Nowhere with God: Uneasy Confessions of a Syncretist

Essay by M.G. Vassanji
By M.G. Vassanji
Book Cover: Nowhere, Exactly by M.G. Vassanji
Excerpted from Nowhere, Exactly by M.G. Vassanji. Copyright © 2023 M.G. Vassanji. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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      I have often wondered and speculated about my community’s—the Khoja Ismailis’—nomadic, restless heartbeat. According to folk history their wanderings began when some eight centuries ago their caste—the Lohanas—ventured south from the Afghanistan region towards Kutch and Gujarat. The Mongol invasion was rampant in Central Asia in those times. In their new homes, perhaps in the fifteenth century (dates are understandably vague in this oral history), they chose to become followers of an itinerant mystical preacher named Sadardeen, a Shia Muslim whose roots were in Persia. Now calling themselves Khojas, they gradually set themselves apart from their fellow caste members and village folk in a spiritual migration that I think of as a prequel of things to come. They had added only a gloss to their traditional beliefs in the Indian gods, but it would foretell their future existence in the following decades and centuries as they set forth into the world to places like Rangoon, Colombo, Muscat, Malindi, and Zanzibar. In the late nineteenth century my father’s grandfather arrived at a small town called Kibwezi in Kenya that stood on an ancient caravan route that wended its way from the Indian Ocean coast across the interior to Lake Victoria and beyond. My father, an orphan in the custody of his maternal aunt, in his youth wandered about in Kenya and Tanganyika (and even attempted a visit to India) until a bride from Mombasa finally grounded him.

      When I was about thirteen, at an idle moment between us in her shop in Dar es Salaam, my mother related to me the story of Draupadi, the virtuous wife of the five Pandava brothers of the Indian epic the Mahabharata. At the point of being violated by their evil cousins the Kauravas, who had won her at a game of dice, she beseeched the lord (Krishna) to protect her; as a result of her plea, when her sari was pulled off by the evil Kaurava leader, Duryodhana, another one appeared in its place, and so on, one after another. Thus she was preserved in her chastity. This story is a folk version of the one related in the great epic, but to my mother it simply demonstrated the power of faith and prayer. To me it was intriguing, evoking a magical time in far­off India, though I expressed typical teenage scepticism: How is that possible? It’s possible, she said. How can five men marry one wife? They did.

      Why would my mother tell me this story? A professed Hindu might object, But you are a Muslim! Likewise a diehard Muslim might say, That is a Hindu story! To which I reply, But it is my story, I heard it at home. Do I need to explain more? It’s an Indian story and my heritage is Indian. It belongs to the Khoja tradition of Gujarat. Khoja worship for centuries centred upon the singing of hymns called ginans (from the Sanskrit gnana, “know ledge”) in the vernacular Gujarati (and, to a lesser extent, in Sindhi), which often relate fragments from ancient Indian stories in order to instruct, inspire, and exhort. These stories are about some specific venerated characters from the Indian scriptures (or mythology, depending on one’s belief), in particular Draupadi, Harishchandra, his wife Tara Rani (also known as Taramati), Anasuya, Mata Kunta (commonly called Kunti), and Yudhisthira, the oldest of the five Pandava brothers who married Draupadi. One particular ginan relates how Harishchandra and his queen, Tara Rani, sacrificed all— kingdom (Ajodha), beloved horse (hanslo), darling prince (kunvar)— for the sake of their faith. It would be sung with hair­raising devotion by our entire congregation in Dar es Salaam while standing in the jamat khana every New Year’s Eve. It was the time of new appointments in the community’s leadership and served to impress upon everybody the gravity of that responsibility. It was a call, like the call that came for Harishchandra and Tara Rani, and they gave. Amar te aayo—the call came.

      How can that not be my story?

      What was I, then—Hindu or Muslim? It may sound obtuse, but the or in the question troubles me intensely, more so in our recent, divisive times. In my view, the question need not even be asked. Why must we choose between two poles, when we stand on neither side? And yet it comes up with an insistence. You are a Muslim! Your name says so. But my surname, I counter, which is my grandfather’s Lohana name, does not say so, and neither does his father’s name, nor our clan name, the attak, which refers to the third of the five Pandava brothers, the invincible Bhim. What would you have me do with those enchanting stories that still live in me? Should they simply be allowed to vanish into the ether, transitory phenomena in the continuum of time like puffs of smoke, without leaving a trace? Why should a name foist upon me an identity, a system of belief, a sense of belonging or not belonging?

