BOOK FORUM | Rebuilding Community: Displaced Women and the Making of a Shia Ismaili Muslim Sociality by Shenila Khoja-Moolji with Shelina Kassam, Shemine Gulamhusein, and Sumaiya Hamdani

Shenila Khoja-Moolji’s Rebuilding Community: Displaced Women and the Making of a Shia Ismaili Muslim Sociality (Oxford University Press, 2023). Paperback $29.95, 280 pages, ISBN: 9780197642030.

Shenila Khoja-Moolji

Shelina Kassam

Shemine Gulamhusein

Sumaiya Hamdani


Shenila Khoja-Moolji

Dr. Khoja-Moolji penned an intro essay to the forum, published earlier on Maydan. Please see the intro essay here: 

Dr. Shenila Khoja-Moolji is the Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani Associate Professor of Muslim Societies at Georgetown University. She researches and writes about the interplay of gender, race, religion, and power in relation to Muslim populations in South Asia and in the North American diaspora. Professor Khoja-Moolji is the author of award-winning books, Forging the Ideal Educated Girl: The Production of Desirable Subjects in Muslim South Asia and Sovereign Attachments: Masculinity, Muslimness, and Affective Politics in Pakistan.

Shelina Kassam

Like a colourful and beautifully woven carpet, Shenila Khoja-Moolji’s Rebuilding Community: Displaced Women and the Making of a Shia Ismaili Muslim Sociality presents nuanced perspectives on the contributions of South Asian Ismaili Muslim women who, in the midst of displacement, trauma and war, have reproduced and strengthened the bonds of community. In centering the voices of South Asian Ismaili women, the author adds to the historical record and cultural memory of the Ismaili Muslim community, and, importantly, recuperates the previously undocumented narratives of the women who have been central to resettling the community – the Jamat – in North America. The narratives of her primary interlocutors, mainly South Asian women who experienced displacement from East Pakistan and East Africa in the 1970s, illuminate the women’s experiences of displacement, violence, and war, but also highlight the extraordinary resilience of women who performed everyday acts of care that fostered bonds of community. While focusing on the experiences of first-generation South Asian Ismaili women (and their recollections of the narratives of their mothers and grandmothers), Khoja-Moolji also brings in voices from second-generation Ismaili women to illustrate how the next generation of Ismaili women are (re)building community.

Perhaps most compelling about this book is that it weaves together seemingly diverse acts – caregiving to coreligionists, acts of service to community members and others, cooking meals for community festivals, publishing cookbooks, providing make-shift prayer spaces, the retelling of miracle stories, reproductive work, professional work, solidarity with activists – into a coherent narrative of community-building and resilience. Khoja-Moolji listens to her interlocutors with empathy and a deeply spiritual ethos, amplifies the voices of these women, and contextualizes these narratives within a solid scholarly analysis. Throughout the book, the voices of South Asian Ismaili women come alive, speaking about their experiences, reflecting the courage and strength they embodied in resettlement. While this book focuses on the experiences of one specific community, it provides important scholarly insights for a broader understanding on how women migrants contribute to the reproducing of community bonds. Community, says Khoja-Moolji, is not a given (10); it needs to be intentionally (re)produced through everyday acts of care that bind people together. Certainly, Rebuilding Community illuminates how South Asian women have reproduced community through diverse acts of care across generations. Khoja-Moolji’s intervention in this book is also an act of care: in recuperating these women’s narratives with love and a deep listening and retelling, she invites us to reflect on how we too may nourish the bonds of shared belonging.

Against the backdrop of colonization, white supremacy, Orientalist discourse, patriarchy and ongoing violence, racialized immigrant communities in North America sometimes experience a “fragility of belonging” (Volpp 2012, 467). Often forced from their countries of origin (as many of Khoja-Moolji’s interlocutors were), they must resettle in an unfamiliar environment, searching for economic, social, and political stability. In the North American and global climate, Muslims have often encountered Islamophobic violence, both from individuals and through state-sponsored policies. Razack (2008) argues that Muslims have been cast out of political community (5) and Yegenoglu (2014) suggests that public (and excess) displays of religiosity marks Muslims as culturally other (461). In such an environment, many of Khoja-Moolji’s interlocutors must invariably have faced significant pressures, not only to resettle in North America, but also to position themselves as assimilable racialized immigrants and as “good Muslims” (Mamdani 2004). Many of Khoja-Moolji’s interlocutors were often well-placed by earlier personal and community decisions (guided by their Imam) to seek education, learn English and adopt western clothing. These decisions were, of course, shaped by the relative privilege accorded to South Asians in the colonial structure(s) that permeated global society. In the North American context, these interlocutors may have positioned themselves as ‘good Muslims’ and as ‘model minorities’ – those that are seen as assimilable and well-integrated into western society. While such a positioning may be understandable – and even necessary – in the early years of resettlement, Khoja-Moolji’s analysis illustrates how such a positioning is increasingly being challenged by second-generation South Asian Ismaili women. Through their cultural production, art, scholarly work, professional contributions, volunteer commitments, reproductive work and other acts of care, this next generation of South Asian Ismaili women are both challenging the model minority paradigm, and rebuilding community and Ismaili sociality in diverse and nuanced ways. Importantly, Khoja-Moolji does not view these diverse acts of care by second-generation Ismaili women as a rupture from the contributions of their mothers and grandmothers, but as a continuity of care which shapes community in multi-faceted ways. If, as Khoja-Moolji notes, community cannot be taken for granted, but must be intentionally forged by the acts of individual community members, it is clear that the second-generation South Asian Muslim interlocutors interviewed in Rebuilding Community, are making a significant contribution (as did their foremothers) to community-building and keeping alive the tradition of a sisterhood grounded in faith, or, as Khoja-Moolji calls it, “din baheno” (48).

