Interviews February 19, 2021

Imperial Mecca: An Interview with Prof. Michael Low

The hajj—that is, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca—is a pillar of faith for Muslims, but in the late nineteenth century, it was also a legal, epidemiological, and imperial frontier. In his long-anticipated Imperial Mecca: Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj, Michael Christopher Low offers an account how that “very heart of Islam”—Mecca and the Hijaz—came to straddle “two imperial worlds.” Imperial Mecca charts how the British Empire came to challenge Ottoman imperial legitimacy and, subsequently, affect its pilgrimage administration, its relationship to non-Ottoman Muslims, and inspire administrative anxieties around the semi-autonomous province of the Hijaz. Since his widely-read 2008 article, “Empire and the Hajj,” Low has been a leading contributor in the now flourishing field of hajj studies. Based on archives largely based in Istanbul and London, Imperial Mecca consolidates nearly fifteen years of research, reflection, and labour and reasserts an understudied “Ottoman sense of space, place, population, environment, and territory back [into] our understanding of the transimperial hajj.”

Michael Christopher Low is an Assistant Professor of History at Iowa State University and, presently, a Senior Humanities Research Fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi. Along with the publication of Imperial Mecca, he is also the co-editor of the recently published volume, The Subjects of Ottoman International Law. In our interview, we discuss—among many topics—Low’s intellectual and biographical journey as a historian, Ottoman archives and historiography, and the present and future of hajj studies.

Mahdi Chowdhury

MAHDI CHOWDHURY: The publication of Imperial Mecca is not just a scholarly milestone, but a personal one as well, given the nearly fifteen years of research and labour behind it. How did you first become interested in the history of the hajj and what was the journey like from your original Master’s dissertation at Georgia State University to the book in front of us?

MICHAEL LOW: On some level, I have been living with this project since 2005-2006. I started out at Georgia State University in a World History Master's program. I had just come out of being a seventh grade teacher—a Geography and History teacher for middle schoolers. I was teaching essentially Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. I started this Master's program not really knowing where things were going to go. I had my first visit to India in 2002 and so I went into this Master's program thinking: “Okay, I'm going to do British India, right?” In my first semester there, I had an Egypt specialist, Donald Reid, for historiography. Don was really good. He allowed me to explore those India interests, but to combine them with his own expertise. He convinced me to start studying Persian. That was kind of what got the hooks in me for the Middle East. I did a year of Persian and eventually ended up taking Arabic.

I was in a big state university—not a particularly illustrious place—and I was piecing things together, mixing and matching, and interested in doing something that was transregional. I happened upon F.E. Peters's two books on Mecca and the hajj. I found interesting bits and pieces in there, even though the latter book was a mishmash of source materials and not much in the way of analysis. I started to then put together a seminar paper.

I would say—and I said this in an earlier interview with Fahad Bishara—one of the things that helped me along the way was that I started the project from a place of weakness. That is, without the languages that I needed and starting it from India, migrating to the Arabian peninsula, and eventually having the project end up in Istanbul. I think that when I started the project that weakness allowed me to figure out how to make do with whatever was at hand.

That seminar paper, not knowing what I was doing in some respect, as most of us do in our Master's programs, eventually became my International Journal of Middle East Studies article, "Empire and the Hajj." That piece, which came out in 2008, was influenced by William Roff's "Sanitation and Security" article from the 1980s and which I think—over the last fifteen or so years—a lot of people have discovered and which has informed a lot of the debate on the colonial hajj. Yet, even early on, I was trying to figure out a way to say something more, to really bring the Middle East into an Indian Ocean framework. The process of writing that article provided a kind of scaffolding, a way for me to figure out what a book might look like.

Now, obviously, if you read Imperial Mecca a dozen years later, it looks very different from that original article in some respects; and in other respects you can connect the dots between the two. But I think in the book, what I tried to do—after learning Turkish, Ottoman Turkish, and having a much bigger source base available to me—was to try to think more critically about whether that "sanitation and security" paradigm was the smartest way forward. I think, in the end, I come down and say: Look, the cholera question and the concerns of Pan-Islam were important motivating factors in the thinking of British and other European colonial officials, and that cannot be excised out of the story. Those were important psychological and material facts on the ground. But, at the same time, I think that emphasis has sort of obscured a lot of other questions.

