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Satpanth is a Sanskrit term used initially by Nizari Ismailis and Ismaili Sufis to identify their faith formed by conversions from Hinduism over 700 years ago by Pir Sadruddin (1290-1367 CE). Though the term today is used mainly by its subgroup formed over 600 years ago in the 15th century by his grandson Pir Imam Shah (1430-1520 CE) which itself consists of various sub-sects, and differs from the mainstream Nizari Khojas in that they reject the Aga Khan as their leader and are known more commonly as Imam-Shahi. Uniquely, the term Satpanth has been historically used by Ismailis that claim to be Muslim, as well as by adherents of subgroups that claim to be Hindu. There are villages in Gujarat which are totally 'Satpanthi' such as Pirana near Ahmedabad where Imam Shah is buried. Satpanthi Dargahs are known to be venerated with a stark contrast in the devotees, with outward Muslims who may wear a hijab, and outward Hindus wearing traditional garb such as the sari.
Satpanth can be described as a synthesis of Hinduism and Ismailism as most who refer to themselves as "Satpanthi" claim they are Hindu and retain their Hindu names and traditions. This has resulted in a unique syncretism in which adherents strongly employ Hindu symbols, especially the Om and Swastika, keep Sanskrit names, and observe all mainstream Hindu religious occasions, while prayers can also include the fusion of Persian and Arabic Duas.
The term "Satpanth" is used historically by mainstream Ismailis who outwardly claim to be Muslim, keep Muslim names, and have given up most if not all connections to their Hindu history, including the use of the term Satpanth itself, which is Sanskrit for "True Path". Meanwhile, its related subgroups including the Imam-Shahis may exert the opposite approach, by denying any connections to Ismailism and sufism, and accentuating their Hindu beliefs and use of Hindu symbolism.
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Pir Sadruddin and his grandson Pir Imam Shah are credited with the conversion of the Khojas from the Hindu caste of the Lohanas located in Punjab, Rajasthan, and Gujarat. He laid the foundation of the communal organization, built the first assembly and prayer halls and appointed the community leaders "Mukhis." Khojas live chiefly in lower Sind, Kutch, Gujarat, Bombay and in wide diaspora, particularly in East and South Africa, Arabia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Canada, the United Kingdom, Portugal, U.A.E. and the United States.
Sayed Imam Shah was a prominent da'i in India. His name was Imamuddin Abdur Rahim. He was born in Uchh Sharif in 834/1430, and was the younger son of Pir Hasan Kabiruddin. The tradition has it that when Pir Hasan Kabiruddin died, his all sons were present at Uch Sharif with the exception of Sayed Imam Shah. The tradition attests that he reached late during the interment of his father's body. Many traditions are recounted for his dissatisfaction, but all are legendary in character. Sayed Imam Shah resided at Uchh Sharif with his sister called Bai Budhai, where he received a letter of Imam Muhammad bin Islam Shah through a certain Khoja Devasi Chandan. Hence, he started his journey for Kahek, Iran in 854/1450. Muhammad bin Islam Shah is said to have consigned him the mission for Gujarat. He returned and established a prominent community consisting of multiple local faiths as well as those of migrants from nearby states, thereby initiating a new cohesive identity for its followers, "Satpanthi".
He got married to the daughter of Shah Muhammad Bakhri, who gave birth to Sayed Nur Muhammad Shah (d. 1534 CE). Sayed Imam Shah died in 1520 CE and was buried in Pirana, Gujarat, the site of his famous Dargah. It is said that he abjured traditional Ismailism and created a community far more syncretic with Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The reason for this schism is often attributed to legends of a quarrel with his kin or a shift in his own philosophy and theology. Weighing up the extant evidence, it appears that he remained ingrained in Ismailism and demonstrated unswerving loyalty to the Imams till his death, and never took any other route in his ambition. He remains famous and revered by his followers for encouraging the preservation of traditional (mostly Hindu) culture and customs, a stark contrast to other Islamic and Christian missions. According to "The Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam"(Leiden, 1961, p. 167), "As far as it is possible to ascertain, he cannot be regarded as the founder of a new sect, as he remained loyal to the Imam of his time." He wrote many ginans which are recited by the Ismailis. He had four sons, viz. Sayed Alam Shah, Sayed Ali Shah, Sayed Bakir Shah and Sayed Nur Muhammad Shah, and a daughter called Shams Khatoon.
The people of the Satpanth consist mostly of high-caste converts of Lohana origin. Others are from Rajput, merchant, and farming castes including the Patidar and Patel communities belonging to Western and Northwestern India. Some are migrants from neighbouring Indian states—including Madhya Pradesh, the Punjab and Rajasthan—who now reside in Gujarat (mainly the Kutch and commercial areas) and Mumbai. Many from the northern nomadic Rabari community are also of this faith. Followers of Satpanth are also present in significant numbers in Jalgaon, Nandurbar and Dhule districts of Northern Maharashtra.
Satpanth is used as a means of self-identification for millions of resident and non-resident Indians, and due to the varying degrees of its syncretic structure, there are various sects who reject a singular leadership and elect local committees. The leadership of the Muslim identifying group of Satpanthis is led by the descendants of Pir Imam Shah known as Saiyeds. Other groups will appoint a single Mukhi or a group of Mukhis to represent their leadership.
Satpanth followers that are more aligned with traditional Ismailism, called Mureeds, believe that the physical form of the Imam is merely a vessel for the spiritual Imam which is Nūr or eternal light. They also believe that his farmans (proclamations), his shabd (word) and his formless being are the real Imam. These separate concepts of an esoteric Imam and an exoteric Imam are called "Baatini Imam" and "Zahiri Imam".
Satpanth devotees believe in "Nurani Didar," which is the "vision of light" or enlightenment one achieves when one views the True Imam. This, again, has an esoteric and an exoteric meaning.
It is customary in each and every Jamaat-khana that a row of community leaders and title holders (male and female) should sit facing the rest of the congregation. There is a row of individuals, sitting with their backs to the side wall, in the male as well as the female section. Both these sections are kept side by side in one large hall. Hence, a row of males would face and prostrate before the females, and vice versa. Looking at individuals of the opposite gender across the hall, and even the passing of objects between genders, is highly discouraged if not forbidden. If an object must be passed such as a utensil, the person must get up and leave it in the middle or end of the hall, where it will eventually picked up by the intended recipient. The reading of Holy Du'a is undertaken while sitting on the floor on one's knees, or while sitting cross-legged as with other sects, with a Misbaha or Mala (rosary) being picked up at intervals. Any individual of any age who is fully versed in the Holy Du'a may lead the prayer.
Pir Imam Shah Bawa - [pirimamshahbawa.org]