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date: 29 September 2023

Khoja Isma’ilis in Canada and the United Stateslocked

Khoja Isma’ilis in Canada and the United Stateslocked

  • Karim H. KarimKarim H. KarimDepartments of Journalism and Islamic Studies, Carleton University


Khojas constitute the predominant group in the Shi’a Nizari Isma’ili movement of Islam, globally and in North America. They are of South Asian ethnicities and belong to the 700-year old Satpanth tradition. Other groups attached to the movement are indigenous to Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and China. Khojas have led them in the formation of a diaspora spanning Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, and Australasia. This transnational religious collectivity holds Aga Khan IV, who ascended to leadership in 1957, to be its Imam in lineal descent from ‘Ali ibn ‘Abi Talib and Fatima, the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter. He has established a “Seat of the Imamat” (also designated a “Diwan”) in Lisbon, Portugal, and he resides in France, from where he provides religious and worldly guidance to followers around the world. The Imam appoints the leaders of the system of councils that govern the jamats (communities) in various countries. His non-denominational Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), which operates social, economic, and cultural programs, has become one of the world’s largest non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Elite Khoja families, particularly those of East African provenance, tend to dominate the leadership of the Imam’s institutions. They also have hegemony in the Canadian and American self-governance structures. As a group, Khojas are the wealthiest and most educated in the movement, offering substantial funding as well as professional and voluntary services to the Aga Khan’s institutional infrastructure. Their North American ranks provide a steady stream of monetary, physical, and intellectual resources for the Imam’s transnational programs.

However, a paradox lies at the heart of the movement. The Satpanth tradition and Khoja cultural identity has been in the process of marginalization since the early 20th century. A steady effort has sought to eliminate what are perceived to be “Hindu” aspects of the Khojas’ religious and cultural heritage. The movement’s research, educational and cultural bodies give minimal attention to Satpanth. An essentialized Isma’ili Muslim identity is favored over what was, since the movement’s earliest days, a pluralist pursuit of universal truth.


  • Islamic Studies

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