A Muslim Cosmopolis, Or, the Individual and the Nation in Global History: An Interview with Seema Alavi

Dr. Seema Alavi

People tend to assume the origins of contemporary events, alliances and disagreements belong to the recent if not the immediate past. Recent news articles highlight with surprise the Arabicization of Islamic practice in South Asia – most prominently with respect to the murder of several bloggers in Bangladesh. But India has a long history of intellectual contact with the Arab world. The Madrasa Saulatia in Mecca was set up by an Indian Muslim Rahmatullah Kairanwi – a key protagonist in Seema Alavi’s book Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire (2015) – as a “centre for embracive reformist Islam with a strong Indic tradition.” It remains a major scholarly hub, retaining intellectual contact with Sunni Muslim seminaries all over the world. It’s own orientation now can be described as a purist intellectual tradition of Islam. For example, it receives patronage “from the Abd-al Wahab impacted Saudi ruling house,” even as – Alavi is quick to remind us of this – its scholarly tradition stands in stark contrast to the violence that is often perpetrated in the name of Wahabi Islam. In this respect, Alavi’s book Muslim Cosmopolitanism is a fundamentally revisionist text that works through the category of the individual and of the nation. She draws out the history of how a modern vision of Islamic universal selfhood was articulated in the mid-nineteenth century: the processes that connected Indic reformist strands in Islam with Hamidian notions of modernity centred on jurisprudence. In her account, cities such as Cairo thus appear as more than just a site that elucidated anti-British nationalism. Importantly, the book foregrounds how modern histories of South Asia limit key protagonists in this larger global story to the territorial bounds of modern India, even as the records of imperial Britain show how they negotiated trans-imperial identities across South Asia and the Ottoman empire.

The opening paragraphs of Alavi’s introduction seek to place her childhood in a world that she makes clear is no longer with us. When I sat down to a lovely, wide-ranging chat with her about her book, this again is where she started. She grew up in Lucknow, a city reordered in the aftermath of 1857 – an event central to her book and one of the old Islamicate capitals of North India. Her grandparents and their peers were, in the 1960s, the last generation who embodied the legacy of a multi-lingual Indo-Persian identity. Everyone in Lucknow of their generation read and spoke in Persianized Urdu. She, as a little girl entering the world of letters, had as her first teacher a maulvi, from whom she learnt the Koran, in Arabic. Through helping her maternal grandmother read prescriptions in small script – theirs was a family of renowned hakims who had dealt in medicine and healing for generations – little Seema was introduced to Persian. “I picked it up playfully,” she says. Her parents grew up in a time when they were taught Arabic and Persian in government schools. Alavi points out that by the time she went to school, Hindi had been introduced as the national language of the new Indian state and her access to these other languages and with them, their attendant cultures, was reduced to a network of family and fading traditions.

Muslim Cosmopolitanism is a book about the last legatees of a Mughal-Persianate elite, who had long been intellectually connected to an Islamic world that exceeded South Asia but was very much of it. Alavi grew up in a Lucknow that embodied the all but gone remnants of that legacy, and which was in turn being re-positioned as a vestigial site of a particular culture by the national politics of the new nation-state. “Delhi was like a foreign country,” says Alavi of when she arrived there for a Masters degree, and the world of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) an even stranger one. Alavi was uninspired by her early university education such that she did not consider becoming a historian. “I found it very boring, and only the professor who taught medieval history was a little more interesting in comparison to the others,” she laughs. Alavi chose to pursue a Masters degree (1982-84) in History at the Centre for Historical Studies at JNU because she wanted to escape Lucknow University and because the vagaries of bureaucratic red tape made enrolment in Delhi University difficult. With some wonder still, she says of herself and her parents, “we had not even heard of JNU.”