Khoja-Moolji’s arguments explicitly position acts of care and ethical practice by South Asian Ismaili women as spiritual (rather than charitable) acts, linking these acts to the guidance of the Imam (the spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, currently His Highness the Aga Khan IV), and to the spiritual desire to serve the needs of the community. While not all interlocutors make explicit mention of these moral codes, they speak often of the values that guide their actions. For instance, several interlocutors refer to the guidance of the Imam, especially about supporting coreligionists both in their own lives and when remembering the contributions of their mothers and grandmothers in supporting community members and forging a sense of kinship. Khoja-Moolji’s perspective grounds the book’s arguments in a spiritual understanding (in contrast to a materialist, productive or capitalist understanding) of community and connects the narratives, lives, and emotions of her interlocutors to notions of divinity and spirituality. She thus contextualizes the ethical practices of her interlocutors within a spiritually grounded practice that illuminates the integration and inseparability of din (faith) and dunya (world), showing how these women express their spirituality through both prayer and ethical conduct. That Khoja-Moolji contextualizes her interlocutors’ narratives within this spiritually grounded practice is due in great measure to the author’s insider status, but also significantly to her ability to listen with deep empathy and an understanding of the spiritual roots of the narratives. This is a work of love for the author, an ethical act, to amplify the voices of these women, and to engender a deep understanding of the spirituality underlying these acts.

An important theme running throughout the book is the notion of ‘seva’ that inspires many of the acts of care by the South Asian Ismaili women in Rebuilding Community. Many women refer to use the notion of seva – service – to explain the impetus behind their acts of care, both within and outside the Ismaili Jamat. Thus, a range of diverse activities – transforming living rooms into makeshift Jamatkhanas or places of prayer, fashioning the sensorium of the Jamatkhana to recreate a sense of sacred space, even if disconnected to a specific sacred physical location, providing rides to health care or other appointments, caring for the elderly, cooking community meals, cleaning Jamatkhanas, volunteer work for youth engagement, youth camps, building solidarity with activists, professional work – are often referred to as seva. Interlocutors speak, for instance, of the “blessings of seva,” (15) and “feeling Mawla’s hand on my shoulders” (115) in the performance of service, finding both blessings and support in their seva. Other interlocutors speak of how seva supports community which is an “anchor” and “safe haven” (115).  Even amongst those women who did not explicitly use the word seva to describe their acts, there is nonetheless a deeply rooted spiritual connection, with one interlocutor saying that she is motivated to support community “because we are Ismailis” (110). Such phrases reveal how Ismaili women have engaged in an “ordinary ethics” (6) which has “…provided Ismailis with a sense of ongoing intimacy…” (115).  Khoja-Moolji suggests that seva has both a social and a spiritual dimension; in the narratives of her interlocutors, the reader is invited to glimpse the spiritual and social kinship that develops between women engaging in service and care activities. Certainly, as I reflect upon my own experiences with communities in which I participate, I recognize the ongoing intimacy that is engendered and deepened by the many acts of seva that contribute to a sense of belonging felt by many. This is likely what Khoja-Moolji means when she refers to seva as having “worldmaking capacities,” (115), binding Ismailis together in a deep spiritual connection, enabling individual Ismailis to discover, express and practice Ismaili subjectivity. Khoja-Moolji’s intervention reveals how generations of women have sustained and deepened Ismaili congregational life through diverse contexts and in different spaces.

While Khoja-Moolji notes that many of the care activities described in Rebuilding Community appear to reinforce gendered participation in Ismaili religious life, she counters that these women’s services have, at times, also provided “religiously permissible social opportunities.” (117), reinforcing non-kin spiritual intimacy and forming a tradition of placemaking extending through time and space. I suggest that such arguments about religiously permissible social opportunities may be more relevant to the first-generation interlocutors (and their foremothers) of whom Khoja-Moolji writes. It would be instructive to interrogate how second-generation Ismaili women (of all ethnic backgrounds) negotiate gendered practices and the undervaluing of women’s work within community spaces and whether women’s contributions (and greater involvement in the community’s institutional structures) successfully challenge the power and privilege of South Asian men. Similarly, interrogating the experiences of gender non-binary Ismailis and their navigation (or not) of the gendered practices of the community would yield important insights.