      As I go about my everyday life in Toronto, most people I see don’t care a fig about my beliefs—what God, gods, or goddesses, what plant, animal, or stone I worship; they may guess—usually erroneously—where I come from, but the question of religious belief doesn’t arise. It’s only with another brown face that this question rears up like an evil genie. People from the Indian subcontinent seem to always carry with them a bag of labels from which at any instant they will take one out and stick it on your forehead with that special eureka of discovery and (I imagine) a smirk, along with all their stereotypes. They have placed you. Hindu, Muslim, caste, subcaste. Friend, foe, neutral, vegetarian, non­vegetarian. I squirm at this assault on my privacy, on my very sense of myself.


I decided to write this confession provoked by a fellow novelist who was born in East Africa, whom I will call Rajab. We were at a conference hotel in Washington DC having a drink, when he happened to say to me, with a teasing grin: “But you are not Muslims!” Rajab’s tease referred to the Khoja Ismailis, with whom he was familiar as neighbours from his childhood. On a previous occasion, I had happened to be with him and a few other writers at al­Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. We had been allowed inside by Israeli soldiers who guarded the entrance (a more vocal and obtuse segment of our delegation had been turned away) and arrived near the spot from where, on a Ramadan night, the Prophet flew up into heaven, mounted on a horse, and had a vision of Allah. The emotion on Rajab’s face as we stood there in the cavernous hall of the mosque was astonishing to see and at the same time deeply moving. “I wish my father could see me,” he, whom I guessed to be an agnostic, murmured. He went down on his knees and said a prayer. But I felt nothing close to that emotion, only intellectual curiosity, and perhaps some envy, and a desire not to forget the moment and its details.

      Rajab’s reaction at al­Aqsa mosque was of someone who had been brought up in a tradition steeped in the life and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. I know only a few episodes of the Prophet’s life, and for me there is not quite the same emotional charge in the stories as there is for someone from that tradition. They are interesting and instructive. Some of them I’ve learned only recently from reading the Prophet’s biographies as research. But the story of Harishchandra and Tara Rani deeply moved me; as did the vision of Draupadi. How could I not see a sister in her? Or my widowed mother in Mata Kunta?

      The Khoja Ismaili prayer house was called the khano (short for jamat khana, and it was called something else in Gujarati previously) and was separate from that of the Muslims; we prayed differently, sitting on the ground, men on one side and women on the other, no partition in between, in the manner of a Sikh gurudwara. Indeed, when we spoke of Muslims we most often meant Sunnis. The inspiring stories and miracles we heard were mostly about the Ismaili imams. Were we to be asked if we were Muslims, we would say yes. We celebrated the two Eids, but we did not fast or go on hajj; most of us had never read the Quran or had even heard of the Hadiths—the deeds and sayings of the Prophet as related by oral tradition—and we were discouraged from indulging in too much meat. Only recently had our daily prayers, which had been in Kutchi and Gujarati for generations and referred to the ten avatars of Vishnu, been replaced with a few Arabic verses from the Quran.

Therefore, when Rajab said to me, half seriously, “But you are not Muslims,” I surprised him by responding, “I never thought of myself as one.” I tried to explain why: we came from a syncretistic tradition, our identity was communal and unique, etcetera. “Write about it,” he said.

      I don’t believe he really cared, but I had often thought of doing exactly what he recommended, because during my lifetime I had seen that syncretistic tradition—so enchanting to me, with its odd mixtures and illogic, its magical stories, its mysticism, and its beautiful hymns, partly in old Gujarati, that we had heard and sung daily and only half understood; and humanistically satisfying though radical in accepting that diverse spiritual paths all led to that same goal of enlightenment—I had seen this tradition slowly, and then at a gallop, wilfully transformed— chipped away, erased or rewritten to remove perceived conflicts with Islam; in other words, to purify it from an Islamic point of view. To rid it of its “Hinduism.” So relentless has been the process that it seemed that soon even I would forget that the tradition really existed as I remembered it. Did we really have a ceremony during celebrations at which unmarried girls arrived in a procession into the congregation, each carrying a pot on her head and led by an older woman? Or the story of the woodcutter and his mother, recited with a very particular sonorous intonation, a tremolo, on the seventh morning after new moon— when we were served sweet yellow rice with sooji halwa and boiled black channa with coconut chips? Did we have an aarti sung first thing as services began, again in that sonorous intonation, whose refrain—aarti kije nikalanki taniji—treams into my mind after decades as I write this? On the back wall of our prayer house was there actually a takhat, a majestic throne with ample silky cushions, where people came to offer flowers and ask for favours? Did we have in our homes, as an occasional propitiatory rite, a luncheon for exactly seven or fourteen girls, who would then leave with a little gift of a handkerchief and a sweet? Sometimes the girls’ toes would ritually be washed by the hostess. My mother had a particular fondness for this tradition, called niaani; it helped her in difficult times. Niaani means “womenfolk” and was a sacred word in our family. And those thrilling recitals of ginans in the khano that we can recall with as much fondness as jazz aficionados today might recall a stint by John Coltrane or Dave Brubeck at a New York club. I should record all this, and yet for whom would I write? The subject seems so petty and local, so unimportant in a world that is on fire everywhere.


