The amazing eclecticism of Khoja beliefs represent a unique and lasting synthesis of Hindu and Islamic doctrines and tenets
Numbering no more than 15 million worldwide, the Nizari Ismaili Shias are one of the smallest and the least known of all Muslim sects. Over half of the Ismaili population resides in the Indian sub-continent, where they are commonly known as Khojas or Aga Khanis, so called because they regard the Aga Khan as their spiritual leader. Because of centuries of persecution, the Ismaili religion has evolved into a highly esoteric tradition. Like other Shia sects, the Ismailis recognise Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad, as the Prophet’s legitimate successor, and consider a long chain of Ali’s direct descendants as spiritual authorities or Imams.
What distinguishes them from other Shia groups are their hidden doctrines (batin, in Arabic) and a complex theology which while deeply mystical, is considered heterodox by mainstream Muslim groups. What particularly sets the Ismailis apart from other Muslim sects in India, Sunni as well as Shia, is the amazing eclecticism of Khoja beliefs, representing a unique and lasting synthesis of Hindu and Islamic doctrines and tenets.
According to popular Khoja lore, the first of the many Ismaili missionaries or dais to India was the twelfth century Sayyed Nuruddin Nur Muhammad. He is commonly referred to as Satgur Nur, or ‘the true Guru of Light’. He first landed at Patan in Gujarat, where he set about making a deep study of Hindu and Islamic religious texts, gradually evolving the Ismaili mystical order known as the Satpanth, a Sanskrit word meaning ‘the True Path’, combining features common to both the Hindu as well as the Islamic traditions. Satgrur Nur is said to have so deeply influenced the Raja of Patan, Sidhraj Jaisingh, with his mystical piety that the royal family became his disciples, as did the ruler of the neighbouring kingdom of Dhara-nagari, Raja Surchand, whose daughter Palande he later married.
Fearful of persecution by their more powerful Sunni Muslim and Hindu neighbours, these and other new adherents of the Satpanth kept their religious beliefs concealed. Hence, they later earned the epithet of gupti momins or ‘secret believers’.
From Gujarat, Satgur Nur then travelled to the Punjab and eventually to Kashmir preaching the Ismaili Satpanth all the way. The gradual inter-meshing of Hindu and Islamic beliefs that Satgur Nur had initiated was carried forward by a growing number of Islamili mystics who followed in his wake. Of these, the most renowned was the 14th century Pir Sadruddin al-Hussaini, commonly known as Bar Guru (‘The Great Teacher’) or Suhdev. Born in Sabzvar in Persia, Pir Sadruddin was sent to India by the 13th Imam known among the Khojas as Shri Islam Shah, to further spread the message of the Satpanth.
Like Satgur Nur before him, Pir Sadruddin had a deep understanding of Hindu as well as Islamic doctrines and mysticism; his teachings represent a strikingly harmonious intermixture of the two. In his development of the Satpanth, he laid particular stress on the poor, speaking out against oppression and for the rights of the marginalised. This won for the Satpanth a large number of followers from down-trodden castes. Among them, the Lohanas were the most numerous.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of Pir Sadruddin to the Ismaili Satpanth tradition in India was the vast body of mystical poetry and prose that he composed. Known by the Sanskrit term of gyan (knowledge), this corpus of profoundly mystical writings, mainly in Gujarati and Sindhi, is particularly noteworthy for its unique synthesis of Hindu and Islamic motifs and beliefs. In his lengthy poem, Chhatis Crore (360million), for instance, Pir Sadruddin refers to the four Hindu yugs or ages and writes of the millions of souls that have already been saved in past yugs by Prahlad, Raja Harishchandra and Yudhishtra, and of a similar number who have earned salvation in the present kaliyug by following the Satpanth.
Pir Sadruddin’s unique blend of Hindu and Islamic tenets is carried even further in his Dasavatar (‘The Ten Incarnations [of Vishnu]’). Here he writes of the nine previous incarnations of Vishnu familiar to Hindus, and, while glorifying them, presents Ali as the tenth avatar, saviour for the Kaliyug. In so stressing the equal validity of both Hindu as well as Islamic religious traditions, Sadruddin laid the basis of a remarkable culture synthesis that still survives almost intact among the Khojas of the country.
Khoja syncretism was carried further by Pir Sadruddin’s son and successor, Pir Hassan Kabiruddin, who, like his father, was the author of numerous gyans. Thus, in his Anant Akhado (‘Eternal Gathering’), a lengthy prayer still recited daily by the Khojas, Pir Kabiruddin equates the Muslim Allah with the Hindu Ishvar. Each verse of the poem ends with the distinctly Hinduistic cry of ‘Hari Anant !’ (‘Hari, the eternal One !’).
Here the Prophet Muhammad is equated with ‘Guru Brahma’ and Ali with Vishnu. India, which he calls by the Sanskrit name Jambudwip, is said to be the final meeting place of all the holy men of the world. The same word is also used symbolically to refer to ‘the eternal home’ of the soul that has attained salvation. Here, again, the ten avatars of Vishnu are talked about, as is Sita, who is extolled along with Fatima, daughter of Prophet Muhammad and wife of Ali, as ‘the perfect ones of their age’.
God, in fact, is shown in a remarkable feminine light, with particular stress given to God’s role of a ‘mother’ caring deeply for her children. Kunti, Draupadi and the Pandavas come in for praise along with Ali and the Prophet. Pri Kabiruddin speaks of the ‘four books’ (the Torah of Moses, the Psalms of David, the Bible of Jesus and the Quran of Muhammad) as well as the four Vedas, as all divinely revealed. Elsewhere, he writes of the Quran as being the fourth Veda (atharved).
It is perhaps in the gyans of Pir Kabiruddin that the Satpanthi call for a harmonious fusion of Hindu and Islamic tenets finds its most forceful expression. Thus, in the Anant Akhado, he writes that the Satpanth ‘encompasses all paths to God’, and that ‘the Husband [God] plays mysteriously in many forms’. This remarkable Ismaili Satpanthi religious eclecticism, which so clearly symbolises the spirit of the faith, is best expressed in one of the Pir’s many gyans:
all together are one being,
The Lord has simply given them
different forms and shapes,
But without real recognition of this
fact all is darkness
O Lord, You are the Eternal One.
Archived from Communalism Combat, March 1998, Year 5 No. 41, Ethos