So, I wanted to unfold the story a bit. I also wanted to tell it through the perspective of the only Muslim sovereign, the only global Muslim power in the story. I think, at the end of the day, that really has been the thing that has been missing the most from the debate. There have been surges of really interesting things that have come out of British Empire studies, colonial studies, and Indian Ocean work. We can think of: Saurabh Mishra and John Slight; on the Russian history side, Eileen Kane; and articles and chapters by great scholars like Nile Green and Sugata Bose. But the middle of the story—Mecca itself, the Hijaz itself—and a Muslim sovereign’s point-of-view—was missing. The further along that I got into the project, that is what really struck me: that the centerpiece was missing.

You ask me about this journey: I do not think I could have gotten from point-A to point-B without going through the growing pains. Starting with British sources, the South Asian literature, then going to Arabic and the Arab Middle East, then moving on to Ottoman studies—I had to have all those stages to build up to what I was ultimately able to do. I think that is a good lesson for graduate students: that the PhD and writing a first book are really long processes and what you know when you start is not the same as what you know ten or fifteen years later.

MC: In that same decade and a half, the study of the nineteenth century hajj has flourished and become a literature of its own. Nevertheless, as you have just noted, the terrestrial “centre” of the hajj—Mecca and the Ottoman Hijaz— remain curiously understudied; or, as you described in your aforementioned interview with Fahad Bishara, the historiography is rather “donut”-shaped. How do you redress this absence in Imperial Mecca and what new perspectives do we learn from the “centre”?

ML: The subtitle of Imperial Mecca is "Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj" and I think those are the two big moving parts of the book. On one hand, it is a study of the Ottoman Hijaz and Red Sea. On the other hand, it is thinking about that place in the shadow of a behemoth British presence in India and the Indian Ocean.

In trying to both tell a story about the Ottoman state's development in the Hijaz, I try to avoid the weaknesses we see in of a lot of Ottoman provincial histories where someone goes into the Ottoman archives and says: "Okay, what is the relationship between Istanbul and my favourite fill-in-the-blank province.” It could be Syria or it could be Baghdad or it could be Egypt or some Anatolian location. I wanted to avoid that as much as possible and to think of the Hijaz as a Muslim cosmopolis, as a space that was straddling two empires. But also as a problematic space for the Ottomans, a semi-autonomous space shared with the sharifate of Mecca. I was thinking about the Hijaz as a space and also the ways in which the administration of the hajj flowed through that space. You end up with something that, on the one hand, is about a particular location—that missing piece, that "donut" at the centre, if you will—but one that is connected in a variety of ways to Istanbul, to the rest of the Ottoman Empire, to comparable autonomous provinces within the empire, but also to locations as far away as Bombay, Calcutta, and Singapore.

MC: Speaking of the “Ottoman state’s development in the Hijaz,” how does this book challenge the trope of the late Ottoman Empire as the “sick man of Europe”?

ML: Each chapter of the book engages with a different technology of rule: Chapter Two is about Ottoman engagement with international law; Chapter Three, public health and bacteriology; Chapter Four, water infrastructures; Chapter Five, technologies of rule around borders and passports, and, of course, Chapter Six, opposing forces of animal labour and the Hejaz railway.

If you break the chapters down, each offers a different slice of Ottoman innovation in trying to deal with the problem of this semi-autonomous frontier province that is being constantly threatened by an extraterritorial shadow that looms over the Ottoman Red Sea and Arabia from the British Indian Ocean. Each chapter traces the ways in which this supposedly declining and decrepit state was, in fact, watching European colonialism, watching European statecraft, and borrowing and adapting for its own practices. That entails taking previous Ottoman experiences and reshaping and remolding them to fit new strategies, a new repertoire of imperial rule. In that respect, you see a very dynamic Ottoman state.

Each chapter traces the ways in which this supposedly declining and decrepit state was, in fact, watching European colonialism, watching European statecraft, and borrowing and adapting for its own practices. That entails taking previous Ottoman experiences and reshaping and remolding them to fit new strategies, a new repertoire of imperial rule. In that respect, you see a very dynamic Ottoman state.

