History of Cutchi Memons
Source : Late Mr. Abdul Qadir Moosa Dadani (author), Arif G. Kadwani (editor) and Cutchi Memon Jamat of North America
In or around 1404, 700 families of 6178 individuals belonging to the famous Lohana section of Hindus accepted Islam. With their conversion came the change to a different lifestyle than those of their forefathers. The converts came to be known as Momins or Memons. Why did these families accept Islam, and what are the qualities the converts inherited from their ancestors, i.e. the Lohanas?
Historical books of Sindh refer to the Lohanas living there around 300 B.C. The. ruler of Sindh then was Ind. Around 327 B.C. Alexander the Great came to the region. Kind Ind had divided the region into four divisions; one of them was Lohana & Nadma. Included in this sector of Sindh were also Nagar & Thatta. After King Ind’s demise, Sindh was ruled by several kings belonging to Nabih, Tak, Momaid, Rai and Brahmin dynasties. Raja Chach, the first king of the Brahmin dynasty, ruled during 7 A.D. It is here that the history of Sindh begins. Arab historians and other travelers of those days have furnished flowery descriptions of Sindh and Raja Chach. They mention that the Hindus were divided into four castes, and Lohanas, owing to their business acumen, were categorized into the business caste, the Vaisya. Lohanas themselves were divided into 108 tribes, and each tribe carried a name, which in the Sindhi language is called a “nukh”(title).
After Raja Chach’s demise, his son, Daher came to the throne. In 589 A.D., Muhammad Bin Qassim, as ordered by Hajjaj Bin Yusuf, the Governor of Iraq, raided Sindh and captured it. He laid the foundation of a strong Muslim kingdom, and ruled over Sindh justly and fairly. He came to be loved by the people of Sindh. Later, when Suleman Bin Abdul Malik dismissed Muhammad Bin Qassim and executed him, the people of Sindh wept for him. The Arab conquerors ruled Sindh for about 300 years during which time the feelings of brotherhood, culture, morality and spiritualism of Islam produced a lasting impression on the people of Sindh as a whole. It was then in or around 1404 that 700 Lohana families living in Thatta accepted Islam under the auspicious hands of Pir Yusufuddin Saheb (May the mercy of Allah be upon him). They were taken into the Sunni fold with their school of thought being Hanafi. The Pir Saheb came from a long line of eminent Muslim saints who were direct descendents of Shaikh Abdul Qadir Gilani (May the mercy of Allah be upon him)!
At that time, the region of Sindh was ruled by the King of Kabul whose governor of the region was Ayub Khan, and his deputy, Murakkab Khan. Both Ayub Khan and Murakkab Khan welcomed Pir Yusufuddin, and made him their guest. Murakkab Khan visited the Pir frequently, showing his faithfulness and obedience to him. The Lohanas were impressed by this fidelity and dedication. They were also impressed by the saint’s humility, purity of soul and high virtues.
At that time, three leading members of the Lohanas were appointed special advisors to Murakkab Khan. Manekji, a leading member of the 700 Lohana families, was the first to accept Islam because of the Pir’s nature and love of humanity. Manekji was followed by his son, Ravji, and the Pir gave him the name of Ahmed. A little later, Ravji’s two sons, Sunderji and Hansraj, followed into Islam, and were named Adam and Taj Mohammed. Soon thereafter, the rest of the 700 Lohana families opted for conversion to Islam. Watching the converts’ determination, courage and strong faith, Pir Yusufuddin called them “Momins”; the term, “Momin” was not coined by the saint but is an honor bestowed centuries ago by Almighty God. This word was later changed to “Memon”. The saint appointed Sunderji now known as Adam as the leader, and gifted him a special dress that became the Cutchi Memons’ traditional dress: a long shirt, trouser, waist coat, a jacket and a turban!
Pir Yusufuddin addressed the converts thus:
“Dear Brethren, from today, you are Muslims! You have one God, one Prophet, one Holy Book (the Holy Quran), and you are all brothers. Believe in God, follow His Path, and act according to the orders given in the Holy Quran. You will be honored in religion as well as in the world, and you and your offspring will prosper for a long time”.
Soon thereafter, the Momins felt the ire of their fellow countrymen, the Sindhi Hindus whose fold they had left behind. The Lohanas severed all social, economic and religious connections with the converts. The Momins approached Pir Yusufuddin for guidance. The saint advised them to migrate to a new land, following the advice given by the Prophet (May the blessings and mercy of Allah be on him) to Muslims to migrate during the early years of Islam.
