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A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE KHOJAS IN EARLY MUSCAT

I.I.Dewji, Editor (April 2020)

The diaspora of the Khoja outside of Indian subcontinent is a consequence the regularity of the Indian Ocean monsoons and one of its outcomes, the historical duality of Oman – a conservative tribal interior versus cosmopolitan coastal cities, where travel and trade has lead to the development, under secular Sultans, of open societies that have welcomed “settled strangers”, the Khojas of Sindh & Kutch being the most prominent Indians among them.


“Centered on Sohar, north of present day Muscat, a true Indian Ocean culture developed focused more on China, India, Madagascar, and Africa than on Arabia." (1)


Gulf’s summer climate, in the low 50°C, was not a deterrent to Sindhis, Kutchis, and Gujaratis because it was similar to their homelands.(2)


It was this adventurous migration of the Khojas, via Omani dhows that have plowed the Indian Ocean for over a millennia, that lead to their permanent settlement in Gwadar, Muscat and Zanzibar as well as to their subsequent penetration into the East Africa. (3)


The voyage could have started from Makran (the Gwadar coast area, in present-day Pakistani Baluchistan, Ed), than to Oman, and to Zanzibar, that was part of a global unity that long preceded the economic unification of the Indian Ocean world from the sixteenth century, and the more recent processes of globalisation.(4)


To give an idea of the importance of international trade to Oman, it’s ruler in the 18th century, Sultan bin Ahmad Al BuSaid (1792–1804) spoke Arabic, Hindi, Persian and Swahili (5) and the Omani Sultanate signed a commercial treaty with the emerging United States as early as 1834.



From ancient times, Omani sailing dhows were made from Indian wood and pearling was the most important export of the region to India and the Far East.


“Gulf pearls were more prized and expensive than Indian pearls, in part because perfume and body oil do not fade their lustre.” (6)



The Khojas were early traders along the Indian Ocean littoral area and created safe spaces for themselves first with the unorthodox Ibadi Muslim Omanis and later with the fanatical Christian Portuguese, escaping their anti-Muslim wrath, because their syncretic Satpanthi practises. (7)


See: Khoja Shams-ud-din Gillani - a Khoja merchant in 1534.


“Since the sixteenth century, if not before, it appears that most Muslim Indian merchants in the Gulf were Khojas (sing. Khoja / Khojah, pl. Khawaja) from Gujarat and later Bombay. Khojas have been the major Muslim trading caste of western India for centuries.”(8)


“European travel literature of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries refers to the Jains, when the ‘Banias’ of Muscat are described……..Among the Muslim merchant communities, the Shia Khojas and Sunni Memons were highly active in the Arabian Sea trade.” (9)


“Besides dealing in the standard products, like textiles, grain and dates, the Khwajas also had a virtual monopoly of the trade in dried fish from Masqat as this was a product in which the Hindu merchants, for religious reasons, would not deal. Khwajas were also involved in various skilled crafts, like carpentry and boat building.” (10)


The earliest settlement of these traders is disputed between the community's own oral traditions and contemporary scholarship.


“While Khoja community traditions depicted their arrival in Oman as having happened centuries earlier, Ibn Razyak’s (contemprory Arab scholar. Ed.) historical documents date the period of the 1740s as the time of their connection with Oman....Bartle Frere (a British colonial official in 1873. Ed.) checked an inscription over a door in the Khoja quarter, which suggested that the building had been constructed two hundred and forty years earlier, i.e. in the later medieval period”. (11)



For clarity, it should be mentioned that some Arab and European travellers in the Gulf did not distinguish between Muslim and Hindu Indians, calling them all “Banians” from the Indian word for merchants "vanias" and familiar to Swahili-speakers as “Baniyanis”.


“The Danish explorer Carsten Niebuhr, who visited Muscat in 1765, observed that the Banians, as moneylenders and bankers, held sway over the Arab ruling elite." (12)


The first colonial survey of the Persian Gulf in which Indians were recorded was conducted in the early 1820's by a Captain George Brucks of the Bombay Marine Corps.


