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Blog: The Khojas – History and lineage

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Are you someone who identifies as being part of the Khoja Shia Ithna’sheri community, but aren’t aware of the history and lineage of your community? When asked by your peers why you have connections to both India and Africa, can you provide an accurate answer with confidence? Or do we just brush off these questions, unable to accurately explain our origins? Do you believe all Khojas are Shia Ithna’sheris?

The term Khoja derives from the Persian word ‘Khwajah’ – meaning honour. Khojas are mainly from the Gujarat and Kutch regions of India, who converted to Nizari Ismaili Islam from Hinduism by the influences of Pirs – most notably Pir Sadruddin in the 13th century onwards.

Historically, it is believed that Khojas originated from the Loahanas caste – the Indian trading caste, quite high in the Indian caste system. However, there is a sizeable difference of opinion on the matter. Hassan Jaffer writes that Haiderali Djina Barday of Madagascar believed that many Khojas were from the Gujarati agricultural class. At the time when Khojas were massively migrating to Zanzibar between 1840-1870, severe droughts and famines caused many Khoja farmers to join the caravans of Khoja traders that were leaving for East Africa. This is further corroborated by Hatim Amijee, who maintains that the majority of Khojas were from low caste backgrounds who converted in order to better their social and economic status. This argument is substantiated by the fact that much of Ismaili religious literature displays a lack of Loahana influences but show frequent indications to agricultural lifestyles.

In the 19th century, the Ismaili Imamat was established in India, initiating a reorganisation of institutions and community dynamics. This led to some divisions of opinion among the Khojas and so despite a majority of Khojas remaining Ismaili, a significant number became Ithna’sheri and a smaller group adopted Sunnism. Due to the split in the community, the emerging group of Shia Ithna’sheris set out to create their own community – the Khoja Shia Ithna’sheri Muslim Community.

Since a large number of Gujarati Khojas were (apparently) part of the mercantile community, they showed much interest in trading opportunities across borders. 1860 saw a great famine in both Bengal and Gujarat and as a result, Gujaratis began to seriously consider opportunities elsewhere. Many moved to settle in Bombay or Karachi. Alongside migration to East Africa, many also moved toward Burma, the Persian Gulf (largely to Muscat in Oman) and the Iranian coast.

Two of the first members to be excommunicated from the wider Khoja community were Haji Dewji Jamal and Alarakhiya Walli. Dewji Jamal proceeded to build the first Khoja Shia Ithna’sheri mosque in Zanzibar, East Africa in 1881 – it was called Quwwatul Islam – Islam Strength. This was not achieved without difficulty. Dewji Jamal made plenty of personal sacrifices in order to promote the Shia Ithna’sheri faith in Zanzibar. He faced strong opposition from the main Khoja community through the likes of Sir Tharia Topan, who was an incredibly powerful individual with much involvement in Zanzibar’s governmental affairs. Despite being spat at with betel nut saliva by the opposition, Dewji Jamal did not lodge any complaints against them to the British Consul because after all, they were still his brothers in faith. The Shia Ithna’sheri faith was further propagated in Zanzibar by many who studied under Mulla Qadir Hussein in India. Practices that were not in line with the faith were debunked either by these students or by scholars when Khoja Shia Ithna’sheris went to perform Ziyarat in Iraq. Further to this, non-Indian Shias in Zanzibar from Iranian and Bahraini communities offered great support to the small yet growing Khoja community.

Unlike what we are renowned for now, back then the Khoja Shia Ithna’sheri Community were characterised by Farhad Daftary as ‘the least organised group among Asian immigrants to East Africa’. Having essentially been outcasted, the Khoja Shia Ithna’sheris were few, lacked direction and understandably still held influences from the Ismaili faith. They practised Islamic rituals and commemorated the tragedy of Kerbala in Muharram by holding majalis at each other’s houses until they were established enough to build a mosque and form a wider community. Indeed, this history repeated itself a century later when Khoja Shia Ithna’sheris were to migrate again towards the West in Europe and North America. After the Ugandan expulsion of South Asians in 1972, many Shia Ithna’sheris found themselves in secluded places without any community members around them. The faith and community spirit was kept alive by the elders of these families who held services in their houses and brought their children up as Muslims in alienating environments without the comfort of communal belonging.

When the Khojas left India for East Africa, some Shias from India migrated to Fiji or the Caribbean and tracing their lineage shows that most lost their origin identity and religious practice. This highlights the struggles that many faced to ensure that the next generations would not lose their identity. It is recognised that this article does not provide a full detailed account of the history and lineage of the Khoja Shia Ithna’sheri community, but rather it aims to offer an understanding of how we have come to be where we are. I hope that after reading this you realise that if it were not for the efforts of many great individuals from our community, we would not be as established or settled in the organised spaces that we are. Without great dedication and commitment, the Khoja Shia Ithna’sheri community would have been unable to hold dearly its cultural practices, languages and religion. We have managed to keep our community, beliefs and culture so tightly knit despite having faced external influences due to migration. How will you contribute to keeping our identity alive?





The Endangered Species: An Account of the Journey of Faith by the Khoja Shia Ithna-sheri Community by Hassan Ali M Jaffer, Second Edition, 2014: https://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_Endangered_Species.html?id=v8FezQEACAAJ&redir_esc=y

By: Mohamedasif
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