Some 600 years ago a missionary by the name of Pir Sadruddin arrived in Sind in India. There are a number of myths about his origins. The most common consensus among historians is that he was Dai (representative or emissary) of the Nizari branch of the Ismaili sect. Some have suggested that he was a sufi teacher from Iran. There is even a story that he was a Hindu priest by the name Sahdev who had been caught stealing in the temple and hence disgraced and defrocked. He then left the temple, changed his appearance and took on the name of Sadr Din.
Pir Sadruddin lived for some time amongst the rich Hindu landowners called Thakkers. He studied their way of life and of worship. The Thakkers believed that the god Vishnu had lived through nine incarnations on this earth. They were waiting for the tenth. Pir Sadruddin managed to convince them that Hazrat Ali (AS.) was the Dasmo Awtaar of Vishnu (The Tenth Incarnation). He converted quite a number of the Thakkers into a faith called Satpanth (True Path) - a peculiar admixture of Sufic/Hindu ideas. (The main book called Das Awtar was considered a primary text for the followers of the Aga Khan until very recently.) Some historians maintain that he converted the Thakkers to Nizari Ismailis. Whatever may be the case, these converts could no longer be called Thakkers in the Hindu community and Pir Sadruddin gave them the title of Khwaja. The word Khoja is a phonetic corruption of the word Khwaja.
Over a period of time, several pirs came after Sadrdin and gradually, the beliefs crystallised to those of the Ismaili Nizari faith; particularly after the arrival of the Aga Khan 1 from Iran to India in the first half of the 19th Century. By this time the Khojas had spread all over over Kutch and Gujarat. Some had also moved to Bombay and Muscat. They paid their dues to the Ismaili Jamaat Khaana and lived quite harmoniously within their society. The main place of worship was the Jamaat Khaana and the (Jamaat) community was organised round the Jamaat Khaana - which served as a religious as well as a social centre
Departure from Jamaat Khaana
With the arrival of the Aga Khan 1 in India, greater control was exercised by the Aga Khan in the affairs of the community. This led to certain groups dissenting and being ousted from the Jamaat Khaana. The most celebrated one was the case of the Bar Bhaya where an influential family by the name of Habib Ibrahim refused to accept the dictate (firman) by the Aga Khan that all the property that belonged to the Jamaat would now vest in the Aga Khan. Eventually this group was out-casted and influenced by the Sunni Aalims they became Sunnites. This was followed by several court cases and much commotion in the community, In the early 1800s some Khojas went for Ziyarat and while in Najaf they met the Mujtahid of the time, Sheikh Zainul Abedeen Mazandarani. During their discussions they realised that there was a need for a teacher to come to India to teach the community Islam. Soon after, at the behest of Sheikh Mazandarani, Mulla Kader Hussein arrived in India and some Khoja families left the Ismaili sect and learnt from Mulla Kader the principles of Shia Ithna-asheri faith.
From these few families the community has now grown to well over 100,000 Khoja Shia Ithna-asheries. The overall number is still very small when considering that there are an estimated 150 million Shia Ithna-asheries in the world today. The Ismaili Khojas number over 270 thousand and there are still a handful of Sunni Khojas.
Migration to Africa
It is a well known fact that for hundreds of years Indians sailed down the East African coast in their sailships during the North Eastern Monsoons. There were young Khojas amongst these early sailors and some of them stayed behind in East Africa and exploited opportunities in commerce and trade. While the new land offered limitless opportunities to the Khojas, the new environment and prevailing influences called for an orientation. The majority of them converted from Ismaili after arriving in East Africa and were novices in a complete sense of the term:-
- new to the place
- new to the faith
- facing a vast unexplored tract of land
- no previous cultural contact with the indigenous African population
- not knowing the African language
- not able to communicate with the established Arab traders
Against all odds, the Khojas settled all over Eastern Africa and with help from each other they prospered. And wherever they settled they soon formed themselves into a Khoja Shia Ithnaasheri Community, commonly known as the Jamaat, guarded by a sense of territorial jealousy. They advised each other and invited their families, friends and fellow men from India to join them and share in their venture.
Members of the Jamaat engaged in religious activities, first with modesty appropriate to their means; but as their fortunes grew, they became vigorously activated. They built Mosques, Imambaras, Madressas, Schools for secular education and created several trusts for charity.
Retention of identity
Under the subsequent German rule in Tanganyika, British rule in other parts of East Africa, French rule in Madagascar, Italian rule in Somalia, Belgian rule in the Congo and Portuguese rule in Mozambique, these early settlers were subjected to a variety of influences and experience. The thrust of these influences was great, engendering a fear in the minds of the Khoja of losing their identity. It served to drive them farther inwards into the precincts of their society, instead of mobilizing any worthwhile change. Hence the persistent perseverance by the Khojas to remain within a well-knit framework of the Jamaat, allowing no intrusion.
In the same manner, that the young Khojas had braved the monsoons in search for better pastures, the Khoja Community has now spread all over the world. An International Directory published some two years ago has entries from most North America, Australia, New Zealand in addition to Western Europe. The directory also contains some entries from South America and Eastern Europe. The African experience has been replicated in almost all the places that they have settled in so far as organising Jamaats and religious centres. The efficient system of managing the affairs of the community remains virtually unchanged. However, now the community faces a new challenge, particularly in the West. The new generation, born and bred in the West is questioning the modus operandi and the insularity of the community whilst the old guard insists upon retaining what has worked well for the community for almost a century. What is clear is that both groups need to focus on the best way of ensuring that the future generations can retain the values and teachings as taught by the Ahlul Bait (AS). For that is and can be the only objective.
