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History of Khoja Shia Isna Asharis

KHOJA – MEANING AND ORIGINATION

Derived from the Persian word ‘Khwaja”, the word ‘Khoja’ refers to Lohanas and Thakkars of Kathiawad and Kutch in Gujarat (India) who converted to Nizari Ismaili Islam over 600 years ago. Pir Sadardin gave the first converts to Ismailism the name 'Satpanth' because they were the followers of the 'True Path.' They were then given the title of ‘Khwaja’ to replace their title of ‘Thakkar’.

The literal meaning of the Persian word ‘Khwaja’ is Sir, Master, Leader or a Man of Distinction. Thus, Khwaja is actually a term of honour bestowed on someone. With the passage of time, Khwaja became Khoja. The word Khoja is therefore a phonetic corruption of the Persian word Khwaja.

In the 19th century, the Ismaili Imamat (office of the Imam) became established in India and a programme of consolidation and reorganization of the community and its institutions began. These changes led to differences of opinion among Khojas. While the majority of Khojas remained Ismaili, one group became Isna Ashari and a smaller group adopted Sunnism.

THE PLINTH

In approximately 1862, some Khojas went for Ziyarat and while in Najaf they met the Mujtahid of the time, Sheikh Zainul Aabedeen Mazandarani. During their discussions they realized that there was a need for a teacher to come to India to teach the community Islam. Soon after, at the behest of Sheikh Mazandarani, Mulla Qader Husain arrived in India and some Khoja families left the Ismaili sect and learnt from Mulla Qader the principles of Shia Isna Ashari faith. In 1862, Mulla Qader Husain opened a Madrasa and his efforts resulted in more and more Khoja families leaving the Ismaili sect and accepting the Shia Isna Ashari faith.

THE FIRST MARTYR

Killu Khatau Nagarpurwala was one of the well-known pupils of Mulla Sahab. He attained martyrdom defending Shia Isna Ashari faith and the life of Mulla Qader Husain. He was hanged at Dongri Jail, his corpse was taken to Mogul Masjid by a huge crowd and he was buried at the Marine Line graveyard. At the time of his martyrdom in 1878, he was just 26 years of age.

Shaheed Hirjibhai Allahrakhiya

Shaheed Hirjibhai Allahrakhiya

Shaheed Laljibhai Sajan

Shaheed Laljibhai Sajan

THE FIRST KHOJA PREACHER

Another prominent student of Mulla Qader Husain was Haji Ghulam Ali Haji Ismail, who is better known as Haji Naji. Born in 1864, we was a Gujarati speaker who was instrumental in converting many Muslims from Ismaili to Isna Ashari. Despite the difficulty of practicing faith, he preached with confidence, determination and persistence. It is said that though Haji Naji’s sermons were simple they touched the hearts of his listener. Through his eloquence, he was instrumental in connecting to people across generations. He started a Gujarati magazine, Raah-e-Najat in 1892 and also wrote and published nearly 300 books on Tafsir, Duas, Majaalis, Marsiyas, and Sermons. The invaluable service that was rendered by Haji Naji was the most critical time in the history of the Khoja Shia Isna Ashari Community in India and elsewhere.

Hujjatul Islam Marhoom Shaikh Abul Qasim Najafi sahab

Hujjatul Islam Marhoom Shaikh Abul Qasim Najafi sahab

Marhoom Shaikh Hasan Najafi

Marhoom Shaikh Hasan Najafi

BOMBAY (MUMBAI) JAMAAT – THE PARENT JAMAAT

In 1881 another well-known Aalim Ayatullah Shaikh Abul Qasim Najafi came to Bombay from Najaf. Khoja Isna Asharis who were associating themselves with other Isna Asharis started coming to him for religious dialogues and discussions. He commenced Namaz-e-Juma, which was so far never offered by Shias in Bombay in 1897 at Shusatri Imambada, Bhendi Bazaar. Khojas, who had started practicing Isna Ashari faith, also participated.

The splinter group of Khoja Shia Isna Asharis who were about 50 in number resigned from their opponent's Jamaat and formed a new Jamaat. The Khoja Shia Isna Ashari Jamaat Bombay was officially registered in 1899. In 1901, the splinter group made an announcement in the newspapers and the Khoja Isna Ashari Jamaat was thus established. The group became popularly known as Nani Jamaat and the mainstream was called Moti Jamaat.

The first priority of the splinter group was to construct a Masjid. They created a Trust and this trust purchased a building for Rs.49000 and an adjacent godown for Rs.9000 in Samuel Street, Dongri (presently known as Hazrat Abbas (a.s.) street) for building the Masjid.

When the opponents first came to know that a Masjid was being constructed, they were greatly agitated and tried to stop the construction. They filed a Petition with about 2000 signatories to the Police Commissioner of Mumbai. Haji Abdullahbhai Haji Mawji as the first Hon. Secretary of Khoja Shia Isna Ashari Jamaat Bombay gave a very convincing reply which eventually led to the construction of the Masjid.

