[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-IslamInAfrica]: Yahaya on Reese, 'Imperial Muslims: Islam, Community and Authority in the Indian Ocean, 1839-1937'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Mon Jan 14 10:02:46 MST 2019

Best regards,
Andrew Stewart 

Begin forwarded message:

> From: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>
> Date: January 14, 2019 at 11:48:00 AM EST
> Subject: H-Net Review [H-IslamInAfrica]:  Yahaya on Reese, 'Imperial Muslims: Islam, Community and Authority in the Indian Ocean, 1839-1937'
> Reply-To: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>
> Scott Steven Reese.  Imperial Muslims: Islam, Community and Authority
> in the Indian Ocean, 1839-1937.  Edinburgh  Edinburgh University
> Press, 2017.  ix + 212 pp.  $105.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7486-9765-6.
> Reviewed by Nurfadzilah Yahaya (National University of Singapore)
> Published on H-IslamInAfrica (January, 2019)
> Commissioned by Saarah Jappie
> Scott Reese's _Imperial Muslims_ focuses on the history of Aden for
> slightly over a century. He ties the history of Aden to that of the
> Indian Ocean, highlighting religious, political, intellectual, and
> commercial connections with Persia, South Asia, and the rest of
> Arabia. The sea connects rather than separates in Reese's book, and
> Aden is the fulcrum on which several levers turn. The book deftly
> balances narratives of mobility and rootedness as it highlights how
> Aden is an intensely dynamic place from several angles.
> At times, Reese portrays the Indian Ocean as a "British pond"--for
> instance, in the opening vignette that focuses on a petition to
> British authorities for the construction of a tomb, which certainly
> pointed to this being the case. However, Aden had long been an
> ancient hub of commerce before 1837, and Reese explores this early
> dynamic history in chapter 1. Apart from the colonial record, Reese
> also examines Arabic sources to present a larger temporal lens for
> the history of Aden, such as the large _Tarikh al-Mustabsir_ of Ibn
> Mujjawir, a merchant from Khurasan who visited prosperous medieval
> Aden under Ayyubid rule in the thirteenth century, and the _Tarikh
> Thaghr Adan,_ by Abu Makhrama, a local Adeni who wrote of the city in
> the first half of the sixteenth century, when Aden's political and
> commercial affairs were already hemmed in by the Portuguese and
> Ottomans.
> Aden's links with surrounding regions persisted until the nineteenth
> century when another power, namely the British East India Company,
> sought to dominate Aden. The company, however, arrived to see only a
> hundred houses, two functioning mosques, and a cemetery, which was
> vast but otherwise largely derelict and unused. Apparently, little
> was left of the grand medieval port and center of Islamic learning
> and it subsequently benefited British interests to underscore how
> Aden was truly rebuilt by them. Reese focuses on nineteenth-century
> Aden as a colonial construct literally and figuratively when he asks,
> "How did a place that was little more than a large village at the
> time of occupation transform into a major Imperial port and urban
> center within the space of a generation?" (p. 40). In demonstrating
> how the British East India Company's occupation of Aden served as an
> extension of historical links between Aden and India and the rest of
> Arabia, the narrative becomes circular at times, especially when
> Reese highlights the company's heavy reliance on numerous Indian
> merchants, pilgrims, and ships that made their way into the Gulf of
> Aden and Red Sea each year. Were they already there before British
> occupation or did they arrive afterward? In the first place, it is
> difficult to measure the extent to which earlier connections were
> harnessed on the ground. One thing is clear: the British did not rely
> on the emptying out of Aden as a strategy; rather, they saw the very
> diverse populations (Indians, Somalis, Jews, Arabs, and Persians) as
> an added advantage. Ultimately, the seemingly moribund sacred
> landscape (p. 65) served as a substrate for growth over the first
> decades of British settlement. However, continuing hostility on the
> part of local Arab tribes and the army's increasingly fractious
> relationship with the merchants of the bazaar remain as visible
> reminders of uneasiness.
> Another resilient feature of Aden that Reese identifies is that
> cooperation, alliances, and even admiration for individuals cut
> across ideological lines (p. 80). Different groups of people
> constantly came together in specific instances and for particular
> causes--for example, against common enemies. This aspect of Adeni
> life becomes evident in chapter 3, which illuminates enduring
> religious links since sacred spaces such as Muslim shrines remained
> central to the lives of diverse Adenis including Muslims, Jews, and
> Hindus. Their collective retreat to the tomb guarded by Sayyid Zayn
> bin Alawi al-Aydarus when Indian sepoys under the command of the East
> India Company captured Aden in 1839 conjures up a vivid image of
