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  • Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire by Seema Alavi
  • Ali Altaf Mian
Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire, by Seema Alavi. Cambridge & London, Harvard University Press, 2015. xi, 490 pp. $45.00 US (cloth).

In Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire, the historian of colonial India Seema Alavi fixes her penetrating historical gaze on five nearly forgotten Muslim "men of religion." With the force of citation and excitement of travel, she resurrects Muslim political agency from the ruins of the Indian Revolt of 1857, the event often cited as sounding the death knell of Muslim sovereignty in South Asia. Alavi's protagonists — men who had participated, allegedly or actually, in anti-British activity, including in the skirmishes of 1857 — embodied a new form of Muslim social consciousness and political agency. Alavi bestows the name, "cosmopolitanism," on this new consciousness and agency. Alavi's revisionist account displaces the scholarly fixation on British imperialist historiography and characters, and offers insight into the lives of elites who struggled for "Muslim unity across the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean world so as to set up an alternate cultural imperium that would challenge the Western predominance in the region" (10).

Alavi does not spend too much time on defining Muslim cosmopolitanism. A key feature of this new consciousness and agency was the emergent global Muslim consensus "in matters of belief, ritual, and forms of devotion" (6). At once rooted in scripture and modern "science, reason, and rationality," this consensus agglutinated an imagined Muslim community that "transcended political borders, territorial confines, and cultural particularities" (6). By turning to the trans-regional ideas and institutions elaborated by several Indian Muslims, Alavi instructively urges the reader to consider an alternative genealogy of cosmopolitanism, one that neither conforms to nor is supported by "the Eurocentric way of studying cosmopolitanism as a constituent of colonial modernity and Enlightenment ethics" [End Page 400] (13). At the same time, whether or not ideas of Muslim interconnectivity and unity went beyond mere rhetoric remains an open question. Moreover, other archives, discourses, and intellectuals from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries paint a different picture in which the colourful hues of intra-Muslim conflict, attesting to the absence of a global consensus, are too pronounced to ignore. A case in point is the formation of maslak-based identities in colonial South Asia (recall the heated polemics over theological questions between Deobandis and Barelvis).

Alavi's five "men of religion" are the "Indian Arab Mopilla rebel" Sayyid Fadl (1823–1901), the theologian and critic of the Christian scriptures Rahmatullah Kairanwi (1818–1892), the Sufi master Hajji Imdadullah Makki (1817–1899), the reformist scholar and champion of Muslim scrip-turalism Nawab Siddiq Hasan Khan (1832–1890), and the scholar-turned-rebel Maulana Jafer Thanesri (1838–1905). In various ways, these figures worked at the intersections of the Ottoman and British empires, tapping into imperial rivalries and anxieties in order to push their own cosmopolitan agendas. These figures identified the various geopolitical nods and strategies for other elites, Muslim and non-Muslim, to appropriate to their advantage (Alavi discusses the example of the exiled Maharaja of Punjab Dalip Singh in her Conclusion).

Alavi's "fugitive mullahs and runaways" inhabited an Islamic discursive tradition that was elaborated in multiple languages (Arabic and Persian, as well as local vernaculars such as Urdu) and organized in various disciplines (theology, jurisprudence, and Sufism, to mention only the most prevalent genres of Muslim thought in the South Asian context). Thus, when some of these men took refuge in Ottoman cities such as Mecca, their cosmopolitan linguistic and ideological background "gave them an edge over others in an age of unprecedented mobility" (11). However, Alavi makes too much of the Arabic proficiency of her subjects, and often minimizes, and sometimes elides, the Persian tradition of letters and norms cherished by IndoMuslim elites. Alavi's otherwise plausible revisionist account is marred by the notion that South Asian Sunni orthodoxy is an Arabo-centric enterprise (she alternatively uses expressions such as "the Arabic tradition" or "Arabicist prescriptive Islam"). In reality, South Asian Sunni orthodoxy is steeped in central Asian Persian and Arabic texts and practices.

Alavi's account omits...


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pp. 400-402
Launched on MUSE
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