Without entering into details, for which we refer the readers to various specialized publications, [5] let us recall here that this form of Shiism which has been described as "a highly organized movement of the revolutionary type" (Daftary, 1990: 91-141) backed by a complex esoteric philosophy (Corbin, 1986: 115-54) has a long and checkered history. In the Subcontinent it had penetrated as early as the end of the eight century (MacLean, 1989: 126--153), first spreading in Sindh in its pre-Fatimid and Fatimid forms.

Following one major split in 1094 Ismailism was divided into two main branches, the Mustalian one (represented in South Asia by the Bohra community) and the Nizari one, which has its first center at Alamut in the Daylam region of Iran. Besides Syria and Central Asia the "new mission" - as it was referred to - established itself in the Subcontinent where the present followers who recognize the Aga Khan as their leader and Imam are known by various names such as Khojas and Shamsis (Hollister, 1979: 396) and concentrated in Sindh, Punjab, Gujarat and the region of Bombay. These communities form a minority. It has been generally surmised that there had been very few converts to Nizari Ismailism and that the present followers of the Aga Khan were their sole descendants.

However, during the last decades of the nineteenth century a Gujarati author who was an ex-Ismaili converted to Twelver Shiism (Nanjiani, 1892) made an intriguing discovery. He came across certain groups which claimed a Hindu identity but appeared to have been strongly influenced by Ismaili ideas and practices. Most of them were untouchable worshippers of a deified saint called Ramdev Pir, although the tradition insisted that the allegedly "Hindu Pir" [6] had also made disciples among Rajputs, Jain Oswals and others (Nanjiani, 1918: 137). Their sect, which was extremely secretive by nature, was alluded to by many names, among which the appellation Nizar Panth was certainly the most surprising for the Gujarati assistant revenue commissioner. As Nanjiani requested them to explain the meaning of the word nizar, the followers could but repeat that "Nizar was God" (Nanjiani, 1918: 14). Nevertheless the author of Khoja vrttant started to suspect that there could be some connection with Nizari Ismailism and its eponymic founder Imam Nizar.

How was the phenomenon to be accounted for? Nanjiani (Ibid.: 117-9) formulated the hypothesis that these groups had earlier been approached by the Nizari preachers of Alamut or their successors and submitted to a process of conversion. The possibility of mere borrowings and exchanges of ideas between the two communities (Ismailis and "Hindu" Nizarpanthis) was ruled out for one simple reason: the Nizari teachings were extremely secretive and never divulged to the non- initiated, referred to as nugras (litt. those who have no guru). Later on, according to the same author, these converted groups would have severed their links with the Ismaili centre (located in Iran where the Imam resided and represented in South Asia by the main Pirs of Uch- Multan) and gradually come back to the fold of Hinduism. This was also my hypothesis (D.S. Khan, 1996, 1997) and that of a modem Pakistani author, Mumtaz Ali (1994).

Subsisting in the form of isolated pockets of followers (Nanji, 1978: 68) mostly resorting to taqiyya (a Shia custom consisting of concealing one's true faith for fear of persecution at the hands of Sunni rulers), these communities had retained a number of their original practices and beliefs even after conversion. At a time when the Nizari dawa was weakened (this could have happened during the fifteenth century or later) they would have gradually drifted away from the center of the mission, losing contact with the Imam and the Pirs while their own leaders started to act as "independent dynasties of Pirs" (Daftary, 1990: 468). The various crises experienced by the Ismaili dawa, in particular during the fifteenth century when a major dissident branch of Nizarism, the Imamshahi sect of Pirana, emerged in Gujarat (Ivanow, 1933), may have resulted in multiple splits which have not necessarily left traces in the written history of Ismailism. [7] The various groups which had been once converted to the Nizari faith and become independent were more and more attracted into the orbit of other religious movements. Eventually the need for clear-cut religious identities which emerged in the nineteenth century (Masselos, 1978; D.S. Khan, 1997) prompted the followers of these various groups to identify themselves with Hindus, Sunni or Twelver Shia Muslims, if they did not choose to rally round the Nizari Imam himself.