Rebuilding Community invites me to ponder several questions that stand at the nexus of community-building, gender, race, and power. South Asian Ismailis first settled in North America approximately fifty years ago, and during that time, have been joined by coreligionists from other parts of the world, including Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Syria, and various other countries. Further, there are now one to two generations of Ismailis born in North America. It will be essential to interrogate how community building is fostered – intentionally and otherwise – with these multiple layers of difference in ethnicities,  cultures, languages, social classes, and religious practices. The acts of care exemplified by the interlocutors is expressed as din baheno – a sisterhood grounded in faith (48) – with their South Asian Ismaili coreligionists. Khoja-Moolji suggests that it is not just a shared ethnicity but a shared faith and ethical framework as Ismailis (195) that binds her interlocutors (and Ismaili women more generally) together. While I agree with her, I ask how community building can become more intentional in order to engender a more equitable community ethos which does not naturalize or privilege the norms, languages, cultures and practices of dominant groups.

Similarly, it will be crucial for community-building efforts to intentionally seek out, amplify, and center the narratives of those who may feel marginalized from formal community structures. While many early Ismaili migrants may have integrated well to North American society and have positioned themselves as model minorities, not all community members have accumulated the same levels of social capital and privilege either within the community or in North American society. These individuals may include, among others, working class individuals and families, people with disabilities, recently arrived immigrants, especially those from Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Syria, or other areas facing political upheaval, LGBTQ+ individuals, and youth who may be less connected to formal community institutions. Centering the voices and narratives of these individuals and families – not always represented in formal community avenues – can engender deeper and richer communal bonds of caring. Intentional and reflective practices to weave together diverse voices and narratives – and, as much as possible, decentering power dynamics – is a significant component of a truly inclusive, equitable and pluralistic community ethos. Further, it is necessary to interrogate and challenge the model minority paradigm. Fifty years after the first cohort of Ismailis settled in North America, how has the model minority paradigm impacted the community and its members? Is it time to question whether the relative privilege afforded to South Asians in colonial structures and now translated to the North American context has perhaps narrowed the range of possibilities for Ismails to build solidarity with equity-deserving communities, both within the Ismaili Jamat and in society? Based on the relative privilege offered to South Asians, has the model minority paradigm engendered (or not) a deeper understanding of the profound impacts of racism, patriarchy, Islamophobia, and inequity that some people (including some in the Ismaili community) face? As societal understanding about racism, white supremacy, gendered inequities, and Islamophobia deepens, there is an increasing urgency to engage in equity and justice work. As is evidenced by the second-generation interlocutors, such solidarity is increasingly important to the ethical practice of young (and not so young) Ismailis. I suggest that efforts to hear, amplify and center the voices of Ismailis (and others) who have sometimes felt marginalized are critical to reproducing a strong, equitable, inclusive, and pluralistic community ethos. While the Ismaili community is extremely diverse, its formal community structures in North America remain dominated by those with privilege. This is due in part to historical reasons (migration patterns, social capital, flexible work schedules, the availability of volunteer time required, etc.) and efforts have been made to be more inclusive. However, community-building efforts would be enhanced by more extensive and intentional efforts to understand the lived experiences of marginalization in order to forge more inclusive bonds of Ismaili sociality.

