S. Bose u.a. (Hrsg.): Oceanic Islam

Oceanic Islam. Muslim Universalism and European Imperialism

Bose, Sugata; Jalal, Ayesha
320 S.
£ 85.00; € 104,50
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Nikolay Kamenov, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich

Oceanic Islam: Muslim Universalism and European Imperialism sets out to show how historically Islam was a marker of universalism and cosmopolitanism. As such, it had a cohesive function in the past of the regions and cultures constituting the Indian Ocean arena. In this sense, the edited volume has an explicit political goal – it rectifies facile descriptions of Islam as illiberal or as a breeding ground for intolerance. The component contributions to Oceanic Islam – an introduction and eight chapters – range from solid to excellent. There are issues with the collection, however, that should make us pause and think. Let us begin with the format. Edited volumes are strange creatures. They cover a broad variety of genres – from the once revered Festschrift to conference proceedings and modern companions that provide us with a state of the art in a certain field or discipline. In the South Asian tradition, we also have the edited volume as an anthology of already published works that have defined a subdiscipline.[1] This type of edited volume is sometimes peppered with an introductory section where primary sources set the stage for the ensuing debates.[2] When it comes to original research around a theme, however, edited volumes have mixed fortunes. If they still hold some currency in Europe and Asia, pragmatic reasoning has established peer-reviewed journal articles – next to monographs – as the gold standard on the job market in North America. One is reminded of the awkwardness accompanying the closing remarks at workshops and small conferences when the proposition of a collected work is dropped. Weary doctoral students weigh the pros and cons – a) would my work be incorporated and/or overshadowed by the big names, b) conversely, could my work make it to the top brass journals, c) would this be an edited volume or a dedicated issue of a journal?

The constellation of academic stars that provided the chapters of Oceanic Islam certainly did not ask these questions. First, these are established scholars with teaching positions. Save for two, they are concentrated on the East Coast of the United States. Second, more importantly for the review at hand, much of the contributed material is not based on original research. In this sense, two statements in the preface could be easily misleading. First, we are told that all contributions have been tailored by the authors according to the wishes of the editors and, as a result, “this book of essays has a degree of intellectual coherence that is rare in collected volumes” (p. x.). Second, we learn that the “volume is a fresh contribution to Islamic and Indian Ocean studies alike” (ibid., my italic). There are very few clues that point to the extent to which some of the subsequent chapters were based on pre-existing work. Eric Tagliacozzo’s chapter “Spies in the Hejaz” has provided the clearest indication in this regard in the form of an asterisk endnote – “an earlier version of this essay has appeared” (p. 109). I would like to humbly suggest that a fairer description might be “a version of this essay has appeared earlier”. In footnote 17 to his contribution Andrew Sartori is willing to concede that he is “draw[ing] broadly in this section on Andrew Sartori, Liberalism in Empire” (p. 237). Without claiming to be the keenest reader, I fail to see how the previous sections of the essay were not drawn broadly (or narrowly for that matter) on Chapter 5 of the said, one can add excellent, book. Although not mentioned in the endnotes, preface or acknowledgements, Seema Alavi’s contribution could easily be traced to Chapters 3 and 4 of her outstanding monograph on Muslim cosmopolitanism.[3] There are more examples of the extent to which some of the authors were inspired by their own previous work, but I hope that the aforementioned suffice.

Now for the alleged coherence. An editor and a contributor have the two most celebrated historical monographs on the Indian Ocean in recent times to their names. Sugata Bose, the Gardiner Chair of Oceanic History and Affairs at Harvard University and a former Member of the Indian Parliament, Lok Sabha, for Jadavpur, published A Hundred Horizons in 2009.[4] Through an absorbing history of migration and labor, Sunil Amrith’s Crossing the Bay of Bengal has drawn deep connections and exchanges between South and Southeast Asia.[5]

Oceanic Islam similarly navigates a dense web of connections that bring together parts of the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia. It is important to note, however, that the nature of these connections lies a great way from the original proposition of a history of a world broadly defined as a littoral of a great sea body. It was Fernand Braudel who first showed how the Mediterranean connected seemingly disparate regions and cultures.[6] In doing so, he also put emphasis on geography and slow processes. Oceanic Islam is in dialogue with Braudel’s work but in stark contrast to it, the edited volume puts emphasis on actors and events. Sana Aiyar, for example, convincingly draws on the repercussions of the Khilafat Movement in Burma, the memory of the Mughals in exile there, and the broader – albeit short-lived – solidarity of “Maulvis, Swamis, and Pongyis” in their fight against colonialism. Tagliacozzo studies the different imperial approaches to intelligence gathering in the context of the Hajj. Seema Alavi concentrates on two “little” men – Rahmatullah Kairanwi and Imdadullah Makki – both South Asian fugitives in Mecca in the wake of the 1857 rebellion. On the basis of the work and travels of people like Shibli Numani and Munshi Mahboob Alam, Ayesha Jalal similarly reveals a sense of Muslim brotherhood and cosmopolitanism bridging North India and the Middle East (Ottoman Empire). Concentrating on German Orientalism concerned with South Asian Islam in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Kris Manjapra shows how studies in philology, history, and theology played a role in the creation of a German self, understood in opposition to Anglo-Saxon geopolitical aspirations. Sunil Amrith has revealed the intersection of Tamil and Chinese Muslims in the Malay world, also exploring the easternmost boundaries of the Indian Ocean’s Islam. The two most divergent chapters from these courte durée themes are perhaps the aforementioned one by Sartori and the one by Iftekhar Iqbal. The former had worked on the relation between Islam, and the slow transformation of the legal, economic, and political notions of property and freedom in East Bengal. Iqbal’s essay similarly interrogates the regional dialectics of space and language in Bengal and beyond. While a number of languages – Arabic, Urdu, English, and Bangla – were associated with various aspects of Islam in the colonial context, Iqbal boldly sets the agenda for future studies of Bangla as a language of Islam, connecting Assam, the Brahmaputra valley, and Burma.

The one region that is – to use the hackneyed term – conspicuous by its absence in Oceanic Islam is East Africa. This brings us to another divergence from what might be conventionally expected from an oceanic study – some of the contributions are decidedly landlocked (apart from say a journey on a ship). To be fair to the editors, they have eloquently addressed the issue. Amending Braudel’s “Islam is the desert,” Bose and Jalal pronounce “Islam is the ocean” (p. 7). It is fluid, it connects. Conferring with the editors, what remains is to ask what an edited volume is. The low-brow way to answer this is to quote Bruce Lee – “If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash.” Something similar could be said about contributions to edited volumes. Some could be rewashed; some can sweep you with the current and yet some could flow through the cracks.

[1] Sumit Sarkar / Tanika Sarkar (eds.), Caste in Modern India, Ranikhet 2014.
[2] Ishita Banerjee-Dube (ed.), Caste in History, New Delhi 2008; Sugata Bose (ed.), Credit, Markets, and the Agrarian Economy of Colonial India, New Delhi 1994.
[3] Seema Alavi, Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire, Cambridge, Mass. 2015.
[4] Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons. The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire, Cambridge, Mass. 2009.
[5] Sunil Amrith, Crossing the Bay of Bengal. The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants, Cambridge, Mass. 2013.
[6] Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Vol. 1, New York 1972.

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