It is understandable that, owing to a greater doctrinal rigidity, the communities which merged into the Sunni or Twelver Shia forms of Islam should have been forced to relinquish most of their former beliefs and practices, whereas the groups who identified themselves with various forms of Hinduism (Hinduism being essentially a fluid, polythetic concept) could retain a number of elements which testified to their former adhesion to Ismailism. The process was made easier by two factors: the secrecy which surrounded the sectarian traditions of the Nizarpanthi, Bisnoi and Jasnathi followers and the particular form assumed by the Nizari tradition itself in the Subcontinent. MacLean (1989: 151-2) has rightly stated that "a number of Isma'ili doctrines or rituals - some of which admittedly would be readily cognizable within a Hindu context - were adhered to not in conflict with, but in addition to the original structure of belief or ritual". Actually the fact that the form of Ismailism which survived in the Subcontinent "was the type embedded within a Hindu context" (Ibid.: 152) - a phenomenon which can be referred to as acculturation - is of exceptional importance. As explained by the same author (Ibid.), "The results of this embedment was not a simple absorption of the Ismaili remnants into Hinduism, but the creation of an innovation synthesis. Adhesion led eventually to syncretism, combining themes and technical vocabulary from both Hinduism and Isma'ilism to form a new and unified religious system". Kassam (1994 and 1995: 71) has analyzed this dynamic process, its causes and consequences in still greater detail.

However, Nanjiani (1918: 14) had interpreted the preponderance of Hindu elements in the literature of the once Ismailized communities he had discovered and who followed the Nizar Panth (the very name of the sect practically betraying its origin) as the result of an "incomplete conversion", that is to say of a process which had been started but could never be completed by the Nizari preachers. The allegedly smaller number of Hinqu motifs interspersed with the Islamic ones in the sacred literature of the Nizari Khojas referred to as ginans (Shackle and Moir, 1992: 14-28) could thus be pointed out to prove that the tradition of the AgaKhani Khojas was, instead, an authentically Muslim one though it had adopted certain references to Hindu mythologies, terminologies and rituals. But this view would reflect a faulty understanding of the historical process at work. The stronger Muslim "flavour" of the ginanic literature was not the consequence of a successfully completed conversion programme but was due to the gradual reIslamization of the Khoja heritage which had began after the 1866 Aga Khan case of Bombay (Shackle and Moir, 1992: 112-3) and had continued up to our times This reevaluation of the religious identity of the followers of the Nizari Imam (Nanji, 1988) led more and more to the elimination of certain conspicuous Hindu themes and terminologies. For instance, the motif of the Das avatar (the ten incarnations of Vishnu) and of the tenth manifestation which was the main object of prayer of the Khojas was abandoned.

As I have attempted to show, this process was parallelled by a tentative reHinduization of former Nizari groups at present known as Nizarpanthis, Bisnois, Jasnathis and Aipanthis (D.S. Khan, 1997). Muslim terms and concepts were either eliminated or reinterpreted. Despite all this, the devotional literature of these religious movements has retained a number of "syncretic" aspects, as is also the case of the Ismaili hymns. Discovering the ginans a reader who would be familiar with the Hindu or Sufi religious poems of Medieval India, but not with Indian Ismailism, would certainly share the surprise experienced by F. Mallison when for the first time she came across the devotional compositions of the Khojas: "I had the revelation of a religious tradition very much akin to the non-sectarian Vaishnavism of the fifteenth- sixteenth centuries in Gujarat ..." (Mallison, 1991: 93). In the selection of translated ginans presented by Shackle and Moir (1992) and Kassam (1996) one cannot but be impressed by this fact: the Ismaili message, albeit Islamic in its origin and spirit, is mainly conveyed through a number of indigenous (Hindu/Jain) concepts and myths recast into a different mould which bears the unique imprint of Indian Nizarism. I have referred to these motifs in which Kassam (1994: 232) rightly sees "techniques of transformation" as "Hindu Ismailized patterns" (D.S. Khan, 1997). There is a reason to believe that these patterns were aimed at producing conversions while simultaneously serving the purpose of taqiyya. The identification of these specific patterns is therefore essential to determine the part played by Ismailism in a tradition which no longer identify themselves with this religious movement.

Contemplating the possibility of a former link between the Medieval sects which form the object of this study and Ismailism and considering the fact that they had retained throughout original elements of their culture from the pre-conversion period, elements which were later highlighted during the process of reHinduization, one can now raise the following question to the elucidation of which this article is devoted: has the messianism of the Agam vanis directly originated from a preserved or reappropriated Hindu heritage or is it in some way connected with a former Nizari affiliation? Before proceeding to a comparative analysis which alone will help us to come to a definite conclusion, it might not be out of place to say a few words about Messianic and eschatological traditions found in the Subcontinent.

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