Rebuilding Community is, in the end, a powerful work of scholarship and love. It beautifully recuperates and centers the narratives of South Asian Ismaili women who, for generations, have engaged in diverse acts of care, service, and ethical action to reproduce the bonds of community in diverse spaces and at different times. Khoja-Moolji, through the resonance of her compassionate voice, invites the reader to reflect on their own role in reproducing the bonds of community and, as such, the book is a call to action. First, it invites each of us to actively seek out the narratives of our family’s histories and specifically to document the narratives of women in these histories. Second, while Rebuilding Community focuses on South Asian Ismaili women, it also reminds us of the urgent need to recover and document the narratives of Ismaili women from other contexts, and in particular, from Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Syria and other countries from which North American Ismailis hail. Women from these contexts will invariably convey narratives that speak of displacement, war, and trauma, but also of hope, resilience, courage, and their own ethical practices that reproduce community. Such documentation is important to ensure that Ismaili cultural memory and historical archives present a richer picture of the diversities that make up the global Ismaili community. Third, Khoja-Moolji’s interviews with second-generation Ismaili women presents a tantalizing preview of how community-building is being nuanced by these younger women. A study focusing specifically on second-generation Ismaili women (and perhaps men) would be a fascinating addition to the current study. Fourth, Rebuilding Community is a call for each of us to be intentional about the acts of care and ethical practice in which we engage so that we meaningfully embody our values (and our faith). Community is not a given and cannot be taken for granted; individual ordinary acts of care forge community and reproduce it daily. As Angela Davis suggests, “you have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.” Finally, Rebuilding Community is a call to action to ensure that the ethical actions of community members are extended to all individuals, both within the community and in society more generally, including to those who experience marginalization. While the book focuses on South Asian Ismaili women, I suggest that the messages it embodies are applicable to community-building in broader contexts. For me, implicit in the book’s message is that community-building can – and should – weave together common bonds across the many diversities – race, gender, class, ability, age, sexuality, opinions – of humankind. Our values – whether derived from faith or other moral codes – fundamentally shape our conduct and impact on our interactions with others and with the world. I am reminded of two verses of the Qur’an that speak powerfully to the impetus to live in harmony – in community – with others. One verse declares that human beings are created “…from a single soul” [4:1], thereby emphasizing the unity of creation. The other verse refers to the diversity of humankind saying that “…We…have made you into nations and tribes, that you may know each other….” [49:13]. Such sentiments are powerful testaments to the importance of respecting both the diversity of humankind and the unity of our spiritual kinship to each other. Rebuilding Community provides ample opportunities to reflect on these messages, using the narratives of South Asian Ismaili women as they engage in ethical practices that reproduce community bonds. These ethical practices – centering women’s relationships with each other, their communities, and the Divine – can be extended to all within the human family and serves as a powerful reminder and call to action to each of us in our daily ethical practice.

Dr. Shelina Kassam is a critical race scholar, sociologist and feminist who specializes in socio-political analyses of Muslims and racialized people in contemporary multicultural nation-states. Her research has been published in Social Identities, The Routledge International Handbook of Veils and Veiling Practices, The Review of Education, Pedagogy and Cultural Studies, The Journal of Critical Race and Inquiry and Bloomsbury Religion in North America. She is currently working on a book which analyzes the figure of the Acceptable Muslim and how such a figure reanimates racialized boundaries in media, political and legal discourses. Between 2007 and 2020, she taught at the University of Toronto Mississauga Campus in the Division of Women and Gender Studies.Dr. Kassam has held senior leadership positions in social justice and education sectors, both in Canada and internationally. Currently, she is a consultant in equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) to support organizations to embed equity in their practices.

Shemine Gulamhusein

Shenila Khoja-Moolji’s Rebuilding Community: Displaced Women and the Making of a Shia Ismaili Muslim Sociality goes beyond the confines of traditional oral history research. Her work responds to a largely unknown and undocumented history of women’s placemaking within the Shia Ismaili Muslim jamat (community) and acts as a provocation for young Ismaili women to critically explore their own ethics of care (both salient points for the author and this reader). In this response, I focus on the addition Khoja-Moolji’s work offers within Muslim and Shia Ismaili Muslim literature and the various invitations this work offers to current and future generations. I restrict my response to these focus points, drawn directly from the text, knowing that Khoja-Moolji’s work is deeply entangled with my own scholarship in Ismaili migration and recreation practices and a shared search for ancestral identity articulation (oral history).

In honour of the many stories that have formed the foundation of Rebuilding Community, it is critical to start with one of Khoja-Moolji’s final sentiments: “This book exists because of their [the women and men] generosity, their memory work, and their desire to leave a record of themselves and their foremothers” (204). Oral history relies on the trust, care, and willingness of interviewees to share intimate accounts of their lives, and in the case of stories shared by Khoja-Moolji’, many have remained suppressed for decades. The book begins with a conversation that introduces readers to Khoja-Moolji’s mother, Farida, and the seva (service) she offers to an American newcomer, Zarina, who is seeking medical care. The interaction between Farida and Zarina created a visceral response in my body. I immediately felt my body prepare to put food in my mother’s vehicle as she prepared to visit hospitals and care homes. To my recollection, my grandmother, mother, aunts and uncles have all visited jamati members in care settings to provide support, companionship, and a home-cooked meal. Such stories live in the bones and muscles, in the somatic, of Ismailis globally, yet this book is the first time these stories and the making of meaning that reinforces the ethic of care behaviours Ismaili women (and men) partake in daily is shared in a jargon-free and understandable way for academic and non-academic readers.

Khoja-Moolji’s ability to show an ethic of care “that is uniquely Ismaili in its motivations” (28), extends beyond capturing and retelling the stories and photographs she provides in her work. She creates a platform that provokes second-generation readers to evaluate and re-articulate their practices as a continuity of their foremothers’ practices. For example, women’s care practices through safeguarding jamat khane (a place of worship and gathering) spaces and ceremonies, community care via job seeking and medical care support for newcomers, and preserving culinary practices are vividly expressed throughout the text. Second-generation readers are invited to reflect on these narratives and to find their own points of connection and extension of such ethics of care. Another example includes the hardship that came with forced and chosen migration, one that leaves the reader curious about the nomadic and transient histories of Ismailis, which differs greatly from the experiences of second-generation Ismailis currently living in North America.

