The Khōjā of Tanzania

Discontinuities of a Postcolonial Religious Identity

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Iqbal Akhtar
  • Leiden, Netherlands: 
    , December
     212 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The South Asian population of East Africa is most commonly known as a small, well-organized and commercially oriented diaspora that is often poorly integrated into larger African society. Yet if one looks more closely at any one of the several communities that form this diaspora, head-spinning complexities surrounding social organization and religion instantly emerge. Imperial and postcolonial narratives focused on race, nationalism, and territory explain rather little of the durable and self-defining elements of community life, premised above all on robust social-religious networks.

Iqbal Akhtar’s impressive study of one such community, the Khōjā of Tanzania, reveals not only the historical depth of communal complexities, but raises existential questions regarding how this community understands itself. Akhtar begins by rejecting the conventional terms “Ismaili” and “Ithnasheri” to identify the two main Khōjā communities, as both terms involve unresolvable genealogical-cum-theological claims of religious origin, and instead follows the practice of Francophone scholars who simply differentiate between Āgākhānī on the one hand and Khōjā on the other. Before this split, the Khōjā were originally an Indic Muslim merchant caste originating in the Sindh-Gujarat corridor of northwest India, whose eclectic religious practices remained caste-specific until the mid-19th century, when a Persian exile arrived in Kacch claiming the Imamship of the Khōjā community and ownership of its property. Subsequent court cases—one in 1866 in Bombay, another in 1899 in Zanzibar concerning this same feud in East Africa—adjudicated a formal division of property between partisans of the Imam (Āgākhānī) and those who rejected his leadership and came to embrace Twelver Shia Islam (Khōjā). 

Akhtar’s story is primarily about how the (Ithnasheri) Khōjā transformed from an Indic caste (jñat) to a Muslim religious community (jamāt). The original khōjāpanth religion, an “eclectic combination of various Indic religions … suffused with Islamic mysticism” (34), had emerged by the 16th century and came to interact with competing religious traditions and rival merchant factions of northwest India in what the historian Nile Green has memorably characterized as the world of “Bombay Islam.” By the 19th century, this had led to “internal conflicts over caste authority, education, democracy, religious observances, and ownership of communal resources” (38), creating the formal schism between Āgākhānī and Khōjā noted above. This split not only divided property, but also created a new social outcaste of thoroughly disowned Khōjā, who responded with an ostentatious rejection of Āgākhānī practices, rejecting jamātkhānā rituals and embracing Shia shrines and elegiac poetry, and further by rejecting the Aga Khan’s sharply hierarchical social structure for one far more democratic and diffuse, based on the local jamāt. By the 20th century, both Āgākhānī and Khōjā came to reject their Gujarati vernacular rituals in deference to Near Eastern authorities, by embracing Arabic-language prayers and “politicized postrevolutionary Iranian Shiism” (43), respectively. 

The core of Akhtar’s book traces this path from peculiar Indic vernacular to homogenized Islamic universalism. He uses rigorously precise terminology to make robust historical arguments, grounded primarily on publicly available documentary source texts that offer devastatingly sharp ripostes to the arguments of “Khoja studies” (i.e., Ismaili) authors. He reveals the essentially “esoteric” or doctrinal nature of the readings that this latter group brings to the same documents.To tell the story of how Khōjā deliberately shed Indic legacies, Akhtar offers a sharp overview of Khōjā history in East Africa that focuses on immigration patterns, clear-eyed readings of Khōjā “pioneer” narratives, urban geographies of community religious practice, and well-informed characterizations of the region’s racialized social structures. Their numbers were never large—roughly six thousand Khōjā in Tanganyika in 1961, with some 2,200 Khōjā families then resident in the neighboring islands of Zanzibar (58). Following a bloody revolution in Zanzibar in 1964 and two decades of socialist policies in mainland Tanzania, many Khōjā either left the country entirely—usually for Western Europe or North America—or relocated to Dar es Salaam to pursue greater economic opportunities and physical security. It is in this vulnerable postcolonial context that East African Khōjā reimagined their identity in far more universal terms, creating what Akhtar terms a new “religious citizenship” based primarily on “an idealized Near Eastern Shiism” (65-67). 

Applying sociolinguistic method, Akhtar also offers a rich portrait of daily life in contemporary urban Tanzania, in which most Khōjā easily shift between English, Swahili, Kacchī, and Gujarati. Yet this oral facility sits oddly aside the community’s disinterest in its rich textual heritage. The center of the book narrates Khōjā textual transformations, beginning with the caste’s own Khōjkī script, first found on 18th-century tombstones, which came to be overshadowed by a wider Gujarati script in the 19th century. This script was itself repurposed by Khōjā scholars—most notably Gulāmalī Ismā’il, the original compiler of the all-purpose liturgical text found in most Khōjā households, the Majmū’ō—to facilitate Arabic transliteration for Quranic scholarship and translation in Gujarat, Bombay, and Zanzibar. This is a dense but fascinating story, told with impressive philological competence, which examines both internal community texts and public epigraphy. It will be of tremendous interest to scholars of comparative Islamic scholarship and devotional literature. 

The “crowding out” of caste-specific texts by those that draw on Near Eastern authority, Akhtar demonstrates, is a long-running process in Khōjā history, and one that operates in tandem with the declining importance of Khōjā shrines or mēhphīl, which long served as spatial anchors to urban religious life but came under growing criticism as an idolatrous practice. The Iranian Revolution had a deep social and intellectual as well as religious impact on the Khōjā of Tanzania. Veil wearing, scholarship exchanges, and the emergence of an imagined Shia utopia sharply accelerated existing trends to reorient Khōjā thought and practice toward a politicized Shia Islam, which Akhtar argues came “at the cost of Khōjā ancestral culture and ritual” (183). 

This is a powerful story, but one that also somewhat reproduces Khōjā isolation from the larger African and Arab communities of Tanzania. To what extent, for example, did synchronic Sunni reformism shape Khōjā responses in post-socialist Tanzania? Written in a spartan, clear prose with an authoritative but unobtrusive reference apparatus, The Khōjā of Tanzania is an important and rigorous work that offers a genuinely interdisciplinary study of a small but deeply fascinating religious community. Brill has produced, in typical form, a wonderfully conceived, handsomely published, and exorbitantly priced book—in this case, one that will become a standard reference work for students of Indic religions and texts, Shia Islam, the South Asian Diaspora, and East Africa.

About the Reviewer(s): 

James R. Brennan is Associate Professor of History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Iqbal Akhtar, Ph.D. (2013), Florida International University, is an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and research director of the western Indian Ocean studies programme. He has published articles on American Muslim identity and East African Khōjā historiography, including the article Negotiating the racial boundaries of Khōjā caste membership in late 19th century colonial Zanzibar (1878-1899) in the Journal of Africana Religions. Currently, he is professeur invité at l'École des hautes études en sciences sociales (IISMM) in Paris.


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