Excellent Excerpts: Rebuilding Community by Shenila Khoja-Moolji

Welcome to our series, “Excellent Excerpts,” where we share selections from recently or soon-to-be published books we think you should check out! In this post we are featuring Rebuilding Community: Rebuilding Community: Displaced Women and the Making of a Shia Ismaili Muslim Sociality by Shenila Khoja-Moolji, published July 2023 with Oxford University Press.

From the Introduction 

[Atlanta, Georgia, 2019. The phone rings.]

Farida, in Urdu: Hello, kaisay ho (How are you)? [Farida listens closely as Zarina, the woman on the other end, responds in a mix of English and Urdu.]

Farida: Yes, I will bring the application forms to jamatkhana and we can complete them together. If your application gets approved, you will then only have to pay $10 for your visit to the doctor. They will provide you medicine for free, and free visits to specialists, too. This service is provided by the DeKalb County, you see, and run by volunteer doctors. Let’s meet in jamatkhana. I will explain more.

[Farida returns to her cooking. That evening at the jamatkhana, she helps Zarina, who has recently migrated from India, complete the forms to enroll as a patient at the DeKalb County Physicians’ Care Clinic.]


 Will you please take me to the clinic, too? My son works at the gas station all day and I can’t drive. There is no one to take me.

[Farida quickly reconfigures her weekly schedule in her head.]

Farida: Theek hai, no problem.

Farida gets up daily at 4:00 a.m. to drive to a nearby jamatkhana for morning prayers. Jamatkhana, a Persian word meaning community house, is the site of congregational worship and gathering for Shia Ismaili Muslims. After prayers, when other congregants have left this community house, Farida stays behind with a handful of other women to wash the objects used during rituals. Back home by 6:30 a.m., she prepares and packs lunches for her husband and son. Lunch is often a sandwich, but everyone wants something different: her seventy-year-old husband likes one piece of bread instead of two and fruit on the side; her son, in his mid-thirties, is happy with two slices and even some extra meat. Farida takes an hour-long nap, then leaves for work. Until 3:00 p.m., at a shop a few blocks from her house, she scoops ice cream, rings up customers, and makes cakes. Back at home, she cooks dinner so that it is ready for her husband and son when they return from work in the evening. She takes a thirty-minute nap and then heads out to drive sixty-five-year-old Zarina to the county’s free clinic. Farida tries not to miss the 7:30 p.m. evening prayers at the jamatkhana but sometimes, when the clinic is crowded with patients, she has to make that sacrifice. Farida says she is known in her local Ismaili community as the “baima (older sister) who helps newcomers get free healthcare”: “They think I am some healthcare worker [laughs].”

Sixty-one-year-old Farida migrated to the United States from Pakistan just over two decades ago. She made the move so her children could have a better chance at life, particularly access to a higher quality of education. Her family left behind a stable middle-class life in Karachi for Atlanta where, at first, they struggled professionally and economically in the unfamiliar environment. Members of the local Ismaili jamat (community) came to their aid: one woman helped Farida open a bank account; another helped her get a driver’s license; yet another introduced Farida to the Salvation Army where she could buy discounted furniture and directed her to a job opening at the local ice cream shop where she would work for the next two decades.

Her relocation to Atlanta in 2001 was not the first time Farida had benefited from such forms of community support. In 1971, as a twelve-year-old, she was displaced from her childhood home when East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) became a site of ethno-national war. She fled Dhaka with her mother and sister and found herself at a camp established by local Ismailis at a jamatkhana in Karachi. An ad hoc Ismaili volunteer committee came together to support displaced families like hers. The committee helped her widowed mother find housing and subsidized their rent for a year; a local Ismaili business owner offered her older sister a job, and the Ismailia Youth Services paid Farida’s tuition at an Ismaili-run boarding school (Figure 1.1). The Ismaili jamat of Karachi formed a protective web, an infrastructure of care, around this displaced family and saved it from sinking deeper into poverty.