There arises this recurring question: Does it matter, this remembering of a minor tradition, this concern about its erasure? Why not let history take its course, let the tradition shed and moult and renew itself? Species of life, tribes of people, entire languages disappear. Cities and countries are ravaged by wars. National boundaries are redrawn or invented. Millions are forced to leave their homes. Global warming threatens devastation. Robots replace us at work, and our idea of the mind may need revision. And more recently the Covid pandemic, the wildfires, and floods that have brought such a sense of doom to humanity. Why raise a cry about a nonconforming tradition from an obscure, dry part of India? Christian Europe rid itself of the Cathar and other “heretical” non­mainstream beliefs centuries ago. (Though they used the Inquisition and its tortures to implement this erasure, as depicted powerfully in, for example, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and its film version.) But a perverse side of me, once in a while, when a beloved ginan comes to mind unprovoked, raises a protest: But it was there! It was authentic and alive like an obscure little animal— do we smother it? Let’s at least acknowledge it before we gas it! Who should decide which story, song, or painting should be erased from our inheritance? Remember the Bamiyan Buddhas!

      I have tried to explain the tradition to my Indian friends, only to give up in embarrassment. I could be describing Maxwell’s equations of electrodynamics (so elegant in every way). The eyes glaze over, the expressions fall into a mask of blank indulgence. I am the Ancient Mariner. If I try to explain the tradition to an avowed Muslim I sense disbelief, even contempt. The very idea of syncretism is inconceivable: Aren’t you a Muslim? Then how can you possibly also be a Hindu? Why would you wish to regress into a state of jahiliyya (ignorance)? Don’t they worship cows?, an Iraqi Canadian literary critic said to me once, very disturbed at my disclosure (after which we lost touch).

      It may sound churlish or antediluvian, and perhaps it’s the wrong moment, to deny you’re exactly a Muslim at a time in history when Muslims feel embattled and persecuted. In Canada at various times recently, women wearing hijab or niqab have been physically assaulted; the incidences may be rare now but the fear remains, they may still happen. Mosques have been attacked, not infrequently.2 In the United States a Trump decree officially discriminated against Muslims. In India, chat groups vent extreme hatred against Muslims, who were even blamed for the spread of the Covid pandemic. Extremists there have called out for their genocide, without a demurral from the national government. (To be sure, in Islamic Pakistan, Hindus, Christians, and Ahmadiyyas have also suffered discrimination and violence.) With these reminders before me, I admit then feeling small­minded and guilty. You want to abandon a sinking ship, I tell myself. But more than a billion avowed Muslims, the majority of them youthful, do not make a sinking ship. I am not denying my real but rather tenuous historical link to Islam. I understand the angst of Muslims at the condition of their coreligionists, and their anger at the mockery of their Prophet. But I assert my cultural and historical Indianness: I am brown, I speak Indian languages, I eat Indian food, and I have these hymns in Gujarati extolling Hari (Krishna) that I was brought up with and love. They are beautiful, and haunting, and historical. Once in a while I get a craving for Bollywood. I am drawn to visiting India despite the problems I have mentioned. India keeps calling.

      I have lived in North America for more than four decades and am a Westernized agnostic from Africa. My position is simply this: I am just what I am, the way I was made and have evolved. Perhaps I’m both Hindu and Muslim; or neither, Neti Neti, as the ancient wise men of India put it. I recall Draupadi and Harishchandra and Tara Rani, I recall the magical Narsingh avatar of Vishnu, who coincidentally, significantly, was both man and lion. I also recall the stories of Ali rescuing Muhammad at Khyber in Arabia and the martyrdom of Hussein, but these Arabian stories not with the same immediacy. They happened there, far away in the desert, they were narrated; the others were sung night after night and bred in the bone. I wake up sometimes with a ginan verse in my mouth (if it’s not Beatles or Rolling Stones or some other pop song from my youth). They are me.


