History of Memons
A hundred times everyday
I remind myself that my inner
and outer life depended on the labors
of other men, living and dead,
and that I must exert myself
in order to give in the same measure
as I have received and am still receiving.
The Origin of Memon
Historically the Memons have always appreciated what they have been receiving from their forefathers and have always tried ‘to give in the same measure’ to their descendents. Their history is rich with achievements in business and industry as well as their service to humanity. Yet no people in history are as much maligned and misunderstood as the Memons. They have been called from a “rapacious business community” to blood sucking, social parasites and compared with the Jews and the Shakespearean Shylock. The myths and the prejudices can only be removed if the achievements and the contributions of the Memons are seen in the true and proper perspective through historical facts. Mihir Bose in his book, “The Memons”, says, “The Memons are people with a rich, colorful past but without any historians to record it, let alone analyze or laud the achievements of their ancestors”. He further goes on to say, ” The Memons have been making history for generations but find themselves subject to other people’s interpretation of their history”. The purpose of this article is to have an insight into our history and, as Mr. M.A. Rangoonwala says, “we need to know and our children and our grandchildren need to know where our ancestors came from and what they did. We would also like to share this information with others“.
It is a common belief that a Hindu community known as Lohanas embraced Islam under the guidance of a Pir (saint) who called them Momins (true believers). Later on, the word ‘Momin’ was twisted to Memon and the community has come to be recognized by this name since long. In the absence of any historical document, it is difficult to ascertain the factual position. There are many versions as to how the Memons became Muslims but each of these stories needs a close scrutiny before passing a judgement on the truthfulness of the version.
The Gazetteer of Bombay Presidency has published in 1899 the following version under the title, “Gujrat Population: Musalmans and Parsis“: Maulana Abdul Kadir Mohiyuddin Gilani, the Saint of Saints, died at Baghdad in A.D. 1165 (H.561). On his death-bed he ordered one of his sons, Tajuddin, to settle in India and display to its people the light of Islam. In AD.1421 (H.838) Sayad Eusuf-ud-din Kadri, fifth in descent from Tajuddin, in a miraculous dream was ordered to sail for Sindh and guide its people into the right way of Islam. When Sayad Eusuf-ud-din reached Sindh, its capital was Nagar-Thatta and its ruler was a chief of the Samma dynasty (A.D.1351 – 1521) with the title of Markab Khan who received Sayad Eusuf-ud-din with honor and treated him as his guest. At this time Manekji, the head of the eighty-four nukhs or divisions of the Lohana community, was in favour at the court of Markab Khan. Markab Khan became a follower of the Sayad and Manekji, with two of his three sons and 700 Lohana families followed their ruler’s example. Of the two sons of Ma’nekji who became converts, Rajiv was called Ahmed and Rajiv’s sons, Sunderjee and Hansraj, were named Adam and Taj Muhammad. On their conversion, the saint changed the name of the community from Mota to Mu’amin or Believers and investing Adam with a dress of honor, appointed him the hereditary head of the new community with his seat near Wara near Thatta.”
Many Memons have come to accept this version but majority of them, intellectuals as well as the rationalists and the historians have questioned the validity of such a ‘fallacy’ which reads more like a fairy tale than an important event in history. It is largely believed that the Gazateer had probably derived its information from Nuzhat-ul-Akbar written by Syed Amiruddin Nuzhat. Nuzhat, according to some narratives, found the Memons great businessmen spread in many countries. They were wealthy as well as a flourishing community, deeply influenced by ‘Sufism’. He noticed the language that they spoke clearly resembled that spoken by the Hindu Lohanas and hence concluded that the community must have embraced Islam under the patronage of some Pir. He traveled to Kutch and found a Pir Buzurgh Ali of Mundra living in poverty and destitution with no means of subsistence. He alleges that the saint told him the story that he had published in his booklet. He further claimed that his story was supported by an agreement (Iqrarnama) entered into by the Memons of that time, on the matter of maintenance of the Pir and his descendents.