Modern secular observers might interpret Farida’s efforts for Ismaili newcomers arriving in Atlanta as “paying forward” the generosity of those who helped her family through multiple displacements and forced migrations. But this framing fails to capture the spiritual and worldmaking dimensions of her actions. Perhaps slightly irritated at the need to elaborate on something so obvious, she explains to me, “It is seva. It is khidmat. This is what it means to be a part of the Ismaili jamat. It is how we make it possible for other Ismailis to find a place here [in the United States].” Seva is a Sanskrit word used to express devotion and service to a supreme deity with whom the devotee has a personal relationship, and the word khidmat is used by speakers of the Urdu language to express similar sentiments.2 Among contemporary Ismaili Muslims of South Asian descent, seva and khidmat denote service to the Imam as well as to individuals and institutions of the Ismaili community and beyond. Farida’s invocation of seva/khidmat to describe her care for Zarina thus points to a set of spiritual commitments that exceed the idea of serial reciprocity conveyed by “paying it forward.” We instead see an ethical act of support that is set apart from expectation of exchange or calculation of ends. It is deemed virtuous in and of itself. Such everyday acts of care, from Farida’s perspective, help new migrants find a foothold in unfamiliar environments (Atlanta) while reinforcing affiliation with the Ismaili community (“This is what it means to be a part of the Ismaili jamat”). Ordinary ethics like these that respond to the experience of displacement are highly visible in the life stories of the Ismailis I consider in this project. But as I hope to demonstrate in the pages that follow, it has been the ongoing and pervasive exercise of ordinary ethics of care and support that has produced an Ismaili sociality beyond moments of crisis as well.

Farida is my mother. This book occasionally returns to her narrative but works more broadly to uncover the stories of care, help, and support that dozens of Ismaili Muslim women have extended to coreligionists against the dislocating effects of wars and forced migration. My interlocutors fall into two cohorts: one that fled East Pakistan in the early 1970s due to civil war, and the other that was forced to leave East Africa during the same time, when Idi Amin expelled Asians from Uganda and anti-Asian sentiments intensified in Kenya and Tanzania.3 Although separated by thousands of miles of land and sea prior to these dislocations, the women in these cohorts share not only a religious tradition (Shia Ismaili) but also ethnicity and languages, as they trace their ancestors to the Sindh-Gujarat region in India. On leaving their homes in East Pakistan and East Africa, looking to resettle in West Pakistan (today’s Pakistan), England, Canada, and the United States, they began the individual and collective work of navigating the unfamiliar environments of new places. I follow the trajectories of these women and contemplate larger questions about the formation of religious community, women’s care practices, and placemaking after displacement.

In the book I cover a large range of women’s activities, but reproductive work—such as cleaning jamatkhanas, cooking during religious festivals, assisting an elder with a bedpan at a refugee camp, and washing ritual objects—is a recurring theme. Even though such work is necessary for the propagation of society, it is generally viewed as a property of women’s biology and is therefore under- or devalued. Marxist feminists have consequently regarded housework as a quintessential site for gendered exploitation and have sought to demonstrate its value by moving it into the realm of waged labor.15 Instead of pointing out the economic value of women’s work for the jamat (although there is certainly a basis for that), I reconceptualize this work in spiritual and relational terms, aligning with those feminist scholars who refuse to reduce women’s work to productivist logics.16 I mobilize a different logic altogether, viewing women’s reproductive activities as producing sociability, repairing past trauma, and furnishing continuity from one generation to the next. This approach retains “care” as a useful framework for interpreting relationalities, kinships, and coalitions previously excluded from view. The challenge for me, then, is to emphasize the salience of care work, and the importance of those who undertake it, while also pointing out the circumstances and scenarios when it becomes a site of subjugation.

Ultimately, Rebuilding Community reframes the ordinary ethical practices of displaced women as the concrete spatiotemporal events that form religious community. In the process, we also learn about placemaking after displacement and re-evaluate care work. The book flashes back to their ancestors (chapter 2) and pays a visit to their descendants (chapter 6) to trace the transmutation of an Ismaili ethics of care. This broader view shows us that the jamat—and religious community, more generally—is not a given, but an ethical relation that is maintained daily and intergenerationally through everyday acts of care.

From Rebuilding Community: Displaced Women and the Making of a Shia Ismaili Muslim Sociality by Shenila Khoja-Moolji. Copyright © 2023 by Shenila Khoja-Moolji and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

You can access the entire introduction for free here, and purchase the book here.