The book further extends the concept of care that I have been educated in within the fields of therapeutic recreation and child and youth care. These fields look at care from an outsider’s perspective, care provided to a person in a professional capacity by someone who is qualified via obtaining a degree or professional title, with obligations to perform in particular ways guided by a code of ethics. Khoja-Moolji’s text provided me with a deeper understanding of the struggles I have faced working within child and youth care’s predetermined confines. My ancestors would likely challenge the boundaries of the code of ethics and may question why “responsibility to self” comes before our responsibilities to clients and society (CYCABC, 2023).  Here, I am not challenging the child and youth care code of ethics; I am suggesting that the Ismaili ethic of care Khoja-Moolji introduces us to differs. We witness ways of care that are collective in nature compared to the individualist approaches to professional practice and ways of being in North America. Beyond the scope of this review, Khoja-Moolji and our foremothers have perhaps invited me to challenge care as defined within the colonial, politized, and standardized ethical codes of child and youth care.

As a second-generation reader, the stories shared by Ismaili foremothers provoked a desire to explore the histories of my own ancestors and to learn about the forms of placemaking they were required to do as they migrated from East India to East Africa and then to Canada. Furthermore, Khoja-Moolji’s work is an invitation to think about everyday navigations and negotiations I and my co-religionists perform as we attempt to be Canadian (or American), be Muslim, and be East African, East Indian, or Pakistani. The experiences of second-generation Ismaili Muslims are taken up in Khoja-Moolji’s final chapter, a chapter that provides a sense of responsibility to young Ismaili Muslims to engage in ‘critical conversations’ (166). Significant to note, just as Khoja-Moolji states in her text, the reflections offered by twelve second-generation Ismaili Muslim women “is not representative of second-generation Ismailis” (168). When thinking from a post-colonial lens, the demographics of the second-generation interlocutors are reflective of those that have been privileged by colonialism (and oppressed by colonization), have had the social and economic ability to obtain master’s and doctoral degrees, have not experienced poverty in ways earlier generations had, and experienced marginalization in the forms of race and religion versus economic scarceness.

While one may question the potential limitations in the generalizability of oral histories, Khoja-Moolji offers a plethora of examples from women (and men) whose paths were unlikely to have crossed. The interlocutors shared sentiments of economic hardship, migration experiences by boat, and discomfort and hesitation to follow the guidance given by Imam’s (e.g., Sultan Mahomed Shah and the current Imam Shah Karim Aga Khan IV) such as to alter clothing or for women to obtain secondary education.  Second-generation interlocutors articulated attempting to continue the ethics of care of their foremothers through jamat khane-oriented service, curriculum development, and community work beyond the Ismaili jamat. These stories act as a reminder that “Stories and theories have different purposes” and that the generalizability of stories is “always being tested – not in the traditional way through random samples of respondents, but by readers as they determine if a story speaks to them about their experience or about the lives of others they know” (Ellis, 2004).

I am left in awe of Khoja-Moolji’s accessible approach to recounting the lived experiences of Ismailis. Often unshared, perhaps in order to protect the self and family name or to minimize the transference of trauma onto future generations, the lives of Khoja Ismailis in refugee camps, living in the underbelly of steamships for weeks, and occupying jamat khane spaces in search of safety is rare. The stories I grew up with acknowledge the wrongdoings of others, such as Idi Amin’s dismissal of Asians in Uganda 50 years ago, this year. Yet, the journey to North America was skipped over, almost as if it happened in an instant. I’d hear stories such as ‘Our house was nationalized by the government, so we left and came to Canada’. Laila’s account, as shared in Khoja-Moolji’s text, of “struggling to obtain permission to stay in Kenya as her Ugandan citizenship had been revoked” (110) and becoming “stateless” which led Laila and many others to be transported by United Nations planes to Colonia Trieste camp in Italy, offered a new sense of ‘hardship’ that our foremothers and their families faced. Stories such as these shed light on how Ismailis ended up in different parts of the world, how diverse the community has become due to political and social inequities (including colonialism), and the value of coming together as a global community through events that His Highness the Aga Khan fosters such as the Jubilee Games.

As noted above, these stories provoked the invitation to further explore my own history, a goal I believe Khoja-Moolji has for all readers. As I read, I thought about the privilege of some families, including my own, in that our ‘hardship’ to migrate to Canada did not include refugee camps. I’m reminded of Morgan-Fleming, Riegle and Fryer’s (2007) comment on how “lives are synthesized, conclusions about what is important and what is equivalent are made” and how “the life of the author filters the experiences of the other, leaving us with one hegemonic tale instead of a symphony of lives” (82). It becomes, I believe, the reader’s responsibility to unpack, tease out, and determine how the ‘symphony of lives’ lived by Ismaili women (and men) have and continue to be taken up in the community.

