Students and researchers at the IIS, particularly those studying Satpanth Ismaili traditions will remember with great admiration and affection an esteemed scholar, Zawahir (Noorally) Moir, who passed away in London on 9th February 2024 at 91.

Zawahir Moir in her home
Zawahir Moir in her home. Photo from Hussain Jasani.

Zawahir was born in Karachi in 1933. She obtained a BA in Arabic and Islamic Culture from Karachi University in 1956, where she went on to study for her masters in Islamic History in 1958. After completing her studies, she received a scholarship from His Highness the Aga Khan to pursue her MA from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. After completing her MA, she returned to Karachi and joined the then Ismailia Association for Pakistan for almost 15 years before returning to London in 1979. Once back in London, she worked at IIS, cataloguing Khojki manuscripts in its collection. Even after leaving the IIS, she continued to teach Khojki to interested IIS students. She participated in multiple international conferences in France, Iran, India, Pakistan, and the UK.

Zawahir Moir speakign at a conference in 2006
Zawahir speaking at the Devotional Expressions of South Asian Muslims Conference organised by the IIS in Nov 2006.

Zawahir’s contributions to research on Satpanth Ismaili history and literature have left a lasting impact on the study of the Indian Ismaili tradition. Professor Ali Asani, a scholar of Ginanic studies and a member of the IIS’ Board of Governors, acknowledged, “We are all indebted to Zawahir Moir for her pioneering studies on the Satpanth Ismaili tradition…”. On hearing the news about Zawahir’s passing away, Zayn Kassam, the Director of IIS, exclaimed,

I find myself filled with gratitude for Zawahir’s presence—for the person she was, and the many, many contributions she made in training students in reading Khojki, the study of gināns, and for her fine scholarship on the subject.

There is hardly any contemporary scholar of Ginanic studies who has not benefited from her academic advice and support. She often mentioned how Gulshan Khaki requested her assistance in reading and deciphering some Khojki Ginan manuscripts preserved at the then Ismailia Association for Pakistan (now ITREB Pakistan). In her diary, she mentions how Professor Azim Nanji benefitted from the first cataloguing work of 110 Khojki manuscripts that she carried out in Karachi. She often fondly spoke about Professor Ali Asani’s visit to Karachi as a graduate student studying at Harvard and their continued association for decades. While remembering her contribution, Professor Tazim Kassam writes, “Zawahir Moir, a much beloved scholar, laid the foundation for work on Khojki manuscripts with her painstaking work on the first catalogue of Khojki manuscripts”.

cover page: Catalogue of Khojki Manuscripts
Catalogue of Khojki Manuscripts, compiled by Zawahir Moir and published by the Ismaili Association for Pakistan, 1971.

The list of researchers who benefited from her expertise, academic advice and generosity in sharing manuscript copies and materials is too long to be recounted here. Dr Wafi Momin highlighted: “She was a great person and always selflessly supported students and younger scholars in their research and scholarship.” He added the importance of acknowledging “her important contributions, and especially the support and learnings, both formal and informal, she provided to IIS students in a number of areas, Khojki [script], South Asian Ismaili tradition, and Ginans.” On hearing the news, Dr Laila Halani wrote: “she has spent a considerable amount of her time helping IIS students study Khojki so that we had enough scholars to read and analyse the Khojki manuscripts in our collection.” 

Zawahir’s published works continue to guide students of Ginanic studies. She has published widely in this area, making significant contributions, especially on the history of the lives of the Satpanth pirs (saint-teachers), and on the period of the arrival of the first Aga Khan to India. Further, the book she co-authored with her friend and colleague Professor Christopher Shackle, Ismaili Hymns from South Asia (1992), was a major intervention in the study of Satpanth literature. Not only did it provide a translation and analysis of several poems from the corpus of ginān literature into English for the first time, its critical introduction also assessed the history, philology, and prosody of the Ismail ginān literature in pathbreaking ways. 

The scholarly accomplishments of Zawahir Moir and the care she and her husband had for their students and colleagues are noted by many who would visit her to learn more about gināns. As Christopher Shackle writes in the book that was produced in her honour, Ginans: Texts and Contexts (2010), ‘Martin and Zawahir’s wonderfully embracing and hospitable attic flat in Hampstead… must, over the years, have been the scene of more ginānic interchanges than any other home in London.” Another close friend of Zawahir, the late Dominique Sila-Khan, similarly notes in her Conversions and Shifting Identities (1997), “The growth of the field of ginān studies owes so much to Zawahir Moir’s ability to succor others, to her encouragement of their efforts, and her consistent willingness to share knowledge without looking for personal returns or even due acknowledgement”.

Zawahir and Martin Moir in the Garden of Life at the Aga Khan Centre
Zawahir and her husband Martin enjoy the Garden of Life in the Aga Khan Centre, London (2021). Photo from Hussain Jasani

Her contribution to the field is not limited to two major Catalogues of the Khojki work (unpublished) but numerous articles that she contributed to academic journals, edited volumes and community publications. 

Zawahir was working closely with scholars of Ismaili studies in the 1960s and 70s. Wladimir Ivanow, a Russian orientalist and leading pioneer in modern Ismaili studies, regularly communicated with her and relied on her support during his stay in Karachi. In September 1968, when approached by Dr Farhad Daftary to help him with his research on the history of Ismaili Imams, Ivanow requested Zawahir to put Dr Daftary in touch with Bernard Lewis. She participated in the historic conference that was held in Paris in 1975. The conference deliberations led to the establishment of The Institute of Ismaili Studies in 1977.

