Derived from the Persian khwajah, a term of honour, the word Khoja referred to those converted to Nizari Ismaili Islam in the Indian sub-continent from about the thirteenth century onward.
More particularly, it included certain groups, predominantly from Gujarat and Kutch, who retained strong Indian ethnic roots and caste customs while sustaining their Muslim religious identity under continual threats of persecution.
In the nineteen century, the Ismaili imamat (office of the imam) became established in India and a programme of consolidation and reorganisation of the community and its institutions began. These changes led to differences of opinion among Khojas. While the majority of Khojas remained Ismaili, one group became Ithna‘ ashari and a smaller group adopted Sunnism.
In the context of the overall policy of the Ismaili imam of the time, Aga Khan III, of consolidating the Shi‘a Ismaili identity of his followers, the ethnic connotation of being “Khoja” became diluted over time and a wider sense of self-identification as Ismaili Muslims began to emerge. With the increasing recognition of the diversity of the worldwide Ismaili community itself and the positive value of the pluralist heritage represented within each of the traditions, the Khojas now regard themselves as an integral part of the larger Nizari Ismaili community, to whose development they make a strong contribution.
The Khoja Ithna‘ asharis, while seeking to develop relationship with the larger Twelver Shi‘a community, retain their own organisational framework.
The Khojas live today in East Africa, the Indian sub-continent, Europe and North America, and show a strong commitment to values of Muslim philanthropy in their entrepreneurship and contribution to societies in which they live.
This is an edited version of an article that was originally published in the Encyclopaedia of Islam and Muslim World, Vol. II, p. 393, ed. Richard C. Martin, MacMillan Reference Books, New York, 2003
Professor Azim Nanji serves currently as Special Advisor to the Provost at the Aga Khan University. Most recently he served as Senior Associate Director of the Abbasi Program in Islamic Studies at Stanford University 2008-2010 and also lectured on Islam in the Department of Religious Studies. He was previously the of Director of the Institute of Ismaili Studies from 1998 - 2008. Prior to this, he was Professor and Chair of the Department of Religion at the University of Florida and has held academic and administrative appointments at various American and Canadian universities.
Professor Nanji has authored, co-authored and edited several books including: The Nizari Ismaili Tradition (1976), The Muslim Almanac (1996), Mapping Islamic Studies (1997) and The Historical Atlas of Islam (with M. Ruthven) (2004) and The Dictionary of Islam (with Razia Nanji), Penguin 2008. In addition, he has contributed numerous shorter studies and articles on religion, Islam and Ismailism in journals and collective volumes including The Encyclopaedia of Islam, Encyclopaedia Iranica, Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World, and A Companion to Ethics. He was the Associate Editor for the revised Second Edition of The Encyclopaedia of Religion. In 1988 he was Margaret Gest Visiting Professor at Haverford College and a Visiting Professor at Stanford University in 2004, where he was also invited to give the Baccalaureate Address in 1995. He has also lectured widely at international conferences all over the world.
Professor Nanji has served as Co-Chair of the Islam section at the American Academy of Religion and on the Editorial Board of the Academy’s Journal. He has also been a member of the Philanthropy Committee of the Council on Foundations and has been the recipient of awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, the Canada Council, and the National Endowment for Humanities. In 2004 he gave the Birks Lecture at McGill University.
Within the Aga Khan Development Network, Professor Nanji has served as a Member of the Steering Committee and Master Jury of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, Task Force Member for the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (AKU-ISMC) and Vice Chair of the Madrasa-based Early Childhood Education Programme in East-Africa.