Khoja Shaikhs of Punjab

In this post, I will at interesting community of Punjabi Muslims called the Khoja Shaikh, or Khawaja Shaikh. They are a mercantile community, that has provided many of the larger business houses of Pakistan. The rise of the Khoja, from a community of petty merchants at the beginning of the 20th Century to the founders of some of the largest businesses in Pakistan is truly extraordinary.


The common self-designation of this community is either Sheikh, Shaikh or Khwaja Shaikh. Sheikh (Arabic and Punjabi: شيخ ), is an Arabic word meaning elder of a tribe, lord, honourable revered old man, or Islamic scholar. The title shaikh in South Asia is given to a convert to Islam who convert individually, and not where individuals collectively convert as whole castes, in which case the caste name is maintained, such as the Jats. The title is then carried on by the decendent of the convert. Khawaja is also an honorific title used across the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia and Central Asia, particularly as a title held by Sufi teachers. The word comes from the Iranian word khwāja (Classical Persian: خواجه khwāja; Dari khājah; Tajik khoja) and translates as “master”, “lord”. According to the traditions of the Khoja of Bhera, the title was given to their ancestors, who were Khatri traders who accepted Islam at the hands of Moinudin Chishti.


So who are the Khoja Shaikhs. Almost every tradition points to either a Khatri or Arora ancestry, although in Lahore, the Khoja insist their ancestors were Bhatia. There is some argument as to when and how the ancestors of these communities converted to Islam, it certainly existed for at least over four centuries ago. Although conversions to Islam in the Punjab started in the 11th century, it is uncertain when the Khatri and Arora traders embraced Islam. The earliest reference to Khojas in the Punjabi literature is in the Heer Ranjha of Waris Shah (1735–1790):

 The beauty of her Heer’s red lips slays rich Khojas and Khatris in bazaar, like Qizilbash [Afghan soldiers] troopers riding out of the royal camp into bazaar with a sword


These verses of Heer- Ranjha, written by Waris Shah in 1766, describe the conditions of the post-Mughal Punjab. Khatris and Khojas occupied an important place in the economy of the Punjabi towns. This was probably the earliest reference to the emerging role of Hindu and Muslim Khatris as rich traders, instead of performing their Vedic functions as fighters and governors. Up to around the middle of the 20th Century, this community of traders self-designated themselves as Khojas. But as that name has been associated by another community found in Sindh and Gujarat, who are Ismaili Muslims therefore the entirely Sunni Khojas of Punjab adopted the name Khawaja Shaikh, or increasingly just Shaikh, to distinguish themselves from the other Khojas. There are several groups of Khoja in Punjab, but after an overview, I will focus on three such groups, the Shaikhs of Bhera and Jalandhar, and the Chiniotis. I hope to write a separate post on the Gadhioks of Chakwal, which has produced the famous Saigol business house.


Traditionally, any Hindu trader converted to Islam was given the name of Khoja. Thus the Khojas of Bhera were almost entirely Khatris, while those of Jhang, on the other hand, were said to be converted Aroras; while some at least of the Lahore Khojas claim Bhatia origin, and one section of the Ambala Khojas were Kayastha. The Khojas of Layyah also have the Khatri section-names of Kapoor, Puri, Tandon and Gambhir, but as these are no longer exogamous and as wives may be taken from other castes, the old rules of hypergamy and endogamy are no longer in force. While the Khojas of Jhang have at least four clans, the Magoon, Vohra, Wadawana and Passija, the first two being Khatri and the last two Arora. By the beginning of the 20th Century, it does seem, that any distinction between Khatri and Arora among Khoja had disappeared. The 19th Century British ethnologist Rose wrote the following about them:

These Musalman traders, whether called Khoja or Paracha, are found all along the northern portion of the two Provinces under the hills from Amritsar to Peshawar, and have spread southwards into the central and eastern districts of the Western Plains, but have not entered the Derajat or Muzaffargarh in any numbers. Their eastern boundary is the Sutlej valley, their western the Jhelum-Chenab, and they are found throughout the whole of the Salt Range. Probably it is hardly correct to say of them that they have spread or entered for they apparently include many distinct classes who will have sprung from different centres of conversion. They appear to be most numerous in Lahore


Khoja Population According to the 1921 Census of India


District / State












Bahawalpur State












Dera Ghazi Khan










Kapurthala State 1,452










Mianwali 626


Ambala 440


Patiala State


Hoshiarpur 182


Ludhiana 134


Other Districts





The 1921 Census was the last that counted the Khoja seperately, in 1931, the last census that counted caste, the Khoja were included within the Shaikh category.

