Classification: Ethnic Group
Subdivisions: Shia Ithna-asheri, Shia Ismaili, Sunni Hanafi
Significant populations in: South Asia, East Africa, Europe and North America
Language The Indo-Aryan languages of Urdu, Sindhi, Gujarati, Memoni and Kutchi
Religion Shia Islam and other minorities

The Khwajahs or officially Khojas (Urdu: خوجہ) are a (mostly Muslim) community that are mainly concentrated in South Asia, but due to migrations over the centuries have spread to many parts of the globe. The word Khoja is a phonetic corruption of the word Khawaja, an Arabic/Persian title(خواجه). The people are sometimes referred to as Persian Lords because of this lordship.

In Pakistan, Khojas are concentrated in the province of Sindh and especially in the city of Karachi. While in India, most Khojas live in the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and the city of Hyderabad. Many Khojas have migrated and settled over the centuries in East Africa, Europe and North America.

Ismaili Khojas

About six hundred years ago, the Persian-born Pir Sadruddin arrived in Sindh. There are a number of myths about his origins. The most common consensus among historians is that Pir Sadruddin was a Muslim Dai (missionary). This is evident from the so-called old Ginans, which have survived in their original form. These original Ginans clearly teach and advocae mainstream Islam. Below is an English translation of a few verses from such old Ginan entitled Booj Niranjan, attributed to Pir Sadruddin.

"If you control your instincts, keep the fasts of Ramadan, recite Shahada with belief, then can relish Islam. Read the Qur'an, understand the book, then you will visualize the path of Nabi (prophet)".

Pir Sadruddin lived for some time amongst the rich Hindu landowners of Sindh known as the Thakurs. After studying their way of life, Pir Sadruddin enlightened them to a new faith of Islam. Many Sindhis converted to Islam by the missionary work of Pir Sadruddin. Before the arrival of the Aga Khan, Khojas followed Sunni belief but retained many Hindu traditions including the one about ten incarnations (Dashavatar) of Vishnu, the only difference being that they believed Imam Ali was the tenth and last incarnation (Avatar).

Some historians maintain that he converted the Thakurs to Nizari Ismaili Islam. Whatever may be the case, these converts could no longer be called Thakurs or Hindus and they came to be known as "Khawaja" (خواجہ; lord, master) which overtime became phonetically corrupted as "Khoja".

Over a period of time, several pirs came after Sadruddin and gradually, the beliefs crystallised to those of the Muslim Ismaili Nizari faith; particularly after the arrival of the Aga Khan I from Iran to South Asia in the first half of the 19th Century. By this time, the Khojas had spread all over Gujarat. Some had also moved to Bombay and Muscat. They paid their dues to the Ismaili Jamaat-khana and lived quite harmoniously within their society. The main place of worship was the Jamaat-khana and the community was organised round the Jamaat-khana too - which served as a religious as well as a social centre. The Ismaili Khojas number over 270 thousand of an estimated 25 million Shia Ismailis.

Ithna-asheri Khojas

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 Aabedeen Mazandarani. During their discussions they realised that there was a need for a teacher to come to South Asia to teach the community Islam. Soon after, at the behest of Sheikh Mazandarani, Mullah Kader Hussein arrived in the subcontinent and some Khoja families left the Ismaili sect and learnt from Mullah Kader, the principles of the Shi'a Ithna-asheri faith.Muhammed Ali Jinnah and his sister Fatima Jinnah are well known Ithna-asheri Khojas.

A student of Mullah Kader Hussein, Haji Ghulamali Haji Ismail, remembered as Haji Naji was born in Bombay (now Mumbai, India) was a Gujarati speaking Shia Islamic Scholar who was instrumental in converting many Ismailis into the Shia Ithna-asheri sect. His remarkable achievement was his pen revolution in which he published magazines like Rah-e-Nijat and Books of supplications in Gujarati language, a feat that was achieved by none before him. One such book, Majmuaa, is an integral part of the Ithna-asheri Khojas' library to-date. His speeches, his preaching and his simple way of explaining the religion has earned him a lot of respect and is revered by Ithna-asheri Khojas all around the world.

From these few families, the community has now grown to well over 125,000 Khoja Shia Ithna-asheris. The overall number is still very small when considering that there are an estimated 200 million Shia Ithna-asheris in the world today. In North America, there is a fair concentration of Ithna-asheri Khojas, from Vancouver to Orlando.

Migration to Africa

It is a well known fact that for hundreds of years South Asians sailed down the coast of East Africa 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 took advantage of opportunities in commerce and trade.

While the new land offered limitless opportunities to the Khojas, the new environment and prevailing influences called for a reorientation. The majority of them converted from Ismailism after arriving in East Africa and were novices in the 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

The Khojas around 1870s had their own brand of Islam and they seemed a confused mass. Their beliefs had thrown them into disorder. The devout ones with their orthodoxy could not bear and accept the changes and modernity that seemed creeping into their system. They revolted and while some were debarred from the jamatkhana (place of worship) others abandoned it on their own. They adopted the main brand of Shiaism calling themselves Ithnashris (twelvers). They even recruited the priestly Persians to guide them through, hence the origination of an Agha(Persian) community in Zanzibar. Alongside were the Bahranis(Arab Shias from Bahrain) whose inspirations emanated from Kalbe Aly Khan, a wazir(minister) to Sultan Majid/Bargash. He proved a great influence and helped out the Khojas to secede.

Zanzibar had a prosperous Khoja community and it was quite forthcoming into this secession. In fact the Kuwwat Jamaat(communal society) of Zanzibar became the first ever Khoja Shia Ithnashri Jamaat in the world in 1882 when the Khojas elsewhere including the subcontinent were still facing opposition to establish their separate identity. There were stirring events and emotions were roused as the dissidents fervently built up their mosque. Initially the connection between the two Khoja groups persisted for a while and even a couple of dhegs(large pots) used to be dispatched to the jamatkhana from the mosque during jaman(feast). Social traditions also prompted the two counterparts to meet each other. Later restrictions became severe and even family members separated disconnecting ties between each other or the two met in hiding at a secret place.

Religious centres

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, Imambargahs, Madrasahs and schools.

Retention of identity

Under 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. Hence the persistent perseverance by the Khojas to remain within a well-knit framework of the Jamaat, allowing no intrusion.

Non-Khojas are often considered racist because of their "insular" behavior and their zealousness to "preserve the identity". Amongst Shia Khoja groups, it is believed there exists a heavy "Khoja only" attitude. This idea is further demonstrated by the history of "Khoja Only Membership" among Islamic centres. While many centres no longer say they're Khoja only, the idea is not completely off the table.

Beyond Africa

In the same manner, that the young Khojas had braved the monsoons in search for better opportunities, the Khoja Community has now spread all over the world.

See also

External links


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