Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Hajj in the Age of Revolutions

Rishad Choudhury

The “age of revolutions” was a global era. Around the world between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, new states and empires supplanted old regimes. The implications of those large-scale political changes were evident not just across the Atlantic, but also around interregional realms like the Indian Ocean. But even as historians have of late stressed the global relevance of the age of revolutions, they have relied mainly on synthetic, modular, and comparative approaches to substantiate their claims. So how did contemporaries themselves, in particular non-Euro-American historical actors, grapple with the interconnected nature of the revolutionary era?

In my recent book, Hajj across Empires: Pilgrimage and Political Culture after the Mughals, 1739-1857, I argue that for many in the Indian Subcontinent and the Islamic world, it was the experience of the hajj pilgrimage that gave way to discrete and distinctly trans-regional views of major imperial transformations around the Indian Ocean. Between 1739 and 1857 in South Asia, the great Islamic empire of the Mughals declined, a series of successor crowns emerged in provinces like Bengal, Awadh, Hyderabad, the Karnatak, and elsewhere, and British colonial rule expanded and consolidated around the Subcontinent. In late Mughal Indo-Persian texts, these historic political shifts often appeared under the watchword inqilab (meaning “revolution,” or, a world turned upside down). And yet, this period also saw an unprecedented 15,000 Indian pilgrims annually embark on the Indian Ocean odyssey of the hajj. Between the dual tensions of the disintegration of a Muslim empire and the amplification of Muslim mobility, South Asian hajj pilgrims who travelled to the Arabian Hijaz and the Ottoman Middle East hence also came to understand that the gathering crises in the Mughal world were of a piece with changes then surging across the Indian Ocean. For them, inqilab or revolution was thus unrestricted to South Asia.  

Entre deux empires, Mughal and colonial, many from India accordingly also drew on their experiences as pilgrims abroad in Mecca and the Middle East to address the exigencies of imperial revolutions at home. South Asian pilgrims came from dizzyingly diverse backgrounds. They were statesmen, royals, bureaucrats, military servants, merchants, theologians, Sufi mystics, litterateurs, and even ordinary peasants. When we turn to the first-person accounts of hajj travel that some of them left behind, we find that their attempts to parse the imperial transitions of the times, while extraordinarily heterogenous, nevertheless all drew direct parallels between developments in South Asia and the broader Indian Ocean world. Some Indian hajjis, for example, chose to cast the Ottoman empire in a highly idealized light, burnishing thereby a mirror in which the dislocations of the Mughal domains could be didactically scrutinized. Others, fired by ideas of Islamic revivalism and reform they encountered in the Middle East, brought ideas of revolution back to India, in the hopes of both resisting colonial domination and restoring a crumbling Mughal regime. Taken together, the accounts of Indian pilgrims therefore offer us not only fascinating emic vindications to some of the schematic observations of received global historiography. They offer, as well, testament to how the hajj – a very old axis of inter-regional exchange in the Islamic world – produced new global imaginaries among regional actors.

Consider here the Mughal scribe ‘Abdul Karim Kashmiri (d. 1784), who went on hajj in the 1740s. Coming from a secretarial background, ‘Abdul Karim gushed effusively when reporting on the Ottoman empire’s governmental oversight of the hajj. It reflected for him the “excellence of administration in the Ottoman empire.” No less, though, it served as a reminder of what he lamented as Mughal “imperial weakness” in India.  Other pilgrims took an altogether different tack. For sake of personal and political expediency alike, they extoled an expanding British empire in India, contrasting its rule against the misrule of breakaway polities in the Ottoman Middle East. An aristocrat from a colonized post-Mughal crown in Madras, ‘Abdul Husain Karnataki (d. 1830) praised the colonial state during his pilgrimage to Mecca. The “peace and security” of British India, he noted in a daily diary he kept during his hajj travels in the 1810s, stood in dramatic contrast to the insurgent rule of the “zealous” and “savage” Wahhabis of Arabia. As my book suggests, for many it was therefore the pressing question of regime change that also gave way to reactionary assertions that vouched for the need to defend the political cultures of Islam and thereby redress their decline and deterioration. In the Arabian Hijaz in the 1780s, the religious scholar Rafi‘-ud-Din Ahmad Muradabadi noted that it was by dint of patronizing the hajj that successive Ottoman sultans had managed to maintain their sovereign dignity. Insufficiently attentive as they now were to such pious obligations, back home in India, he added, the power of the Mughals had been much compromised by a series of “revolutions,” or inqilab.

Trans-imperial hajj pilgrims were both literally and figuratively connecting India and the Indian Ocean to gauge and grasp the imperial flux of the era. By examining how they were caught up in the broader shift from “early modern” to “modern” political dispensations, my bookaspires to underline the surprising significance of interregional actors like pilgrims in making the age of revolutions a truly global era. More specifically, in stressing the transformative impact that pilgrims and their circulations had on regional and imperial repertoires of governance and statecraft, Hajj across Empires reveals the politically constitutive ideologies of Islam that came to fore in late Mughal India as it endured the disruptions of regime change. Notwithstanding their idiosyncratic individual observations, many hajjis from the Subcontinent carried home with them the conviction that the crisis of the old regime could be reversed through the regeneration of Muslim political culture. As a result, hajj traffic also profoundly shaped ideas of religion and rule in a nascent colonial context. Post-Mughal states argued for the need to rejuvenate political power by reaching out to the Ottomans through the hajj, and by regarding that polity as exemplarily Islamic. Sufis and theologians from South Asia forged dense webs of ideological exchange with their Middle Eastern counterparts, generating in the process new threads of globally consistent religion. And, as both elite and subaltern South Asians smuggled back ideas of Islamic revival and revolt from Arabia to India, the colonial state innovated policies that regarded many mobile Muslims as dangerous, deviant, subversive, and “fanatical.”

Rather than view it as a quintessentially Euro-American epoch, on the hand, or as a scholarly formulation whose contours can only be grasped through outsiders’ perspectives, on the other, Hajj across Empires seeks to provoke debate and discussion on how to imagine a more critical history of the “global age of revolutions.” It is my hope, therefore, that specialists interested in South Asia, the Islamic world, and the Indian Ocean, as well as students of global and transnational history, might find in my book a fresh perspective on a crucial period of imperial change in world history.

Image caption: A Sufi pilgrim from Lahore in Arabia. Watercolor on paper, India, 18th century. 15.5 X 10.2 cm. MSS 1238, The Khalili Collections. Made available through Creative Commons, Khalili Collections/CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED

About The Author

Rishad Choudhury

Rishad Choudhury is Assistant Professor of History at Oberlin College. ...

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