The other thing I would say is about timing. Unfortunately, I think we imagine the Hijaz as a static space. In part because we often see the Hijaz through the eyes of pilgrims and hajj narratives. The rihla or safarnama follow the same arc: “I went to Mecca, it was beautiful, it was moving, it was all these experiences I thought it was going to be.” But when you look at the experiences of the bureaucrats who were there day-to-day, the experience is quite different. I think we also have the tendency to see the Ottoman history of the Hijaz as quite static too, as to say: “Well, it was semi-autonomous, it was never fully incorporated, it was never modernized, it was never subjected to the Tanzimat state, etcetera." But in fact, what I found was it was deeply affected by those changing state structures and those changing processes of governmentality. From 1880 to World War I, it went through a dramatic phase of changes—both in trying to build-up a more centralized Ottoman presence, departing from the seasonal caravan-based presence, to something we would equate with modern government practices and attempting to defend its frontier against unprecedented challenges. We cannot imagine a sixteenth-, seventeenth-, or eighteenth-century Ottoman Hijaz having to defend itself against European colonial empires or that Muslims coming on hajj would themselves be subjects of European-Christian states. The challenges are multifold, but it is not as if the Ottoman state was just supine and did nothing to react.

I think one of the anecdotes that sort of comes out is thinking of public health. The Ottomans assiduously tried to keep up with advances in germ theory and sanitation. And then they are confronted with a British Indian state that is anti-germ theory and pro-miasma theory. When you compare these two states, what you see is a modernizing empire and an empire that is pursuing an anti-science approach suited to their political interests. I think it helps having this comparison because it breaks down those stereotypes that we tend to have. Everyone writes it into their books—the Ottoman empire as “the "sick man of Europe"—but it just doesn't hold water. 

“Water distillation machine installation at Jidda in 1911.” Reproduced in Low’s “Ottoman Infrastructures of the Saudi Hydro-State” and sourced from Kasım İzzeddin, Hicaz’da Teşkilat ve Islahat-ı Sıhhiye ve 1330 Senesi Hacc-ı Şerifi (İstanbul: Matbaa-ı Amire, 1911/1912)

MC: Imperial Mecca has a number of lively historical anecdotes from the Ottoman archives you consulted. What was your experience like working with archives in Istanbul? What moments of discovery or sources struck you?

ML: I think each chapter of the book had those "a-ha" moments. I think it is interesting you mention what was the “experience” of the Ottoman archives. The experience for many of us, up until you are able to get a handle on the paleography, is of the archive as this scary black box. You have committed yourself to the point of studying intermediate and advanced Turkish and submitting yourself to a paleography class (hopefully, you have already had Arabic and Persian or some combination of languages to help you with script) and it is this scary moment and trial by doing. You only begin to understand what you are capable of at the moment you are thrown into the archives, if you are a non-native speaker like me. And so, that process of discovery begins with getting your feet wet and thinking ‘can I handle the volume of these documents?’—but then, of course, things slow down a little bit.

The story I like to recount of a "a-ha" moment was when I went in thinking: ‘Okay, I have written all of this stuff about cholera and quarantine, I have seen this material in the British archives, other people have written about this, but I want to see the Ottoman side.’ So I went typing into the Ottoman archival database—"quarantine" or "karantina"—but as I got deeper into the documents, I realized that what I needed to be looking, for in terms of cholera, had to do with water infrastructure. Ultimately, the biggest stunner for me was finding materials on desalination machines. I vividly remember this 1890s document about the Ottomans wanting to outfit a steamship, a tug-boat, with a distillation machine to make fresh water from seawater—and I remember reading the lines in this document and wiping my eyes and thinking I had misread. Of course, I soon found other documents and other materials to back it up. That was positive proof that you cannot short-circuit the archival process because you really do not know what is lurking in there. Incidentally, that led me to my current second book-project, which uses desalination technology as a way of re-thinking the environmental history of the Arabian peninsula.

MC: An aspect of language that surprised me in Imperial Mecca was the recurrent use of the term ‘Islamophobia’ applied to the context of the nineteenth century. How do you situate this term back into history and do you see Imperial Mecca as being in conversation with similar themes in the present day?