There’s much to recount in Khoja-Moolji’s work. Much of the writing is entangled in my own scholarship, as noted earlier. Guidance on the ethics of care as a researcher within the jamat is provided. Khoja-Moolji shares how she sat for hours to establish trust before moujza (miracle) stories were shared with her, how at times she would connect with interlocutors in houses, jamat khane, or coffee shops. The impact of context, timing, and established trust is depicted in the details interlocutors offer, the willingness to provide additional materials such as pictures and cookbooks, and the invitation to return for further conversation. It is in these subtle yet critical guidelines that I am left pondering. Khoja-Moolji has offered an invitation to take this work further and to question and critique current understandings of Shia Ismaili Muslim women’s lived experiences. For example, her invitation has left me thinking about practices of self-regulation and mental health care. Compared to other faith and non-faith communities, Muslims in the US are twice as likely to be suicidal (Awaad et al., 2021). Such statistics are frightening and something to take seriously when thinking about ethics of care. We are fortunate that the narratives Khoja-Moolji draws on in this book provide an opportunity to reflect on how care for mental and emotional well-being was provided within community. For instance, without having the current Euro-Western language to articulate anxiety, depression, and trauma, Khoja-Moolji’s interlocutors discuss creating spaces of comfort for self-regulation through the intentional use of scent, sound and taste. An example that stands out is the sharing of cultural snacks, the recitation of prayers, and the continued religious education teachings that Ismaili women (and men) conjured during flights, on steamboats, and at refugee camps. These practices extend beyond the religious and attend to the mental and emotional health of jamati members.

I am also left wondering about the colonial practices, such as the friendships and connections the Imam(s) have, and how these relationships have helped the community establish itself in ways that other immigrant communities may not have benefited from. The critique on gender and gendered roles within a religious institution that is patriarchal has always been in question, for me, yet, Khoja-Moolji’s work reframes the importance and central role women have and continue to play in the safeguarding of the jamat. This book is especially timely as the Ismaili jamat welcomes a new institution “that unites and elevates the Jamat through transformational experiences that leverage and advance Ismailis’ shared identity, global presence, and individual talent and spirit, uplifting the communities in which we live” (, 2022). The stories of our foremothers (and forefathers) underpin the values and ethics of such institutions. Graciously, Khoja-Moolji has provided readers with a foundation to reflect upon and advance the Ismaili ethics of care that lives within our cultural DNA.

 It is with a similar ethic of care that I offer my gratitude to Khoja-Moolji for capturing stories untold, for introducing second- and third-generation Ismaili Muslims to our foremothers, and for creating an invitation for future generations to reflect on and respond to the hardship that has allowed us the fortune we currently witness in the jamat.

Dr. Shemine Gulamhusein is a Muslim scholar occupying the lands of the lək̓ʷəŋən peoples. Shemine’s clinical practice spans the fields of therapeutic recreation, pediatric palliative care, violence against women and children, international youth camps, outdoor programming for people with disability(s), and child, youth, and family counselling. Shemine has a deep-seated commitment to creative, innovative, and interdisciplinary understandings, the dismantling of, and re-creating accessible, culturally grounded, and transformative research. Her primary research centers on migrant subjectivities, diasporic self-making, and theorizing in-between spaces. Shemine’s work is situated in (auto)ethnography and arts-based health promotion methodologies that acknowledge people’s innate desire to seek a sense of belonging through recreational and leisure pursuits. Her curiosities about the power of recreation offer her research a rhythmic pulse.

Sumaiya Hamdani

Shenila Khoja-Moolji’s Rebuilding Community: Displaced Women and the Making of a Shia Ismaili Muslim Society, is a deeply thought and eloquent appraisal of the “care work,” or ordinary acts of service to others, of women in the South Asian Nizari Ismaili Shia Muslim community.[1] As Khoja-Moolji notes, religious community is not a given, it is produced and reproduced, not just through institutions and the ministering of religious authorities, but also through the invisible and largely unacknowledged everyday work of women. In seeking to make that work visible, the author explores the communal service of South Asian Ismaili women over three generations from the beginnings of the twentieth century to the present.  Complicating but also throwing their service into sharp relief is the repeated displacement of the community during that time, both within and beyond South Asia, necessitating “rebuilding” in diaspora. Khoja-Moolji thus engages literature about the formation of religious community or “spiritual socialities,” the framing of service within it, and “emplacement” for Ismaili communities as distinct from that of other immigrants and refugees.   In so doing, her book is a much-needed invitation to re/consider the everyday expressions of the care of others, in this case of Ismaili women, as a form of spiritual commitment.

