Sun, 28 Jan 1996 17:28:29 -0500
To: Ahlul-bayt Discussion Group
Subject:: Khoja - A Socio-Historical Perspective
The Khoja community is a cultural group whose origins and history have not
been studied in great detail to the present. As a result there is a great
paucity of sources, and of those which are available only a handful are written
in English. One prominent scholar and historian, Marhoom. Abbas Alloo, had
undertaken such a task, however, he was not able to complete his objective
before he passed away in July of 1993. However, it is due to the generosity of
his family that the author was able to obtain the sources utilized for this
paper.This paper is therefore dedicated to him and it is hoped that he would
have approved of its content.
This article will first identify the historical development of the Khoja community. Secondly it will examine the reasons why members of this cultural group immigrated to Canada. Thirdly, it will examine the groups' differential values. Finally, it will focus on the implications of these dimensions on family life of its members.
Historical Development of the "Khoja" Community:
In order to trace the origins of the Khoja community it is necessary to travel to India in which Hinduism is the predominant religion of its citizens. There are several different sects within Hinduism and its followers belong to a particular caste. The origins of the Khoja community lie in Shakti Marg Hinduism and are believed to have been from the kshatriya caste. Collectively, the Khojas formed the "Lohana community". However, in the early fourteenth century this community underwent a significant transformation when a Persian missionary converted the members to Islam and gave them the name "khwaja". Professor Sachedina explains how this took place. It is certain that the name khoja is the phonetic corruption of the Persian word Khwaja (meaning "master, teacher, respected, well-to-do person") that was given by the Persian Isma'ili missionary Pir Sadruddin to his Hindu converts to Islam in the fourteenth century. (Sachedina, 1988, p.3)
Henceforth, this group of individuals would be known as the "khoja" community and would abandon their former beliefs in Hinduism and replace them with the beliefs of Islam. The "Khoja were a group of Indian Muslims who came mainly from Cutch, Kathiawar, and Gujerat". (Rizvi, p. 93) However, the "khoja" experienced a great deal of turmoil within the community and this eventually resulted in its separation into three distinct sub-groups. As noted earlier the Persian Isma'ili missionary Pir Sadruddin was the first to initiate the development of the group's separate identity. The Isma'ili influence would continue to play an important role in the future development of the khoja community. One of the three sub-groups that would eventually branch off from the original khoja community would be known as the Sunni Khojas. These individuals were opposed to some of the practices of the Agha Khan. (official leader of the Isma'ilis) For example, they opposed the requirement of a particular tax which was owed to the administrators of the jama'at khana. (prayer hall and meeting place for Isma'ilis) They were also opposed to the Agha Khan's "ultimate right over everything that was owned by the Khoja community". (Sachedina, 1988, p. 7) As a result, the Agha Khan, excommunicated the group in September of 1862. Those who continued to follow the Agha Khan were known as the Nizari Isma'ili Khojas who unlike the Sunni Khojas, were Shi'ites. These Khojas were the largest in number and would remain the dominant group. The third and final group, will be the focus of the subsequent portions of this paper. This group was known as the Ithna'asheri Khojas and were few in number. The Ithna'asheri khojas were also Shi'ites and their jama'at (community) was formed in 1905 also as a result of their opposition to the Isma'ili practices. (Rizvi, p. 95) However, this group continued to follow what they felt was authentic Shi'i Islam. It is interesting to note that the relationship between the Sunni and Shi'i Khojas was such that "many among the Sunni Khojas joined this group and even began to intermarry with them". (Sachedina, 1988, p. 8)
Reasons for Immigration to Canada:
Current statistics of the number of Khoja families in Canada was obtained from the Organization of North American Shia Ithna'asheri Muslim Communities. (NASIMCO) In Canada, estimates were available only for the number of families in each major city. (see Appendix A, page 8) The question which is to be answered is why did these Khojas immigrate to Canada? In reality of course, these individuals migrated to all parts of the world and there were several reasons for the migration to these foreign places.