In Delhi I came to know a young scholar who is from a community called the Husseini Brahmins. Just the name should raise eyebrows. This community traces itself to Iraq, where apparently it assisted the Prophet’s grandson, Imam Hussein, at the Battle of Karbala, where he was martyred. Following this episode they migrated across Iran to India, from where they presumably had originated. It’s an exhilarating story, precious as a rare gem; an example of natural human diversity and creativity to hold against the forces of divisiveness, the orthodoxies and fundamentalisms that have been editing and purifying our thoughts and beliefs and imaginations. Uniformity should be subverted. My community, the Khojas, I thought proudly, had done that.

      There is, above all, that joy in syncretism, the intellectual flexibility and nurturing of curiosity, the tolerance or acceptance of other ways of belief, the inability to hate others “just because.” As I write this, in Delhi, I recall a friend telling me two days ago, beaming with pleasure, about the memorial service to his cousin that he had just attended, where a vocal group had recited songs of Kabir, the fifteenth­century mystical devotee who also was neither Hindu nor Muslim, equating Ram and Rahim. Hindus and Muslims have claimed him. When he died, it is said, his body vanished and in its place inside a hut were found some rose petals, so that his followers would not squabble and fight over what rites to perform.


I take here a little space to describe, briefly and simplistically, the syncretistic tradition of the Khojas of Gujarat and East Africa as I knew it during my growing up. The reader unfamiliar with Indian religious mythology may easily skip this section. In describing this tradition, I speak not of a great civilization and great conquests and cultural and intellectual achievements—I have no claim to that boast, though my modest background equips me to respect individual genius wherever it sprouts on this planet. I speak of a folk tradition—villagers in western Gujarat imagining stories and creating meanings about life and death and the universe around them, drawing from cultural veins going down to the hoary past, away from the eyes of the rajas and sultans, the pandits and mullahs—those guardians of orthodoxy, assassins of the imagination.

      The Khoja beliefs are founded on the basis of the teachings of the itinerant preacher or guru called Pir Sadardeen (whom I have introduced above) and a few of his descendants, some few (perhaps four to six) centuries ago. The tradition blended the Indian devotional practice called bhakti, based on the worship of the god Krishna, the mysticism of the canonical Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, analogous concepts from the devotional and mystical Islam of the Sufis, and medieval Ismaili esotericism from Persia. Bhakti was widespread in medieval India, its teachers and gurus— Mirabai, Narsinh Mehta, Kabir, Guru Nanak, and many, many others— singing hymns (called bhajans) as they travelled about from place to place gathering followers in much the same way as Pir Sadardeen and his descendants did in Gujarat; Khoja hymns were called ginans, their vocabulary often identical with those of the bhakti bhajans. The Khoja faith, in combining these traditions, equated Krishna (Hari) to Ali; the god Brahma to Prophet Muhammad; and the Quran to the Atharva Veda (the fourth Veda). Interestingly, the god Shiva and the Mother Goddess hardly if ever appear, which is surely a subject for a dissertation or two. The equivalences however are entirely superficial, and crude, and point to a people who were not learned in the canonical scriptures. To the Khoja villager in Gujarat, hardly aware of what kind of world and peoples lay beyond his domain, the name “Ali” would have conjured up nothing more than the familiar blue god Hari (Krishna). In fact “Hari” occurs many more times in the ginans than “Ali.” This mischievous flute­playing demon­ slayer’s stories suffused the very air they breathed, his images were ubiquitous throughout the land, his deeds were celeb rated in the wonderfully colourful festivals like Holi and Navratri. The Khoja villager would have had no access to either the Arabic Quran or the Vedic­Sanskritic Vedas and Upanishads. He would have had no knowledge of the Islamic traditions that thrived in the centres of the north, such as Delhi, Agra, and Lahore, and beyond in Persia and the Middle East, expressed in Persian and Arabic. (In a shrine to Pir Sadardeen’s grandson, Imamshah, outside Ahmedabad, there is a place where pilgrims on their way to Ganga [the River Ganges] would sit and meditate and when they opened their eyes they would realize that they had just visited the holy river.)