Like other Punjabi Muslims, the Khojas often associate there conversion to Islam at the hands of a Sufi saint. The Khwaja Shaikhs of Bhera have a tradition that they converted to Islam at the hands of Khwaja Moinudin Ajmeri, while those of Chiniot claim to have accepted Islam at the hands of Makhdum Jahanian Jahangasht.


Shaikhs of Bhera


Bhera is a city located in Sargodha District, located east of the river Jhelum. It is divided into an old walled city and a sprawl beyond the walls. The former is further split into neighbourhoods called mohallas. Each mohalla has distinct traits and is inhabited by different castes — Mohalla Piracha, Mohalla Sheikhanwala and Mohalla Sethian —were home to the Khojas of the city. The Imperial Gazetteer of India records the following about the history of Bhera:

In the seventh and eighth centuries, the Salt Range chieftain was a tributary of Kashmīr. Bhera was sacked by Mahmūd of Ghazni, and again two centuries later by the generals of Chingiz Khān. In 1519 Bābar held it to ransom; and in 1540 Sher Shāh founded a new town, which under Akbar became the headquarters of one of the subdivisions of the Sūbah of Lahore. In the reign of Muhammad Shāh, Rājā Salāmat Rai, a Rājput of the Anand tribe, administered Bhera and the surrounding country; while Khushāb was managed by Nawāb Ahmadyār Khān, and the south-eastern tract along the Chenāb formed part of the territories under the charge of Mahārājā Kaura Mal, governor of Multān.


As a centre of trade, the city of Bhera attracted merchants from all over western Punjab, with the Khojas trading as far north as Central Asia. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the Khojas had retained many traces of the Khatri caste organization. Thus at Bhera they had the following sub-divisions :—







Rawar or Ror




And a tenth section, Matoli, does not appear to be a Khatri section, but it ranks with the first six, and from these seven the last three cannot obtain wives, though they give brides to them. Rose wrote the following of the Bhera Khojas:

Khojas of Bhera claim to be strictly monogamous, so much so that, as a rule, a Khoja cannot obtain a second wife in the caste, even though his first have died and ho is thus driven to take his second wife from some other Musalman tribe.

The Matoli section have an interesting history as to their conversion to Islam. As noted by Rose, Matoli were not a section of the Khatri, and according to the Matoli themselves, they were Brahmans. There ancestor was said to have accepted Islam at the hands of the famous Sufi Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti (1142–1236 CE) of Ajmer. On his return to Bhera, there ancestor was disowned by his clansmen. Despondent, he returned to Ajmer, where the the Khwaja declared the henceforth they would be known as khwaja, and they should become traders. Over time, as members of the Khatri community in that city converted to Islam, and joined the Matoli, forming the Khwaja community.

By the beginning of the 20th Century, the Khoja of Bhera were involved in the cotton and grain trade, especially as the British began a process of settling the Kirana Bar, introducing widespread production of cotton, Bhera Khojas became extremely wealthy, with there trade networks expanding to Bukhara on end, and the newly expanding port city of Karachi on the other hand. The Bhera Khojas were among the earliest of this caste to enter the textile trade in the newly built city of Lyallpur.


Qanungoh Shaikhs of Jalandhar

Jalandhar is an important city located in the Doaba region of Indian Punjab. Like Bhera, the city was associated with Khoja merchant families, who used the title qanungoh.

The Khoja of Jalandhar belonged two such families of Qanungohs, one was that of the Sehgals. They were the traditional proprietors of the city, the other being the Thapars, who were a landowning family, owning the village of Chak Husaina. The Khatris of Jalandhar were divided into two groups, the Darbari, who were involved in government service, and the bazari, who were merchants. The four darbari gotras were the Sodhi, Saigal, Thapar and Bhalla, with the Khojas of Jalandhar all originating from darbari families.

I just want to add a brief note about the title qanungoh. This was an administrative position under the Delhi Sultans and Mughals and referred to employees of the court and judicial system. The title Qanungoh literally referring to an “expounder of law” or the Qanun. These included judges; qazi who were styled sahib or sahibzada, lawyers and a wide variety of other legal functionaries, who would form the principal officers in district or regional courts of investigation, in criminal matters and in offences of a “spiritual nature”. By the Mughal period, the position of Qanungoh had become hereditary, who were now government agents and “permanent repositories of information concerning the revenue receipts, area statistics, local revenue rates and (the) practice and customs” of local areas and municipalities, across the various empires that existed in the subcontinent. Members of the Khatri caste often occupied these positions in Punjab, and some, not all of these families converted to Islam. In Jalandhar, although many of the darbari Khatris converted to Islam, however in Jalandhar there were several families of Sehgal and Thapar Khatris that remained Hindus.

