The origin of the Memons as a community dates back to a period in history listed as 824 AH when some 700 Hindu families, representing some 6178 people belonging to the old and famous Lohana community of Sindh, accepted Islam.
In adopting the Islamic faith, the new adherents accepted a new form of dress and style of living that differed substantially from their forefathers. But certain customs and elements of unity remained an inherited tradition throughout their lives and it is on account of this that they were and are easily distinguishable from other Muslim communities.
In narrating the history of the Memons and their religious and cultural life of that time, what is sincerely intended is the attempt to highlight the unity and the great struggle for identity and subsequent triumph in spite of the forces of evil. Their achievements provide a source of inspiration to succeeding generations.
The Arabs ruled Sindh for almost 300 years and in that time the brotherhood, culture, morality and spiritualism of Islam produced a profound effect on the people of the region. It came as no surprise when 700 families of the Lohana community, settled at Thatta, accepted Islam under the auspicious hands of Pir Yusuffuddin Saheb (May the mercy of Allah be upon him) and followed the Hanafi School of Islam.
Pir Yusuffuddin Saheb was a saint of a high order, coming from the sainthood dynasty of the world renowned Hazrat Shaikh Abdul Qadir Jilani of Baghdad (May the mercy of Allah be upon him). It was after a revelation descended on him at Holy tomb of Sayed Abdul RazzakTajuddin Saheb (May the mercy of Allah be upon him) that Pir Yusuffuddin came to Sindh to preach Islam.
It was Pir Yusuffuddin who originated the term Momin that was to later become the designation of a million followers of Islam. Impressed by the strength and character as well as the determination, courage and dedication of the new adherents to Islam had called them Momins and appointed Adam (Sunderji) as their leader and guide.
Pir Saheb then gave Adam a set of clothes-a long shirt, trouser, a waistcoat, a jacket and a turban-clearly identifying the new leader and his flock. In so doing Pir Saheb introduced the dress form that was to become a tradition for centuries.
We quote Pir Yusuffuddin's address to Adam and his flock (as recorded for posterity): Dear Brethrens, from today onwards you are Muslims, you have one Allah, one Prophet, one Holy Book (Qur'an) and you are all brothers. Believe in Allah; follow His Path and act according to the orders given in the Qur'an. You will be honored in religion as well as in the world and you and your off springs will prosper for a long time".
When the people of Sindh saw the spread of Islam, they severed all their social, economic and religious ties with the new adherents of Islam. The new wave of opposition led Adam and his people to Pir Saheb for his wise counsel and guidance saying; "As we have accepted Islam, our people are displeased with us. They have broken all social contacts and have ceased all transactions with a view to make us revert to our old faith. What shall we do now? We are prepared to follow your advice."
Pir Saheb Replied: "I advise you to migrate from here so that you can easily perform your duties to Islam after reaching another place. Our Great Prophet (May the blessings and mercy of Allah be upon him) once before advised Muslims to migrate during the early years of Islam. You, too, should now, likewise, go to another place."
A question arises. It is natural to ask how is it that Muslims were compelled to migrate from Sindh when the Islamic Government of Kabul ruled the region?
History and research would indicate that while it is correct to say that Sindh was ruled by the Government of Kabul, Islamic conquerors were never wholly involved in the spread of religion and, during their rule, there was freedom of religion. The work of promoting Islam was left to the preachers and saints like Pir Yusuffuddin. During this period the Province of Sindh and, in particular, the city of Thatta, had several saints and men of religion.
When Pir Saheb ordered Adam and his people to migrate, between a 100 and 150 families of Momins (Memons) left the city of Thatta to settle on the banks of a nearby river, the Varaya.
