Shifting Identities in Modern Sindh – I

A research on how the Bhil and Kohli Hindus of Khebar joined the Shia Ismaili Muslim Community.

Between 1964 and 1979, Bhils and Kohlis in Kebhar experienced three waves of conversion efforts. In these waves, Ismaili missionaries targeted community headmen. In response, they recognized the 49th Imam of Shia Ismaili Muslims.

Mahek Khwaja

[Indo-Muslim history is hybrid. The Hindu Bhil and Kohli communities of Khebar, Sindh, are examples of this hybridity. Before Partition in 1947, when socio-cultural ambivalence was widespread, Bhils and Kohlis lived alongside Muslims. After Partition, the situation changed, and these communities suffered socio-economic isolation. Between 1964 and 1979, Bhils and Kohlis in Kebhar experienced three waves of da’wah (i.e., calling people to embrace Islam). In these waves, Ismaili missionaries targeted Patels (i.e., community headmen). In response, this group recognized the 49th Imam of Shia Ismaili Muslims as a manifestation of the dasa avatara from Hinduism. This article addresses what factors led to this recognition and how groups cross thresholds between Hinduism and Islam]


Sindh is a region historically rich in Ismaili missionary activity. Nizari Ismaili missionaries carried out da’wah missions in South Asia between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Khoja Ismaili community came into being because of these missions. In Conversions and Shifting Identities Ramdev Pir and the Ismailis in Rajasthan, Dominique-Sila Khan states that the term “Khoja” dates to the fifteenth century and Pir Sadardin, a Nizari Ismaili missionary who undertook a da’wah mission among Lohana. This group claimed to be martial caste Rajputs and adopted the “Thakur” title to symbolize their status. Pir Sadardin invented “equivalences between Hindu and Muslim concepts” to facilitate his mission and proposed the title of “Khwaja,” an Islamic equivalent of Thakur. Khwaja means “Master” in Persian. It was a title given to nobles, merchants, and teachers. Khan posits that the title Khwaja (Khoja being its Gujarati and Sindhi pronunciation) does not ascribe a socio-economic status. Instead, it marks an achieved state that assumes socio-economic power. Individuals holding the Khwaja title could gain their position through wealth, genealogy, the virtue of service to a King, or by marriage.

Why the Lohanas (and other groups) in Sindh were open to the teachings of Nizari Ismaili missionaries like Pir Sadardin? While existing literature addresses questions about “when” and “how,” there is little about “why.” Nonetheless, Tazim Kassam, in Songs of Wisdom and Circles of Dance: Hymns of the Satpanth Ismaili Muslim Saint Pir Shams, does delve deeper into this question. Kassam points to atrocities inflicted in Sindh by Afghan and Turkish ghazis (i.e., warriors) and how they devastated temples, plundered royal coffers, and ill-treated women in the name of Islam. In defiance, the Sumrah Dynasty of Sindh (1026–1356) retained a Hindu culture that remained favorable to the Nizari Ismailis, who traced their ancestral history to the Fatimids of Persia. Alliance with the Nizari Ismailis was politically advantageous since they did not promote Islamization or Arabization and could accommodate regional cultural sensibilities in Sindh.

A comparison between the above history and the receptiveness of Bhils and Kohlis in Khebar to da’wah illuminates how these groups were open to the practices of Ismaili missionaries after Partition in 1947. Amin Valliani writes that, after Pakistan’s independence, Ismailis like Bhagat Pirbhai (d. 1973) and Kassimali Badinwala (d. 1976) actively engaged in welfare development among Hindus in lower Sindh. It is unclear how closely welfare development coincided with Ismaili missionary activities. Nonetheless, Valliani reports that development attempts by missionaries bore fruit in the 1960s with mass conversions among Bhils and Kohlis (100 of these were in Khebar). With conversion numbers increasing in Khebar, Ismailis established a jamatkhana in March 1976. The Ismailis associated with the jamatkhana subsequently formed the Khebar Welfare Committee and appealed to Shia Ismaili institutions for patronage. The committee also hired Alwaez Pir Bhai Haji (d. 1983), a senior Ismaili missionary. He gave religious and secular training to selected teenagers from the Khebar jamat (i.e., community) to become future missionaries. Alwaez Haji’s training resulted in his students getting appointments by the Ismailia Association, the then equivalent to Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board (ITREB).