However, Memon researcher, Abdul Rehman Asir, in his book (in Gujrati) “Memon Qaum ni Utpati” (The Origin of Memon Community) and Ali Muhammad Naz of Bombay have pointed out many inconsistencies in the story presented by Nuzhat. They have termed it as fabricated and false due to inherent defects in numbers, dates and even the name of Thatta whose prefix ‘Nagar’ was added years later from the date of the alleged incidence of conversion. Mr. Asir claims that the Memons embraced Islam when Bin Quasim arrived in Sindh but does not provide any historical or documentary evidence to support his claim of the event in his book, ‘The Origin of Memon Community’. Mr. Naz, on the other hand, went to the extent of calling Nuzhat a fraud and an opportunist who spread the story for self-gain. Naz says that ancient Sindh had a caste called Meman or Maiman, a name given to people having a profession of weighing and dealing in jewels, gold and silver. In Sindhi mai means one who weighs and man or mani means precious stones. The caste was not Hindu but Buddhist who became Muslims after Mohammed Bin Qasim’s victory over Hindu king Dahir in 711 A.D.
Despite all arguments put forward by the learned historians and intelligentsia, it is inconceivable to think that the authors of the Gazetteer would print the Nuzhat story without first checking and counterchecking the validity of the it. They do accept that the story is unreliable to the extent of dates mentioned therein and in some minor details. But they claim that the basic substance of the story is reliable and factual. A. Q. Moosa Dadani, in a Kutchi Memon Souvenir published in 1983, corroborates the story of the Gazatteer. In fact he not only mentions of the 700 families but also puts the total head count to 6,178! He also speaks of the invasion of Sindh by Mohammed-bin-Quasim under the orders of Hajjaj-bin-Yusuf, the governor of Iraq in 92 A.H. But he, unequivocally, states that the 700 families embraced Islam “under the auspicious hands of Pir Yusufuddin Saheb (May the mercy of God be on him) and followed the Hanfi path (831 A.H.)“.
Richard Burton, a noted historian, wrote in 1851 History of Sind in which he writes of a Pir Rashid who, according to him, was a notable Sufi and a founder of two Sufi houses in Sindh. He says, “The term Meman, a corruption of the Arabic word, Mumin (a true believer), was probably given to the people that go by that name now, when they were converted from Hinduism to Islam.” Burton’s story has never been challenged. What is more interesting is the fact that Burton wrote his version twenty-two years before Nuzhat’s booklet!
There is another school of thought put forward by Karimbaksh Khalid that the Memons were of Arab descent! He says that Arabs from Banu Tamim tribe that constituted the right wing of Muhammad Bin Qasim’s army were known as Maymena (meaning right wingers of army). Later, the author alleges, this word got corrupted to Memons.
Kassim Dada in his book, “A Ramble through Life”, draws his lineage from Manek who, he says, “lived in Adho Manek on the banks of the Indus, near Hyderabad. He was a Hindu, by caste a Sonpas Dandia Lohana. Legend has it that as early as 1581 he was so impressed by Abdur Razzak, a Muslim leader, that he decided to convert and become a Muslim.” He further says, “In Bantva our family was known by the name Dandia (the caste of our Hindu forefather, Manek).”
When we analyze the information that is available with us, we find ourselves standing on a crossroad. Perhaps each of the road leads to the destination we seek or perhaps one or perhaps none at all. After all the logical dissection of the information, identifying certain pointers and our own intuition, we can safely conclude that the Memons embraced Islam at different times under the influence of different holy men at different places. It can also be said with authority that the Memons of Kathiawar came from the Hindus of Lohana community. They migrated to Vinjhan in Kutch from Sindh after facing persecution due to their new religion. From Vinjhan they migrated to Rojhiwada in Kathiawad and from there to different parts of the world as well as different parts of Kathiawad in Gujrat. Even today the Hindus of Lohana community living in Kutch speak the same Kutchi language we speak and can easily be mistaken for Memons. History also provides a glimpse of the occupation of the Memons before they embraced Islam. The Lohanas were traders by profession and Nagar Thatta, where this community lived at that time, flourished as a great center of business where many caravans brought variety of goods. The Memons have also been successful businessmen; an expertise passed down as heritage from their forefathers. The old Memon was also an industrious, diligent and hard working farmer who was much respected and sought after because of his sincerity and integrity.
