“Meeting the challenges of the day with a spirit of revitalizing Islamic values while keeping our cultural identity befitting the needs of time.”
In this globalized world of today, not all of us feel a connection with our cultural heritage, while others yearn to connect. Some feel that these things are no longer relevant during these modern times. For others, exploring cultural heritage offers enormous benefits, bringing about an empowering sense of unity and belonging within a group.
The recently held Khoja Heritage Symposium held at MARC in Toronto, brought together, young and old, men and women for a lively and candid conversation on the history and evolution of our community to help us plan for the days to come. It was a rare occasion for the eminent academics, historians and community elders form across continents to gather under one roof to define our rich heritage, and help us to better understand where we come from as well as provide moments of introspection to envision our future.
Describing himself as self styled student and observer of community affairs, Al-Hajj Shabbir Jeraj, the President of ISIJ Toronto pointedly reminisced that some thirty-five years ago when he first set foot in Toronto, he came across a people of Indian origin who appeared and talked differently from the rest of us. They were from Caribbean Islands who had assimilated totally in the local dominant culture and lost touch with their ancestral origins. He recalls thinking “this will never happen to us”.
Thirty-five years later while the circumstances are different, he stated the he felt less confident in uttering the same words.
“I see the signs and a rising tide of cultural dilution especially among the younger generation, of those who have very little connection with the Khoja community, Either they are living and growing up far in isolated locales or prefer to be away from the community, as they do not find the need or reasons to get involved. More disquieting is the rapid transformation of our values, mores, and attitudes that I am seeing even among those of my generation. So I find myself searching for answers on how to stem this tide before it is too late and we are ready to throw the towel in. This is what has brought me here with a sense of humility and appreciation of the hard work that these gentlemen have taken upon themselves and I do wish, from the bottom of my heart, that they carry on the good work and become the beacon that will guide us, should we find ourselves in the Dark not knowing which direction to take.”
Articulating his expectations of the symposium, he envisioned that while we spend time to relate the Khoja history and explain moral and ethical imperatives on why we should promote the rich and illustrious cultural heritage, we need also conduct a candid assessment of where we stand today. Then, come up with credible and achievable solutions or guidelines that can be applied globally or locally.
Al Hajj Gulam Abbas Najafi, appreciated the endeavors of MARC and stated that, especially the Community in Toronto owes a debt of gratitude to the MARK team, led by Dr Hasnain Walji to have had the vision of establishing this Institution in Toronto, which has become a Center of Learning as well a platform for exchanging ideas for the benefit of Community. Judging for the numerous programs events held here in the past. It was indeed a fitting tribute to Mulla Asgharali M M Jaffer, in whose memory the Centre had been named.
In his introductory remarks Dr. Hasnain Walji echoed sentiments by Shabbir Jeraj that we should indeed have a frank and candid conversations about the state of of the Community and not be afraid of moving ourselves out of our comfort zones as we reflect on the state of the Community today and the changes around us. Setting high expectations, he stated that the should not be afraid to identify the proverbial ‘elephant in the room’ as we delve in to the challenges we have as we live in this globalized world.
Dr. Iqbal Akhter, Professor of Islamic Studies at the Florida International University presented a fitting opening with his paper on “Impact of the translation Gujarati Quran on the nascent Khoja Community” and how the works of Allamah Haji Naji have helped shape the Community. He stated that Khoja identity is constantly evolving. Key to understanding its development is how language is tied to culture and identity. Language is more than simply a way to communicate. Embedded within in it are values, narratives, and the wisdom of the ancients.
The loss of language is the end of a world that once existed over millennia and cannot be easily reconstituted. The preservation of Khoja identity is tied to the preservation of language and the written word of the ancestors in Khoijki and Gujarati.
“I hope that this symposium helps to invite more Khoja to recognize the value of heritage and understand the responsibility of its preservation for future generations. I appreciate the initiative in developing the Khoja Heritage Project. Their help has been invaluable in helping to support our research initiatives into developing Khoja Studies at Florida International University We hope for many more such conferences and community participation to help preserve Khoja texts and promote Kacchī and Gujarati learning among younger generations”
Articulating lucidly on core subject of “Keeping Identity in the 21st Century” Dr. Sibtain Panjwani, the Founder of the Awakening Project and former Secretary General of the World Federation, observed that the Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Muslim Community is facing the natural effects of globalization and plurality. His scholarly presentation put forward a basis for redefining our Khoja identity. This requires examining what it is that binds us together, gives us motivation to preserve the values of our community whilst at the same time being able to adapt to new challenges. How we can make our community accessible to others and contribute positively for the upliftment of humanity to make the world a just place for all to flourish.