Marhoom Abdullah Bhai Lalji Sahab.png

Marhoom Abdullah Bhai Lalji Sahab

Marhoom Hasham Bhai Vishram Sahab 1st President

Marhoom Hasham Bhai Vishram Sahab 1st President

Marhoom Kasambhai Alibhai Nanji Miyani Sahab

Marhoom Kasambhai Alibhai Nanji Miyani Sahab

THE MARTYRS

When the opponents were thus frustrated, they killed Hirji bhai Allarakhia and Laalji bhai Sajan and injured Abdullah bhai Laljee and Kasam bhai Nanji Miyani. The foundation of the Masjid was thus strengthened with the blood of Martyrs. The third victim, Abdullah Laljee, survived the attack because the assailant was prevented from making a second stab by Noor Mohammed bhai Dossal. Abdullah bhai Laljee was of the founding members of the Isna Ashari Jamaat and played a leading role in the building of the Pala Gali. He went on to serve the Bombay Khoja Shia Isna Ashari Jamaat for over two decades, first as the Vice President and then as the President.

ARAMBAGH

One of the problems that confounded Shia Isna Ashari Khojas was the question of the burial of their dead. However, at the request of Ayatullah Abul Qasim Najafi, Haji Abul Husain, an Iranian merchant, got a plot of land allotted for graveyard which was named 'Arambagh'. In 1899, the foundation ceremony of the Masjid was performed on the said land by Shaikh Abul Qasim Najafi.

THE FIRST KHOJA JAMAAT IN THE WORLD

Historical evidence suggests that there were multiple reasons for Khojas sailing to the East African coast and settling there. While some left the Indian shores seeking opportunities in trade and commerce, others left due to the trials and tribulations and economic hardships faced on account of secession.

Thus, while the splinter group of the Khoja Shia Isna Asharis in Bombay were trying to overcome the stiff resistance from the larger group, the Khoja Shia Isna Asharis of Zanzibar store a march over their Mumbai brethren in establishing a Jamaat and the Kuwwat Jamaat of Zanzibar became the first ever Khoja Shia Isna Ashari Jamaat in the world in 1882.

DISPERSAL

As these Khoja pioneers spread out across Africa, they were subjected to a variety of European influences and they learned to deal with 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.

The success of the Khoja Shia Isna Asharis in Bombay to form their own group spread throughout the Khoja world at that time. Everywhere a new Jamaat was formed and the movement of spreading the Isna Ashari teachings was symbolized by the construction of mosques instead of 'Jamaat Khanas' and the performance of regular Salaat as practiced by all other Shias.

The initial Shia Isna Ashari Khojas migrated from Kutch, Kathiawad in Gujarat to Bombay and Karachi. In the latter half of the last century, they ventured to East Africa, Burma and Aden. After the Partition of India, a further wave of mass migration of Khojas took place from Kutch, Kathiawad, other parts of Gujarat and Bombay to Karachi in Pakistan.

In the wake of the liberation of the African Colonies in the 1960's and 1970’s and due to resultant political upheavals, especially in Zanzibar, Uganda, Mozambique, Madagascar and Congo, another wave of movement from the Continent of Africa, and later on, also from Aden, took place. This resulted in further dispersal of the Community hitherto alien lands. This time, the community migrated to Europe and North America.

The latest exodus took place in 1990, when an entire community of 1100 living in Somalia was evacuated in a daring seaborne evacuation exercise organised by the Community members settled in Kenya, while Mogadishu, the capital city of Somalia was rocked with civil war and inter-tribal strife.

THE FEDERATIONS

In 1945, the Community in Africa resolved to unite and organise themselves collectively by forming the Federation of the KSI Jamaats of Africa (better known as Africa Federation)

In the aftermath of the Uganda exodus, the Community took a epic step to form the World Federation in 1976.

It was only after the formation of the World Federation that some positive links with the Indo-Pak sub-continent were revived. The World Federation under the spirited leadership of Mulla Asghar played a vital role in the formation of the Gujarat Federation and in bringing the world community closer to each other.

Subsequently, NASIMCO (Organization of North American Shia Ithnasheri Muslim Communities) was formed. In 1993-94, COEJ (The Council of European Jamaats) was formalized as a Regional Federation. Recently, Pakistan Federation for formed, while at the initiative of the Mumbai KSI Jamaat, India Federation was established in December 2013.

GLOBAL PRESENCE AND CURRENT STATUS

The KSI community originated predominantly from the Kadhiawad and Kutch regions of Gujarat and fought for identity in Bombay. Later, they dispersed and settled in various countries in the Eastern part of the African continent. In the early 1970s, hordes of Khoja Shia Isna Asharis of Africa found their new homes in UK, USA, Canada and the Middle East.

Today, members of the Khoja Shia Isna Ashari Community are also found in Australia, New Zealand, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Scandinavian Europe, Central America, South America and Russia. While there is no exact census of the community’s headcount, the rough estimate of the number of KSI members across the globe is around 125000 to 140000.

TODAY, A KHOJA IS A KHOJA BY BIRTH

As this mass conversion from Lohanas and Thakkars has stopped centuries ago, the current day Khoja is a Khoja by birth. Khoja is therefore not a religion or a sect. It is more like a tribe or a caste or a big family under a single umbrella. One cannot convert to a Khoja now. It should also be noted that all Ismailis are not Khojas. However, all Khojas were or are Ismailis.

Admission to many Khoja Shia Isna Ashari Jamaats including Mumbai Jamaat is restricted only to born Khojas. Hence, Ismaili or Sunni Khojas can become members of KSI Jamaats on furnishing documentary evidence, while non-Khojas cannot become members. Nevertheless, there is no restriction on anyone on practicing faith in the Mosques and Imambargahs run by the Jamaats.

(This article is written after collecting, collating and assimilating information from various sources. Wallahu Aalam)

Credits - Salim Rajabali Dawoodani
(Originally published in Federation Samachar, Africa in 2014)

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