The question here is why the Muslims had to suffer thus at the hands of the Lohanas in Sindh at a time when they were being ruled by a Muslim ruler based in Kabul. The answer is that the ruler was not interested in propagation of Islam or to protect any converts. Propagation was left to saints or holy men. There were many such holy personalities in Sindh and surrounding areas: Shaikh Patta Dali, Syed Jalal Shah Surkh Bukhari, Shaikh Hamad Jamali, Shaikh Zia, Shaikh Nooh Bhakhri, Makhdoom Nooh Halai, Makhdoom Jahaniyan Jahangashth, Syed Daval Shah, Syed Sadruddin, Syed Kabiruddin Hassan, etc.
Following the saint’s advice, about 150 Memon families migrated from Thatta to a place on the banks of a nearby river named Variya. The Memons too had a tough time even after moving away from Sindh because of chaos and disorder in the entire area: in the border areas between Sindh and Gujarat, the Baloochis looted trade caravans, resulting in complete closure of all trade activities. The Memons decided to move from Variya, and went in several directions: one group, under the leadership of Ladha, went to Halar in Kathiawar (also known as Saurashtra) in Western India (presently in the state of Gujarat) and came to be known as Halai Memon. Another group traveled along the coast and reached Surat. They settled in Surat, and came to be known as Surti Memons. A group of fifty young men proceeded to the Punjab and settled in Lahore; little is known of this group today. One group, under the leadership of Ruknuddin (previously known as Markun), son of Adam, traveled to Bhuj, the capital of Cutch, and settled down there. This group of Memons came to be known as Cutchi Memons.
At the time of this migration, Cutch was ruled by Raja Rakhengarji. He invited Kana Seth (Seth being an honorific for respect) and his fellow Memons to settle in Cutch. Kana Seth was Ruknuddin’s son. The Raja knew that the Memons’ business acumen would bring prosperity to his kingdom. He bestowed titles on Kana Seth, and offered him a traditional dress. Eventually, Kana Seth came to be respected in Bhuj and in Cutch. He constructed a huge mosque in Bhuj. Kana Seth’s son, Mamman, also constructed a mosque. Several Cutchi Memon families were attributed with the construction of mosques and musafirkhanas (free guest houses), and for other public welfare activity.
It should be noted, however, that during the migration from Nagar Thatta to Bhuj via Variya, the Cutchi Memons’ economic condition was not good. They lived from day to day but they remained firm in their faith. They were honest against all odds. They had good character, and had good habits and virtues. Their unity made them powerful and praiseworthy. They helped each other. Despite their poverty, they remained steadfast in following Islam. They refrained from the forbidden. With truth in their daily lives, the Cutchi Memons earned lawfully and righteously. Again, despite their condition, they helped people in need. They were kindhearted, humble, tolerant, and humble. Their domestic life was simple and honorable. Their simplicity, good character and high ideals impressed others around them.
Soon, Almighty God mercifully rewarded the Cutchi Memons for their patience and endurance. Fortune smiled on them. After 400 years of wandering, Cutchi Memons settled in Cutch, then in Bombay (now Mumbai), and other parts of India such as Karnataka, Kerala, Orissa, Tamil Nadu. West Bengal, and Pakistan (mainly in Karachi). Eventually, they started the cycle of migration to foreign lands such as Mauritius, United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. It should be of interest to the historian and to all interested that Cutchi Memons settled in places which had business attraction in commercial centers of British settlements! The period of the last 200 years of Cutchi Memon history should be written in gold. The Cutchi Memons’ honesty, integrity, magnanimity and courage, and dignity is worth mentioning here.
Muslims ruled over India for many centuries. The Mughals’ reign of over 500 years has been described as the Golden Age of Muslim Rule in India. During the reign of Emperor Jehangir, the British came to India in the guise of the East India Company, and were permitted to construct a business establishment in Surat in Western India. Emperor Jehangir accepted the request of Sir Thomas Roe, the Company’s agent, to exempt British goods from duty or tax. This was the prominent factor in the rapid British progress in business in India. It is well known that, after Emperor Aurangzeb’s demise, his successors fell prey to the ill effects of all kinds of human pleasure, and therefore were unable to govern the country. The Marathas became powerful as the Moghul King Shah Alam became a weakling. The British took advantage of these failings, and ensured the establishment of their empire. Because of circumstances of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, the British conquered Delhi, and humiliatingly imprisoned Bahadur Shah Safar, the Mughal Emperor, and sent him to Myanmar (then known as Burma) to spend his last days at Yangon (then known as Rangoon) together with his wife and his two remaining sons. The empire of the British in India was thus established. The commercial policies of the British soon came to be closely linked with the financial destiny of Cutchi Memons.