The Jalandhar Khojas immigrated to Pakistan and have settled largely in Faisalabad. Here they provided some of the earliest investors in the textile industry.


Chinioti Shaikh


Perhaps, the most important group of Khoja families are those of the city of Chiniot, historically part of Jhang District, but now a district in itself. Chiniot is a small town of 200,000 inhabitants, on the banks of River Chenab, in Southwestern Punjab famous for it woodwork. It also associated with the Khojas, who are called Chinyoti, literally a resident of Chiniot. About Chiniot, the Imperial Gazetteer of India gives the following information:

The town is a very old one, and is perhaps identified with Sakala, the capital of the White Huns, which was visited by Hiuen Tsiang. It suffered much from Durrani inroads during the last half of the 18th Century, and also during the troubles of 1848, being the scene of constant sanguinary struggles between leaders of the local factions. It now bears a prosperous aspect, most of the houses being of excellent brickwork, lofty and commodious, especially those of the Khoja traders, who have business dealings with Amritsar, Calcuta, Bombay and Karachi.


In Chiniot, the Khojas are mainly of Khatri origin, although some Arora sections over time have been absorbed. About the the Khoja sections of Chiniot, Rose described them as fallows:


Khatri Immigrants from the south-west:








Khatri section indigenous to Chiniot:




Arora sections.







Rose also makes an interesting obsrvation on the social system of the Chiniot Khojas:

The original Khatri classification into Bari and Bunjahi groups is said to be still preserved. Formerly the Khatri sections used not to intermarry with the Aroras, but this restriction is said to be no longer absolute, though such marriages are not usual


In late 19th Century, as the British built in ports and railways in their Indian Empire, allowing groups of Khoja to migrate to Calcutta and other parts of the united India to deal in hides in the 19th century since Hindus who dominated trade in India did not want to deal with leather due to religious taboos, giving these Khoja traders an opportunity. Out of 100,000 people who proudly call themselves Chinioti today, only 5,000 live in Chiniot and an estimated 2,000 of them are still living in Calcutta where they had the biggest concentration in the undivided India, with pockets at Kanpur and Madras. Compared to the Memons who had sailed to far off places, as early as 18th century, the Chinioti’s migration was limited to India.


At the time of partition, Chiniotis were mostly rooted in leather, hides and skins trade and there was only one Chinioti group, Mohammad Ismaeel Maula Baksh group which had ventured and Haji Sheikh Maula Baksh who had set up their first ginning factory in 1889 and by 1946, when they split, the group comprised 14 ginning factories, four flour mills and oil extraction plants. The remnants of Maula Baksh group are still active in the Sunshine group of Aftab Ahmad Sheikh. Partition saw most Chiniotis move back to Pakistan, and took opportunity of the fact business in Punjab had been in the hands of their unconverted Khatri kinsmen, who all moved to India. By the 1970’s, three Chinioti groups – Colony, Crescent and Nishat – were already vast behemoths, and were counted among the richest 22 Families’ in the country, a somewhat demeaning term coined by the world-renowned development economics guru, Dr Mahbub-ul-Haq, then the chief economist at the Planning Commission of Pakistan, suggesting that this lofty eminence was actually obtained through capturing and monopolising national resources, which had resulted in inequitable distribution of wealth at the national level.


In 1970 there were only five Chinioti groups among the top 42 families including Colony at no 5, Crescent at no 9, Nishat at 15, Monnoos at 26 and Maulabaksh at 27. However while nationalization shattered the will of the Karachi-based groups to invest in Pakistan and triggered a flight of capital, it proved to be a blessing in disguise for the Chiniotis who had been hitherto disadvantaged for lack of access to banking and other facilities, traditionally dominated by Gujarati groups such as the Bohra, Khoja and Memon. This change can be seen by the fact that by 1997, Chiniotis had 14 places among the top 45 groups controlling at least 110 companies at the Karachi Stock Exchange. There are several other Chinioti groups like Mahboob Elahi, Diamond, Guard, Kaisar group of Kaisar A Sheikh, MNA, Kaisar Apparel group and JKB which are known to be immensely rich but have little or no presence at the stock exchange and therefore, it was not possible to rank them.








Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.