Openness by Bhils and Kohlis to Ismailism can be a politically sensitive issue since the forced conversion of minorities in Pakistan has kindled national and international outrage in recent years. Schaflechner cites Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) statistics documenting cases among Hindu girls from interior Sindh and southern Punjab. The HRCP and other NGOs estimate that twenty-five forced conversions occur monthly in Pakistan. If the case, it is imperative to delve into da’wahs’ details, especially ones reported among disempowered communities like the Bhils and Kohlis who live under feudal conditions in interior Sindh.

While the earlier case of the Khojas involves a reaction to persecution by foreign invaders, post-Partition conversions in Khebar do not involve matters of external persecution. Poverty and greater socio-economic mobility are reasons for Bhil and Kohli openness to Ismaili missionaries. Nonetheless, due to a lack of data, such connections are frequently speculative. Alternatively, this article examines the Khebar Welfare Society and the socio-political Patel system as elements in conversion. I maintain that forces embedded in these two social contexts were catalysts in the work of Ismaili missionaries. The article has three main sections: The Patel and the Locals, The Missionaries, and Ismailia Khebar Welfare Society.

Interviewees and the author at Mukhi Allah Dino’s home
Interviewees and the author at Mukhi Allah Dino’s home

The Patel and the Locals

In “The Limits of Cultural Hybridity: On Ritual Monsters, Poetic License, and Contested Postcolonial Purifications”, Pnina Werbner writes about the “limits” of cultural hybridity. She states: “Far from denying the very possibility of critical consciousness, modernist anthropology afforded insight into how, in apparently closed societies, ritual performances and myths enacted ambivalences of power and paradoxes of sociality.”

When addressing identity formation in society, it is wise to acknowledge individuals undergoing its processes. I was fortunate to work among individuals in Sindh who experienced identity shift. These individuals made sense of this process and rationalized it. I visited Mukhi Allah Dino’s family in Khebar during my fieldwork. Mukhi Allah Dino became the first mukhi of jamatkhana in Khebar when established in 1976. He was the son of Patel Dhannu (aka Patel Ali Muhammad), the first person in Khebar to embrace Islam and Ismailism. Mukhi Allah Dino reported that he was in his early thirties when Jan Muhammad (locally known as Bhagat Janu) came to his village. Despite being a Shia Ismaili Muslim, he chose to present himself as a Hindu Bhagat. It was due to Jan Muhammad that the da’wah found roots in Khebar. Mukhi Allah Dino’s accounts are significant in this article, and they play a pivotal role in my research. I initially worked with him with the assistance of Alwaez Huzur Mukhi Muhammad Yousuf Nur Muhammad (aka Alwaez Muhammad Yousuf), the maternal great-grandson of Patel Dhannu.

When I asked locals, “Why did you choose to convert to Islam being Hindus?” many replied: “We were not Hindus.” These replies were captivating because Kohlis and Bhils, two lower castes Hindu groups, were not comfortable self-identifying as Hindus. When I further probed, the answer was that “we belonged to a Hindu caste, but we had no religious inclination.” Mukhi Allah Dino responded to the question in Sindhi with a smile:

We were dacoits (bandits) by profession. This jamatkhana in Khebar that you must have visited used to be a famous spot even before we became Ismailis because this used to be a repository where the dacoit community kept their riches and livestock plundered from nearby villages until they [i.e., the livestock] were sold for money in the market.

I had not known that the land for the jamatkhana got selected due to its value among dacoits. But it was an easy place for the missionaries to gather local people.

Illiterate, Bhils and Kohlis in Khebar had never touched a Bhagavad Gita. The Vedas and other sacred texts were also only accessible to literate upper-class Hindus. Nonetheless, these groups held a “Hindu” worldview and Ismaili missionaries incorporated it into their teachings. Mukhi Allah Dino narrated Patel Dhannu’s dialogues with Jan Muhammad. In these dialogues, the former confessed to living an “unscrupulous” life, which indicated a belief in repudiating a moral system. But it is interesting to note how people can express religious tendencies in not-so-religious ways. If a person denies having religious or ritualistic inclinations, they still carry social boundaries regarding “others.” Mukhi Allah Dino with his family reported that being “low caste Hindus, we depended so much on Muslims.” He also stated:

We were not religious people, but we were aware that Muslay [i.e., Muslims] belonged to a different world; they were self-sufficient. They were not from our community, and we didn’t like them. We didn’t even touch each other’s food. They were the feudal lords.