ML: I tried to think a lot about how the last twenty years have influenced this book. There is a certain strand of historian who will just bristle at the idea of presentism, that you could be influenced by your own experiences. But I tend to be of the camp that we are all writing about the present through our historical work, in some way, shape, or form. If I look back at the years immediately preceding my archival work, this was post-9/11. And so what were the major moving stories? Things like the attention Muslim travellers received at airports, terrorism watchlists—these kinds of things. I just was struck the whole time while I was researching and thinking about "mobility." Specifically, constricting or regulating the ability of Muslims to travel on this very basic route—the hajj, the quintessential Muslim travel experience—in the nineteenth century when it became a subject of immense international attention.

It made me think is there something in the nature of travel that is particularly disturbing to European colonial states and I could not help but draw a little bit of a throughline in terms of these anxieties. If you read enough of these British colonial documents about their anxieties around Muslim travel, these were not just anxieties about cholera—it was also worries that pilgrims were going to return with extreme Wahabbi ideals, or they would make alliances with some pro-Ottoman/pan-Islamist forces, or they would spread their own anti-colonial feelings to other European colonial subjects. Again, Mecca is sort of seen as an international league of anti-colonialists.

It made me think is there something in the nature of travel that is particularly disturbing to European colonial states and I could not help but draw a little bit of a throughline in terms of these anxieties. If you read enough of these British colonial documents about their anxieties around Muslim travel, these were not just anxieties about cholera—it was also worries that pilgrims were going to return with extreme Wahabbi ideals, or they would make alliances with some pro-Ottoman/pan-Islamist forces, or they would spread their own anti-colonial feelings to other European colonial subjects. Again, Mecca is sort of seen as an international league of anti-colonialists.

I try to express in Chapter One, how this view ebbs and flows. There are peaks of paranoia, as after the Great Rebellion [of 1857]—or as it is known in its outdated, colonial parlance, the "Sepoy Mutiny." This was one moment of extreme paranoia for the British. The late 1870s—early 1880s was another uptick, though couched in slightly different concerns regarding Pan-Islamist ideas. You also see a return to those things in and around World War I. Throughout, you see language like “mutineers, "murderers," or "fanatics" and anxiety surrounding people domiciled in Mecca and who are sort of beyond the pale of colonial law. If you read enough of it, you get a sense of some of the fanaticism and the paranoia of the colonial state. I really wanted to get that across, that these are really slippery ideas but there was something very consistent in a well of ideas that colonial officials would return to in moments of crisis. Certain political choices were foreclosed in their minds because of the fear of insurrection or violence emanating from Muslims.

I tend to follow some of the things Cemil Aydin has said about this: that after the Great Rebellion in India, that there was a racialization of being Muslim, that inherently came to mean certain things, an inherent gravitation to violence, and an unwillingness to be able to live under European rule. That really struck me: it was so consistent over more than a half century of readings—at least from the 1850s to the 1920s, for sure, and we can make an argument that it extends further. You see certain continuities there: the appaling things we have seen in the United States in the last few years, ideas like a "Muslim Ban," again around borders and travel, an "us" and a "them," ideas around security—and I think it is relevant, I think there is a certain global story around racial discrimination we need to tell ourselves about documentary practices, passports, borders, international travel, whether that be steamships or airplanes, that involves Muslims and I would argue other groups. (We can look at a book like Adam McKeown's Melancholy Order on Asian labour falling into a similar set of categories). People's life choices and ability to move are constrained by these, really, fanatical, often completely unrealistic, fears emanating from Europe and from colonialism.

MC: Speaking of Adam McKeown, I noticed Melancholy Order is a part of that Roff discovery wave you mentioned—there’s a little footnote on hajj and “Sanitation and Security.”

ML: When I was writing my IJMES article, I did a conference at Columbia University and that was really when I met Adam. He was really kind, right when I started my PhD program, to cite some of my stuff a few times. Adam was really important for me at the beginning of my career at Columbia and I give him a lot of credit for sort of making me think of borders as a system. Obviously, our work is very different, but his work on mobility and borders really influenced me. His passing in 2017 was a really tragic loss for so many.

