Academic journal article Narrative Culture

The Narrative Prayers (Kahani) of the African Khoja1

Academic journal article Narrative Culture

The Narrative Prayers (Kahani) of the African Khoja1

Article excerpt

Khoja, Shia, kahani, woodcutter, Ismaili, IthnaAsheri

The Khoja are an Indic Muslim caste whose origins lie in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Punjab and Kashmir. Over the following centuries a section of the community began a migration down the Indus valley and eastward into Kutch and Kathiawar, located in present-day Gujarat. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century the community began to migrate as traders throughout the western Indian Ocean littoral, establishing trading networks from Zanzibar to China (Nanjia?i 1-40, 256).

A dominant ancestral tradition of the Khoja people was the worship of the goddess (matapanth) (Nanjia?i 1-40). By the mid-eighteenth century, the Khoja were an Indic caste community engaged in many local religious philosophies in Kutch and Kathiawar that spanned both civilizational traditions. The nineteenth century was transformational for the Khoja, as migration to urban areas during the Raj, particularly the entrepôts of Bombay and Zanzibar, challenged their religious and cultural traditions, forcing the community members to locate themselves, vis-à-vis identity, as either "Hindu" or "Muslim." This process trifurcated the Khoja by Islamic creed, resulting in three distinct communities-Isma?ili,2 Ithna Ashari,3 and Sunni (Amiji 1971). The first two communities retained much of the caste's early modern traditions until the twentieth century, including the narrative4 prayer (kaha?i).

The kahani

The kaha?i (pl. kaha?i'o) is a genre of vernacular literature that functions as a narrative prayer among various Indic Muslim, particularly Shi?i, communities (Narasamamba, "Kahani"). Although the genre has meanwhile been published, its origins lie in oral performance. The narrative prayers are meant to be performed annually in a series of esoteric rituals that are exclusive to women, although the final sacrament is distributed to the community at large. The core of the kaha?i tradition is a tale that is performed, preceded, and followed by supplications (du'a/ amal), praise (tasbih), hymns (munajat), dirges (navha), pilgrimages (jhiyarat), and supererogatory ritual prayers (namajh). The Khoja kaha?i fits within this larger genre of literature but is linguistically and thematically distinct. Whereas the maj ority of extant kaha?i literature is in the Urdu language, the Khoja narratives remain in their original Gujarati and/or Kacchi, classified as an eastern dialect of Sindhi.

The compendium I used as the basis of this study is an approximately mid-twentieth-century compilation of interrelated religious texts titled The Gift of Jhaynab: A Collection of Narratives, Hymns, Prayers, Praise, etc____( Tôhpha'ëjhaynab: kahäntö, munajat, du'a, amal, tasbih, vigereno, majamu'o). This 112-page book is published in the Gujarati script so that the narratives and poetry that are in Urdu also appear in this script rather than in their native Devanagari or Arabic script as traditionally associated with Hindi and Urdu respectively. The compendium is a representative example of the vernacular Khoja kaha?i tradition, which has survived in the subcontinent while disappearing almost entirely in East, Central, and Southern Africa in deference to "orthodox" Imami texts in Persian and Arabic from the Near East.

Origins of the kahan.

The Khoja kaha?i developed as a result of its geographic and cultural location-the lower Indus basin in the Perso-Indian corridor. The genre is a vernacular tradition. While the earliest manuscripts date to late nineteenth-century Kacch, many themes and details suggest older origins. The Hindu influence of the Khoja text can be seen from a similar genre known as the vratkatha (Jain; Menzies, "Of Myth"; Wadley). In the Khoja woodcutter (kathiyärö)5 tales, the misfortune of the woodcutter and his family comes from forgetting the manta (vow), and their difficulties are eased by its observance. The pivotal role of the wife and daughter in observing the rites and thus alleviating the misfortune of the family is reminiscent of the Jain tradition of SrlpälRäs (Kapadia 2011) read as a silkatha. …

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