The Khojas – Part I

(Extracted from ‘Outline History of the Khoja Shia Ithnasheri Community in Eastern Africa – published courtesy the World Federation)

The arrival of Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris and other Shias coincides with the resurgence of Islamic influence In the early nineteenth century. Although Arabs had regained their rule in E. Africa by driving out the Portuguese in the late 17th c their ties with the coast of Africa were weak and nominal. It was only in the reign of Sayyid Said Bin Sultan who transferred his permanent residence from Oman to Zanzibar 1n 1840, that the control became strong and complete.

The importance of Sayyid Said to the history of East Africa hinges on his energetic development of trade between the coastal towns and the interior. In the wake of Muslim traders came Islam to the interior, followed in turn by the Christian missionaries and the pioneers of the colonial powers.

The death of Sayyid Said in 1856 signified the beginning of the decline in Arab influence, a
decline which continued until the colonial conquest of the region by the British.

The colonial period created conditions which generally were supportive of the Islamic influence in East Africa, such as the opening of communications, the establishment of order and security along the transportation routes, and the employment of Muslim clerks and functionaries by the government.

The circumstances in which the Shia settlement began and took roots in E. Africa are indicative of their courage and enterprising spirit – their ability to make the most of the opportunities and to  adopt and assimilate the varying trends.

The Shia Ithna-Asheri population of East Africa comprises chiefly of the Khojas. In a census carried out by the Community in late fifties and then repeated during sixties, the Khoja Shias in E. Africa, Somalia, Zaire, (then Congo), Mauritius, Reunion Island, and Madagascar numbered around 20,000. Besides, there were Shia Ithna-Asheris from the Punjab, who were located in Nairobi, the capital city of Kenya; numbering at one time, around 300. In Zanzibar, a small community of Bahraini Shias, consisting of Sadaat and others existed; and there were Iranian Sadaat of Shushter extract- commonly- knows as Shushtaries, and few other -all totalling around 500.

According to the research paper written by Maulana Syed Saeed Akhtar Razavi, in collaboration with Professor King of Makerere University , Kampala, Uganda, the Khojas arrived on the coast of E. Africa in 1840. (71 The Shia Ithna-Asheris from the Punjab were chiefly those recruited in the labour force for the railway project in E. Africa, and Bahrainis and Iranians came to serve the Sultans of Zanzibar after they had made that island their headquarters from 1832 onwards. But the growing number of Sadaat was mainly comprised of the descendants and relatives of the resident Aa!im of Zanzibar , Syed Husain Shushtari.

The early Khojas came from Cutch and Kathiawad. Their appearance in the East African coast is attributed to several developments back at home in India. It is said that these parts of India were stricken with long years of famine, and families lived below the subsistence level. Due to unemployment and scarcity, many a young man left this part of India in quest of new opportunities in Bombay. For hundreds of years, Indians sailed down to the East African Coast in their sailships during the North Eastern Monsoon. The young, adventurous Khojas were probably among these Indians, who stayed behind in Africa to explore new opportunities and possibilities for their livelihood.

Maulana Syed Saeed Akhtar Razavi in his paper referred to earlier, gives a somewhat detailed chronological and topographical order in which the Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris moved for settlement to every nook and corner of E. Africa, and farther still to Zaire, Mauritius and Madagascar. I quote: “There appears to be a set pattern to their movements. When any enthusiastic pioneer went into a new place, other newcomers followed him so that they might benefit from his experience and acquaintance with the local people. It appears that there was no jealousy among them, and well-established persons helped the inexperienced to stand on their feet. New arrivals from India usually came to Zanzibar and after acquiring some information, ventured out to other places. Sometimes, however, they disembarked at Lamu, Mombasa or Dar-es-Salaam, and went from there to the interior.”

While the new lands offered limitless opportunities to the Khojas, the new environment and
prevailing influences called for an orientation. First, Zanzibar was then ruled by the Sultans of Oman who followed Ibadiyya sect; but the majority of the people at the coast remained under the influence of Shafei Arab merchants who had migrated from Hadramut. .Second, the undeveloped Eastern Africa was totally foreign to the Khojas – they did not know the language, nor did they have any previous cultural contact with the indigenous African. Before them lay the vast, unexplored but inaccessible tracts of lands into which even the adventurous Arabs did not venture. Thirdly, it is a known fact that a number of Khojas converted from Ismailies to Shia Ithna-Asheri faith after their arrival in East Africa. These were perhaps among the few pioneer Shia Ithna-Asheris present in East Africa. Thus, one can safely conclude that most of these Khojas were novices in complete sense of the term: new to the place, and new to the faith. The atmosphere was undoubtedly conducive to speculative and progressive Khoja society, and it is in this light and vein that an inquiry into their history must be made.

