so enwrapped in satsang attendance, that they would meet for as long as five hours, extending the morning meetings to the afternoon, leaving their families bemoaning their absences. When the Imam was informed that Imām Begam wouldn’t shorten the satsangs, he visited the jamā’at khānā, telling Imām Begam to finish up the satsang and report to him in nearby Wadi. She arrived later that day or the next day, however, to the news that the Imam had taken her delay as a refusal, censuring her and halting the recitation of her gināns. She allegedly passed multiple restless nights outside of the Wadi jamā’at khānā, composing the ginān titled Darśhan dīo morā nāth, “Grant me a sight of you, my lord,” in which she humbles herself before the Imam and beseeches him to see her. The situation left him restless as well, and he soon reconciled with her and resumed the recitation of her gināns. She moved to Karachi in 1860, where she lived out her last years, and when she died, she was interred in the Miyān Shāh cemetery, besides Saiyad Haidar Shāh, to whom she had been engaged. Having had no children, her death marked the end of the saiyads’ era of influence. She was the final ginān composer of the saiyads in the Nizari canon and her gināns are still recited in jamā’at khānās across the world.
I: Dharani, Shoukat. Flickr, 27 Apr. 2008, https://www.flickr.com/photos/44243190@N00/2445562329/in/photostream/.
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Shackle, Christopher, et al. Ismaili Hymns from South Asia: An Introduction to the Ginans. Curzon Press, 200, pp. 6–8.
Imam Begum • Syeda Imam Begum • Sayeda Imam Begum • Sayyida Imam Begum