From this statement, I reckoned the sense of honor that the Patel and his kin held within the community. If from a Patel lineage, one enjoyed authority over social, economic, and familial matters within the village. This feeling of superiority was evident when Jan Muhammad initially came to Patel Dhannu’s house. Mukhi Allah Dino, his eldest son, was reluctant to serve him using personal kitchenware because he thought he did not match his status. Individuals in Khebar adhered to a hereditary Patel system. A Patel, now a diminishing authority, was the head of the village council, the governing body that traditionally decided daily life matters in the community. In this role, a Patel played a role in settling disputes. Even if a family in Khebar was not related to the Patel by blood, its members took his word as final. This fact helps illuminate why Jan Muhammad chose a Patel as a point for his first contact in Khebar – it was a latent method towards mass conversion.

Tazim Kassam raises questions about the Khojas’ acculturation into Ismailism. She asks, “Did Satpanth exist before the ginans, or did it arise with the evolution of this sacred corpus?” There is a high probability that many Khojas were not conscious about getting called to a different religion. Instead, as Khan maintains, this process involved a reinterpretation of old ideals. She notes, regarding Nizari Ismaili missionary methods, that they used Hindu and Muslim terminology in tandem. This use was not a mishmash of the two worldviews but aimed to offer a new lens to what individuals already adhered to; it was a reorientation of a conceptual framework. This position begs questions (like those Pnina Weber addresses) about how productive the idea of hybridity is for theorizing Bhil and Kohli conversions to Ismailism. Did da’wah involve a syncretic methodology like that previously employed by Nizari Ismaili missionaries? The answer that I reached via fieldwork in Khebar was yes.

Jan Muhammad met Patel Dhannu at a wedding in a nearby village named Mubarak Jarwar. Jan Muhammad treated him with so much dignity because he had heard from others that he was the Patel of Khebar. Patel Dhannu was impressed by his politeness, that coming from someone who lives a settled life in Hyderabad; something a resident of Khebar could only aspire to achieve. However, he was reluctant to befriend a Bhagat, what Jan Muhammad appeared to be. But Jan Muhammad developed a friendship through his amiable ways and intimated that he would someday come to visit him in Khebar. After three days, Patel Dhannu found him at his doorstep. Mukhi Allah Dino’s niece, Ms. Habiba Qaim Ali, added that she knows from family accounts that Patel Dhannu’s household was initially reluctant to let the stranger into their home. He could have been dacoit, and, even if he was a Bhagat, what did this family has to do with Bhagats? But Jan Muhammad had already convinced Patel Dhannu of his harmless character, so he let him in.

A fascinating point to note is that interviewees frequently used two terms: Hindukari and Dinkari. Hindukari was the word they used for religion before conversion, while they called their worldview after embracing Shia Ismaili Islam Dinkari. Din means faith, and kari means doing/practicing something. This distinction correlated to Mukhi Allah Dino and his family showing gratitude that this conversion episode occurred in their lives. Mukhi Allah Dino’s wife raised both her hands as a sign of gratefulness and said to me that, “What would we have been doing if this had not happened! Our children would have been doomed in Hindukari!”

This conscious rejection was not unexpected. Building on Kassam and Khan’s arguments about Khojas and missionary use of older ideas, I understood that Jan Muhammad gestured people toward a form of devotion and righteousness that they already understood (even if illiterate). Utilizing the Bhagavad Gita, Vedas, and bhajans, he and his wife invited individuals to a life of divine devotion. Even the jamatkhana, when first built in 1976, was called mandir. They did not offer individuals in Khebar a springboard shift. Instead, interviewees were comfortable narrating that it was only after a year and a half (and a considerable number of people following in the Patel’s footsteps) that the dissemination tools of the Arabic dua (i.e., prayer) and a photo of Shah Karim Al-Husaini Hazir Imam (i.e., the 49th Imam of Shia Ismailis) got used. In the case of the Imam, he became represented as the long-awaited dasa avatara.

