W. C. Jacob: For God or Empire. Sayyid Fadl and the Indian Ocean World

Jacob, Wilson Chacko
304 S.
€ 22,69
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Preben Kaarsholm, Global Studies and Development, Roskilde University

Wilson Chacko Jacob’s first book, published in 2011, was a highly original and spirited treatise on the forms and expressions of masculinity that unfolded as constituents of ‘colonial modernity’ in Egypt from the late 19th to the mid-20th century. 1 Jacob combined history, sociology, ethnography, and popular cultural studies to show the centrality of gender in the formation of nationalism in Egypt from British rule to de-colonisation. His mastery of Arabic language sources allowed him to demonstrate in very fine grain how education, bodybuilding, popular magazine literature, fashion and the boy scouts’ movement helped to construct notions of modern maleness. Jacob situated the particular assertiveness of such modern Egyptian ‘effendi’ masculinity within a context of ‘modernizing desire and fantasizing sovereignty’, and showed how notions of gangsterism, thuggery and more localised ‘futtuwa’ big men represented an alternative and competing layer of sovereignty to that of the macho nationalist state.

Wilson Jacob explores what he calls ‘the genealogy of modern sovereignty’ at a different transnational and oceanic scale in his second book. The central figure there is a Sufi ‘sayyid’ – i.e. someone tracing his genealogy back to the Prophet Muhammad – and his expulsion by the British from Malabar in South India into the Arab and Ottoman world in the second half of the 19th century. The travels of Sayyid Fadl Ibn Alawi are contrasted with those of his father, Sayyid Alawi, who had travelled in the opposite direction from Arabia to Kerala as part of the migration of Sufi Alawi brotherhood members from Tarim in Hadhramawt, which has been highlighted so brilliantly in the research of scholars like Anne Bang and Engseng Ho.2

More broadly, For God or Empire addresses the history of Kerala’s Mappila population – the earliest Muslims to strike root in India, well before the Mughals. Mappila Muslims trace their history back to the 7th century and the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad, and see it as based on Indian Ocean linkages with the Arab world that are continued to the present day in labour migration to the Gulf. Historical exchanges were intensified through the mediation of Sufi Alawi traders and saints from the 16th century onwards, through intermarriages and family alliances, and the establishment of a framework of moral toleration that allowed Islam and Indian culture to be fused. Mappila Islam also provided a framework for standing up to colonialist intrusions, providing an alternative level of sovereignty to that of the British, which led to the deportation of Sayyid Fadl in 1852, and to more widespread repression after the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

Jacob’s book follows this interaction through Sayyid Fadl’s post-deportation career as a religious and political authority within the Ottoman Empire during its years of attempted modernisation and reform in the late 19th century. It takes the story beyond the Sayyid’s death and state funeral in Istanbul in 1900 to the post-World War One period, when Kerala Mappila Muslims came to link their anti-British colonialist endeavours with the Khilafat movement and a new Islamic cosmopolitanism - a movement analyzed with gusto in Sugata Bose’s book A Hundred Horizons.3 What the British called the ‘Moplah Outrages’ of 1921 and the brutal repression of the uprising represent a culmination in this clash of different notions of sovereignty and legitimacy. But Jacob’s longue durée presentation of Indian Ocean linkages between Kerala, Hadhramawt and the Arab and Ottoman worlds also shows that transformations have taken place not only in the relationship and forms of interaction between the two levels of sovereignty, of paying allegiance to God or to Empire. Each of the two registers have also undergone transformation within themselves, as empires and nation systems were re-configured, and new transnational linkages of political Islam – like Gulf state supported wahabism – came to challenge and impact upon the mediation strategies of Sufi ‘pathways’ like that of the Alawi sayyids.

Wilson Jacobs traces such historical developments beautifully in his snapshots of fieldwork visits to mosques and shrines, which have been holy stations in the Indian Ocean exchanges he describes – in Kerala as well as in Istanbul and Oman. In many ways, his book is a tour-de-force in its deployment of knowledge, methodologies, research skills, and theoretical perspective as referenced in 60 pages of endnotes, but it is also a quite difficult book to read. This is partly because it introduces an exuberance of ideas for theory that could possibly be brought into play alongside notions of ‘sovereignty’, and partly because Jacob’s style of writing aims to be non-academic and sometimes comes close to resembling a Sufi chant in its own right. In terms of reader-friendliness, it does not quite live up to his first book, which was published by Duke University Press, and Stanford University Press – which is the publisher of For God or Empire – seems to have exercised rather less editorial interference. On the whole, however, it is a great book to have, whose many ideas and energy will hopefully be the source and inspiration for numerous new ventures of Indian Ocean research.

1 Wilson Chacko Jacob, Working Out Egypt. Effendi Masculinity and Subject Formation in Colonial Modernity, 1879-1940, Durham, NC 2011.
2 Anne K. Bang, Sufis and Scholars of the Sea. Family Networks in East Africa, 1860-1925, New York 2003; Engseng Ho, The Graves of Tarim. Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean, Berkeley 2006.
3 Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons. The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire, Cambridge, Mass. And Delhi, 2006.

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