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The History of Khoja Muslims

The History of Khoja Muslims (part 1)

Originating from India, Khojas were initially converted from Hinduism to the Isma’ili branch of Islam. Later communal fighting split this group even further. Known for their sense of discipline and organization, the diverse Khoja groups are now well set up all through the world.


 The Early Khojas

Khojas trace their ancestry to India, more specifically to Sind, Punjab, Gujarat, and Kutch where their forefathers converted to Islam in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. A Persian Isma’ili da’i (proselyte), Pir Ṣadr al-Din (Sadardin; d. 1369 or 1416) is credited with the mass conversion of the Khojas from the Lohanas, a Hindu caste living predominantly in the Gujarat province in India.

The word “Khoja” is a close Indian approximation to the title given by Pir Ṣadr al-Din, Khwaja. He started the communal organization of the Khojas by building the first three jamaat khanas (assembly or prayer halls) and appointing mukhis (leaders).


Dividing into three groups

Over time, several Pirs or spiritual leaders came after Ṣadr al-Dīn, and gradually, the beliefs crystallized into those of the Isma’ili Nizari faith; particularly after the Aga Khan Hasan ‘Ali Shah in 1840. By this time, the Khojas lived all over Kutch and Gujarat. Some had also moved to Bombay and Muscat. By that time, three variations of Khojas were organized under three different jamaats: The Sunni Khojas, who were very few, the Twelver Khojas; and the majority who were the Nizari Isma’ili Khojas, followers of the Aga Khan.


Isma’ili Khojas

The period between 1845 and 1861 was marked by a socio-religious turmoil in the Khoja community. In 1861 the Aga Khan circulated a general announcement declaring the Khojas to be Shi’as; their marriage and funeral rites were to be performed following the Shi’i practices. Moreover, he required his followers to put their signatures under this announcement, declaring their Shi’i affiliation and unquestioning loyalty to him.


Sunni Khojas

The arrival of the Aga Khan I Hasan ‘Ali Shah in India escalated earlier disputes within the Khoja community about the rights of the Imam. The genesis of the split goes back to 1829 when a rich merchant, Habib Ibrahim, refused to pay a religious tax known as dasond (the tenth), which was imposed by the Nizari Imam. It was regarded by Habib Ibrahim and some fifty families as lacking any Islamic basis. When all the families were excommunicated in 1830, they chose to convert to Sunnism.

In 1866, a group of disenchanted members filed a suit against the Aga Khan in court regarding the usage of community finances. The judgment of Sir Joseph Arnold in a lawsuit fully upheld the rights and authority of the Aga Khan, leading to the dissidents separating themselves from the Isma’ili community. These formed the nucleus of the Sunni Khojas.


Taken from “Khojas” by Liyakat Takim

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