In 1964 there was a revolution in Zanzibar which is in Tanzania. The native
Africans successfully overthrew the ruling Arabs and took control of the
government. Many Asians residing in Zanzibar had left in anticipation of the
uprising. In addition, many more left after the revolution when it became
evident that the new government had resulted in economic instability. Almost ten
years later in 1972, the "Asians in Uganda (Kenya) were asked to leave the
country for good, the Khoja Shia Ithna-Ashari settlement in Uganda
disappeared". (Jaffer,1989, p. 20) All over Africa Khoja Shias were fleeing
their homes for either political or economic reasons.
Within a space of four years after 1972, many Khoja Shia Ithna-Asharis of Africa found their new homes in England, the U.S.A., Canada, other European countries, the Middle East - with a section of them back home in India or Pakistan. (Jaffer, 1989, p. 20) Thus, as is noted above, the destinations of the Khojas was as varied as was their original place of residence.
Differential Values of the "Khoja" Community:
In order to examine the group's differential values it is first necessary to
dissect and define the term "Khoja Shi'a Ithna'asheri". As mentioned
earlier, the word "Khoja" was given by the Persian Isma'ili
missionary. It is important to emphasize that this term referred to those
converts who were then living in India. Therefore the term "Khoja" is
"a term used to describe a caste and as such even if a Khoja changes his
religion he still remains a Khoja". (Sachedina, 1988, p. 4) The next item
in the description is the word "Shia" which denotes the fact that the
individuals are adhering to the sect of Islam known as Shi'ism. Finally, a third
term is used to further classify which particular "branch" of Shi'ism
is being followed. In this case, it is the Ithna'asheri branch in which
"the Shias recognize only twelve Imams". (Hollister, 1953, p. 25) This
belief in the succession of twelve Imams after the death of the last Prophet is
an extremely crucial element in the life of a follower.
As stated previously, when the Khoja community separated into three separate groups, the Shia Ithna'asheri group was by far the smallest in number. This group was persecuted by the majority group of the Nizari Isma'ili Khojas. At this early stage Ithna'asheri followers were advised by their leaders to practice taqiyya (religious dissimulation) in which one concealed one's beliefs and practices from those who would cause one harm. Thus, followers are urged to patiently persevere with their faith. Moomen summarizes this concept which is highly valued by followers.
The theme of martyrdom and patient suffering is one that is very strong in Shi'ism. This is perhaps not surprising in a sect that has for much of its existence been a persecuted minority. This theme is embodied in the lives of the Imams themselves who are each regarded as having suffered intense persecution, in some cases imprisonment and physical punishment and who are all popularly considered to have been martyred. (except the twelfth Imam) (Moomen, 1985, p. 233)
The second important element which is highly valued is the legal and moral code of ethics which regulates every aspect of a follower's life, the Shari'a. Shari'a is more than law; it is also the right teaching, the right way to go in life, and the power that stands behind what is right. The Shari'a, then, comprises all that might be positively called law and occupies the central place in the Islamic system of final authority and ordering principle. It is an ideal as well as a reality and unites and guides the Muslims in both time and space, down through the generations and across the diverse and widespread regions of Islam. (Denny, 1985, p. 217)
Every action that a follower undertakes should be in accordance with the Shari'a. The Shari'a can be divided into two broad areas; the first being those acts of worship or devotion known as ibadat. (prayers, fasting, pilgrimage etc.) The second area covers all other non-ritualistic acts such as social transactions, leases, or contracts and is known as mu'amalat. The third important differential value lies in the Ithna'asheri belief in the twelfth Imam who is the Mahdi or the Messiah who will one day return to the world to guide the followers toward salvation.
The word Mahdi means "guided one" or, since guidance is from God, "divinely guided one." Among the Shi'a we shall find various uses of the term. But with the Ithna 'Ashariya, al-Mahdi is the twelfth Imam, who disappeared as a child and whose return is still expected. In the meantime, he lives in concealment and continues to guide his followers through the mujtahids. (Hollister, 1953, p. 47)
This concept or belief in the twelfth Imam is a crucial element in the lives of the Ithna'asheris. As stated above, in his absence, mujtahids (learned scholars of religion) are responsible for the welfare of the community. The mujtahids reside in the holy cities such as Iraq, Iran and Lebanon, however, their representatives are all over the world and provide the link between various different communities and the mujtahid.
