The Makings of a Transnational Khoja Business Community

The genesis of the Khoja Community dates back to late fourteenth century, in the desert of Sind, (in present day Pakistan) bya missionary named Pir Sadr Din who arrived to live among them. Myths about his origins are many. Some historians maintain that he was one amongst many emissaries of the NizariImam of the Ismaili sect. Others suggest that he was a Sufi teacher from Persia. Pir Sadr Din came to live among the rich Hindu landowners called Thakkars, who believed that the Hindu deity Lord Vishnu has had nine incarnations on this earth. They were waiting for the tenth. Pir Sadr Din is reported to have presented them with the notion that he had come to give them the glad tidings of the tenth incarnation of Lord Vishnu and that was Imam Ali (as), the first Imam of the Shia Muslims. Thus, he was successful in converting quite several Lohana Thakkars into an indigenous faith called Satpanth (True Path) – a peculiar admixture of Sufi/Hindu beliefs. This doctrine is encapsulated in a famous ginan entitled DasaAvatara, a primary text for the followers of the Aga Khan until very recently.

The Khoja Wanderlust

Along with their Gujarati compatriots, Khojas sailed across the torturous Indian Ocean braving the monsoon winds in single sailed dhows to the unexplored East African coast. New to the land, novices in their faith and as a minority amongst a minority, these Khojas began to find their place in East Africa. Their Gujarati penchant for belonging to a ‘nat’ (a closely-knit society) stood them on good stead as they availed of limitless opportunities in the new lands. With an instinct for survival, coupled with a sense of business adventure, Khojas settled all over Eastern Africa. With help from each other they progressed and prospered. Wherever they settled they soon formed themselves into a Khoja Shia IthnaAsheri Community, commonly known as the Jamaat, guarded by a sense of pride and belonging. They counselled each other and invited their families, and fellow men from India to join them and share in their venture.From these few families, the community has now grown to well over 150,000 Khoja Shia IthnaAsheris. The Ismaili Khojas number some 450,000 and there are still a few thousand of Sunni Khojas. It is no mean feat that over five generations the Khoja Shia IthnaAsheri, have spread over five continents, excelling in education, trade, commerce and in the professions.

Retention of identity

Beginning with the adjustment of engaging with the natives of their new-found home, and the Arab rulers in the coastal areas of Zanzibar and Mombasa, they came under German rule in Tanganyika, British rule in rest 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 experiences.  Despite the overwhelming pressures caused by differing national interests of these colonial powers and the ravages of the World Wars, it is a remarkable feat that the Khojas could maintain their identity and faith by persistently persevering to remain within a well-knit framework of the Jamaats and then the Federations, leading to the formation of the Word Federation and Regional Federation, modelled on the very first regional body, The Africa Federation,formed in 1945.

A Transnational Community

 In the same manner, as the young Khojas had braved the monsoons in search for better pastures, on the eastern shores of Africa, taking the political storms in Eastern Africa its stride, the Khoja Community further travelled to West and has now spread in almost 40 countries. It continues in replicating their Indian Sub-Continent  and African experience wherever they have settled. In addition to organising Jamaats and religious centres, the Community has not held back in sharing its intellectual and financial resources bymakinga significant contribution in business, professions as well as in civic and humanitarian work in everyplace they reside. True to the entrepreneur spirit of their forefathers, the next generation is now taking up the baton of trade and commerce and is greatly expanding its circle of influence by also excelling in academia, the arts and scientific research. Today the focus of the Community leadership is to enable the future generations to retain the values and teachings as taught by the Ahlul Bait (AS) while remaining connected to the valuable social capital its Khoja Heritage and Culture has created over time. It must never be forgotten that the Community is what it is today, largely because of an integrative locus of Khoja heritage and Islamic faith as per the teachings of Ahlul Bait AS).  The two are far from being mutually exclusive; indeed, one without the other would be like mint with a hole.