“In Muscat, he observed about 2,000 Banians who were brokers to most of the Arab merchants, and generally agents to any European ship that trades to this place.” (13)


“In Matrah, he discovered about 1,000 Banians from Sindh and Kutch, all engaged in trade.” (14)


Matrah is a small harbour about three kilometres from Muscat, where the Khojas have lived in a separate "sur" or compound for centuries while owning shops and businesses in Muscat town. A couple of old Khojki manuscripts copied by a bawa in Muscat (See Mehdi Bawa for the role of the “bawas” in Khoja society) confirms the presence of Satpanthi Khojas in Muscat in 1815.


See: Fadu Dewani-a Khoja resident of Muscat in 1820


Others Indians also gradually assumed control of the tax and financial apparatus of Muscat.


“Many South Asian traders and moneylenders in Oman were commercially involved with the Sultan’s empire and followed him by settling in Zanzibar.” (15)


After Sultan Said Al-Busaid moved to Zanzibar in 1840, a succession dispute within Muscat lead to the expulsion of the Hindu traders.


“This balance changed in favor of Muslims after 1868, when Imam Azzan bin Qais seized power in Muscat and imposed an intolerant fundamentalist regime over Oman’s ports, making life difficult for non-Muslims. In 1868, Muscats Banian population numbered 2,000; by 1870, it had dwindled to 250”. (16)


The Hindu merchants were replaced by a new wave of Khojas migrants from Kutch.


A census conducted in 1869 by the British Government of India of all people entitled to British protection in Matrah, shows “Forty-nine Muslim men all Khojas, all merchants and all but one were accompanied by their wives.” (17)


“In 1869, Britains Political Resident in the Gulf observed that, with the exception of two or three Omani merchants, Muscats trade was entirely in the hands of Banians and Khojas”. (18)


“By the 1870s the Indian merchants dominated the commercial life of Masqat and had replaced the Al BuSa‘id rulers of the town as the paramount economic power in ‘Uman." (19)


“India financial dominance in the Gulf was such that, between the 1890s and the 1960s, the Indian rupee was the main unit of currency in Eastern Arabia.” (20)

By 1905, “The Khojas in Matrah, Oman were the largest Indian community in the Gulf, numbering 1,050.” (21)


The largest group among the Khojas were those who had migrated from Hyderabad (Sindh) from the early 1600's onwards as traders, carpenters, potters and other artisans when the Lohana merchant "mahajan" guild called Sindhiworkies had established itself as a large trading network in the Western Indian Ocean.



See:Piredina-a Khoja migrant who arrived from Sindh in 19th century.


“The third oldest (of Indians) is the Lawati community of Muscat and Matrah, which dates from either the Yaariba dynasty (1625-1743) according to J. E. Peterson or the 1770s according to Calvin Allen.” (22)


Like Khojas of East Africa, they originally spoke their mother tongue, which was Sindhi, among themselves but later after more migrants arrived from Kutch, their spoken language evolved into an admixture of Sindhi, Kutchi, Arabic etc. which they used to call “Khwajki”. In time, they called themselves Lawatiyas and the language Luwati.


“Despite their permanent settlement in Matrah, the Luwatiyya remained segregated from their Arab neighbours...... The com­munity had an elected shaykh and council of elders which governed communal affairs, and worship took place in a jama‘at khana located within the walls of the Sur.” (23)


See:Muhammad Fadl-a leading Luwati merchant


“The Khojas were a close-knit group and had a detailed system of community rules similar in many ways to those of the Hindu Mahajan.” (24)



During the following century, the Khojas prospered in Oman and moved frequently between Gwadar and Muscat.


See: Muhammad Remu-who had agency for Customs for Gwadar from Sultanate of Oman See Datoo Meru-who built Gwadar airport for the Sultanate of Oman


“The Khwaja community of Matrah was affected by the controversy that erupted in India during the 1840s concerning the Agha Khan’s rights to the dasaund or obligatory religious tithe. This dispute came to a head in 1862 with the initiation of legal proceedings by the Bombay merchants who argued that the tithe belonged to the community and not the Agha Khan. All but twenty families in Matrah supported the case against the Agha Khan and were among those excommunicated when the courts ruled in favour of the religious leader. The Matrah Khwajas then became Ithna-'Ashari Shi'is, the jama‘at khana became a Shi'I mosque, and the community requested that a qadi be dispatched from Najaf (Iraq) to serve Luwatiyya legal needs”. (25)


See: Baledina Asani- who moved to Muscat from Gwadar in late 19th century


In the 1900's, many Khojas moved out of Muscat into the rest of Middle East.


