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The Makings of a Transnational Khoja Business Community

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Brief History

The genesis of the Khoja Community dates back to late fourteenth century, in the desert of Sind, (in present day Pakistan) by a missionary named Pir Sadr Din who arrived to live among them. Myths about his origins are many. Some historians maintain that he was one amongst many emissaries of the Nizari Imam of the Ismaili sect. Others suggest that he was a Sufi teacher from Persia. Pir Sadr Din came to live among the rich Hindu landowners called Thakkars, who believed that the Hindu deity Lord Vishnu has had nine incarnations on this earth. They were waiting for the tenth. Pir Sadr Din is reported to have presented them with the notion that he had come to give them the glad tidings of the tenth incarnation of Lord Vishnu and that was Imam Ali (as), the first Imam of the Shia Muslims. Thus, he was successful in converting quite several Lohana Thakkars into an indigenous faith called Satpanth (True Path) – a peculiar admixture of Sufi/Hindu beliefs. This doctrine is encapsulated in a famous ginan entitled Dasa Avatara, a primary text for the followers of the Aga Khan until very recently.

To fit into the neatly organised Gujarati Society based on trade or vocations, these converts needed to have a new identity. They could no longer be called Thakkars. Pir Sadr Din obliged and gave them the title of Khwaja, a Persian word closest to the meaning of the word Thakor(i.e. noble). This title morphed into the term Khoja – a phonetic corruption of the word Khwaja. Over a period, several Pirs came after Sadr Din, and gradually, the beliefs crystallised to those of a pluralistic Satpanthi faith. These converts seemed to live a tolerant and syncretic lives without any sectarian conflict until the first half of the 19th Century. It was after the arrival of the Aga Khan from Persia to India that the Satpanthi beliefs gradually crystallised into the exclusive Nizari Ismaili tradition. By this time, the Khojas had spread all over Kutch and Gujarat. Some had also moved to Mumbai and Muscat. The main place of worship was the Jamaat Khana (community centre) and the community life revolved around the Jamaats a socio-religious unit of a particular area. With the arrival of the Aga Khan in India, greater control was exercised in the affairs of the community. This led to certain groups dissenting and being ousted from the tightly knit Khoja Community. An influential business 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, joined the mainstream Sunni Islam to be later named as Sunni Khojas.

In the wake of this turmoil, a group led by Haji Dewji Jamal visited Ayatullah Shaykh Zayn al-Abedeen Mazandarani in one of their pilgrimages to Karbala. Having introduced to the mainstream Shia beliefs, they requested Ayatullah to send a preacher to disseminate the true tenets of Shia faith. Soon after, at the behest of Ayatullah Mazandarani, an Indian student in Karbalaby the name of Mulla Qadar Husayn joined Dewji Jamal in India to promulgate the teachings of Shiism. The second schism took place when some Khoja families left the Ismaili sect having been schooled by Mulla Qadar. Thus, began this journey of the nascent Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Community, as it contained its faith in the vessel of Khoja culture.

The Khoja Wanderlust

Along with their Gujarati compatriots, Khojas sailed across the torturous Indian Ocean braving the monsoon winds in single sailed dhows to the unexplored East African coast. New to the land, novices in their faith and as a minority amongst a minority, these Khojas began to find their place in East Africa. Their Gujarati penchant for belonging to a ‘nat’ (a closely-knit society) stood them on good stead as they availed of limitless opportunities in the new lands. With an instinct for survival, coupled with a sense of business adventure, Khojas settled all over Eastern Africa. With help from each other they progressed and prospered. Wherever they settled they soon formed themselves into a Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Community, commonly known as the Jamaat, guarded by a sense of pride and belonging. They counselled each other and invited their families, and fellow men from India to join them and share in their venture. From these few families, the community has now grown to well over 150,000 Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris. The Ismaili Khojas number some 450,000 and there are still a few thousand of Sunni Khojas. It is no mean feat that over five generations the Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri, have spread over five continents, excelling in education, trade, commerce and in the professions.

Retention of identity

Beginning with the adjustment of engaging with the natives of their new-found home, and the Arab rulers in the coastal areas of Zanzibar and Mombasa, they came under German rule in Tanganyika, British rule in rest 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 experiences. Despite the overwhelming pressures caused by differing national interests of these colonial powers and the ravages of the World Wars, it is a remarkable feat that the Khojas could maintain their identity and faith by persistently persevering to remain within a well-knit framework of the Jamaats and then the Federations, leading to the formation of the Word Federation and Regional Federation, modelled on the very first regional body, The Africa Federation,formed in 1945.

A Transnational Community

In the same manner, as the young Khojas had braved the monsoons in search for better pastures, on the eastern shores of Africa, taking the political storms in Eastern Africa its stride, the Khoja Community further travelled to West and has now spread in almost 40 countries. It continues in replicating their Indian Sub-Continent and African experience wherever they have settled. In addition to organising Jamaats and religious centres, the Community has not held back in sharing its intellectual and financial resources bymakinga significant contribution in business, professions as well as in civic and humanitarian work in everyplace they reside. True to the entrepreneur spirit of their forefathers, the next generation is now taking up the baton of trade and commerce and is greatly expanding its circle of influence by also excelling in academia, the arts and scientific research.

Today the focus of the Community leadership is to enable the future generations to retain the values and teachings as taught by the Ahlul Bait (AS) while remaining connected to the valuable social capital its Khoja Heritage and Culture has created over time. It must never be forgotten that the Community is what it is today, largely because of an integrative locus of Khoja heritage and Islamic faith as per the teachings of Ahlul Bait AS). The two are far from being mutually exclusive; indeed, one without the other would be like mint with a hole.

Penned by: Dr Hasnain Walji, Past President of The World Federation of KSIMC

Edited by: Shaykh Kumail Rajani