An Extraordinary Story of Five Colonial Indians and the Myth of Muslim ‘Insularity’

Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire Seema Alavi Harvard University Press Pages: 504  Price: Rs 1495

Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire 
Seema Alavi 
Harvard University Press, 2015, 504 pp, Rs 1495

Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire is an exhilarating book encompassing broad swaths of trans-imperial history, religio-cultural geography and a stunning breadth of vision. Seema Alavi’s credentials as a historian of substance are well-established. Starting with a book on India’s military history and the Sepoys of the Company that came out of her doctoral research work in Cambridge with C A. Bayly, she later forayed into the history of indigenous medicine, producing the gem of a book, Islam and Healing with another book thrown in between—The Eighteenth Century in India. The current tome has a distinguishing feature that sets her apart from the ordinary run of historians – her multilingual scholarship, her willingness and ability to access source materials in several languages and her skill in marshalling arguments from different perspectives combined with insights drawn from literary sources to give a comprehensive, almost definitive, view of the phenomenon under discussion.

The seed of Muslim cosmopolitanism was, perhaps, sown when the Prophet had exhorted his disciples to undertake even the hazardous journey to China in quest of knowledge. Unlike some cultures, where travel across seas and mountains were proscribed for fear of losing purity/caste, Islam always put a premium on travel and trade, the Prophet himself being the best exemplar of both. When one travels one gets exposed to multiple cultures, belief systems and world-views, thus shedding one’s parochialism and embracing traits of cosmopolitanism. Baghdad (of Baitul Hikmah fame), Constantinople (current Istanbul, the seat of Ottoman empire), Cairo, Cordoba, Damascus, Bukhara, and Delhi were all Muslim cosmopolitan cities at different historical moments where scholars, statesmen, adventurers from all over the world congregated and conducted dialogue in a spirit of openness and catholicity. In the current times, when Muslims, for a variety of reasons, have become victims of insularity and ghettoisation, Alavi’s book is a potent antidote to the widespread but ill-informed media narrative about Muslim resistance to forces of modernity and globalisation.

Extraordinary journeys

Alavi’s articulation of Muslim cosmopolitanism in the 19th century is chronicled through the extraordinary biographies of five Islamic scholars from India – Sayyid Fadl, Maulvi Rahmatullah Kairanwi, Maulvi Imdadullah Makki, Siddiq Hasan Khan, and Maulvi Jafer Thanesri – who transcended their limited identity as British subjects and charted careers at the interstices of imperial borders. Taking advantage of imperial knowledge, strategies and rivalries between two great empires of the day, British and Ottoman, “they carved out a spiritual and civilisational space between the [these] Empires and projected it as their cosmopolis.”

The chapter on Sayyid Fadl brings alive the phenomenon of the ‘Indian Arab’ who hailed mostly from Hadramawt, Yemen, and whose presence was marked in Delhi, Gujarat, Deccan and Malabar. Starting his Indian career in the Malabar district of modern day Kerala, he was branded as a “fanatic” and an “outlaw” by the British government because of his alleged involvement in the anti-British Moplah uprising. But he fled from British India and then used the British and Ottoman tension and his trans-imperial connections to put himself up as the ruler of Dhofar – a semi-independent region in the southwest of Arabia . “Sayyid Fadl’s remarkable journey – born and brought up in a Malabar Sufi family of Arab descent and rising to become an independent ruler of an Arabian principality, a leader who commanded respect in both Meccan and Istanbul high society – was enabled by the connections he forged early on between British and Ottoman societies. And he established these connections using imperial networks as well as his religious and kinship ties.”

Amadeo Preziosi’s Entrance to the Golden Horn, painted c.1840-1880. Credit: Seema Alavi

Amadeo Preziosi’s Entrance to the Golden Horn, painted c.1840-1880. Credit: Seema Alavi

Nawab Siddiq Hasan, who had a prominent position in the state of Bhopal, exerted great influence through his agents in Hijaz and Istanbul and fully exploited the potentialities of print culture to propagate a version of Islam at odds with the political interest of the British rulers in India. But the British resident in Bhopal could do little to prevent him from propagating his anti-British views. Exploiting British-Ottoman rivalries allowed him to publish his books and journals from Bhopal, Calcutta, Mecca, Madina, Istanbul and Cairo. His agents also bought books pertaining to a similar ideology and had them printed from Bhopal. “Imperial assemblages were also empires of print”, and Hasan fully exploited the possibilities of the moment to propagate his version of the Muslim cosmopolis making forays through porous imperial borders.

For the other three religious thinkers, the 1857 war of independence provided the backdrop for their political careers. They became suspects in the eyes of the British because of their alleged roles in the uprisings. Rahmatullah was one of the rebel leaders of Kairana who escaped the British noose by fleeing to Mecca, and his extensive family estate was confiscated by the colonial administration. He established the Madrasah Saulatiya in Mecca which became a hub of Muslim cosmopolitanism and produced scholars who spread out in different parts of the world, establishing similar seminaries and spreading the same message of consensus and unity among Muslims. Kairanwi wrote in Arabic, Persian and Urdu, addressing the Muslim umma across the empires, adhering largely to the Salafi intellectual tradition. Imdadullah followed Rahmatullah to Mecca and taught in his Madrasah Saulatiya. Both met Muslims from all over the world who came for hajj and discussed with them the challenges of anti-British struggles being waged in their own countries.