It was a challenge for me to accept this transition so easily at face value. I wanted to know how this identity shift proved favorable in communities that did not consider religion essential for their survival. I found two answers. The first was social rehabilitation. When Patel Dhannu’s brothers first inquired about Jan Muhammad in his hometown, Kali Mori, in Hyderabad, they were confused about why a settled man was always returning to their village and teaching them religion for nothing. Jan Muhammad received them warmly and served them palla fish. This gesture was surprising. Muslims never ate with Hindus. This man and his wife were also pleasantly immersed in kachehri and treated them with hospitality. They were Muslims who did not hate them but wanted to support them. They saw this fact as a ladder to escape their social isolation and poverty.

Homi Bhaba’s post-colonial thought on hybridity shows how people have difficulties conceiving mixed-descent groups. They remain “foreign,” and society tags these groups as “problematic.” I witnessed this fact in Khebar. Hindus hated Muslims and vice versa, but the two did not recognize how they borrowed practices from each other. For example, many Bhils and Kohlis had Muslim names, like Allah Dino and Yousuf. Even before Bhils and Kohlis converted to Islam, they strictly observed Muharram as a village holiday. (Villagers told me no farmer would even pick an ax to sharp it during this period.) In Sindhi, villagers used jarjalo or zilzilo, meaning earthquake, to describe how Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, was brutally assassinated at Karbala with his family and companions. Once during Muharram, Patel Dhannu and his five brothers traveled to Hyderabad to attend a Muharram procession. When there, they offered bay’ah to Mukhi Ghulam Hussain at the Prince Aly S. Khan Jamatkhana. A moulvi was called for the occasion to make them recite the kalima. The kamadiya (i.e., the mukhi’s assistant) of the same jamatkhana organized a grand breakfast for these travelers. Mukhi Allah Dino reported:

Khebar Jamatkhana
Khebar Jamatkhana

As new Ismaili Muslims, we thought we were living a dream. There were wealthy influential Muslims here, including Jaffer Ali K. Mithani, Mukhi Sher Muhammad Nurani from Dambalo, Achar Shiko from Jhuddo, Mukhi Faiz Muhammad from Ghulab Laghari, among others, who were eating “with” us. They were more than welcoming.

This breakfast was also a key event for Bhils and Kohlis since they experienced a society where caste did not matter, and everyone could access the social ladder. “I am happy that it happened,” answered Miss Nurjehan, wife of Alwaez Muhammad Yousuf, during an interview. She stated that the younger generation of converts was now receiving an education – this fact brought on change that was only possible after becoming part of the Ismaili community.

Post-partition displacement among Sindhis has been a difficult chapter of South Asian history. In Pakistan, lower castes get ridiculed for having Islamic manners and disowned for belonging to a Hindu caste. As Boivin and Cook put it in a different context, locals frequently treated such groups with varying degrees of “sympathy, apprehension, and antagonism.” After becoming Muslims, there were new sets of challenges. Like Shafique Virani, who addresses Guptis hiding their Muslim identity in Bhavnagar, India, there was fear among Bhils and Kohlis of becoming a social outcast within their community. However, economic issues and social rehabilitation were crucial concerns. Nevertheless, interviewees narrated unpleasant episodes of family dissociation, broken engagements (some of them on the very day of a wedding), and verbal or physical violence. Mr. Nurdin, a Police officer, posted in Khebar, recollected how people expected disagreements at the nikah (i.e., marriage) and circumcision ceremonies on account of conversions.

However, most in Khebar followed the example of the Patel. While some people reverted, others did not do so to their old Hindu identity. Some took on Sunni Muslim identities due to social pressure from people they traded with or professional colleagues. The present Patel of Khebar shared with me that being a first-generation Muslim meant being an outcast amongst Hindus and Sunni Muslims. The latter refused to accept them as Muslims since they were born into a stigmatized Hindu cast. He recalled an unpleasant episode when the Imam Sahab of the village mosque announced in his sermon not to eat with the Ismailis because they were not Muslims. Subsequently, Ismailis were not allowed at some dhabas. The Patel’s family reported these facts to the village Station House Officer (i.e., a senior policeman). After the report, the Imam Sahab got punished, but Patel withdrew his case. He stated that the Imam is also our Muslim brother, never meant to hurt anyone, and “they expect that they won’t be treated with discrimination in the future.” As told by Mansoor Patel Ali, not all Sunni Muslims hated Ismaili converts. Some were so supportive that when Chandrat Majalis got held in nearby villages, Sunnis waited at the bus stop to convey donations to Ismailis who were departing for the occasion.


Courtesy: Journal of Sindhi Studies/ Brill (Published on 12 Nov 2021)

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