The cover of Muslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire (Harvard University Press, 2015)

Alavi found the Centre “life-transforming as an academic institution.” Of her entrance interview, she recounts that though she enthusiastically stated her desire to work with Satish Chandra, she felt quite provincial indeed when asked about Chandra’s important new book on the crisis in the Mughal administrative framework and society, which she did not know about at the time. “It was an exciting time in medieval South Asian history,” she says as she counts off the various luminaries at the Centre that she studied under. Staying on to work with Muzaffar Alam for an MPhil degree, the publication of several key texts of the time such as Chris Bayly’s Rulers, Townsmen, Bazaars (1983) fired her imagination. It led directly to her choice to pursue a PhD at Cambridge, something that no “middle class Indians could afford,” recalls Alavi. Armed with a scholarship and a typed response from Bayly to her handwritten letter to him asking to be his student, Alavi embarked on a different intellectual project at Cambridge than that which had occupied her at JNU.

Alavi’s first book, The Sepoys and the Company: Tradition and Transition in Northern India 1770-1830 (1995), which came out of her doctoral dissertation, was about the expansive role of the army in the early colonial period. Speaking of working with Bayly, Alavi recalls that “[h]is vision was so exhilarating that I forgot about my language abilities and was drawn into the exciting world of the Company archives.” Her family history on the maternal side – as healers or hakims who were very close to the British establishment, her grandfathers’ stories of how the British civil surgeon in Lucknow was his good friend – “took on a historical veneer”. The “interstitial spaces between colonizer and colonized” became the object of Alavi’s enquiry. Indeed, it was with her book Islam and Healing: Loss and Recovery of an Indo-Muslim Medical Tradition, 1600-1900 (2007) that Alavi took a step back towards using Farsi materials, marrying them to the Company records of her dissertation days. She calls it “the moment when the penny dropped.” For the first time, Alavi found herself engaging with the nineteenth century and with it, debates about rationalism and ‘vernacular’ sciences. The politics and struggle over the place of new scientific lexicons in Arabic and in Persian clearly elucidated a multi-lingual century of complex political and intellectual overlaps: for example, ulemas (scholars of Muslim theology) were often also hakims and their concerns were rarely centred solely on South Asia. Alavi became aware of how gaping the hole was, how marked the absence of Muslim politics was in the curricula of almost all of the universities she had studied and taught in. Her book Muslim Cosmopolitanism addresses this erasure in nationalist and imperial historiographies head on. For example, key events in the Indian nationalist chronology such as the Khilafat Movement – when Gandhi and the Indian National Congress pledged solidarity with the Ottoman caliph against the dismantling of the caliphate by the British in the aftermath of WWI – can be seen within a longer global historical arc rather than a sudden (and to the contemporary student, somewhat baffling) moment of internationalist solidarity.

Muslim networks in the nineteenth century

As is surprisingly often the case in a scholarly life, Alavi came to the writing of this book through a series of serendipitous discoveries. First, because of her work on the sepoys and 1857, Alavi found herself being asked to give talks in universities across the world on the 150-year anniversary of the event in 2007. Not wanting to rehash her old work, she found herself browsing the shelves for Urdu and Persian books at her then university’s rich open library (Jamia Millia Islamia). She was surprised by the number of memoirs she casually came across, and how many of the writers had been located abroad given that these were are all well-known characters in early modern South Asian history. Second, while the Kew archives of the British foreign office, rather than the India Office Records in London, helped Alavi trace the foreign peregrinations of her protagonists, she arrived at them having already worked extensively on the Urdu materials. In an elucidation of the separation of worlds and discursive publics Alavi noted of her childhood, her students at Jamia could retrieve for her tracts and editions still in print in Old Delhi for a specifically Islamic reading public. Her students, often from non-mainstream, madrasa backgrounds were thus a surprising source for a book project that had at its core, texts that they plucked out of a literary circuit that had been cleaved from the dominant discursive sphere of the post-colonial nation state. Finally, Alavi is wonderfully humble when she tells me that this book, like most works with a global scope, would not have been possible without the collaboration and camaraderie she benefited from during a year on the Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard (2009-10). She laughs that Cemal Kafadar used to joke that he felt nervous that Alavi was sitting-in on his undergraduate lectures on Ottoman history and that he always “tried to slip in some India into each class.” Alavi is quite clear that the structure of her book changed significantly because of the input she had from Ottomanists such as Kafadar and Cemil Aydin (now at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill). Aydin in particular aided in conceptualizing the biographical details of her protagonists on a global scale. Alavi even found herself in Istanbul getting feedback from a range of academic perspectives. It is rare for a book by a historian of South Asia to engage so deeply with perspectives outside one’s disciplinary boundaries but the fact that Alavi’s book received a honourable mention at the MESA Awards in 2016 is testament to the extensive reach of the work.

