Religious Identities in the Construction of Communal Khoja Historical Memory

Report by Iqbal Akhtar

The Khōjā Studies conference (15-16 Dec 2016) was the first international conference to develop a rigorous transdisciplinary international program of research on the history of Khoja peoples through a recherche scientifique on manuscripts, printed texts, oral traditions, and the material culture of the community. Panelists came from diverse academic backgrounds and locations from Santiago to Mumbai.

Inclusion was an important objective of the conference; thus many different scholars representing various faith communities, including the Bohra, provided different perspectives on the state of the field. To have a Khōjā Studies conference after years of planning meant that this approach also influences discourses both in academia and communally. Seven years ago, the term Khōjā was a historical remnant in most Anglophone academic literature and there was exclusively one perspective on its origin and history. The contribution of Khōjā Studies has been to link cutting-edge Francophone scholarship on vernaculars with Anglophone discussions by foregrounding an Indic heritage and caste-historical reality rather than reading a contemporary religious ideology into the past.

The potential of Khōjā Studies is to bring together diverse scholars, to create a network for cooperation, and create a new culture of open-access and team work. My hope is that this and future conferences will inspire young scholars to critically think about local heritage, pursue the humanities as a public good, provide legitimacy for the study of vernacular cultures, and create a network of scholars that can change a culture of exclusivity and hierarchical compartmentalization of information into a spirit of generosity, curious inquiry, and democratic access in the production of scholarly knowledge within the community and academia.