Another Version of Truth
A slightly different version of the history reads this:
Over five hundred years ago, some people in India and Iran held a strange belief about God. They believed that God entered into everything in the Universe and that everything has the essence of God. The believers of this originally were Hindus as well as a sect of Muslims. Among the leaders of this belief were Peer Sadruddeen, an ancestor of the Aga Khans in Iran as well as one Hindu known as Sahadeva Joshi. With this belief, they made up a religion which they labelled as Sat Panth meaning Right Path. The followers of this new path came to be known as Khojas which is said to be a Sindhi word derived from the word "KHOJ" meaning to search. Perhaps it meant that the Khojas are those people who originally made deep search to find a religious path. It is also said that the word KHOJA is derived from the word Khwaja meaning a man of distinction a title awarded by the Peer to the newly converts to the Sat Panth.
The creed of this new religion is based on incarnation of God i.e. God entered into some human beings, as believed by Hindus. To nine incarnations of Hindu God Vishnu, they added Hazrat Ali (A.S.) as the tenth incarnation. They believed in him as God as did Alawites - the Nusairies in Syria. They proclaimed themselves Shias as well, meaning the followers of Hazrat Ali (A.S.) and his family. It is mentioned that a Persian mystic by name Ali Itahi had come to Kutch in India. He took with him some eager Khojas to Iran and introduced them to the ancestors of the Agha Khans. It is thought that these firm believers in the new religion and the close followers of Peer Sadruddeen came to be known as Bawas. After the death of the Peer, they became the guardians of the religions of the Khojas. It is these Bawas who preached that the Agha Khans were incarnation of God and included this belief in the GINANS - the prayer book read usually in Jamat Khanas. The Bawas had considerable influence over the Khojas as they also controlled the various ceremonies concerning marriage and death, etc. The Khoja faithful who took their lessons from the Bawas came to be known as Bhagats.
The Khojas were mainly a trading community resident in Bombay, Karachi as well as lesser numbers in towns and villages of Kutch and Kathiawar in India. Some of them migrated to Zanzibar and other East African towns during the years 1850 - 1900 to expand their business. The Khojas in those days were rather ignorant and simple people. They became influenced by social traditions of the Hindus, some of these traditions are still to be seen in marriage ceremonies although many have disappeared with the times. Despite being involved and surrounded by peculiar and un-lslamic beliefs and traditions,, historical records show us that the Khojas were deeply devoted towards Imam Husain (A.S.) They would spend large sums to commemorate the martyrdom of the Imam. Those who could afford would regularly travel to Karbala and other Holy places to pay their homage at the shrines of the Imams.
Sometime during 1860 - 70 A.D., a Shiite Muslim from Madras, India, by name of Mulla Qader Husain is said to have gone to Karbala on pilgrimage as well as to stay there for the purpose of acquiring more knowledge in Shiism. While there by chance he came into contact with some prominent Khoja Zuwwars - pilgrims from Zanzibar as well as Bombay. Among them were Nurmohamedbhai, Mukhi Hashambhai Dossa and Dewji Jamal. On their visit to him, Mulla Qader would teach them the recitation of Holy Qura'n as well as Islamic rules about cleanliness, prayers, etc. Mulla Qader once described to them the merits of Hazrat Ali (A.S.). Suddenly Nurmohamedbhai said "We Khojas believe that Ali (A.S.) is God" On hearing this, the Mulla was greatly astonished. On further discussion, he learnt that "Khojas also believed that Ali was the tenth incarnation of God and the Aga Khan the forty-sixth incarnation of Aly or God." Obviously this belief is in absolute contradiction to the basic principles of Islamic belief in Tawheed - the Oneness of God. Belief in any form of human relationship with God such as entering of God into human body is considered as SHIRK - polytheism. The pure belief in the absolute Unity of Allah is the foundation of Islam and one who contradicts it cannot be called a Muslim.
"Surely Allah does not forgive that anything should be associated with Him, and He forgives what is besides this to whom He pleases; and whoever associates anything with Allah, he indeed strays off into a remote error." (14:116) Thus Mulla Qader became deeply concerned about the ignorance of the Khojas and did his best to correct their beliefs. He took them to the Mujtahid Sheikh Zainul Abedeen and reported their plight. The Mulla was invited by Dewji Jamal to accompany him to Bombay and Zanzibar so as to impart the knowledge of true Islam to the Khojas but he was not willing to leave Kerbala. Finally at the insistence of the Mujtahid Sheikh Zainul Abedeen he agreed and left for Bombay where he first stayed with Dewjibhai. In Bombay, Mulla Qader started a Madrassa in which he taught the rules and tenets of true Islam according to Shia Ithnasheri beliefs. Gradually he also led a congregational prayer which was first attended by 15/20 people later expanding to 50 and more persons. This had to be done secretly inside a house in order to safeguard the lives of the faithful who had separated from the main stream of Agha Khani sect of Ismaili Khojas. On separation thus of the Khoja community into two different sects of the Ismailis as followers of Agha Khan and Ithnasheris as followers of Twelve Imams, there were repeated incidents of trouble between the two sects. The Ithnasheris were boycotted in matters of business, social contacts, burial, etc. So harsh was the friction between the two that at times criminals were hired to stab the converts and murders took place. But so firm and staunch were those handful in their faith that they could not be drawn away from the path of truth they had discovered. Their courage is indeed worth appreciating and taking lesson from.
Today the Khoja Shia Ithnasheries numbering more than 100,000 are prosperously scattered throughout the world in India, Pakistan, East Africa, Madagascar as well as Europe, USA, Canada. They not only maintain their Islamic traditions but also contribute their time, energy and money for the propagation of truth.