> this. Sufism and saint veneration remained the primary expression of
> popular spirituality and communal solidarity through the centuries.
> Reese usefully maps both spiritual and patronage connections through
> funds given to renovate and maintain these shrines, which formed
> sites of festivals for the booming population of Aden as well. Often
> both commercial and religious networks overlapped, especially since
> sites of pilgrimage created markets too. Reese further demonstrates
> how a unique element of Aden's history was the tendency for denizens
> to revive ancient tombs instead of establishing entirely new shrines
> and mosques. These tombs were primarily funded by wealthy South
> Asians. On one level, this phenomenon suggests that the potency of
> the shrines was latent through the years, their potential realized by
> local worshippers. The age of these tombs supported a drive toward an
> authenticity connected to earlier periods of Islamic history. Social
> capital takes ages to be built, after all. Moreover, these tombs
> formed conduits to other planes of existence that extend beyond
> physical death.
> This desire to transcend physical and temporal boundaries was a
> common desire shared by many Adenis, and explains why many wished to
> be buried as closely to the saint as possible. Indeed, by winning the
> right to be near the saint, one's position as an "old" family was
> tacitly recognized by the state (p. 76). At the same time, the
> phenomenon also points towards localization since these South Asians,
> old denizens and newcomers alike, were possibly expressing their
> commitment to Aden, establishing parallel lineages of charity by
> financing the upkeep of tombs and renewing rituals at these sites.
> What does this tell us about the nature of Muslim community and
> belonging in the imperial context (p. 77)? At its most basic, Reese
> says, the construction of mosques and revival of tombs certainly
> signaled one's commitment to remaining in Aden long-term but of
> course this is also a holdover from before Aden became a British
> stronghold.
> By focusing on Adeni qadis such as Rustom Ali and Yasin Khan, who
> streamlined Islamic law along colonial lines even as the number of
> scripturalist reformers increased, Reese effectively inserts Aden
> within the larger scheme of empire in the realm of Islamic law. He
> complicates collusion and collaboration in the appointment of Muslim
> elites in colonial government hierarchies. At times, it seemed to
> have gradually occurred, with traditional elites being transposed
> onto new colonial hierarchies, and at times new elites were
> appointed. One thing is for sure: the colonial period transformed the
> dynamics of Muslim power relations in Aden.
> One major contribution of the book is an explication of the role of
> the realm of the unseen, which is not easily articulated. The core of
> his book lies in chapter 5, where Reese drills down into the details
> of the "spiritual economy" by specifically focusing on two well-known
> but non-elite, marginalized groups based in Aden. The first group was
> the Jabarti, sweepers who were practitioners of Tambura, which was a
> spirit-possession cult from Sudan, while the second community
> consists of a group of low-status Ethiopian and Somali women who
> presided over the local practice of the well-known "zar" cult popular
> in East Africa. Their stories connected Aden even more intimately to
> East Africa and littoral Arabia. Their traditions had strong
> carnivalesque elements, and both became the targets of reformist
> elements in society in the 1920s. While the practitioners of Tambura
> succeeded in avoiding a total ban, the women who practiced Zar were
> entirely suppressed, prompting the women to petition the British
> government (pp. 124-25). Herein lies an example of the genius of
> Adenis in adapting to regime changes while being historically aware.
> Both sides of the debate invoked moral and religious precepts, as
> well as the concept of "tradition," which British authorities
> appreciated. In other words, they characterized the disputes in ways
> that were legible to the new authorities.
> Certainly, Reese's book forms an important contribution to the study
> of the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Islamic
> world generally. Reese recasts Aden as a key geopolitical conjucture
> embedded in several different worlds. What the book suggests is that
> each port city in these geographical fields could very well provide a
> vantage point outward to yield rich histories in their own right. His
> case studies that focus on marginalized groups will advance
> scholarship in these regions that has tended to focus on the moneyed
> and elite.
> Citation: Nurfadzilah Yahaya. Review of Reese, Scott Steven,
> _Imperial Muslims: Islam, Community and Authority in the Indian
> Ocean, 1839-1937_. H-IslamInAfrica, H-Net Reviews. January, 2019.
> URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52215
> This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
> Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States
> License.
> --

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