The Memons who left their ancestral abode in Sindh to avoid persecution because of their new faith in Islam, first came to Vinjhan, a small village in the Kutch and settled there. Memons also lived in a large numbers in a Kutchi village called Aasambhia. Historical evidences are present in the form of the writings of a well-respected and liked Kutchi author, Duleroy Karania. He vividly describes a tragic incident in the village, of a prince, belonging to the house of royalty, had nefarious intents on a married lady of Memon household. In the chronicle, the ruler of Kutch was one Rao Umraji of Jadeja community. He was a man of character and integrity and he was just and fair in his dealings. His only son, a prince, by the name of Lakhoji, had a depraved character and was a marked debaucher. He went out hunting for beautiful women for ulterior motives. The Memon elders and senior members of the society of Aasambhia, knowing of the prince’s pervert activities, apprised the ruler Rao Umraji and tried to alert him of the resultant dangers therefrom. They had pledged to safeguard the honor and respect of their women folk and they let the ruler know of it in no uncertain terms. But all their pleas and their appeals failed in their objective possibly because Bawa Umraji felt that it was only exuberance of youth and the prince was probably indulging in some harmless frolics. The prince went about his pursuits; unbridled, unchecked and unabated till matters came to a head. The prince was following a young and beautiful married Memon woman who used to take meal to her husband working on a farmland. The lady saw him every day waiting for her on his horse and following her till she reached her husband. Finally he began to approach her to entice her in his scheme of things. The wife complained of these overtures of the prince to her husband who, in turn, brought the matter to the notice of the elders of the community. The elders felt that they had tried everything to dissuade the prince from his immoral pursuits but now it was time to act as the honor of their womenfolk was at stake. Accordingly, a plan was chalked out whereby the men from the community would lie in wait for the prince and terminate the life of the despised man. The next day the prince, as usual, appeared on the scene and the plan was implemented. The prince was executed! That, effectively, also ended the stay of the Memons in Aasambhia. The families had packed all their valuables and household goods on their bullock carts and were ready to move out of the village when Rao Umraji appeared on the scene. He understood the mood of the assembled families. The families, in turn, were fearful of the reprisals from the ruler. He tried to dissuade them from migrating and explained that, although he had lost his only son, yet he would not want them to leave Aasambhia. Their presence, he argued, was vital for the development of his village. Such was the value of the presence of the Memon community! What had been unanimously decided could not be abandoned and the Memons left Aasambhia and migrated to Rojhiwada in Kathiawad. Other Memons living in Vinjhan heard the tragic story of the prince and the Memon woman and they too decided to migrate. Thus the Memons left Kutch altogether in 1750 A. D. and moved on to Rojhiwada. Some Memons moved to Bombay, Calcutta and other parts of South India and some to Africa, Ceylon (present day Sri Lanka) and some to Burma.
The author who researched and wrote the history of the Memons of Dhoraji, Abdul Karim Haji Yusuf Navivala, tells us of Sumar, the son of Vali Mohammed, who stayed back in Vinjhan when the Memons migrated from Kutch. The grandfather of Sumar was Noor Mohammed who, it is said, was the son of Manekji of the village, Adhomanek, in Sindh, the first man to embrace Islam. Sumar’s offspring were son Abdur Rehman and three daughters, Hanifa, Dhanbai and Khdija. Abdur Rehman married and stayed for some years in Vinjhan but, somehow, could not adjust himself to the place and decided to migrate to a more suitable location. He halted midway for rest near a track named Dhoraji and decided to settle down in this village. Thus begins the history of the Memons of Dhoraji.