As a book that functions through a global perspective, Muslim Cosmopolitanism is an interesting case. Alavi works through an expansive concept that she calls “the spirit of 1857” to identify and follow five individuals through their intellectual lives before the uprising, the often ironic circumstances of their hurried departure as marked “extremists” from British India, and to illuminate them as key to understanding a new age of Muslim politics. The event and the individual are thus key analytical categories for how she builds outwards into a global framework. These fairly well-known fugitives (such as Rahmatullah Kairanwi) fall off the historiographical map as soon as they escaped British India and took up residence in various Ottoman cities and hinterlands. Their travels, safe passage and protected residence in these places required that they exploit British-Ottoman imperial rivalries by negotiating their political subjecthood under the British empire with a cosmopolitan, more holistic subjecthood under the Ottoman sultan. In turn, these trans-imperial travels alongside the Mecca pilgrimage by British subjects in South Asia provided avenues for each imperial apparatus to extend their claims: for the British, beyond their territory and for the Ottomans beyond their explicit political subjects. “The envisioning of a cosmopolis was dependent on a Western infrastructure – in positive and negative ways – but it is important to recover this history outside of just the framework of empire,” stresses Alavi.

The shock to British sovereignty in India symbolized by the revolt of 1857 had the effect of making British imperial power open to question on a global scale, and of all strands of dissent – scholarly, spiritual, political – being reflexively deemed forms of “terrorism” or “fundamentalist” by the British imperial apparatus. The British blamed the old Muslim elite, remnants of the Mughal hierarchy, for the revolt and shipped the last Mughal emperor off to British Burma. Meanwhile the men Alavi writes about were pursued: some such as Maulana Jafer Thanesri were imprisoned and engaged with other imprisoned scholars-rebels at the Cellular Jail in the Andamans; others such as the Nawab of Bhopal printed “seditious” tracts. Print materials such as these and the discussions engendered by reformists such as Imdadullah Makki often reflected the trans-imperial scholarly discussions of core texts such as the Hadith and the Koran in conversation with Western liberal thought which centred moral reform through the individual, and the universal subject in Islam. The image conjured up by the imperial administration’s category of the “mad mullah” hews closely to semantics and symbolism associated with Islamophobic categories of the present which tend to associate Imams (religious heads/preachers) with “fundamentalism” or “extremism.” However, Alavi points out, “I can say this with a certain amount of sadness – I see a separation between scholasticism and political activism after the age of these Mughal legatees.” These scholarly dissensions of the qualities and remit of Islam, on the reworking of the meaning of core texts were reduced to the colonial category of “Wahabism”. Today, understandings of the theological debates that reference and are referenced by the Islamic State are also known to the lay observer as part of the “Wahabi” tradition in Islamic thought – a category with no greater explanatory power now than it had in the nineteenth century.

