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KHOJAS. The Indian term khoja is derived from the Persian khvdjah (“master, teacher, respected, well-todo-person”), which was the title given by the Persian Isma’ili missionary Pir Sadruddin to his Hindu Indian converts to Islam in the fourteenth century. The definitive history of the Khoja community remains to be written: the community experienced factionalism in its early period, so much written in subsequent decades suffered from subjective (at times, hostile and prejudicial) analysis of its genesis and the later conflicts over questions of both leadership and doctrine. Some Khoja histories reveal the sentiments and emotions that led to dissension and ultimate division on the matter of how Shiism and the leadership of the Persian Isma’ili missionaries was to be construed by the Khojas.

The Hindu converts to Islam in the fourteenth century belonged to the Kshatriya caste (which provided the soldiers assigned to protect boundaries) and at the time of their conversion followed the Shakti Marg path of Hinduism. Some, however, believe that the Khojas came from the Vaishya caste of traders. On the basis of the professions followed by its members, Hindu society was further divided into different communities. The Khojas, according to their historians, formed the Lohana community, having descended from the mythic Indian king Rama’s son, Lav. As such, they were known as thakkar, from an Indian title, thakor (“lord, master”); this word is close in meaning to the Persian word khvdjah applied by Pir Sadruddin to these newly converted Hindus.

Between Hinduism and Sunni Islam. The Khoja community retained the caste system inherited from their Hindu ancestors for a long time because they had to continue to live openly as Hindus, but this caste identity has no relationship to Islam. There is nothing in the basic characteristic of being a Khoja that competes for loyalty with that of a Shi i Muslim in this community. A Khoja is a Khoja only by birth; even if a Khoja changes his religious affiliation from Shiism to Sunnism, he still remains a Khoja. This caste identity explains much about the early conversion of the Lohana Hindus to Isma’ili Islam and about why certain religious practices resembling those of Hindus were retained among them for more than four centuries.

From the beginning of their conversion to Shiism the Khojas were persecuted by the Sunni Muslim rulers of Gujarat. Consequently, many Khojas were advised to live a taqiyah-oriented life; in order to deflect the hostile attitude of the Sunni majority, they pretended to be Sunnis or members of some other tolerated minority, such as the Twelver ShN community. In the course of time, there appeared three varieties of Khojas organized under three different jama’ats: the Sunni Khojas, who are very few; the Twelver Khojas; and the majority who are the Nizari Isma’ili Khojas, followers of the Aga Khan.

The Nizari and Twelver Split. The major split into Nizari and Twelver Khojas occurred in the first half of the nineteenth century. This period has been described as the beginning of “Khoja awakening” which bore fruits in the second half of this century. By that time Bombay had become the point of convergence for many Khojas who had migrated from Kutch and Kathiavar to take advantage of its commercial growth. In 1829, the rich merchant Habib Ibrahim, also known as “Barbhaya” because of his twelve brothers, refused to pay the religious dues known as dassondh (“tithe, a tenth”) to the administrators of the jama’atkhanah (prayer-hall and meetingplace for the Nizari Khojas). The dassondh was imposed by the Nizari Imam and accordingly was regarded by Habib Ibrahim and some fifty families who followed his lead as lacking proper Islamic justification. Moreover, the dissenting group, because of its long contact with Sunni mullahs, was inclined toward the Sunni school of thought in its religious practices. In 183o all these families were expelled from the jama’atkhanah although the representative of the Isma’ili Imam, Hasan ‘Ali Shah Mahallati (the first Persian Nizari leader to have been granted the title Aga Khan by the Qajar monarch), who was in Iran at this time, contemplated filing a civil case against the group, the timing was felt to be improper.

The period between 1845 and 1861 was marked by socioreligious turmoil in the Khoja community. In 1850 four members of Habib Ibrahim’s group were killed by the followers of the Aga Khan in the Mahim jamd`atkhanah, and nineteen followers of the Aga Khan were subsequently arrested. Four of these persons were sentenced to death by the Bombay High Court. Following these events, and with a view toward establishing his religious authority in India, on 20 October 1861 the Aga Khan circulated a general announcement declaring the Khojas to be Shl’is; hence, their marriage and funeral rites were to be performed in accordance with Shi`i practice. Moreover, he required his followers to put their signatures under this announcement, declaring their Shi i affiliation and unquestioning loyalty to him. The document was kept in Bhindi Bazaar in the house of Aga Khan’s son, where some seventeen hundred Khojas (the majority) signed it. However, Habib Ibrahim and his group refused to do so. Copies of the document were sent to Gujarat and Kathiavar and also to Zanzibar and East Africa to collect signatures of supporters of the Aga Khan.