The final question to be asked is how the differential values affect family
life. The history of the Khojas as a persecuted minority has resulted in the
necessity of a close-knit family and a strong affiliation with the local
community. The community holds weekly prayer sessions on Thursday evenings. At
these meetings the worshippers engage in the recitation of prayers as well and
then the leader of the community delivers a speech which heightens religious
awareness as well as comments on current issues facing the community in the
present day society. Religious instruction and practices are taught at home
daily and reviewed weekly as children attend a madrasah (a place of learning) or
what is known as "Sunday school". The family unit is considered the
basic building block for the community.
In many cases a single household may contain an extended family. This practice of living with one of the spouses' parents (usually the husband) originates from Hindu cultural traditions. At the point of marriage, "she must leave her parental home and go to live with her husband in his family's home". (Salvadori, 1989, p. 93) This practice of and extended family has its problems but one of its major advantages is the support and assistance which is provided by the other family members. Particularly when the couple has small children, the family serves as role models so that the children are able to see how the principles of the Shari'a are carried out. The children are constantly reminded of their religious duties at home since they live in a society in which they are in the minority and are exposed to a variety of belief systems which may differ from those of Islam. The intention is to protect and perpetuate the values of Islam by utilizing the family unit as the primary socializing agent.
The second idea presented above, the Shari'a, also has a profound impact on family life. By its very nature, the Shari'a is part of the family's daily routine and activities. A typical Shia family prays five times a day at specific times. The family eats only those foods which are permitted and avoids such things as alcohol and pork. Individuals are required to adhere to the Islamic dress code. (although this is not universally practiced) In addition the family attends regular prayer sessions at the local Mosque. In particular, the Thursday night prayer session mentioned earlier is unique to the Shi'a Ithna'asheri community. If the individual wishes to engage in a financial transaction with another person, then he may do so, however, he is not permitted to accept any form of interest compounded on the principle amount of a loan. Thus, this code of ethics mandates every possible action that the individuals within the family may engage in.
The third element referred to the Ithna'asheri belief is the role of the twelfth Imam. The relationship between the Imam, the mujtahid and the community forms the infrastructure of the Khoja Shia Ithna'asheri community and is replicated in all communities all over the world. The belief in this link between the current mujtahids to the Imam is the crucial factor which distinguishes this branch of Shi'ism from others. As a result the family is very future-oriented. That is, children are taught to prepare themselves spiritually and psychologically for the arrival of the Imam.
The history of the development of the Khoja Shi'a Ithna'asheri community is one which integrates geographical, cultural and religious elements. Any attempt to complete a historical analysis of this community is complicated by the fact that its members are spread across all the four corners of the world. In Canada, members can be found in almost all of the provinces. As with any cultural group, the Khoja Shi'a Ithna'asheri community has certain differential values that give them their unique qualities while still living in the multicultural society of Canada. The final part of this paper examined how these values impacted upon the average family life.
Denny, F.M. (1985). An Introduction to Islam. Macmillan Publishing Company,
Hollister, J.N. (1953). The Shi'a of India. Luzac & Company, London:England.
Jaffer, A.M.M. (1989). An Outline History of Khoja.
Shia Ithna'asheri In Eastern Africa. (publisher unknown) London:England.
Moomen, M. (1985). An Introduction to Shi'i Islam:The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism. Yale University Press, New Haven.
Rizvi, S.S.A. (date unknown). The Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheriya Community in East Africa (1840-1967). (publisher unknown).
Sachedina, A. (1988). Haji Naji:The Great Religious Educator of the Khoja Shi'a Ithna'Ashari Community. (publisher unknown)
Salvadori, C. (1989). Through Open Doors:A view of Asian Cultures in Kenya. Kenway Publications, Nairobi: Kenya.
Return to Ahlul-Bayt Discussion Group Posted Articles List.