Khoja-Moolji argues that the evidence of care work as a form of spiritual commitment lies in the framing of that service as deriving not just from the moral imperative of Islam, as a prescription for self-cultivation through “good works,” but also from frameworks supplied by Indic traditions in South Asia and most importantly the farmans or instructions provided by the Imam or Agha Khan of the community.  Her “faithful witnessing” of care work, as a member of this community, moreover, serves as a necessary counter to the privileging of purportedly “objective” observations of outsiders which fail to capture the nuances in which women’s care work reproduces the spiritual sociality of the community. In thus focusing on the interior life of the community, rather than boundary marking external relations, Khoja-Moolji at once provides much needed insight into the specificity of Ismaili sociality, as well as more generally how morality and ethics are acted upon in previously unconsidered ways to constitute religious community. As she puts it, “the book not only writes women into modern Ismaili history but also enhances our understanding of refugee and migrant placemaking, reclaims care work from [Marxist] productivist frames, and illuminates lived Shia Islam” (37).

Drawing on 63 interviews with three generations of Ismaili women spanning their life-experience over the twentieth century, as well as additional interviews with Ismaili men, personal and archival materials, memoirs, novels and cookbooks, Khoja-Moolji sheds light on the ways in which Ismaili women participated in community building and rebuilding across time and space.  It should be noted that her book addresses the experience of South Asian Nizari Ismailis – there are other Nizari Ismaili communities in Central Asia, and the Arab world, that together make up this transnational branch of Shia Islam. More specifically, the author is discussing the experience of two South Asian Ismaili communities, which even prior to the twentieth century, had voluntarily migrated to east and central Africa, and to the area that was called East Pakistan, and now Bangladesh, in response to the structural incentives provided by empire. Their subsequent expulsions from both in the post-colonial period were followed by further diasporas to North America as well as the United Kingdom.

Throughout, Khoja-Moolji’s interlocutors describe the care work they provided to (and received from) family and others within the community as inspired by the ethical imperative of “seva” or “khidmat,” terms that reflect both Indic as well as Islamic concepts of service, which for them form the relations that produce community. In addition, they refer to the directives or farmans issued by the Agha Khans of their time as providing incentive and explicit instruction on how that service was to be provided to the community.  Among the examples of such instruction is the directive to educate girls of the community by Agha Khan III at the turn of the twentieth century. His 1913 farman led to the establishment of Agha Khan schools for girls throughout east Africa, which coupled with subsequent reforms in communal marriage laws, changed the course of many of Khoja-Moolji’s interlocutors’ lives, creating paths for them to work professionally outside the home. Of course, such experiences were not limited to the Ismaili community whether in east Africa or in East Pakistan; it was characteristic of Muslim reform movements throughout the colonized Islamic world, as Khoja-Moolji has herself discussed in her previous work Forging the Ideal Educated Girl (2018).

In the third chapter, Khoja-Moolji describes how women participated in the building of institutions of religious community in the diaspora. While farmans of the Agha Khan, as she explains, centralized worship in prayer halls known as jamatkhanas from the early twentieth century, and established communal boundaries by authorizing only those rituals that marked the distinctiveness of the Ismaili communities from other Shia Muslim and Muslim communities, they also “provided women numerous avenues to participate in Ismaili religious life” (91).  Among those are/were the “mundane” care-work activities that enabled the jamatkhanas to thrive as loci of religious identity and provided for the social services that colonial and post-colonial states did not extend to religious minorities like the Ismailis. At the same time, these communal services were not limited to the physical site of the jamatkhana, rather they radiated out from it, to be reproduced even in non-sacred spaces, especially during instances of flight or sudden displacement.  In such instances, Khoja-Moolji posits, a “sensorium” redolent of the jamatkhana was created by women through group meals, and female-led prayers. Khoja-Moolji provides two evocative examples of such spiritual intimacy created beyond the physical institutions of the jamatkhana: on a steamer ship carrying refugees from East Pakistan to Karachi and in a refugee camp in Italy that housed displaced Ismailis from central and east Africa (107-112).

The perception of those helped by the seva/khidmat of Ismailis, was moreover often “storied” as moujza or miracles, as the author relates in her fourth chapter. These memories of instances of communal help and succor are in her view, “a device for harnessing iman (faith)”, referencing as they do analogous actions of Muslim saintly figures, sacred history, and the intervention of Imams. A connection is thus made, binding present experience to a mythical past, demonstrating how God intervenes to act in the interest of the faithful. Another connection, that of food, is discussed in the author’s fifth chapter wherein the making and sharing of heritage foods enables a sensory placemaking for diasporic communities in general, and South Asian Ismailis in particular. Her examination of cookbooks produced by Ismaili women over two generations provides an important archive, and constitutes another example of the care work of Ismaili women.  At the same time, the recipes preserved in such cookbooks also highlight the impact of diaspora in the modifications of heritage foods to a variety of contexts, allowing for a dynamic record of placemaking.