He added that at the same time, we must realize our roots; we must not forget that we possess enduring cultural and moral habits which are part and parcel of our historical make-up. Losing these habits would mean we would face an identity crisis and personal and social isolation. Therefore, the very institutions that have played a vital role in our development as a community – namely the Mimbar, Madrasah and Family units, now need to be critically reviewed to understand how well are they are helping us shape our Khoja Shia IthnaAsheri Muslim identity in a meaningful, spiritual, humanitarian and universal manner. In the process, our community may well pave way to include other cultural groups and members within us.
He further observed that whether or not we encourage this inclusion and how we do it was for the community to decide but given our adaptability and versatility, it is not beyond our wit to shape the definition of our identity so as to develop our community to face the multifarious challenges of the 21st century.
“This is the challenge that lies before us. For me the question of redefining our Khoja identity is crucial. Why? If we go with the winds of globalization without considering what we are gaining or losing, we would enter into a critical phase in our development; we would be in danger of being so homogenous that we would unable to distinguish between moral, religious and secular values. How do we know which ones are correct? Which ones are in the spirit of the Qur’an and sunnah? Which ones are appropriate for our community development? We have not begun to think about these questions in any detail. I hope that This symposium held at MARC – Toronto, begins this search of redefining our Khoja identity in the 21st century.”
The venerable Hassan Bhai Jaffer, author of the voluminous work, The Endangered Species, applied his characteristic therapeutic technique, to challenge the audience on the topic of “Changing the Mindset”. Opening his address he movingly described the recent scenes of refugees from the Middle East finding their way to Europe, stating that these are are chilly reminders of what many of our ancestors have gone through in their arduous journey for us to be where we are at now, We can understand and sympathize with their plight the current day refugees, as we compare that to the early migration from India to Africa 1850s and beyond. The horrid scenes of cross border migration during the partition of India in 1947, post Zanzibar revolution, the Uganda exodus, Somalia evacuation, Madagascar, Mozambique, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi experience and now Yemen evacuation all call for reflection. He challenged the audience to think:
“Today the worldwide KSI Community numbering less than 150,000 heads are scattered in 40+ countries as nationals of 20+ States. Well settled as many are, we need to ask: will our progeny remain practicing Muslims fifty years down the line – the primary reason for which we separated from the united Khoja community 150 years ago? How realistic and pragmatic are we as parents and collectively as a community in appreciating the ground realities and in discharging our duties to this effect?”
He stated that there is nothing unique about being a Khoja and nothing great in belonging to any race or to any particular ethnic society. What really matters is how we strive to develop as good human beings, worthy of the divine creation By corollary therefore, there nothing special in belonging to the Khoja Community – except for one thing! At one stage in their history, they had put on their thinking caps. They took an introspective look at themselves, reviewed their belief system and practices. Where they found confusion and contradictions, they reached out to seek expert advice. This is how the Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheri Muslim Community came into being one and a half century ago.
In a bold and frank submission, he opined that we should not be bashful of our heritage, which had much to offer, and lamented on the fact our identity has been put to question by some internal and external forces. The principle of our collective community ownership, and democratic working system tend to send jitters in certain quarters. Wittingly or otherwise, efforts are at hand by various factions to wreck our unity as a cohesive structured society. Driven by simplistic outlook and reactionary emotionalism, many well-meaning individuals from within the society fall easy prey to such machinations.
Finally, Dr. Hasnain Walji, Producer of the documentary, The Khojas – A Journey of Faith and former President of the World Federation, traced the “Impact of the Marjiyyah on the KSI Community” by meticulously outlining the positive foundational relationship of the Khoja Community with the Maraje, from its early days of its contacts Ayatullah Zainul Abedin Mazandarani to Ayatullah Sistani. This reciprocal relationship, of nearly 150 years blossomed, and over time, the Maraje recognized that the leadership elected by the Community was best placed to serve it, and accorded the required flexibility and wakalats to the leadership to embark on Community development projects. However, he observed that of late the “Marjaiyyat by proxy” meant that the communication between the Community and the Maraje is increasingly seen through the prism of representatives, which tends to distort the reality of our Communities needs.
