With elegant prose and meticulous scholarship, Rebuilding Community: Displaced Women and the Making of a Shia Ismaili Muslim Sociality by Shenila Khoja-Moolji offers a rich theoretical account of Ismaili women’s cultural memory and the ethics of communal care. The monograph theorizes the mnemonic practices and ritualized acts through which Ismaili Muslims have created spaces for communal flourishing in the face of political instability, forced migration, and persecution. The author weaves in a personal touch, making the prose simultaneously tender and fiercely analytical. With its focus on feminine lifeworlds and service, Khoja-Moolji’s pioneering book writes Ismaili women into modern Muslim history.
Drawing inspiration from feminist luminary bell hooks, Khoja-Moolji conceives of displaced Ismaili women’s multiple sites of marginalization as places of knowledge and possibility to complicate simplistic notions of “victim/agent or traumatized/empowered” (10). She shifts attention to practices of care that serve to ameliorate traumas of displacement and maintain the moral fiber of community in the wake of political and economic dislocations. The book theorizes in striking detail how religious collectivity has been formed and maintained in diasporic communities through everyday acts of communal intimacy. Using interdisciplinary methods, Khoja-Moolji catalogues multiple dimensions of care work, including instances wherein care work “becomes a site of subjugation” (9). The author demonstrates how, even when salient gender norms have sidelined women from some formalized leadership roles, women’s “placemaking activities” (26) constitute an ethic of service (seva) that has nonetheless maintained this religious sociality. Theorizing lived ethics, Khoja-Moolji details how “experience, embodiment, and local enmeshments” (29) all inform (re)interpretations of morality and doctrine.
Through diligent ethnographic and archival work, including within her own family, Khoja-Moolji traces patterns in female labor, girls’ education, sartorial trends, and religious service in the second and third chapters. She captures how faith becomes animated through mundane activities, mannerisms, and memory work and points to sacred spaces that have “emplaced” Ismailis amidst generations of political instability. Khoja-Moolji details how women, when facing the traumas of violence, poverty, and discriminatory circumstances, have been sustained by their religious values, their ancestors’ perseverance, and their acts of service that emerge from—and reinforce—communal bonds.
Khoja-Moolji probes the racialized social hierarchies that took root in the shadow of British colonialism, observing how Ismailis, like other South Asians in East Africa, faced anti-Indian discrimination even as they participated in societal structures that marginalized indigenous Africans. Likewise, in later chapters, she traces how Ismaili immigrants to the United States and Europe continued to navigate racialized and classist environments, even at times in jamatkhanas (Ismaili houses of gathering and worship). She recounts how subsequent generations of women who came of age in North America post-9/11 have navigated xenophobia, anti-Brown racism, and Islamophobia. Though this new generation benefits from more economic stability and high educational and professional achievement, their political mobilizing and caretaking practices draw inspiration from modalities forged by their foremothers.
In a poignant fourth chapter, Khoja-Moolji examines stories of miracles that her informants entrusted her with throughout her fieldwork, detailing ways in which her interlocutors encounter the sacred. A fifth chapter on culinary nostalgia documents how sharing food cultures enables displaced people to forge relationships with host populations, albeit proving to be easy fodder at times for harmful anti-Asian tropes. In the sixth chapter, Khoja-Moolji highlights literary, artistic, and pedagogical work of second-generation Ismaili women in North America. She examines novels by contemporary women authors who depict their foremothers as women “who refused, resisted, offered aid, and found moments of joy,” even as they navigated colonial constraints, patriarchies, and everyday violence (174). The novels offer space for second-generation authors and readers to reckon with the legacies of racism and racialization that their parents experienced and enacted in East Africa. For Khoja-Moolji, the novels are places where past domestic and political traumas can be acknowledged and transformed, where the authors “create new aesthetic encounters for younger generations” (180). In keeping with her earlier chapters, Khoja-Moolji remains interested in how the second-generation’s spiritual and material lifeways are shaped by an Ismaili ethic of service. Her interlocutors forge new sites for sustaining Ismaili sociality in Canada and the United States, much as their ancestors did in Pakistan, India, and East Africa.
This is a rich work, conversant with an impressive range of contemporary theorists across multiple disciplines. While anchored in the Ismaili context, the book transcends this specificity by theorizing the communal practices that invite capacious diasporic futures. Khoja-Moolji’s monograph is path-setting and can be regarded alongside luminaries who have worked on Muslim women’s worlds; for its ability to theorize intersubjectivity, cultural memory, and Muslim women’s religiosity, we can liken Khoja-Moolji’s monograph to that of Saba Mahmood’s Politics of Piety (Princeton University Press, 2011). Khoja-Moolji is to be commended for giving women’s social worlds center stage within a distinct Muslim minority community. The author’s work will draw the interest of academics spanning multiple fields, including religious studies, anthropology, diaspora studies, refugee studies, gender studies, Islamic Studies, South Asian studies, East African studies, American studies, and feminist studies, even as it reaches audiences beyond university classrooms.
With this monograph, Khoja-Moolji fills a gap in the existing literature and moves the trajectory of her own work in compelling directions. It constitutes appropriate reading for graduate-level or advanced undergraduate courses, and selections would enhance syllabi in a range of introductory-level courses. The book will, no doubt, garner an enthusiastic audience among Ismailis who see their histories reflected with such care and precision. For all its academic and theoretical value, the most enduring impact may be the service, the seva, that Khoja-Moolji performs in capturing so keenly and tenderly an era in Ismaili women’s history.
Celene Ibrahim is a faculty member in the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Groton School.
Date Of Review:
April 6, 2023
Shenila Khoja-Moolji is the Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani Associate Professor of Muslim Societies at Georgetown University. She is the author of two award-winning books, Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia and Sovereign Attachments: Masculinity, Muslimness, and Affective Politics in Pakistan.
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