Dr. Sibtain Panjwani
“O mankind! Indeed We created you from a male and a female, and made you nations and tribes that you may identify yourselves with one another. Indeed the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the most Godwary among you. Indeed Allah is all-knowing, all-aware.” (49:13)
As I write this article, the deep recesses of my soul long for a continuation of religious, cultural and moral values left by my forefathers – values that have defined me, my generation and the young generation that I see today. Whether we realise the history and nature of these values or not, there is an inescapable part of me that feels naturally comfortable with my religious and cultural heritage, my language Gujarati, the way I talk and associate with my community members, the spirit of volunteerism and administration that has defined my Khoja Shi’a Ithna-Asheri (KSIM) community. At the same time, I myself migrated from East-Africa to the United Kingdom as many had done since the 1950-60s (and to other places in the West). Arriving in UK with few Khoja families present, brick by brick we built the foundational institutions of a fully-fledged KSIM community that continues to function today – the jamaat, imambara, madrasah, world and regional institutions. These institutions intended to preserve two primary things: our religious identity which is rooted in the love for and values of the Ahl al-Bayt (a.s) and cultural identity as Indians, many of whom also adopted an East-African culture and way of living. 1 Qar?’?, ‘Al? Qul?., The Qur’?n: With a Phrase by Phrase English Translation. (London: ICAS Press, 2004), 49:13.
When I had completed my studies in dentistry at the University of Manchester, qualified as a dentist, got married and had children, my service to my Khoja community in the UK continued. However, I also began to adopt those British values that I saw as useful, along of course with the English language. The natural effects of migration had occurred on me as well as on my United Kingdom KSIM community – the same was happening all over the world where Khojas had migrated. So, another thing had become natural in me – a British way of life. And here comes a perceived crossroads – which one is more natural to me now – my KSIM identity, as passed on and developed by my forefathers or my British identity that I adopted? Is it possible that they intermingle at certain points yet vehemently oppose each other at other points like on moral issues? How would I bring up my household – what language and culture should be emphasised at home to raise a religious and spiritual but practical and culturally aware child? Today, these questions have not changed; in fact, they have become more urgent, particularly for the younger generation. Why? Several key changes have occurred over the last fifty years which according to both my experience and the primary data presented in this article, the younger generation of Khojas born and bred in the West are struggling with:
- Lack of awareness of their Khoja history and origins
- Inability to speak and understand Gujarati
- The primary adoption of their Western culture as opposed to their Khoja culture
- A mix of religious and secular values that inform their spiritual outlook on life
- Marital issues relating to how to find the right partner and juggle the demands of professional and family life
- Grappling with greater religious pluralism and diversity and the way these trends affect marriage, religious and community life
- A thirst for critical-thinking on religious and contemporary issues that is seemingly at odds with our passive, non-critical and business-like approach to religion present within our institutional structures
- The search for a spiritually vibrant, intellectual and culturally aware leadership
- An increasing social disconnect between themselves and the elders of the community
- An increase in corporate-orientated working culture rather than a community and voluntary-orientated working culture
The aforementioned issues are not the fault of the younger generation nor are these negative points in themselves – rather these are challenges which have occurred as result of their parents’ migration and the effects of modernity. Indeed, our forefathers must be respected and appreciated for their efforts in creating and preserving our institutions thus far. It is also not that all Western values are bad; rather, the questions which this article will tackle are: how do we get the balance right between newer and more traditional religious and cultural values? How can the KSIM community forge ahead in a modern society where we see even more of a mix between religious, secular and cultural values? Could we say that after 50 years, the KSIM community as we know it today would exist with its values and identity? I argue that a possible solution lies in microscoping and redefining our key institutions, the Mimbar, Madrasah and Family.
Using a combined philosophical, sociological and data-led approach, this article will lay out some of the emerging challenges from modernity which directly correlate to the primary data I have compiled on the KSIM community. It will then argue that the Mimbar, Madrasah and Family are crucial institutions to help redefine the KSIM identity and finally, suggest possible models and processes of implementation for these three institutions.