However, peace was never fully realized by the Memon community in spite of having left their homes in their original settlements in Sindh. Between 859 AH and 866 AH when Jam Sanjar ruled Sindh, chaos and disorder followed a weak government in control. In the border areas between Southern Sindh and Gujarat, the powerful Baloochis spread havoc by raiding and looting caravans plying trade. As a result, movement between Sindh and Gujarat was halted and the Memons (who were mainly in business) found life intolerable and were forced to migrate again this time from Varaya. With their livelihood threatened and uncertainty about the future, the Memons split and small groups ventured out in different directions - an event in history that subsequently divided one big Memon community into different factions. One group, under the leadership of Ladha, migrated to the State of Halar in Kathiawar and became known as the Halari Memons. Another group proceeded towards Karachi, a port of Sindh, and they became known as Sindhi Memons. A third group, made up of fifty young men, proceeded towards Punjab and settled in Lahore. The Cutchi Memons, on the other hand, migrated to Bhuj, the Capital of Cutch. They originally settled there under the leadership of Kaneya Seth, the son of Markun Seth who assumed the Islamic name of Rukunuddin. Markun Seth was the son of Adam Seth, the first leader of the Memon Community (appointed by Pir Yusuffuddin). When the Memons migrated in different directions from Varaya, those left behind followed Kaneya Seth to Cutch.
The migration and movement of the Memons from their original home in Nagar Thatta in Sindh caused stress and severe hardship, forcing families to fight starvation and, for most, it was a virtual hand-to-mouth survival.
Throughout these trying times they were steadfast in their faith and pursued the principles of Islam with a great sense of devotion and dedication. The great bond that was established in such circumstances, united families, made sharing a priority of the time and, more important, made them realize the importance of oneness.
These simple people who put their trust and faith in Allah and never once wavered throughout the long, arduous struggle to survive, were handsomely rewarded-Allah eventually took mercy and showered them with His generosity and an abundance of fortune.
For the believers in the power of Allah, the true testing time had come and gone and, after 400 years of wandering and search of a true permanent home, the Memons had finally set roots. Their arrival in different parts of India heralded a new beginning, a life of plentiful and an abundance of fortunes as the business acumen of these Islamic migrants set the stage for continuing success and prosperity. Memons played a prominent role in the Indian Freedom struggle against British rule and occupation both physically and financially. By the close of the 19th Century when the struggle assumed noteworthy proportions, a number of Memons courted imprisonment and wealthy members of the community made large-scale donations. Such notables were the Late Umer Sobani and Sir Adamjee Hajee Dawood who spontaneously associated themselves and their families with Mrs. Annie Besant's Home Rule League that spearheaded the freedom struggle. They joined the movement from its inception and gave liberally towards its expenses.
During the War years the Memons amassed considerable wealth and this was invested in a systematic import of valuable goods, shares in new industries and landed property but financial disasters overtook the Memons as well as other major investors after the War had ended. Prices dropped drastically and traders suffered heavy losses. There was a chain of reactions for new industries in India, which prospered on account of the shortage and high prices of foreign goods during the war years, were forced to shut down. Industrial shares, which dropped dramatically, found no takers and, added to this, the price of landed properties fell to add to the woes of the business sector.
This was the age of depression and the collapse of the Indian commercial empire sent shock waves through the nation, as bankruptcy became the order of the day. However, most Memons, in order to maintain credit in the commercial sector, struggled along to meet their commitments and liabilities by resorting to extreme measures. These measures included the sale of all their properties and other assets as well as the traditional gold and precious ornaments of their womenfolk. One result of this action to overcome the financial depression of the time was the continuance of the Memon tradition in commerce while others panicked and opted out, the Memons, in spite of the heavy losses sustained, endured the depressive years and continued to trade.
But the chance to recoup and regain their prestige was, however, blunted by yet another disaster with the post-war fall in the exchange value of the rupee. On account of this the Indian merchant had to pay twice the goods. original amount for imported As the Memons were heavily involved in the import of goods, they suffered heavy losses. Just as it seemed the commercial sector of India was set to recover, other losses seemed inevitable on account of the momentum gained by the combined efforts of the Khilafat Movement, the Non-co-operation Movement of India and the Swadeshi Movement.