      There are some fascinating, recurrent patterns (besides the absence of Shiva and the Goddess) in the ginans that lend them a coherence, telling us that they are not simply arbitrary syncretistic occurrences, there is some thought and construction behind them. For example, we find only certain characters from Indian religious mythology in them: Kunti, in the unusual form of “Mata (Mother) Kunta”; Draupadi, also sometimes occurring with “Mata” or the respectful “ji”; Prahlada as “Pehelaj”; and Yudhisthira as “Jujesthana.” All these are introduced as exemplars of the faithful devotee. Yudhisthira’s presence is specially intriguing. In the epic Mahabharata, he is the eldest of the five Pandava brothers (and son of Kunti), a valorous fighter but not as great as his two younger brothers, Arjuna and Bhim. Arjuna is the hero, the skilled archer close to Krishna, who is his charioteer and guide during the epic battles. Bhim is reckless and indestructible, such is his physical strength. Neither can be found in the ginans as I know them. Yudhisthira, on the other hand, in the epic is shown as noble and righteous; it is he to whom the others defer and who feels pangs of guilt at the destruction that has been wreaked by the war and therefore needs to be consoled. It is he who tries to bring peace even before the battles begin, ready to give up his leadership for its sake, who finds no satisfaction but only grief in his side’s ultimate victory. And it is he, in the vernacular (Prakrit) form Jujesthana, who appears in the Khoja ginans as embodying virtue. Prahlada (Pahelai) is another faithful hero. Harishchandra and Tara Rani, as mentioned before, recur in the ginans, and their kingdom is Ajodha Nagari (Ayodhya). Surely there’s no point in discussing whether it is the same as the contentious present­day city of that name in the state of Uttar Pradesh, the site of so much modern­day contention and cause of bloodshed.

      Pir Sadardeen sometimes signed his compositions as Guru Sahdev and Satguru. Sahdev is the name of one of the two younger Pandava brothers, born to Pandu’s younger wife Madri, and legend says that Pir Sadardeen had visited Varanasi (Benares) on the Ganges, presumably to learn from or debate the learned pandits there. Almost all the ginans begin with the call “E­ji!”—a respectful form of “O Sir /Madam!” The tenth avatar of Vishnu, who would arrive from a land called Sehentara Dvipa, is often referred to as sami­rajo (swami raja), the lord­king. Krishna recurs as Karsan, Vaikuntha Nath (lord of Vaikunth, his kingdom), tribhovara sami (lord of the three worlds) and, most of all, Hari. The faithful Khojas or devotees are referred to as momana­bhai, “momana” being the vernacular form of the Arabic or Persian word for “follower,” and “bhai” the Gujarati for “brother.” Munivara, meaning “good seeker of truth” (from the Sanskrit muni), rikhisara (from rishi), meaning approximately the same, and virabhai also occur frequently. Vira is “hero,” also used by Kabir.

      There are some long compositions, including the intriguing Twelve Books, one of which is titled Nakalanki Gita (“The Song of the Pure One,” i.e., the tenth avatar); another ends its lines with the suffix “­am,” in mock Sanskrit. (I have found a Sikh composition using the same convention.) I never heard them sung. One long ginan, consisting of some four hundred quatrains, is called “To Munivara Bhai” (“And so my good seekers”) and begins with how Vishnu, with the aid of the goddess of learning, Saraswati, and Brahma, created the universe and how it evolved.

      The Khojas even had their own writing script, apparently to keep their scriptures secret, called Khojki. (It was common among Indian communities in the past to possess their own jealous variations of the Nagari script, upon which the present canonical Hindi script is based.) But it is unclear (to me) if all the compositions were actually authored by the holy men to whom they are attributed; they could be community efforts developed over several centuries. Some were no doubt part of the folk oral tradition of Gujarat. (I have found verses from one beautiful little ginan on an LP recording of Gujarati hymns; on the wall of the factory making the legendary patola cloth in the ancient city of Patan, Gujarat; and on the wall of a shrine just outside Vadodara.) Undoubtedly over the centuries they underwent alterations in language, and we expect there to have been interpolations. I have two copies of “To Munivara Bhai,” mentioned above, that I translated once when I seriously considered pursuing a higher degree on a study of the ginans and the culture in which they emerged. One of them has an extra verse at the end; and there are verses in the middle, obviously the work of a pious meddler, admonishing against the consumption of tobacco! The ginans that we have now in print were collected in the late nineteenth century by one Lalji Devraj, and they must have gone through a selection process. No doubt the selection must bear Lalji Bhai’s stamp. Different Khoja communities across Gujarat might have preserved their own favoured ginans. But there is a consistency to the corpus, a thought process or vision, as I’ve said, working against the meddlers. Today’s meddlers, fearing the wrath of Islamic fundamentalists, have substituted Ali for Hari and Mowla for Sami (Swami)— an example of the travesties inspired by modern Indo­Pak politics and jingoism.


