A different Muslim Community: Khoja Muslims


Author – Sana Pujani

His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan (July 11, 2007) wearing the Golden Jubilee attire. Photo credit: Courtesy of Aga Khan Development Network
His Highness Prince Karim Aga Khan (July 11, 2007) wearing the Golden Jubilee attire. Photo credit: Courtesy of Aga Khan Development Network

How do we identify the terrorist in a Bollywood movie? No, it’s not when he kills a bunch of people or when he blows up a city. Neither it is when he plans evil deeds with the devil laugh and mean eyes.  It is the background score that tells you. More often than not, this music brings to mind a specific community that has become a poster-child for heinous acts. Yes, I am talking of the Azan-like music and the characteristic murmurs of Allah-Hu-Akbar (Allah is great) when the villain enters. Is this what we have come to when the subtlety of subtexts has become an obvious finger pointing towards one community as a whole? Apparently, we need music to know what we are supposed to think, feel and do.

The portrayal of something so filthy by associating it with something so pure is hysterical if only it wasn’t so sad. This is not a sermon. I come to you with some fresh perspective about some 15 million odd Muslims (10% of the Shia Muslim population, barely 2 lakh in our country). This sect is different, for it is not boisterous. It is not out and about declaring Fatwas against anyone. This sect is peaceful and is led by an educated leader who studied at Harvard University. He was nominated for Nobel Peace Prize, given the title ‘his Highness’ by Queen Elizabeth and was awarded Padma Vibhushan recently.  The sect is Shia Imami Ismaili Nizari Muslim (led by His Highness Prince Aga Khan, and Khoja Muslims are the adherents of it.

Aga Khan Academy in Hyderabad
Aga Khan Academy in Hyderabad

I am a part of this sect and I have never worn a burka, have never been asked to not attend the mosque on any day, let alone the sensitive time of the month. No one forces me to pray five times a day or starve myself for a month. I don’t punch people if they abuse the basic philosophy of my religion nor do I secretly desire to convert anyone into my sect. I am a normal Indian who can visit temples, churches and Gurudwara without hurting the sentiments of my community. Our Imam (we refer to Aga Khan this way) encourages our community to study, so much so that the timely prayers take second seat to it. We are nurtured and allowed to make our own decisions about what we feel, the spirituality is not thrust upon us, it is open for us to explore.

The Humayun Tomb, the Aga Khan Palace Mumbai, The AKDN ( Aga khan Development Network) foundation, The Aga Khan Academy ( Hyderabad), Aga Khan Hospital are some of the high-profile places that will help you understand my community. There are hundreds of schools across south East Asia, mostly for girls, sustained by AKDN. I would not brag about why Khoja community is awesome as the facts speak for itself.  We have our own university in London, which ensures that the wheel-turners of the community are well educated, smart and knowledgeable individuals who are fit to play their roles.

We are Muslims. We pray, we read Quran and stand by our faith in Allah. But we are much more than that. As a group, we look out for each other. When I moved to Mumbai, I was welcomed by my community here which made me feel at home. We celebrate, a Lot! The Jubilees of our leaders are reasons for worldwide celebrations. Our Imam visits almost every country where his Jamat ( his followers) lives and addresses them personally. This is one of the most joyous occasions and we celebrate it with all our hearts.

Aga Khan Palace, Pune
Aga Khan Palace, Pune

We have our mosques called Jamat-Khanas where we pray, learn, share our joys and sorrows like a family.  We are not like some bloodthirsty hounds that hide swords our houses. We are just an education-orientated community that lives in peace. If I had to give a subtitle to my community, that would be Live and Let Live. My brother completed his masters in The USA with the help of Aga Khan International Scholarship Programme ( It is open to all communities, do look it up!).  For us, religion and spirituality are deeply personal. There are people in my sect who are old-school as well, but some things like the freedom to question just overpower the rest.

When I hear my beloved Muslim tunes used as War Cries, it hurts me and rightly so. Is it too much to ask not to don’t judge the book by its cover, and try to read a couple of pages? I bet you won’t be able to put it down for a while! My community doesn’t pretend; we are not perfect. Our Imam’s life is a paparazzi’s dream, we accept we are human and we strive to live a wholesome life. Next time you find yourself in a conversation about Muslims, look towards the real world examples and not the sword banishing actors on the screen to draw your outlook towards any community.

PS: Azim Premji, Salim-Sulaiman, Abbas Tyrewaala are few of the famous people of my community.

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  1. “No one forces me to pray five times a day or starve myself for a month”

    I am also an Isma’ili and let me tell you that no where has Imam quoted not to fast and not to pray. It is true that the number of times we pray is different from majority of Muslim Ummah but that is due to a different interpretation of the verses in the Quran. Moreover, nowhere has Imam quoted not to fast in Ramadan. Everything that is mandatory for the whole Muslim Ummah is also mandatory for the Isma’ilis.

