A Social, Cultural, Educational & Religious E-Forum Under the Facilitation of the World Federation of KSI Muslim Communities Issue No. 10-04, December 24, 2004/ Zilqad 11th, 1425 AH
As social beings, we live in a complex web of relationships that not only define how we interact with people, but also how we define ourselves. Thus, for example, someone can be a UK citizen of Indian origin who is a Muslim, in a broad sense, and also, in a more specific sense, be a Punjabi Muslim from a particular village in Pakistan, of a certain tribe, clan, and family. Part and parcel of what we are is our ethnic identity – crudely speaking, where we came from in a racial sense. Throughout the Muslim world, you will see that, in spite of an emphasis on Islamic brotherhood, and the importance of subsuming our separate identities within this fraternity, you will find Arabs, Malays, and so on, all quite proud of their ethnic identities, and all happy to be defined through these ethnic labels.
The notable exceptions seem to be the Khojas. How often have you introduced yourself to an outsider as a Khoja? How often do you think of yourself as a Khoja? Within the community, being a Khoja is of course taken for granted, and so there is no need to state the obvious. But even then, you will find that the Khoja appellation is often used in a self-depreciating way – I have lost count of the number of times I have heard a Khoja joke told to me by another Khoja. More often then not, the joke is a play on the meaning of the word, which, by an unfortunate coincidence, means “get lost” in Urdu.
What do you know about your history, apart from (perhaps) the Khoja Bibi case? Do you know where your ancestors came from, what caste they were when they were Hindus, how they were converted, and by whom? Do you know what forced them to move from Sindh to Gujarat, their second homeland? Do you know what was the reason the Khojas migrated out of this second homeland, and why do they keep on spreading? Do you know why some of us speak Kutchhi as a mother tongue, and the majority speak Gujarati, while among the Ismaili Khojas, the reverse is the case? Do you know how many paths our ancestors took, before they stumbled onto the True Path? As a people, we are remarkably ignorant of our history – it is almost as if we were ashamed of it.
I have often wondered why should this be the case. After all, as a community, we have quite a lot to be proud of. Mosques and communities run by Khojas, wherever in the world they are, are often the best run, and certainly the best organized. Where there are limited resources, you will find Khoja communities placing an emphasis on the young, in the form of madressas, even if it means excluding or minimizing other functions. Even if there are only two or three families coming together in some remote town, they will get together and do something, forming a community. And in the last twenty years, many of the most informative and comprehensive Shia Islamic websites that have been developed have a Khoja hand or brain somewhere in the background.
Are we ashamed because we feel like parvenus, which is a term reserved for people who suddenly become very rich, for example, but are not accepted socially by the “older” rich society? Are we worried that we may be on the True Path, but our history, filled with worship of odd deities, and perhaps even of fighting against Muslims, makes us somewhat suspect, Muslim parvenus, so to speak, and so we should reject our ethnic identity any way we can?
The truth, whether we like it or not, is that we are a product of a Hindu culture which had (and has) its good and weak points, like any other culture in the world. And yet, in the last few decades, we have tried strenuously to eject any relics from that culture; for example, even our marriage ceremonies are carefully scrutinized to ensure that there are no Hindu rituals left. I often wonder why that should be the case. After all, the Arabs and the Malays and the Nigerians will still celebrate their marriages in their own cultural style, without feeling the least bit guilty about it. The true test here is not whether a ritual is Hindu, but whether it is anti-Islamic; if it isn’t, then it should be accepted as part of our cultural heritage.
Going further, it seems to me that the Khoja community would be a perfect community to study from a genetic and anthropological viewpoint. We are spread out all over the world, but we hardly marry non-Khojas, so someone could analyze our genes right back to the few people, living perhaps a thousand years ago, from whom we are all descended. Furthermore, our cultural traits and habits are still retained, even if the languages we speak change; presumably, that would make the Khoja community a fascinating community to study from an anthropological viewpoint. Why are there no Khoja university students who want to make us the subject of their PhD thesis? Why the utter lack of interest in us among ourselves? Perhaps we need to start teaching Khoja history in our madressas, so that our children learn a bit of ethnic pride.
Nothing that I have said should be seen as being incompatible with our Islamic beliefs, or somehow in contradiction to it. If all people, anywhere in the world, were the same, then the world would be a boring place. And if all Muslims, all over the world, were just Muslims, and nothing else, the world would likewise be a boring place.
By Mohsin Allarakhia