Her enriching life stories and deep commitment to the poetic traditions of South Asia, and especially the Ismaili gināns, will continue to inspire the researchers. The maxim ‘those who love us never leave us’ will remain ever true for us in our memories of Zawahir. Although she now rests, the legacy of her scholarly work, and her enthusiastic spirit, will continue to shape the field of Ismaili Studies in the years to come. The South Asian Studies Unit at the IIS will dedicate a panel in her honour at its upcoming conference, Listening in Many Tongues: Multilingual Interpretive Communities that will be held at the AKC, London (21-22 October 2024). 

May her soul rest in Eternal Peace.  

Note: Those interested in knowing more on her life and works can refer to “a bio-bibliography of Zawahir Moir” put together by Wafi Momin, her student and now the Head of the Ismaili Special Collections Unit at the IIS, in Ginans: Texts and Contexts (2010).

Zawahir Moir with Hussain Jasani
This tribute was lovingly compiled by Hussain Jasani, head of the South Asian Studies Unit, and Imran Visram.

Some Tributes that we have received from colleagues in the field and students:

Tazim Kassam

associate professor, Syracuse University

“In 1979, before I left for fieldwork in India, she patiently showed me how to read and analyse the Khojki script and its variations and shared her deep knowledge and love of the gināns. Even after retiring from the IIS, she generously mentored dozens of students, several of whom went on to work on Satpanth and related literature. Her publication, Ismaili Hymns from South Asia: An Introduction to Ginans, co-authored with Christopher Shackle and republished by Routledge in 2015, remains a classic reference text for the history, translation and analysis of gināns. In 2010, a festschrift edited by Francoise Mallison and Tazim R. Kassam, Ginans: Texts and Contexts, was published in her honour in recognition of her seminal work and dedication to the study of gināns. She will always remain an inspiration to us as we continue to honour her work by keeping alive scholarship on this wonderful poetic and performative tradition of Ismaili Muslims in South Asia.” 

William Hofmann

research associate, IIS

“… Her pioneering scholarship in the field of Ismaili studies and particularly on South Asian Ismaili gināns have influenced generations of academics and seekers of knowledge. Although I did not know her personally, her careful and critical work on the Ismaili manuscript tradition and in exploring the contexts and symbology of the gināns (e.g. with Christopher Shackle and Dominique Sila-Khan) have influenced my own, and it is to her that we owe a great debt in the field of Islamic studies in general and Ismaili studies in particular.” 

Shafique N Virani

associate professor, University of Toronto

Zawahir bai was a legend. Kind, thoughtful, and forever generous with her knowledge, she touched many people. I fondly remember countless delightful conversations sipping hot cups of chai with Zawahir bai and her husband Martin in their living room. Few can claim to have contributed as much as she did to the study of Khwajah Sindhi (Khojki) manuscripts and their legacy. We will miss her dearly. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi rajiʿun.

Naureen Ali

cataloguer and Adlib system officer

Along with being a trailblazer in many respects, Zawahir was a well-spring of knowledge as well as generosity. It was her passion for her work that led her to teach students voluntarily as she wanted students to continue to learn this endangered script (Khojki). Because of this generosity, what was to be a course I took out of interest turned into something I can contribute to through my work every day. If it wasn’t for her, my life would have gone a different path altogether. Her warmth will be dearly missed. 

Qays Batada

GPISH, 2024

Zawahir Moir’s impactful research and contributions to gināns and Satpanth have been transformative for the field. Although I never had the privilege of being her student, her work has significantly shaped the direction of my own research on the Khambhat Gupti Jamat. The invaluable insights and perspectives she provided on the Imamshahi community of Pirana have been instrumental in laying the groundwork for my thesis. Zawahir’s unwavering dedication to scholarship and her impact as a mentor to countless academics will continue to inspire future generations.

Sahista Chawdawala

alumnus, IIS

Zawahir ma’am, your dedication to teaching the Khojki script has illuminated my path and sparked a profound passion for cultural preservation and linguistic understanding within me. Your wisdom and guidance have been a shining light of knowledge, motivating me to walk in your footsteps and evolve as an educator. I am eternally grateful and hold immense respect for you as a teacher. All the moments spent together will be cherished forever. 

Semina Halani

translation officer, IIS

She was the epitome of intellectual humility, an inspiration for the continuous search for knowledge, and an inexhaustive source of dedication to serving others – a tremendous loss not just to the academic world but to humanity in general. She touched everyone’s lives in so many ways and at so many different levels. As one of the pioneers in the field of Ginanic studies, she set an important stepping stone for many of us who share similar interests and aspirations. Her simplicity, authenticity, humility, her continuous search for knowledge and dedication toward her students have inspired us. She has left this legacy which needs to continue through us in various ways. With prayers that she is now at peace and is in a better place. 

Imran Visram

DPhil candidate, University of Oxford

After moving to England, I began to regularly visit Zawahir to learn from her. Initially, I organised these visits with a group of my classmates so that we could study Khojki, the historic and sacred script of the ginān literature, with her. Over time, however, I began to foster a close friendship with her, and would frequent her home to hear about her life and research. Stories would surface in our conversations about the time that she spent cataloguing Khojki manuscripts in Karachi, or about her fond memories of attending the childhood birthday party of Princess Zahra Aga Khan. She would additionally share from the vast knowledge that she had acquired over her lifetime on South Asian poetics, which was truly all-encompassing: in one conversation she would quote from a lyric of Pir Satgur Nur, in the next she would draw from a stanza of Shah Abdul Latif. …The knowledge she imparted upon her students and her love for the Ismaili gināns will continue to shape research on Indian Ismailism, and encourage the study of ginān literature, for years to come.