Wherever the Khojas settled, they soon formed themselves into a Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri
community, commonly known as the Jamaat, guarded by an understandable sense of territorial jealousy. They advised and assisted each other, and invited their families, friends and fellow men from India to join the venture. They engaged in religious activities, first with modesty appropriate to their means; but as their fortune grew, they became vigorously activated. They built Mosques, Imambadas, Madressas, Schools for secular education and created several trusts for charity. Under the subsequent German rule in Tanganyika, British rule in other parts of E. Africa, French rule in Madagascar, Italian rule in Somalia, Belgium rule in the Congo and Portuguese rule in Mozambique, the Khojas were subjected to a variety of influences and experience. To an inquisitive and objective investigator, it is not difficult to trace a blend of Arab, African, Persian, Indian and European cultures in the Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Society in Eastern Africa. The thrust of these influence was great, engendering a fear in the minds of the Khoja of losing their identity. It served to drive them farther inwards into the precincts of their society, instead of mobilizing any worthwhile change. Hence the persistent perseverance by the Khojas to remain within a well-knit framework of the Jamaat allowing no intrusion.

During their stay in Africa South of Sahara, now spanning out over nearly two centuries, the Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris have produced a number of men of note and repute. In the earlier days, when modern modes of transportation were practically non-existent, they travelled on foot or on donkeys, far and wide -establishing business centres, and encouraging distributive trade.

Due to their probity and reliability, they were appointed as Agents for various government
services during the early period of British rule. They were among the importers of
commodities, exporters of produce and promoters of agriculture. In short, their contribution to development of the economy and the country at large has been substantial. In the fields of politics, social and cultural services, various professions, and religion, the community produced men of great abilities, whose services are on record, forming an inalienable part of history.

The Jamaats functioned with a set of laws and bye-laws drawn on democratic principles; It used to be a democracy which would put British system to shame. For while it provided rights and assigned duties to all, it never had a penal code nor a clause of punishment for the digressers or dissenters. In a later development, one can see a punishment clause in their constitution, but in actual practice this was ineffectual because of the intricate family ties and filial bonds which had developed within the Community.

While the services offered by such Jamaats were multiple and multifarious, they were
predominantly religious in nature. And it was in this sphere, that the Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris were able to produce men of considerable talents and outstanding abilities. In the early days when the Khojas were indeed novices, the influence of Allama Haji Gulamali Haji Ismail of Bhavnagar, India, was great. He authored nearly 300 books, chiefly on the theme of Islamic liturgy and ethics. His translation of “Meraju Ssa’dah”, for example, is known to have revolutionized and transformed many a life in Africa. His book of prayers, “Dua no Majmuo” runs parallel in importance and utility to “Mafatihul Jinan” by Sh. Abbas Qummi. That his services promoted and preserved the Shia Ithna-Asheri faith and knowledge in the Khoja society of Africa is an undeniable fact. From among the local people Mullas of considerable abilities arose to teach and preach. Prolific writers like Gulamhusein Mohamed Vali Dharsi and Mohamedjaffer Sheriff Dewji were acknowledged for their religious scholarship and erudition even in India.

The great Mujtahid of Lucknow, Syed Aqa Hasan Taba Sarah conferred the title of
‘Hami-e-lslam’ upon Gulamhusein Mohamed Valli Dharsi in 1910. Along with the symbolic
endowment of a turban and a shawl, he wrote: “In these days of the so called enlightenment, and in the face of the Western inculcations, it is most gratifying to find men like you who protect and defend the Faith in the most appropriate manner.”

Mohamedjaffer Sheriff Dewji wrote on diverse themes. He covered religious as well as social subjects. He has about twenty books to his credit, some of which have been acclaimed as his masterpieces. He was better known for his preaching which was in simple Gujarati. In a style peculiarly his own, he held his audience spellbound and fully engrossed during his discourses.

Two books by Mohamedjaffer Sheriff Dewji – “Ruyate Hila/” and “Imame Zaman” were
translated into Urdu – a first example of Gujarati work to be rendered into a language which was a principle source of reference by Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris. These locally produced Mullas, because of their voluntary undertakings to travel far and wide on preaching missions, and also because of their common ethnic origin, were able to render unique services. Having grown up in Arab and African atmosphere at the coast, and under the influence of Iraqi and Indian Ulema most of these Mullas spoke Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Kiswahili – apart from their own mother tongues, with great ease, facility and fluency.

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