After this incident the Habib Ibrahim group attempted through court procedures to have all the Khoja property held by the Aga Khan placed under an independent trust that would ensure its proper use for the religious benefit of all Sunni Khojas, excluding the Nizari Khojas. There were also other demands meant to reform community conventions that were deemed unjust and disposed toward the protection of the Aga Khan’s ultimate rights over everything owned by the Khoja community. Of greater alarm to the Aga Khan and his followers was a plan to sever the Khoja community’s relationship to the Aga Khan through a suit filed in Bombay High Court.

The end result of this conflict was the permanent excommunication of the Habib Ibrahim group in September 1862. By 1864 the Aga Khan had ordered the Sunni mullahs to stop conducting religious services for his followers and had installed Shi`i mullahs to lead the regular prayers in accordance with the Twelver Shl’i rite. The court case against the Aga Khan was lost, and the supporters of Habib Ibrahim separated from the main group of the Khojas, establishing a separate Sunni mosque and graveyard. When the Twelver Khoja jama’at was formed following further friction in the Khoja community on issues related to Islamic authenticity, many Sunni Khojas joined this group and began to intermarry with them.

Religious Awakening and Affiliation. From the time of their conversion to Islam until the 1860s, the influence of Sunni mullahs led the Khojas to favor the Sunni school. The beginning of the “Khoja awakening” in the first half of the nineteenth century ushered in the revival of the community’s religious identity as a consequence of increased religious knowledge. With the exception of the Habib Ibrahim group, the Khoja community, following the public announcement circulated by the Aga Khan in 1861, had asserted their Shi’i identity.

However, religious practices among the Khojas until that time were not fully islamized or formalized. Pir Dadu, in the mid-sixteenth century, had traveled to Iran and had obtained from Isma’ili religious leaders prayer manuals that were used by the Khojas. Following this period knowledge about Shiism based on Persian works began to take roots among the Khojas. Religious books were written in the Sindhi language, based on the Persian jangnamah, describing the martyrdom of Imam Husayn in Karbala. These jangndmah were recited at the commemorative gatherings to mourn the tragedy of Karbala in every jama’atkhanah, following the festival of `Id al-Adha, through the month of Muharram until the fortieth (chihlum) of the martyrs of Karbala. These gatherings primarily functioned as religious schools for the Khojas, and Shiism became firmly established among them.

Nonetheless, an 1847 court case established the fact that prior to this period the Khojas had little knowledge about their Shi`i affiliation, not understanding the differences between the Shi`i and Sunni schools. Thus, when Aga Khan in 1861 required the Khojas to declare their Shiism, the community had no hesitation in doing so. The Shi i mullahs had prepared the community for this declaration of allegiance; more importantly, the Aga Khan and his son ‘Ali Shah regularly led the community in prayers and commemorative gatherings. These and other Iranian religious practices were based on Twelver Shiism, which consequently formed the basis of the Islamic religious practices that gradually took root among the Khojas under Aga Khans.

In 1862 a Twelver mullah, Qadir Husayn, opened a madrasah in the Khoja quarter of Bombay. In this religious school, not only did the Khoja children learn to recite the Qur’an, their parents also joined them to receive instruction about Twelver Shi`i religious practices. After a few years Qadir Husayn returned to Karbala; in response to a request by a leading Twelver Khoja, Hajji Devji Jamal, to the Shi’i mujtahid in Iraq, the mullah was sent again to Bombay in 1872 to teach Shiism.

The presence of Mullah Qadir Husayn in Bombay and his ceaseless efforts in educating the Khojas made community members aware of the syncretic Nizari Khoja religious rituals, which had continued to employ the Sindhi Hindu vernacular without requiring strict adherence to the shari`ah. Ironically, the Persian Isma’ili leadership of the Aga Khans was an important factor in this awareness of Twelver Shiism among the Khojas. The Nizari leaders had introduced Twelver religious practices in the jama’atkhanahs to combat Sunni influences and to assert their absolute authority among their Khoja followers. In addition, the presence of other Sli`is from the Northern Province of India and their continuous moral support of the Khojas resulted in the spread of the Twelver Shiism.