The Khoja religion is, then, a syncretism embedded in the Indian folk milieu, specifically that of Gujarat. It partakes of stories and beliefs that have existed and evolved for over two millennia on the Indian soil, using them to form a distinct philosophy of belief. It has been around from three to five hundred years, though some claim for it a thousand years. The earliest one or two teachers, ancestors of Pir Sadardeen, supposedly came from Alamut, the Assassin Ismaili fortress in Persia. When it was destroyed by the Mongols in 956 CE, Orthodox Islam celebrated. This then is the Khojas’ link to Islam. (There is a chronological conundrum to this supposition, a gap between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries to explain.)

      The Gujarati Khoja tradition has been perceived as a mongrel, a half­formed, impure faith that given time and coaching will eventually drift to authentic Islam or Hinduism. It defies easy description, violates census classifications, and does not have the clarity that scholars of the neat and canonical wish to study. And yet it is authentic in itself, having preserved itself and evolved over the centuries, during which it has defined a historical community. In India similar communities have always existed and they are the targets of religious purifiers to this day. We often forget that the canonical, mainstream “pure” forms of any religion as we know them are themselves artificial constructs, they did not arise fully formed.

      True, the Khoja tradition is not refined. It has contradictions. The ginans have the ragas but not the sophisticated meters of classical poetry. Some are philosophical, others devotional or mystical, yet others didactic, and some seem trivial (“When you come to pray, virabhai, join your hands . . .”). But the corpus is inspiring and intriguing, its material authentic—several hundred verses plus the Twelve Books with an identifiable character. In the face of modern times it needs interpretation and study at the very least, and perhaps room to evolve or be turned to music, but it does not deserve burial or the flames. The beauty of its poetry and music, its sheer creativity, need to be held close and nourished, not bound in the iron claws of Orthodoxy and Ideology. Anything refined and pure is hard to digest; it can be poison. We have seen enough examples of fundamentalism and nationalism in our times, and their results writ in blood.

      Nevertheless, aspiring to a perceived modernism and craving legitimacy, the Khoja community’s leadership has seen fit to transform it, rhetorically at least, into a pure Islamic sect, with all the chest­thumping gusto of a new convert. This is not the place to go into the mechanics of this self­transformation. That would be too controversial. But the net result has been the quiet removal of “Hindu” practices, and the shelving of many ginans or verses, accompanied by a loud drumbeat of Islamic rhetoric and a sly occlusion of Gujarati origins in favour of imagined Iranian and Central Asian ones. Not surprisingly, some young Khojas now grow up in North America with the belief that their ancestors came from Iran or Tajikistan. And “scholars,” with no knowledge of an Indian language or of Indian anthropology and folk history, knowing a smattering of Arabic from university courses, with no poetry in their souls and little imagination go about picking nuggets of Islam in these wonderfully vibrant, mysterious and evocative songs of a people.4 The Khojas are today a much­admired community, successful in many fields including politics, business, and journalism, but they are highly susceptible to authority: if they were told the ginans were composed by a goat, many would be likely to believe it.

      Does it matter? We were a small, outlying community from outlying districts of India and Africa; why not conveniently become extinct as one and define ourselves as another, possessed with a glorious past in which “we” had a named empire (Fatimid, in Egypt), made conquests, and showed intellectual prowess—and in a short time no one would be the wiser? This new self­identity would be, moreover, most conducive to life in North America, where origins matter less than in other places: in the New World, “dynasties” can spring up instantly. When two easy and clean orthodox paths (Hindu and Muslim) are available, why choose the thicket in the middle? Moreover an Islamic identity is easy to define and explain— it has the simplicity of geometry: beginning with the birth of the Prophet it goes down to the present, with only a few branch lines to take you to your particular sect. Say the shahada, the statement of belief, and you have it. (Though the simpler the definitions, the sharper and more threatening the edges, the more glaring and sometimes bloody the differences.)

      And the Islamic identity looks attractive: doesn’t it feel better to belong to a global fraternity—the umma— with a recorded history of glorious achievements, rather than to a folkloric, humble past in rural drought­stricken Kathiyawad, India? Don’t we all create mythologies, imagined and embellished beginnings, personal as well as national? Memory, in any case, as the neuroscientists tell us, is constantly renewed.

You have a problem if your truth matters: memory nags. We speak of the bane of fake news. Do we simply acquiesce to fake history? Accept fake identity?