See: Ahmedali Nizari Piredina - who went to Basra, Iraq.


See: Jaffar Ahmed Nizari-who went to Kuwait.


“The few Agha Khanis (as they were called) who remained in Matrah left in 1965 on the orders of the Agha Khan, who feared for their safety following the revolution in Zanzibar.” (26)


Many of the Ismaili Khojas moved to Doha, Qatar where they have successfully integrated themselves in an equally tolerant society.


Today, the Lawatis are one of more established business communities in Oman. A recent claim by some Lawatis that they were not Khoja but the descendants of the original Arab invaders of Sindh has generated an interesting controversy among scholars. (27)


With the oil boom in the Gulf, Muscat has attracted its share of new Khoja residents, mainly in the professional class although the lure of the souks of Muscat for the Khoja entrepreneurs from everywhere is unabated.


''“The Sultanate is a cosmopolitan coastal society that has derived its livelihood and prosperity from participation in the Indian Ocean and global commerce for centuries. Cosmopolitanism and the British influence created a relatively tolerant, culturally inclusive society where legitimacy flowed primarily from economic prosperity and political stability.” (28)


NOTES & REFERENCES

(1) Barrett, Roby C - "Oman: The Present in the Context of a Fractured Past" - Joint Special Operations University Report 11-5 5 August 2011 (ebook-location 318)

(2) Onley, James - "Indian Communities in the Persian Gulf" c 1500-1947 - (ebook-location 128) (3) During the nineteenth century, the dominions of Sultanate of Oman consisted of, in the Persian Gulf: Oman, the island of Bahrain and in Pakistan: the coast of Makran including Gwadar, Ormara and in Iran: some areas along the Persian coast such as Chah Bahar, the island of Socotra, the islands of Kuria Muria and in Africa, the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba and adjacent ports of the East African coast from Cabo Delgado to Cape Guardafui.(Editor)

(4) Nicolini, Beatrice - "Introduction to Makran Oman" (2017) (ebook-location 20-23)

(5) ibid (ebook location-496)

(6) ibid Onley - (ebook-location 393)

(7) Shariff, Dr, Abdul "The Rise of a Commercial Empire - An Aspect of the Economic History of Zanzibar 1770-1873 Phd. Thesis University of London "Royal instructions to Portuguese captains enjoined them 'to conduct war with the Muslims and trade with the heathens'."

(8) ibid Onley - (ebook location-201) (9) S. Jeyaseela, Stephen - "The Indian Trade at the Asian Frontier" (pp-194)

(10) Allen, Calvin H. "The Indian merchant community of Masqat." Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 44, no. 01 (1981): (pg 53), based on his doctoral dissertation: Sayyids, Shets, and Sultans: Politics and Trade in Musqat under the Al buSaid, 1785-1914,(PhD diss., University of Washington, 1978).

(11) Goswami, Chhaya - "Globalisation before its time: The Gujarati merchants from Kuchchh" (pg 90)

(12) ibid Onley - (ebook location-430)

(13) Brucks, Capt. George "Memoir Descriptive of the Navigation of the Gulf of Persia with Brief Notices of the Manners, Customs, Religion, Commerce, and Resources of the People Inhabiting Its Shores and Islands", in Selections from the Records of the Bombay Government, new ser., 24, ed. R. Hughes Thomas (Bombay: Bombay Education Society Press, 1856; reprinted by Oleander Press, 1985), (pg 629)

(14) ibid Onley - (ebook-location 296) (15) Oonk, Giljsbert "South Asians in East Africa 1800-2000" - (ebook-location 120-121) (16) ibid Onley - (ebook-location 284)

(17) ibid Onley - (ebook-location 309)

(18) ibid Onley - (ebook-location 433)

(19) ibid Allen (pg 50) (20) ibid Onley - (ebook-location 417)

(21) ibid Onley - (ebook-location 329) (22) ibid Onley - (ebook location 28)

(23) ibid -Allen (pg 53) (24) ibid Goswami (pg 90)

(25) ibid - Allen (pg 53)

(26) ibid (27) Bhalloo, Zahir - See "2016 │“Construction et gestion identitaire chez les Lawatiya du Sultanat d'Oman, de Multân à Masqaṭ,” Journal Asiatique 304/2, 2016, (p. 217-230)

(28) ibid Barrett (ebook-location 217)