Having charted the 200-year-old concept of transnational marjaiyya, he provided an insightful analysis that : the fast evolving geopolitics of the Middle East may not allow for the perpetuation of the transnational marja as we have known in the past. He postulated that on the one hand the impact of the Saddam era has left an intellectually impoverished Najaf, leaving a vacuum beyond the life times current Grand Ayatullahs, (Ay Sistani, Ay Hakim, Ay Fayyaz and Ay, Bashir Najafi). To add to that, the evolving politicization of the Qum seminary, is now increasingly curtailing the independence and also the finances of the scholars who do not quite see eye to eye with the ruling elite and the concept of Wilayatul Faqih. These are the ground realities that the community needs recognize and ponder on the transition in the days to come. He recounted the nuances of the last transition from Ayatullah Arakki to Ayatullah Sistani. He opined that If this is the shape of things to come than:
“Community leaders will do well to familiarize themselves with the deliberations of scholars like Ayatullah Murtaza Mutahhari for the optimization of marja`iyya (published in Marja`iyyat va Ruhaniyyat over thirty years ago). Of particular relevance is his concept of the desirability of a collective leadership to address complex issues arising out of the modern living. This is not a new concept. I refer you to series of lectures by Mulla Asgherali M M Jaffer who had explicitly called for a change in the modus operandi of Marajiyyah. In this lecture series almost 20 years ago he said “In the Fiqh marja of Taqlid I accept. In marja of ummah there has to be a change”. Mullasaheb was advocating that Marjiyya al-Ummah be in the form of an an institution.”
He reasserted that this was not a call for a revolution but evolution. It was a plea to remain abreast of the realities, as the Khoja Shia IthnaAsheri Community contemplates its future development. While the Community must think in terms of reform, it must do so by way of consensus and cautioned that it should not be at the expense of tearing the fabric of the coveted Community unity and the valuable social capital which is the hallmark of of our Community.
The emerging consensus amongst the participants indicated that just each ethnic group or a nation, has gone about developing its cultural heritage in their own ways – based on their geographical locations, social values, beliefs, religious customs, dress, art, cuisine to name but a few – that distinguish them from each other; so has the Khoja Community. Amongst the key areas to consider further efforts is the retention languages like Gujarati, Kutch and even reviving the lost language of Khojki.
The participants strongly felt that preserving our cultural heritage and language unquestionably engenders a positive feeling of communal support. Indeed, the hall mark of the Khoja Shia IthnaAsheri Community, ever since its evolution as a distinct Khoja Shia IthnaAsheri Community has been to help each other during trials and tribulations on our journey from the ports of Porbandar and Mandvi to almost 40 countries today. The testimony of that bonding lies the creation an enviable network of Jamaats, Regional Federations and the World Federation which bind us together. We must do all we can retain this rich social capital, remained the common sentiment across the room. At the same time, we must not be oblivious of the challenges of today and think out of the box as we grapple with realities of existing in pluralistic societies. That the young professionals and academics and elders need to come together to find ways and means of preserving the slowly receding passion to preserve our language and heritage.
The Symposium concluded with inspiring closing remarks, in his inimitable eloquent Gujarati, by Al Hajj RazaAly Hiridjee. He articulated that a critical part of heritage is language and that It was easy to lose sight of its impact. To make his case he referred to the laborers brought to Western Nations, where they were conditioned to adopt the language of the land at the expense of their vernacular echoing what earlier speakers had alluded to. In the process they dissolved into the melting pot losing their very heritage. Our Community, in particular in North America and Europe is slowly losing its sense of belonging to its heritage. One factor is the loss of Gujarati and associated dialects. Citing the Community in Madagascar and examples of his own family, he stated that the Madagascar Community had largely been successful in maintaining Gujarati as a medium of Communication at home and the mosque. While this had not been easy, he recommended that parents and institutions must strive harder to promote out mother tongue.
He thanked NASIMCO, Toronto Jamaat and the Patrons for their support and asked that more people come forward as Patrons of MARC for it to continue to promote our heritage as well as the teachings of Ahlul Bait (AS).
Watch full sessions of the symposium on http://www.marcresource.org/heritage/