How to avoid that twinge of cynicism or stab of irritation at seeing a young Canadian with India and Africa in his blood struggle to cough out Arabic gutturals while attempting to recite authentically a Quranic verse that he doesn’t understand; when an Afghan is brought to a wedding merely to recite the Arabic nikaa (with the proper gutturals), after which he departs, and the guests fall back into English and Kutchi and some pick up their glasses of wine; when young people resort to Arabic calligraphy as an art form, ignoring their Indian and African heritage, their Western education?

      We rightfully celebrate human achievements anywhere. As someone trained in theoretical physics, I have been excited by the achievements of Einstein and Dirac, Bose and Ramanujan, Weinberg and Salam, and many others. My first sight of Picasso’s Guernica in Madrid was soul­stirring. Hearing T. S. Eliot in his recorded voice was intensely moving; so was hearing (and meeting) Faiz Ahmed Faiz. But what should make the tenth­century Fatimid Empire of Egypt occupy a special pride of place in my heart? A thin and vague sectarian connection through a maze of controversial history?

      I see in the community in which I was brought up a desperate need to belong to something great, to be validated; that’s understandable in any small and previously colonized group that sees itself as otherwise insignificant. But will borrowed glory and questionable connection to a distant history satisfy that need? When you erase your own tradition and history, or rewrite or invent them (and it is done casually, just like that), at the end of the day you are left with nothing that is deeply felt. The Persian new year Navruz becomes an acquired habit; the Arabic prayer becomes a formula recited by rote; Arabic calligraphy is the new, heartless art form; a Tajik dance becomes yours; a Saudi king gives your child his name. Can art and history, can culture be so easy and superficial?

      In colonial times, it was amusing to see black and brown men and women affecting English accents, the men outfitted in pinstriped woollen suits even in sweltering heat. But the Khoja mimicry that I’ve mentioned is more than a bunch of innocent, transient fads, it is a systematic erasure and invention. Still, why should this bother? It need not, of course; but half­truths, inventions, and ignorance have a way of nagging when they negate your own experience and memory; when they negate your own history. There is an ideology to the mimicry. Essentially, as I see it, the requirement has been to become shorn of heritage and ancestry; of mystery, ritual, and song; of memory and traditions; of culture; in short, to be deracinated, and onto that plain slate that emerges to transpose an “Islamic” tradition and culture that are fictions. I can only say, No, thank you, to that. I will keep my memories and move on; I have evolved from them, as is natural, but I do not want to negate them. They belong to times that have shaped me. Some of our ways were narrow­minded, ignorant, and superstitious; others had ancient roots, they brought meanings from ancient times, they gave us belonging in ourselves, in where we came from, and in where we lived.

      But that leaves me at the bus stop, neither here nor there; or more precisely, nowhere.


Respect, even belief in the other faith, is not unknown to India. It is, to many of us, its “beauty” and strength, its attraction, a source of pride. The seventeenth­century Mughal emperor Akbar had a Christian, a Muslim, and a Hindu wife, for each of whom he had separate quarters and prayer rooms. The late president of India, Abdul Kalam, was a professed Muslim who fasted during Ramadan and prayed the namaz (Muslim prayer); he was also a vegetarian, read the Gita, learned Sanskrit, and had a spiritual guru. Holy places and saints in India have often had followers from all faiths. The shrine of Sabarimala in Kerala attracts millions of pilgrims every year, who arrive from long distances, often on foot and dressed in black dhotis; the last approach to the shrine is a climb up a steep hill. Before paying obeisance to the god of the shrine, a form of Krishna, pilgrims first pay their respects at a nearby shrine of a Muslim saint called Vavar. The Kali temple of the Pavagadh pilgrimage site in Gujarat was topped with a Muslim shrine and a mausoleum to a Sufi, Sadan Shah. (It was under threat during the 2003 communal violence. Another ode to modern politics.) The fifteenth­century mystic Kabir, whose songs are popular to this day, is beloved to Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and many in the West. The twentieth­ century saint Sai Baba of Shirdi, whose images adorn rickshaws and middle­class homes, is believed by many to have been a Muslim; whether he was or not, his teachings combine elements of both faiths. And finally, bringing this observation to a full circle, the shrine of the grandson, Imamshah, of the Khoja Pir Sadardeen lies a short distance away from Ahmedabad, at a place called Pirana, in Gujarat. It is visited by people of all faiths and at its head sits a Hindu guru. Ginan books were on sale when I visited, though I recognized none of the ginans in them. (How ever, a reverse erasure had taken place here: during my latest visit, Imamshah was now said to have been an orphan, born to a Brahmin couple and adopted by Muslims. But as a Khoja “cousin,” I was made very welcome there and given pride of place to sit.)