Challenge to colonialism

The pedagogical model evolved in Saulatiya and their ideological underpinnings shaped the broad curricular structure at the Deoband seminary in India. Thanseri who couldn’t escape was sent to the Andamans. However, he was one of those convicts who was co-opted in the colonial administration. “Unlike Kairanwi and Imdadullah Makki, he did not manage to escape to the Ottoman territories. But this did not stop him from envisaging a Muslim cosmopolis stretched across empires, and via his writings he envisaged an embracive civilisational space that spilled out of British India and challenged the colonial regime through its call for Muslim unity across the imperial assemblage.” (P. 333)

Alavi is prescient in her analysis of how print capitalism, the telegraph and the increasing ease of travel that fuelled resentment in colonised societies by upsetting the social order were also the means that helped build Muslim solidarities across a vast geographical divide. She is equally prescient in her debunking of the British paranoia of ‘Wahabism’ which the nervous officials saw everywhere. The British fear of Muslims was exacerbated by 1857 and William Hunter’s meretricious book Indian Musalman predisposed them to see the spectre of Wahabism even in innocuous reformist movements among Muslims and equate what Alavi defines as Muslim cosmopolitanism with territorial loyalty. The study reminds the reader of how intensely nationalist these Indians were even while they were trying to bring about a broad consensus among Muslims of different countries regarding contentious issues that divided them along ideological faultlines. Through her book Alavi has retrieved a segment of our national history that had been all but erased from public memory.

M Asaduddin, an award-winning author and translator, is currently Dean, Faculty of Humanities and Languages, Jamia Millia Islamia

  • Anil Maheshwari

    M. Asaduddin has rendered a good service by writing this review article on the book by Seema Alvi on the unsung Muslim heroes who rose against the British domination. Before the unsuccessful Mutiny of 1857, as British rulers described it, though it was the first glorious war of independence for nationalist Indians and a peasant uprising for the Marxist students of economic history, the decrepit Bahadur Shah Zafar was installed as emperor. Indians turned against everything British, including the gains of progress and modernity. Muslims viewed the defeat of the Mughal ruler as usurpation of their kingdom. On the morrow of the mutiny, Hindus took advantage of English education and the intellectual emancipation that the British rulers promised but Muslims took refuge in fundamentalism. Muslim community reeled under historically enforced political isolation, socio-economic backwardness, spiritual atrophy and psychological sullenness, helplessly licking to its wounds. Muslims looked all the time with nostalgia back to their glorious past in Delhi.

    Is there any room in Islam for reformation as everything is codified in the Sharia? Of course, revivalist movements took place from time to time. Secondly, to deny the presence and growth of Wahabism would be injustice to the facts. Its most influential spokesman was Shah Wali-Allah of Delhi in the last quarter of the 18th century and his son Shah Abdul Aziz at the turn of the century. In fact, a section of Muslim leaders has always faced the dilemma while defining Islamic culture. Some Muslim preachers perceived the problem of preserving Islam’s distinct identity, which according to them, was always in danger of losing its characteristics in the event of closer cultural relations with the Hindu society.

    The renowned historian Beni Prasad put it: In their emotional response to the history, the two revivalisms stimulated each other, competed with each other and became more and more different in outlook. Religious neutrality and political expediency alike forbade the British Government from any attempt to guide or harmonise them. After a preliminary effort to suppress the extreme manifestations of the Islamic revival, it accepted and adjusted itself to both…Hindus and Mussalmans alike began to give up many practices which they had imbibed from one another and which had formed bridges between the two communities…In fact, revivalisms prompted organisation on communal lines and often assumed an aggressive tone which brought the different communities into acrimonious debate over theological and other matters.

  • J T

    Interesting review, and likely a book worth reading. I am a little puzzled by the author’s assertion – “The study reminds the reader of how intensely nationalist these Indians were even while they were trying to bring about a broad consensus among Muslims of different countries regarding contentious issues that divided them along ideological fault lines.” The personalities that Seema has focused on, seem to have looked to the Islamic Ummah – as represented by the only remaining Islamic power the Ottomans – to try and evolve a consensus on how European colonialism should be resisted and overcome. But that is a distinct from “nationalism” as the term is commonly used, unless of course pan-Islamism is also branded as a nationalism!

    What were the views of these personalities on South Asian polity? Were they looking to reinforce Islamic rule in South Asia? What were their views on non-Islamic communities of India? Did they seek to make common cause with non-Islamic communities? Did they realize that any attempt to shrug off colonial rule required a measure of unity with the non-Islamic communities in India, which were in a majority? Did they believe in a South Asian identity that was distinct from their Islamic identity?