With the launch of the powerful Swadeshi Movement, there was a nation-wide spontaneity for the boycott of British manufactured goods. Within a short time, British goods, valued at millions of crores of rupees, piled up in godowns (warehouses). Nobody volunteered when the goods were offered for sale well below cost and eventually, following pressure by the Indian boycotters, it all went up in smoke.
It must be recorded here that the Memons represented a substantial group involved in the import of British manufactured goods and needed little encouragement to associate themselves with the founders of the Swadeshi Movement.
The many factors that contributed to the financially depressive years drove many Memons in another direction in search of financial rewards. This time they invested heavily in landed properties which offered low returns but seemed more secure. In effect some dramatic changes took place and the comforts of life were curtailed to counter the changing situation of limited income and high expenditure that highlighted the period.
As in earlier times, confronted as they were with numerous difficulties, the Memon spirit of adventure never ceased. The political upheavals, the changing social patterns, the call of the professions and occupations, all combined to encourage Memon movement and settlement throughout India and the rest of the world. Wherever they went and settled, the Memons left lasting impressions with their mosques, welfare and educational institutions, hospitals and musafarkhanas that emerged through Jamat's (community based organizations) that were constituted everywhere.
The Memon Community is basically a peace loving business community. Memons are by nature generous, kind-hearted and charitable people. Not only do they support their less fortunate jamati and community members by monthly maintenance allowances, scholarships and other necessities but also help humanity at large by establishing hospitals, maternity homes, orphanages, schools, colleges, industrial homes and other humanitarian activities, whose benefits are traditionally open for all person without distinction of caste, color or creed. All large nation-wide funds start with the donations of Memons and generally they are among the topmost donors. Wherever the Memons have settled, they first built a mosque and madrassa, and if in considerable numbers, also established a Jamat. Many mosques built by Memons have become outstanding architectural landmarks of their particular cities. Such mosques include Zakaria Masjid of Calcutta, Minara Masjid of Bombay. New Memon Masjid of Karachi and Baitul Muclarram Masjid of Dhaka. Memons have also built large mosques in the countries spread from Japan to South Africa. The Jama Masjid of Durban built by the Memons, is the largest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Lohanas trace their roots in history right up to the dvents of Aryas (Aryans) in the Indian sub-continent, making theirs the probably oldest surviving community in the world.
Lohanas are still to be found in Afghanistan and Pakistan,which are now Islamic states. In Afghanistan, they still maintain their religious identity and are known as Lokhathra. The Lohanas who keep their Hindu identity in Sindh are known as Sindhi Lohana.
Those Lohanas who converted to Sunni Islam are known as Memons. Those who converted to Shia Ismaili Nizari Islam or became Ismaili Nizari Muslims are known as Khojas. Many of them retain their Hindu surnames.The most celebrated among them was the creator of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, whose fathers' name was Jinabhai Thakkar. Not only Khoja Ismaili Muslims but Memon Sunni Muslims also retain their Hindu surnames; one of the most famous among them is Lakhani.
A large number of Hindu Lohana from Gujurat migrated to the British colonies of East Africa during the early part of the 20th century. The descendants of these settlers have moved to Great Britain in recent decades. Many of them can be found in North West London and Leicester. The Lohanas in East Africa were great entrepreneurs. The Madhvani and Mehta families being the prominent industrialists in Uganda. Today in Uganda, post the Idi Amin period, new prominent Lohana families have also experienced similar success like the Radia and Ruparelia families. Today, a good number of Lohanas are residing in Gujarat and in other parts of India. In Gujarat, a majority of them are in Rajkot,Jamnagar, Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Surat. Outside Gujarat, they can be found in Mumbai, Pune, Nagpur, Bangalore, Mangalore and other major Indian cities.Also, the majority of food businesses, especially "farsan marts," in Ahmedabad and Vadodara are owned by Lohanas. They also have a noticeable share in other businesses. A significant number of Lohanas are also residing outside India.
Ref: The World of Memons and their Values (Coffee Tabel Book)