      Muslims are a “minority” in India because at independence diverse sects and castes, including the “Untouchables,” were brought together under one “Hindu” umbrella to make up the “majority.” Thereby Muslims and Christians became the “minorities.” This is absurd: majorities and minorities are invented concepts. Many Dalits—the so­called Untouchables—detest the Hindu scriptures, which sanction untouchability and even violence against them. Hindus and Muslims of the Punjab and Sindh provinces, for example, are often more related to each other than to the populations of Bengal and Kerala. There can be few examples of such absurdity more glaring than the definition of former Pakistan, consisting of Punjabi­dominated West Pakistan and Bengali­dominated East Pakistan. The latter broke away in a violent nationalist struggle to form the new nation of Bangladesh. Its national anthem: “Amar Sonar Bangla” (My Golden Bengal), its lyrics written by Rabindranath Tagore.

      And yet, despite such hallelujahs to eclectic practices and syncretistic beliefs in India, the actual attitudes that have come to prevail in the country in recent times, and not only among the fundamentalists, are essentialist and emphasize difference— and, more and more, hatred and enmity— rather than unity. Muslims and Hindus seem to inhabit different universes. Hindu liberals will speak up for “minority” rights, but their social lives will remain almost entirely devoid of Muslims. Muslim causes are a hobby or simply lend left­wing respectability, and they can be offensively patronizing. Housing in India remains segregated, and stereotypes abound. I am often exhorted to eat meat; it has come to seem that for me to be vegetarian in India is to encroach upon a precious upper­caste Hindu identity.

In the Indian Express not long ago (March of 2018), Harsh Mander, a human rights activist, observed that “open expressions of hatred and bigotry against Muslims have become the new normal, from schools to universities, workplaces to living rooms,” and concluded, in April of that same year, that “India has never been as divided since Partition … The poisons of hate have penetrated too deeply into our souls.” The columnist Tavleen Singh came up with an even more scathing observation.

      Perhaps, then, there’s no choice for those in between, and the Khojas are right to have moved away from their Indian roots to an invented, new identity? Their cousins, those who possess the shrine at Pirana, have moved in the opposite direction, towards a pure Hinduism. What’s not true, when repeated often enough, becomes the new truth.


Writing this confession comes with its risk. Not that I expect a fatwa pronouncing a death sentence, or to be physically assaulted where I live. There is, however, the other type of risk, that of opprobrium from your own tribe—people you have grown up, played, and gone to school with. A community that’s family and, perhaps partly by necessity, peaceful. But the smaller you are the more threatened you feel. You’ve always balanced between two extremes or orthodoxies, two definitions, with the risk of offending purists bearing either label. Your tenets sound odd to those who follow the established formulas of orthodoxy. You are exotic or a heretic. You call yourself esoteric. In modern times you need respectability and recognition, for which you have accepted the need to redefine yourself. But you need time. And so every revelation or confession is perceived as a betrayal. In Nausari in Gujarat there is a shrine to another holy man sacred to Khoja Ismailis; it is also worshipped by a community of the Patel (Hindu) subcaste. At a very modest temple nearby, I saw a book of ginans lying open on a podium. Remarkably, it was printed in the same format I had seen in many ginan books of my childhood. The place was empty, except for the priest hovering inside. Explaining myself (of course he had heard of Khojas), I asked him, Do you sing the ginans? He said, But we have to be careful.

      Is it necessary or even ethical, then, to stand out and make such revelations as I have done here? Why not let time take its course, let the community approach a philosophic ground, one more congenial to where it wants to be in the modern world? My position however is not meant to be disruptive or, in the vein of Charlie Hebdo, “I will say it because I am free to say it.” I do so with trepidation and with apology. My purpose is simply to record certain phenomena in the life of the community in which I grew up, traditions, practices, songs, and rituals that nurtured me, to say that they indeed were there, this is how it was; and to call out the deliberate erasure and re­invention of its culture and identity by ignorant leadership, without due regard even for keeping records or seeking consensus— or indeed being honest.

Moyez Vassanji
M.G. Vassanji is the author of eight novels, most recently A Delhi Obsession.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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Britannia Art Gallery
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Bookhug Press
Plantation Memories
Plantation Memories
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