Ottoman map of cholera’s spread from India, 1909. Reproduced in Low’s Imperial Mecca, sourced from Akil Muhtar and Besim Ömer, Kolera Hastalığında İttihazı Lazım Gelen Tedâbir ve Ettibâya Rehber (Dersaadet: Arşak Garveyan Matbaası, 1909), and digitized version above from the Ottoman History Podcast

MC: Epidemic diseases—particularly, cholera—have morbidly shaped the history of the nineteenth-century hajj. This is a subject you have extensively researched ever since your 2008 article, “Empire and the hajj,” which had a wide readership and impact both in and outside of hajj studies. Between that article and Imperial Mecca, were there any significant revisions, expansions, or redirections on your view of this subject?

ML: If you look at that “Empire and the Hajj” piece, I was definitely working from Roff's ideas on some level and trying to sort of place the Middle East and Ottoman Empire into that story. What I came to, after much time in the Ottoman archives, was that the fears around sanitation and security were all wrong—we had it the opposite way round. The state that was most fearful and had the most to lose were the Ottomans, not the British.

Prior to books that took the Ottoman perspective, such as my work or Lâle Can's lovely book Spiritual Subjects, we have always framed the hajj as a potential colonial disorder that had to be controlled to protect European states' interests. What I say in Imperial Mecca, I think, is that this preoccupation with colonial disorder actually drew European empires into the process of administering the hajj and deeply into the affairs of the Ottoman Hijaz. This process deeply undermined the sovereignty, authority, and the values of being the “Servant of the Holy Places,” Khadim al-Haramayn al-Sharifayn. In this process, you see the relative concern about the hajj flip. Instead of it being a colonial concern, it is a very real and material threat for the Ottomans; they are having cholera deaths all across their empire—and yet, they cannot fully control the hajj or their borders because they are having to share this responsibility with really hostile foreign powers at the same time.

It is a really unprecedented situation for the Ottomans: all of the sudden, this responsibility we all instinctively assume is supposed to be in Muslim hands slips, in the mid-nineteenth century, out of their hands and becomes a subject of international rules and regulations. I think that the things I describe are much more complicated in nature, in terms of the tug-of-war by which it was handled, than really what you can see in the colonial archives. You cannot tell both sides of the story without that Ottoman intervention.

MC: One of the real contributions of Imperial Mecca, in my view, is that it gives a sense of historical architecture to the otherwise complicated, nebulous world of the nineteenth century hajj. For that reason, it may prove to be an essential reference for graduate students working on the subject. In thinking of the future of hajj studies, are there themes and topics you look forward to being explored?

ML: First, thank you for your compliment, that means a lot. I think one of the things that frustrated me, again thinking about this vibrant field of colonial interest in the hajj, was that everyone was coming from their own corner. Eric Tagliacozzo followed Southeast Asian pilgrims, Nile Green would look at Indians, Eileen Kane would look at the Russian empire. Everyone sort of had one slice, one piece—and I think one of the benefits of going after some of these fantastic scholars is to be able to integrate some of their work and tie it together a bit. I kind of see this literature as having waves—if you want to use an Indian Ocean analogy—there's a certain set of waves here. There is this colonial storyline, then myself and Lâle Can's recent books have been able to put the Ottoman state (in slightly different ways) into this picture, and really think of the pressures that all of these European colonial powers placed on, not only the Ottoman Empire and its state and legitimacy, but on the whole of the Muslim world in the process. I think in that respect, the historiography has built up to a place where the debates are now more mature. I often think, for graduate students, we hold our breaths when we see someone else working on a similar topic. Actually, a lot of times that's good because it gives you someone to have a real dialogue with and makes for a much richer kind of writing.

I think we have a dearth of material for the twentieth century. We've gotten this burst of nineteenth century through World War I material. We're starting to see some more early modern work—a couple of dissertations recently: Nir Shafir from UCLA (now at UCSD), Tyler Kynn who just finished at Yale, Dzenita Karic’s work on the Bosnian hajj experience, and I suppose one of your colleagues at Cambridge, Yahya Nurgat.