In or about 1761, the British defeated the Portuguese, and acquired full control over Indian trade. Later, they bought land around Mumbai (Bombay), Kolkata (Calcutta) and Chennai (Madras), and established commercial settlements. The East India Company enjoyed a monopoly of trade in India. It was only after the mutiny of 1857 that the British ended the Company’s presence in India, and took over all its trade activities. With this, Cutchi Memons were able to progress and prosper in business. With a new Act in place and governance of India from London, British businessmen started arriving in throngs for business in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras and other British territories. At that time, British control over the kingdom of Cutch was established. A large number of Cutchi Memons left Cutch to settle in British territories on the advice of their Pir Saheb. This timely movement obtained great commercial and financial success for them, partly because the British traders who arrived in India were inexperienced businessmen and had little knowledge of commercial conditions in India. They became dependent on local traders, chief among them being Cutchi Memons. The scenario was different with the East India Company; it had commercial places called “factories”, from where they conducted their trade in India, Not so for the British businessmen who arrived after the British monarch took over; they had to seek the help of local traders, and Cutchi Memons were advantaged with business acumen and knowledge of trade.
British greed to rule was not confined to India. They sought other countries as well. Wherever they conquered and started ruling, Cutchi Memons followed them. They went to several countries in Asia and Africa including China and Japan. By the end of the 19th century, Cutchi Memons were one of the leading businessmen . They were rewarded thus on account of their honesty, industry, labor, business acumen, experience, magnanimity and grit. We can determine their worth and financial value from the fact that, during the last quarter of the 19th century, they established many charitable trusts, constructed mosques and musafirkhanas, schools and hospitals, etc, worth billions. Names of these philanthropists abound: Seth Cummoo Suleman, Seth Mohammed Haji Saboo Siddick, Seth Haji Kassam Ladha, Seth Ismail Habib, Seth Issa Abba Sait, etc.
The close of the 19th century saw a yearning in the Indian people to throw off the British yoke of servitude. Mahatma Gandhi and other leaders were harbingers of political change. Cutchi Memons took an active part in the “freedom” movement both physically and financially. Many went to jail, and the wealthy donated much to the cause. The late Umer Sobhani was associated with Mrs. Annie Besant’s Home Rule League from its inception, and contributed to much of its expenses. He also vigorously participated in the Khilafat movement, and donated One Lakh Rupees to the Khilafat fund. That sum of money was big enough in those days as it is for the people of India today. When, in 1918, Mahatma Gandhi asked him to contribute some money to the Tilak Swarajya Fund, Mr. Sobhani gave the Father of the Indian Nation a blank check; the Mahatma himself wrote the amount of Rupees One Lakh! Such was this Cutchi Memon!
At the end of World War I, the British government, desperately needing funds, collected Rupees 1500 million from wealthy Indians, and in return, conferred titles. Many wealthy Cutchi Memons donated funds, and received titles such as “Khan Bahadur”!
During World War I, Cutch became a commercial center as it was declared a “free port”. Large quantities of foreign goods were imported into India via Cutch. People thronged to Cutch to buy foreign goods for low prices. A large foreign exchange market developed in Cutch. However, this trade of foreign goods proved a gamble, and at the end of WW I, the exchange rates fell at a rapid pace, many Cutchi Memon traders suffered severe losses.
Cutchi Memons suffered a lot afterwards. Having invested their wealth and profits from the war, they saw an immediate depletion when prices tumbled, and industries collapsed. The stock market tumbled, and so did Cutchi Memon funds. However, Cutchi Memon businessmen maintained their commercial credit by meeting their liabilities by selling all their property and assets including their women’s gold ornaments. They continued to trade to keep their place in the commercial world intact. But alas, another incident broke their backs: the postwar fall in the monetary exchange rate of the Rupee! Indian merchants had to pay double prices for imported goods ordered during the war, and Cutchi Memons, dealing in imported goods, were forced to suffer heavy losses.
Before such losses could be recovered, Cutchi Memons had new losses as the various “movements” gained momentum: the Khilafat Movement, the Non-Cooperation Movement, and the Swadeshi Movement. British goods became worthless as none were being purchased, and later were burnt openly in defiance of British rule. Cutchi Memons, who dealt mainly with British goods, suffered great monetary losses as they loved their motherland and its cause to be free from the British.
The heavy losses of the war, fall in the value of the Rupee, and the Swadeshi movement saw many Cutchi Memons separate themselves from trade, and investing all their remaining wealth in landed property. This assured them low and fixed returns in the form of rents. Cutchi Memons had a life of plenty in the past but now had a stringent way of life. Leaving trade and business, they sought employment to sustain themselves. The obvious result was a downfall in the standard of living. At the time of World War II, the umber of Cutchi Memon businessmen was few; consequently, not many could reap the benefits of increased profits.
With the change in the manner of living, Cutchi Memons became involved with education. Literacy ran high, and many Cutchi Memons became eminent doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, etc. Some entered politics, and earned a name for themselves and for all Cutchi Memons. This probably would not have occurred if Cutchi Memons had continued being traders and businessmen. The period of 1947-2008 has seen many developments in the lives of Cutchi Memons.