I ask Alavi how different this book could have been without all the serendipitous occurrences that led to its final form. She’s emphatic when she says, “global history cannot be written alone, it has to be a collaborative exercise – though collaboration can take different forms.” Her specific kind of collaboration took the form of camaraderie, she tells me. During her time as a Radcliffe Fellow, Sunil Amrith and Cemil Aydin were intellectual sounding boards but also, and this is crucial, helpful in getting books and references to her – sometimes even after she had returned to India. Alavi is clear sighted about the asymmetries that structure the positions of different academies. “Our students are at a great disadvantage,” she says, of the fact that the movement of global capital unequivocally declares the US academy as the centre of global intellectual production – a centering that has only become set in the last 25 years or so. Alavi is painfully aware that she does not have adequate resources to train young historians in pursuing global perspectives in their research – “We can’t even send them for a semester to the India Office Records in London” – very few in South Asia can actually access, let alone afford the Harvard University Press publication of her book. “It is a new academic cosmopolis,” she says wryly, “technology and capital driven.”

Alavi found that collaborative work is not just a luxury but necessary for transnational projects. While she was able to enrich her book through an attention to the Ottoman perspective in her research, not being able to bring in the Dutch into her story remains a regret. “Aceh was a hub of nineteenth-century radical politics. The fugitives from British India were constantly in touch with runaways from the Dutch East Indies. As her book shows, the Madrasa Saulatia set up by Kairanwi had visitors from the region. Not only was language a barrier here, but, “the book would have become too unwieldy,” she says ruefully. One of the aspects of the project that Alavi is keen to highlight is that connections such as these only become possible because of the imperial archive – it is the British Foreign Office keeping track of “dissidents” and their trans-imperial movements – that allows for these histories. But just as these scholar-émigrés “used the infrastructure of the empire to their own ends, to produce a Muslim cosmopolis that transcended the boundaries of any one empire,” Alavi finds that the key is to avoid reproducing those archives such that the British empire is mapped onto and as a global history.

Coming out of a section in her first chapter on the arms trade going on in the north west of British India after 1857, Alavi’s new book project attempts to bring together the crisis in the British empire post-1857 with the crisis in the Omani empire brought on by the death of the sultan in 1856. “These ports on the coast, Omani and Iranian cities were becoming important in the late-nineteenth century because of the traffic in slaves and arms.” The political economy of this Afro-Arab empire is exciting to Alavi, especially in its orientation towards South Asia. “Because the British empire is facing its worse shock with 1857, it is orienting itself towards Muscat and the Indian Ocean using British imperial subjecthood and abolitionist rhetoric – the Omani princes, however, used the Anglo-French rivalry over the issue of the slave trade to their own advantage as they tried to divvy up the slave trade and the arms trade amongst themselves,” explains Alavi. The present historiographical perspective from historians of the region see the British as having been successful in dividing up the Omani empire, and see this period of political jockeying amongst its various components as a period of crisis and decline. By focusing on the relationship between these two empires, connected by the Indian Ocean and overland via Afghanistan after 1857, Alavi hopes to show that this set of “cannibalizing moves” can be seen differently: to put Qajar Iran, the Omani empire and South Asia in conversation with each other through “the spirit of 1857.”

When I point out that this set of connections is rarely, if at all, pursued in the historiography of South Asia, Alavi agrees and speaks enthusiastically of “a new kind of Indian Ocean studies that is reworking how regions map onto historiographical maps.” She tells me Sunil Amrith’s Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants (2013) as well as Fahad Bishara’s A Sea of Debt: Law and Economic Life in the Western Indian Ocean 1870-1950 (2017) are recent books whose perspective she has enjoyed. “Indian Ocean studies need to take account not just of colonial ports, but Qajar-controlled Iranian ports which they often leased out,” she says in relation to A Sea of Debt. As we close out our chat with her thoughts on these new historiographical developments, I’m struck again by the openness and enthusiasm Alavi has towards younger scholars – constantly underlining the ways in which she continues to learn. Alavi’s scholarly career exemplifies a self-reflexive engagement with the structural conditions of academic production and a ranging set of research interests that is refreshingly open to new developments in scholarly trends as well as the larger world.

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