I think we're starting to see this set of debates branch out into different directions and I think that is a welcomed event. One of the great questions that I've had is why no one has written on Shi'i pilgrimage in the same depth. I would really love to see a great book on Najaf and Karbala using British archives, Persian sources, Ottoman sources—that would be really brilliant to see. A potential question I kept thinking about while reading in the Ottoman archives was why no one has done an Ottoman history (in English, some of this exists in Turkish) of the first Saudi state and the rise of Wahhabism, which seems like it would be an incredibly rich topic.

I think the permutations for thinking about hajj are kind of endless. It's rich in terms of the potential thinking about the sending-state, the receiving-state, and their relationships. And also the way in which pilgrims interact, say, latitudinally with one another. All of these things are only constrained by our creativity but also our linguistic capacities. It's a really difficult topic because of all of the different geographies and languages one has to traverse. But I still think there's certainly more that can be done. I think that a capstone has probably been put on the work on pandemics and sanitation. I think that topic is starting to get tapped out. Though again, moving forward in time, post-World War I, could be another possibility for the topic as well.

I think the permutations for thinking about hajj are kind of endless. It's rich in terms of the potential thinking about the sending-state, the receiving-state, and their relationships. And also the way in which pilgrims interact, say, latitudinally with one another. All of these things are only constrained by our creativity but also our linguistic capacities. It's a really difficult topic because of all of the different geographies and languages one has to traverse.

MC: What are you working on now and what themes and topics are you interested in exploring in the future?

ML: In the latter half of my PhD program, from 2013-2014 onward, my work started to become—even the public health and pandemic parts—to direct itself more toward environmental history. Since coming to Iowa State University in 2015, I have been teaching global environmental history to undergraduates and PhD students. I think this has been shaping my work in different ways. For instance, you see a spin-off out of my first book: I wrote a piece in 2015 in Comparative Studies in Society and History on “Ottoman Infrastructures of the Saudi Hydro-State.” That was where I started to play with connecting this Ottoman history of experimental desalination technologies with later twentieth history Saudi history.

Since that time, I have been tracing the history of desalination technology quite broadly. This includes looking at national archives in the United States and, obviously, back to state archives in Britain, back to the Başbakanlık in Istanbul—but also to smaller archives, like the British Petroleum archive at Warwick University. I was also in Glasgow looking at some smaller archives there having to do with early manufacturers of desalination systems. Faculty members there at Glasgow were also deeply involved in the development of desalination.

Now that I'm here at NYU Abu Dhabi, this year was supposed to be a little bit more of an opportunity for me to travel around the peninsula and the Gulf, but the pandemic hasn't allowed that much. This year and in subsequent years, the idea is to collect a lot of Arabic materials—newspapers, books—from UAE, Saudi, Kuwait, from Bahrain and try to piece together a story about water in the Arabian peninsula. People ask me, well compare your work on water with the rest of this literature on the Middle East. Everything is about rivers, right? The Nile, the Tigris, the Euphrates, it's about dams, barrage systems, etcetera. Desalination has a completely different history and has been pretty well ignored. There's a really rich environmental history on the global history of big dams from the United States, the global Cold War, and you can find parallel literatures on the Soviet Union, China, all kinds of places. But desalination technology hasn't made its way to historians. There's few exceptions to that. But I sort of see it as a way to think through the development of the quintessential features of petrostates.

The interesting thing about desalination is, to me, that it started in the mid-nineteenth century in the Red Sea and the Arabian peninsula as a sort of adjunct to British troop movements, of steamship ports, and the industrialization of travel. So it has an Indian Ocean story to it, it has an inter-imperial story to it that predates oil—which I find to be a very interesting commentary that, even before the advent of the petrostate and, obviously, all of the wealth that comes with the massive amounts of oil that were discovered in the beginning of the twentieth century in Arabian peninsula, that even before that, the Arabian peninsula was becoming dependent on fossil fuelled—originally coal and steam-fired—machines but then becomes synonymous with oil . More or less, these massively expensive machines are made possible by the largesse of petroleum. And so, I just think that is a way for us to reframe this nexus between water and energy in the Gulf. I think it helps us to escape a bit from the tiresome rentier state model of thinking about the peninsula and allows us a perspective to think of the environmental history of the region from another angle.

 
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