    Also, have you every heard Imam differentiating himself from the rest of the Muslims? Never, never has he done that. Let our actions show that. Moreover, there are also other Muslims who are as good as us and have the ethics of faith.

    And one more thing, not every Isma’ili is a khoja and not every khoja is an Isma’ili.

    • “Hey, thanks for reading the article and taking time to comment on it.

      In response to the points mentioned,
      a) It is no where said that Imam asks us not to pray or fast. I said it is not forced on us like a law. We pray thrice as is prescribed by the
      Imam. As for the Ramzaan fasts, Imam himself at his age completes the fasts but the followers are not “forced”to do the same.
      b) I take pride in being a Muslim. Imam, in his last visit to India, gave an interview where he stated that we are not different from Muslims. The point of the article is not to show the community as an entity separate from Muslims, it is an attempt to bring forth one of the many peace-loving sect of Muslims.
      c) Khoja Muslims is used as a colloquial term.

      • You might want to delete this comment since this is just an Isma’ili conversing
        with another Isma’ili. Your post is nice. I liked it. But since some of the
        terms related to practice of faith are involved, I’ve to write. Many Isma’ilis
        carry a misconception that prayer and fasting are left optional by our Imams.

        Prayer and Fasting are mandatory also in the way Isma’ilis practice Islam. They
        both are parts of 7 pillars of Isma’ilism (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_pillars_of_Ismailism).
        Most of the Isma’ilis are unaware about them. It is only the manner in which
        fasting and prayer are being practiced are different. Let me quote to you what
        our previous Imams have said regarding prayer and fasting.

        Regarding Fasting:

        “This Jamā‘at has never set aside the Real Prayer and Fasting that God has
        ordered, and will never do so. In the past they have always summoned mankind to
        Real Prayer and Fasting, and with the passage of time they have done this, and
        will continue this summons. As for the Fasting of this Jamā‘at, whereas in the
        realm of the sharī‘ah, out of twelve months which make up the year, for one
        month, from dawn to dusk, one closes his mouth against eating and drinking, the
        rule of this Jamā‘at requires that during the whole of one’s life one is not
        permitted to abandon the Real Fast even for the twinkling of an eye. They
        keep not just one organ of the body closed, but rather all seven external and
        internal organs against that which God has prohibited, so that they may always
        preserve a state of Fasting. ”

        – Imām ‘Alā al-Dīn Muḥammad, (Naṣir al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, Rawḍā-yi Taslīm, transl.
        Badakhchani, Representation No. 28, 242)

        “The whole year you must fast, just as the Exoterists (ẓāhiriyān) fast one
        month. The meaning of this fast is austerity. Control yourselves; keep
        yourselves away from bad qualities, evil and indecent actions and devilish
        acts, so that the mirror of your hearts may be gradually polished. Also know
        that those thirty days during which the Exoterists (ẓāhiriyān) fast, the (real)
        fast lasts only one single day. They fast thirty days only in order not to miss
        that single day, and this is also a symbol (ramz). And just as they keep on
        fasting for thirty days in order to fast on that particular day, so you must
        through the whole of your lives experience difficulties and suffering for the
        sake of the attainment of the vision (liqā) of the Creator, you must be
        patient, persevering in austerities, and keeping your inner self fasting for as
        long as you live.”

        – Imām Shāh Gharīb Mīrzā, (Pandiyāt-i Jawanmardī, transl. Ivanow, 37)

        Regarding Prayer:

        “In the matter of the Ismā‘īlis praying only three times daily instead of five
        times and not keeping [exoteric] fasts generally in the month of Ramaḍān, he
        [the Imām] told me two things: that in the Qur’ān there was no specific mention
        of the number of daily namāz. It was only a tradition (sunnah); the other was
        that there was a ḥadīth where the Holy Prophet had said that if during his lifetime
        the people of Arabia observed 90% of his injunctions, 10% would be forgiven.
        But after his death, if the followers observed even 10%, 90% would be forgiven.
        These hadiths are confirmed in a book on the life of the Prophet by Martin
        Lings which I read only recently. This hadith makes Islam the most liberal

        – Dr. Hasan E. Nathoo, (My Glorious Fortnight with Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah,
        London, 1988)

        The ḥadīth cited by the Imām is quoted below:

        “Ye are in an age in which, if ye abandon one-tenth of what is ordered, ye will
        be ruined. After this a time will come when he who shall observe one-tenth of
        what is now ordered will be redeemed.”