Nevertheless, the Twelver Khojas were still part of the larger Khoja community under the leadership of the Aga Khan. On realizing this influence of Twelver Shiism among their followers, the Nizari leaders started to impose restrictions on Twelver ShN practices. Under the Aga Khan III the Nizari Khoja community asserted its separate identity, dissociating itself from Twelver religious practices, including their basic ceremonial laws connected with fundamental teachings of Islam and the practice of commemorative gatherings to mourn Imam Husayn. The dissenting Khojas, although afraid of being ostracized from the jama’atkhanah, still dared to meet with Mullah Qddir Husayn and swore that if any one of their group was outcast, every other member would join that person. The news of this resolution reached the Isma’ili leaders. However, the number of Mullah Qadir Husayn’s followers was small, and they thought that the group could be talked into abandoning its move toward Twelver Shiism. Two prominent persons who provided moral as well as financial support for the new group were Hdjji Devji Jamal and Hdjji Khalfan Ratansi.

When Hajji Ratansi’s daughter died, the Nizari Khoja community required that he abandon the Twelver faith as a precondition for attending his daughter’s funeral. Hdjji Ratansi refused, and his daughter had to be buried in the Iranian cemetery. What helped the “smaller jama`at” of the Khoja (as it came to be known) was the support of many non-Khoja Twelver Shi’is in Bombay. The success of the Twelver Khojas in Bombay in forming their own group spread throughout the Khoja world; everywhere new jama`ats were formed, and the movement of spreading Twelver teachings was symbolized by the construction of proper Islamic mosques instead of the jama’atkhanah, as well as the performance of the regular salat practiced by all other Muslims regardless of their sectarian affiliation.

In this movement the disciples of Mullah Qadir Husayn played a major role. Mullah `Abdullah Sdlih Sachedina went to Zanzibar, where his lectures had enormous influence in the Twelver Khoja community. Another prominent student of Mullah Qadir Husayn, Hdjji Naji, began to preach the Twelver faith and launched a monthly journal, Rdhi najdt, during these critical days.

Nizari and Twelver Khojas Today. The Nizari Khojas, under the long and progressive leadership of the Aga Khan III (d. 1957), consolidated their Nizari identity and became thoroughly modernized through education and socioeconomic reforms that made the community self-sufficient. The unquestioning devotion of the Nizari Khojas to the Aga Khan, in addition to the restructured hierarchical communal organization with the Aga Khan as the supreme authority, facilitated the implementation of religious, social, and economic reforms. The policy of sociocultural assimilation of the Nizari

Khojas-who live as minorities in many parts of the world-through an elaborate administrative system of councils has continued under the Aga Khan IV.

The Twelver Khojas in many ways share the administrative and organizational structures of their Nizari brothers. In religious matters they accept the authority of the mujtahids in Iran and Iraq, to whom they are bound doctrinally in the absence of the Twelfth Hidden Imam. However, a conservative spirit dominates their outlook on questions of sociocultural integration. Calls for reforms within the community are regarded as a threat to long-established traditions of Indo-Muslim origin. Since the religious leadership in Iran and Iraq has little understanding of Khoja culture, it has not been able to provide the necessary directives to move the Twelver Khoja community toward Islamic solutions to the problems of sociocultural assimilation in a rapidly changing social and political climate, nor has the community recognized a single leadership within itself to provide such solutions.

Today the Khoja followers of the Aga Khan have formally abandoned their “khojaism” with its elements of Hinduism in favor of a more universal Shi’i Isma’ili tariqah (a remnant of the Persian Sufi connections of the Persian Isma’ili missionaries). Similar efforts toward shedding the Hindu past can be observed among the Twelver Khojas-who, ironically, in their worldwide organizations adhere to their “khojaism.” The inconsistency of clinging to a title that implies privilege claimed on the basis of birth while maintaining commitment to universal Islamic brotherhood has been the main reason for its abandonment in the recent decades of globalization of the Khoja community.

[See also Aga Khan; Isma’iliyah.]


Three basic histories on which I have depended to draw the material are: Sachedina Nanjiani, Khoja Vratant (Ahmedabad, 1892); Adalji Dhanji Kaba, Khoja Qawm ni tavarikh: The History of the Khojas (Amreli, 1330/1912); and Jaffer Rahimtoola, History of Khojas (1905). Most of these works were compiled during the second part of the nineteenth century, the period of “Khoja awakening.” Accordingly, we have remarkably objective reports on the events that led to the division in the Khoja community at this time. In fact, A. D. Kaba reports episodes in which he himself was an eye witness. In addition, see the following works:

Daftary, Farhad. The Isma’ilis: Their History and Doctrines. Cambridge, 1990.

Ivanow, Wladimir. “Khodja.” In The Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, p. 256. Leiden, 1953.

Madelung, Wilferd. “Isma’iliyya.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 4, p. 201. Leiden, 1960.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/khojas/

  • writerPosted On: July 26, 2014
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