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  • The British Empire and the Hajj, 1865–1956 by John Slight
  • Conor Meleady
The British Empire and the Hajj, 1865–1956. By John Slight. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.

In the opening pages of The British Empire and the Hajj, John Slight argues for the "conceptualization of a British Muslim empire" (1). Noting the prevalence among British and Muslim officials and intellectuals during the high age of imperialism of emphasis on the demographic weight of imperial Britain's Muslim population, Slight shows that such men concluded that British and Muslim power and interests had become inseparable; the British Empire was, in the words of David Samuel Margoliouth, "the greatest Moslem power in the world" (1). As Slight proceeds to show, British engagement with the Hajj represented the most explicit and formal example of this development. While Muslim subjects from Nigeria to Malaya flocked to the Hijaz for the annual fulfillment of one of the five pillars of Islam, those charged with conducting the empire's policies became convinced that the facilitation of a successful pilgrimage season was crucial to the preservation of British prestige in Muslim lands. It was a belief which helped drive an ever-deeper identification of the colonial state with Muslims and Islam.

Spanning almost a century, major British involvement with the Hajj was sparked by the cholera epidemic of 1865 which inaugurated the policy of restrictive quarantine measures, introduced by the British in response to pressure from her European rivals. From there, Slight takes us through the final decades of Ottoman rule in the Hijaz, a period punctuated by further outbreaks of disease, pan-Islamic jitters, and perhaps most pertinently, the problem of destitute pilgrims left stranded in Mecca and Jidda. The First World War heralded a period of uncertainty, as sovereignty over the Holy Places was seized by the British-backed Hashemite Sharif Hussein of Mecca, only to be surrendered in 1924 to the Wahhabi forces of Ibn Saud, who had in the preceding years won British favor at the expense of the apparently inept Hussein. The issue of austere Wahhabi restrictions on the popular forms of worship practiced by most British subjects dominated much Hajj-related diplomatic correspondence during the following decades, before the loss of India in 1947 and the Suez Crisis of 1956 brought an end to major British responsibilities, after which the Hajj would be forever transformed by oil revenues flowing into the Saudi state and the advent of mass air travel.

While much of Slight's study concerns the pilgrimage from British India, this work is illuminated by considerable attention granted to alternative centers of Hajj-related administration such as Nigeria, the Sudan, Malaya, and the princely state of Hyderabad. The particular issues associated with each area allow Slight to highlight the diversity in problems and approaches with which British officials had to come to terms; yet concurrently, several matters remained common to each case, such as the headaches relating to the destitute and the ability of pilgrims to operate under the radar of the colonial state; indeed, whether spending years overlanding across the Sahara, or traveling at the charitable expense of the Nizam of Hyderabad, Slight highlights time and again the impotence of the colonial state in attempting to exert some measure of authority over an intriguingly intrepid array of pilgrims.

Slight includes a valuable comparative aspect to his analysis, noting the continuities with Mughal policies which marked the British administration of its Hajj-related activities, and the similar questions faced by the rival Ottoman, French, Russian and Dutch empires in managing their own Hajj protocols. Furthermore, Slight shows that the Hajj was far from the only major pilgrimage drawing British interest; the shrines cities of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq attracted thousands of Indian Shiʿa during the annual Muharram commemorations, while India itself was dotted with parochial centers of pilgrimage and played host to the massive Kumbh Melas.

While the chronological, geographical and comparative scope of this work secures its place as the definitive study of imperial Britain's engagement with the Hajj, and so represents a most welcome addition to the growing number of works contributing to Hajj studies in general, its broader value...

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