The Khojas are an ethnic group in India and Pakistan, formerly a Hindu trading caste, founded in the fourteenth century by a famous saint, and followers of the Agha Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili sect. They live in the Punjab, in Sind, Kachchh, Kathiawar, and down the western coast of India; in Zanzibar and elsewhere on the east coast of Africa; and in scattered groups under the name of Mawalis in the Hindu Kush region and the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, in Afghanistan, in the Khanates of central Asia, in the hilly districts of eastern Persia, and in the Persian Gulf area. "Khoja" is the form used in India for the Persian term "Khwajah," meaning "a rich or respectable man; a gentleman; an opulent merchant."
Khojas are the major Muslim trading caste of western India. The Khojas of the Punjab are Sunni and are largely derived from the Hindu caste Khatri. The Khojas of Bombay, however, derive largely from the Hindu Lohana caste in Sind, and they are Shia and followers of the Agha Khan. The Punjab Khojas do not owe allegiance to the Agha Khan, but instead hold religious beliefs similar to those of the Bombay Khojas. They are, like the Bombay Khojas, converted Hindus, who are mainly engaged in commercial occupations, keep accounts in Hindi, and follow Hindu customs. The Punjab Khojas derive their origin from Hajji Saiyid Sadr al-Din, who came in the fifteenth century as an Ismaili preacher from Korasan in eastern Persia. He presented his doctrines to the Hindus in a form that would appeal to their own traditions. He is thought to be the author of Das-Avatar, in which the incarnations of Vishnu are described as leading toward Islam. The Das-Avatar is used to the present day by the Punjabi Khojas as well as by the Agha Khan's Indian followers and their offshoots in east Africa. The Punjab Khojas look to fakirs of the Kadriya and Cishtiya sects and other pirs (Muslim saints) for practical guidance because their religious beliefs are not identical.
The Khojas of western India and their offshoots in east Africa form a closely organized community and are in direct touch with the Agha Khan. Their religious ideas are in origin the same as those of the Punjabi Khojas, but their living Contact with the imam in the person of the Agha Khan has isolated them from the influence of Muslim religious orders.
The Khojas are mainly governed by customary law. In 1847, the Bombay High Court held that the Muslim law of succession does not apply to them and that, as under Hindu law, their females are excluded from immediate succession. Khojas have many observances and customs differing from those of regular Muslims. The Chatti, a sixth-day ceremony after birth, differs from that performed by regular Gujarat Muslims. On that day, a bajot or wooden stool is placed near the mother's bed, on which the child and mother are bathed and dressed. On the evening of the sixth day the following items are placed on the stool: a red pen, an ink stand or blank book, a knife, and a garland of flowers. The pen, ink, and paper symbolize the goddess of fortune who is believed to write down the destiny of the newborn child. Along with the wooden stool, a chaumukh (a four-sided butter-fed dough lamp) is also placed there and lighted, and next to it a box of Chinese firecrackers. As each of the family relatives comes to visit, she strews a little rice near the stool, laying her present of gold or silver anklets and bracelets on the ground. Then each female bends over the mother and baby and takes their balayen or ills upon herself by passing her hands over them and cracking their finger joints against her temples. The baby is then laid on the ground on the strewn rice. Then the mother rises and worships the child by bowing toward it and the chaumukh on the stool. Then the firecrackers are ignited and the child is laid in its mother's lap.
The marriage, divorce, and funeral customs of the Khojas differ from the general law and customs of Islam. The fathers or male guardians of the marrying pair meet three or four days before at the jama-at khana or assembly lodge with their friends and relatives and the mukhi or another jama-at officer. The officer registers the name of the bride and the groom under the order of the Agha Khan. The father of the bridegroom gives a token 5.25 rupees to the father of the bride. The sum is received by the girl's father and handed to the jama-at officer as a contribution to the fund. The groom's friends place before the jama-at officer a copper or brass vessel containing from 5 to 10 seers of sugars. After repeating the hallowed names of the five holy persons, or the Panj-tan —the Prophet Mohammed, Ali (the Prophet's son-in-law), Fatima (the Prophet's favorite daughter and Ali's wife), Hasan and Husein (sons of Ali and Fatima) —the sugar tray is placed Before the bride's father as a sign of acceptance of the compact. He tastes it, and then it is distributed among those present.
Next morning a written agreement is prepared. The jama-at scribe begins the writing with the names of the five holy persons and the names of the four archangels in the four corners: Diabrail, Israfil, Azra'il, and Mikail (except that in Bombay, this nikah ceremony used until recently to be celebrated by Sunni kadis [religious judges] ). It is sometimes performed by the Agha Khan, or, outside Bombay, by his officers; a marriage certificate in due form is issued in Gujarati with the names of the four archangels on it.
No divorce is permitted without the jama-at's sanction, and the jama-at usually requires the consent of both parties. A second wife is not allowed in the lifetime of the first without the jama-at's sanction, which is however granted if 2,000 rupees are deposited for the first wife's maintenance. A curious custom followed on the approach of death is that of samarchanta or the sprinkling of holy water to the reading of Das-Avatar.
The organization of the community is in the form of a fiscal centralization around the sacred person of Agha Khan, but there is complete congregational independence in administrative matters, including even questions of exCommunication. Every congregation has its own jama-at khana, which is both a meetinghouse and a mosque. The officers are sometimes appointed by the Agha Khan, but they are often elected. The offerings for the imam are collected through them. These comprise the fixed dasandh or tithe and various minor dues on special occasions, either recurring or occasional.
Khojas enjoy a good business reputation and are said to have a keen sense of competition. They are described as neat, clean, sober, thrifty, and ambitious, and enterprising, cool, and resourceful in trade. They are great travelers by land and sea, visiting and settling in distant countries for purposes of trade. They have business connections with the Punjab, Sind, Calcutta, Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), Singapore, China, and Japan; with ports of the Persian Gulf, Arabia, and east Africa; and with England, the United States, and Australia. Khojah youths go as apprentices in foreign Khojah firms on salaries of 200 to 2,000 rupees a year with board and lodging. The Khojas now enjoy powerful positions in ivory, horn, cotton, hide, mother-of-pearl, grain, spice, fish maws, shark fins, cottonseed, furniture, opium, and silk trades. They have also gained high places in the professions as doctors, engineers, and lawyers.
Enthoven, Reginald E. (1921). "Kojah." In The Tribes and Castes of Bombay, edited by Reginald E. Enthoven. Vol. 2, 218-230. Bombay: Government Central Press.
SARWAT S. ELAHI