Nevertheless, the migration of Ismailis to North America in the contemporary period or among the “second generation” is testing some of the ways in which care work has been understood. In the context of debates about race, gender, and social justice in the majority culture, second generation Ismaili women are broaching “topics that were considered off-limits,” including “gender discrimination within the jamat, anti-Blackness in South Asian communities, pursuit of the ‘model minority’ ideal, the previous Imam’s positioning in relation to colonial governments, and Ismaili participation in settler colonialism” (165). As they do in online fora, or through novels that employ “critical fabulation” in the effort to imagine experiences of previous generations with the aim of self-knowledge and self-critique, this generation of Ismaili women are engaged in redefining colonial period understandings of seva with a view to “extending its definition to include a wider range of activities and sites of action” (191).

This summary of Khoja-Moolji’s Rebuilding Community doesn’t begin to do justice to the author’s elegant appraisal of Ismaili women’s care-work. This is a work that is rich in its privileging of women’s voices, by lovingly and extensively introducing a formidable cast of Ismaili women whose contributions to producing religious community has not been acknowledged in official communal records. In that respect, her intervention is critical, for in her ethnographic engagement with women of her community, she has been able to situate the centrality of women’s care-work to the production and reproduction of community, despite the upheavals wrought during the colonial, post-colonial and contemporary periods. She also wants us to view this care-giving as springing from specific spiritual commitments as Ismailis, rather than from a non-doctrinal ethic of care. It will be interesting to see whether the boundary-making experiences of previous generations, sustained as they were by the communal policies of the states under which Ismailis lived, is something that can be replicated in the current and future Ismaili communities, who are already troubled by these boundaries as they engage larger discourses of activism and consciousness that aspire to a post-racial and secular ethic of care-work.

Khoja-Moolji’s description and discussion of Ismaili women’s care work led me to recall the many instances I (and members of my family) have personally benefitted from it, in encounters with the Ismaili jamat in the UK and Pakistan, even though we are from the other Ismaili – or Tayyibi – community. It also prompted me to reflect on the critical care work of women members of my family and the Tayyibi Ismaili community, which is similarly South Asian in ethnicity, led by a similarly central religious authority, and whose rituals and relations are also informed by Indic, Islamic, and specifically Ismaili heritage. In other words, Khoja-Moolji has succeeded in raising my own awareness of the need to re-consider how religious community is formed, expanding the frame to include an appreciation of the many not specifically “religious” ways that spiritual commitments are expressed, and spiritual sociality is produced. I await research on the care work of Tayyibi Ismaili women.

Finally, I wonder if the idea of care work as spiritually informed is thus exclusive to her Nizari Ismaili community. Khoja-Moolji’s exploration of it mobilizes comparative ethnographies, albeit Jewish and Christian in the main, as well as studies on diaspora and displacement, albeit without reference to archetypical groups like the Palestinians, to reflect on the ways in which the specific spiritual sociality of Ismaili communities is produced. For me, this begs the question, is what she is exploring an example, or an exception? If the latter, to what extent might her argument have been strengthened by reference to the distinct role of women in Ismaili tradition (both Nizari and Tayyibi), which historically exceptionally provided for the transmission of knowledge to women in sessions of learning or majalis outside the home, and recognition of the religious authority of women, unlike in other Muslim communities? To what extent also might reference to Indic conceptions of gender roles in trading communities and castes have created the basis for the care work of the South Asian Ismaili community she discusses? Matters of class and colonial governance as they specifically impacted her Ismaili community are raised, but perhaps not to the extent of suggesting that they necessitated care work and its justification by the Imams as seva/khidmat. Nevertheless, and despite these questions, Rebuilding Community is a tremendously significant and needed intervention in understanding and appreciating the building and rebuilding of religious community.

Dr. Sumaiya Hamdani received her B.A. from Georgetown University and M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton University in the field of Islamic history. Her book, Between Revolution and State: the Construction of Fatimid Legitimacy (I.B. Tauris 2006) examines the development of legal and historical literature by the Ismaili Shi’i Fatimid state. Her research has also included articles and reviews in the fields of Shi’i thought, Islamic history, and women in Islam. Her teaching interests include Islamic, Middle East, and world history. Her current research examines the construction of identity in Muslim minority communities in South Asia during the colonial and post-colonial periods. Dr. Hamdani has served on advisory boards of the Middle East Studies Association, the American Institute of Yemeni Studies, and the North American Association of Islamic and Muslim Studies, among others. She co-founded and was director of the Islamic Studies program at George Mason University from 2003-2008.       

[1] “Ismaili” is a label that is current short hand for one of two Ismaili Shia communities: the Nizari Ismaili community, to which the author belongs and which is the focus of her study. Properly speaking, there is another Ismaili Shii community – the Tayyibi Ismailis – who have equal claim to the name “Ismaili,” although they are more often referred to as Bohras, a vernacular term deriving from their South Asian origins.