        – Prophet Muḥammad,

        (Seyyed Ameer Ali, The Spirit of Islam, 183)

        In general:

        “If, rightly, the Muslims have kept till now to the forms of prayer and fasting
        at the time of the Prophet, it should not be forgotten that it is not the forms
        of prayer and fasting that have been commanded, but the facts, and we are
        entitled to adjust the forms to the facts of life as circumstances
        changed. It is the same Prophet who advises his followers ever to remain
        Ibnu’l-Waqt (i.e. children of the time and period in which they were on earth),
        and it must be the natural ambition of every Muslim to practice and represent
        his Faith according to the standard of the Waqt or space-time.”

        – Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh Āgā Khān III,

        Please take some time and read what I’ve quoted. Other than that, I liked your
        post. Please delete the comments feel you so.

        • Thanks for the informative comments. I acknowledge them all. Considering that they all come from the lineage of our Present day Imam Karim aga Khan-49th Imam ( Imām ‘Alā al-Dīn Muḥammad: was 26th imam, Imām Shāh Gharīb Mīrzā: 34th imam) they are irrefutable when placed in their own time.

          As mentioned in one the quotes by Imām Sulṭān Muḥammad Shāh Āgā Khān III, (mentioned by you in the trailing comment) “it must be the natural ambition of every Muslim to practice and represent his Faith according to the standard of the Waqt or space-time.” It is but natural for us to change with time.

          As for the debate at hand I request you to check the official website for clarity on the topic.


  2. Dear Mr. Pujani,
    I congratulate you for such an informative article. I hope you will not mind reading this comment because I have tried to be as much frank as I can. Well let me tell you I too belong to this community but my views and my experiences are very different then yours. Having said that I believe that you must have never faced any discrimination from other people who are not from this caste well I have faced that. Do you just because of being from an particular religious background how much you have to sacrifice ? A lot ! Let me tell you the struggle does not end here. What is exactly our faith ? Do you have that answer ? it is you who claims that we are part of Muslim community but most of the available literature has proved that we have been converted from a Hindu caste around 14th Century. Which is why in most of the families who belong to this faith follow some or another Hindu tradition. I have personally faced a lot because of my religious background. People have ignored my education, family, status every thing why ? just because I belong to this religion. Well I don’t want to go more in depth but I just want to tell you Mr. Pujani please come on the ground and see the reality you will know how difficult it is to live with this identity

  3. Association with ‘sword brandishing’ abd ‘blood thristy’ lots is not Bollywood fiction. It’s the deeds of Muslims here and others where else, which has brought about this association. For starters…. All the numerous terrorist attacks on temples and bomb blast in India in past 3 decades.
    But I get your point. And it does great amount of injustice to you people. Thing is that Muslims, men specially become defensive first. They won’t criticise the terrorist, first move is to preach about Islam. The comments here have unraveled most of the notion that you want to create. While you are right about the philosophy of organisation. The people following it have spoken for themselves. You are an oasis in the desert. And hope most people are like you.

    • Brother Manish….. Just throwing the numbers and saying deeds of Muslims and 3 decades of terrorist attacks. Are you serious no community is clean how we Muslims have black sheeps in our community so does Hindus and all religions. No one can judge entire community of 1.3 billion of Muslim population with just handful of people who doesn’t know what Islam and it’s teachings are I cannot blame Hindus for what others so called Hindus did in their ignorance neither I can hold responsible other religions. For example what britishers did to India for 200 years will you hold responsible for today’s britishers who doesn’t even know the true history what horrific things their ancestors did to us. Even their academics and syllabus says that they have civilized given democracy and uplifted India from poverty which is exact opposite to what they are teaching to their present generation. Brother Manish don’t feed on hatred when you see with the glasses of hatred how will you see good and compassion. Be open minded if you see a single teaching of my creator Allah and prophet muhammad (peace be upon him) against humanity promoting least bit of injustice to any human being or living thing let us know we can discuss with proof Insha’allah. Hope you will take this in a good spirit look how you cannot bare anything which is incorrect and lies about religion so does I.

  4. Never have I seen so biased opinion about Islam from someone who claims to be a Muslim. She is not talking about her religion, she is just promoting liberalism.

  5. Please first know what is Islam (Peace)🙏

    None of the Universities in the world will teach you about this ✍️


    True Muslim believes in only
    1) Allah as a creature,
    2) Quran in which Allah speaks to us about Allah’s entire creation which we humans can see or don’t see 3) Prophet Muhammad (sallallahu ‘alaihi wasallam-Peace be upon him) who teaches us Quran’s practicle use for whole humanity through his hadiths (actions)
    4) All Sahabas/colleagues (May God be pleased with them) of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who recorded his hadiths through Imam Shaafie, Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Malik (May God have mercy on them)
    5) Family Ahl al-Bayt Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) which Includes Hazrat Fatima, Hazrat Ali, Hazrat Hawan, Hazrat Hussain (May God be pleased with them), their daughters, sons.

    Who follows all of the above Ummah/Humans are at Islam (Peace) 👇


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