Book review: Imperial Muslims: the fluidity of existence of mortal men

A new book ‘Imperial Muslims’ tells of the interchange of religion and identity in colonial Aden

View Of Aden. Port City In Yemen. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
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When the British occupied Aden in 1839, the renowned port at the mouth of the Red Sea had fallen on hard times and its population was just 800 people.

Soon afterwards, the British begin to recruit people from their empire to settle and revive the port. American historian Scott Reese explains how these colonial subjects used Islamic faith and institutions to create a new community under British rule, in his upcoming book Imperial Muslims.

"Aden is a very good example of how you have a community of Muslims that's constructed by the colonial moment," says Reese, an associate professor of history at Northern Arizona University. "Most of the people who come to settle there are Muslims from across the Indian Ocean, but they're linguistically varied, they're ethnically varied, they're even confessionally varied. There are Sunnis and Shiias and Islamilis. There are Arabs, Africans, South Asians, Persians. So the only thing they have in common is their faith."

Fluent in Arabic, Reese builds his narrative based on years of research in London and Aden, located in Yemen, where he travelled regularly until 2007.  There, he pored over medieval manuscripts, Sufi texts, collections of essays, sermons and poetry, and colonial police reports, to trace the religious practices and beliefs of Adanis through the centuries.

The British had come for two reasons – to protect their commercial interests and to use Aden as a coaling station at the start of the Age of Steam. He draws on both colonial archives and local writings to strip away colonial interpretation and to draw a picture of how people saw themselves.

The book's first chapter looks at medieval sources and travelogues. Situated at the mouth of the Red Sea, Adanis not only considered their city connected to other Indian Ocean ports by trade winds and ocean currents but also by the metaphysical.

"Aden was a place of convergence between East and West, and supernatural and profane. But it was also at the fringe," says Reese.

Reese's two main sources are Ibn Al Mujawir, who wrote about Aden during one of its medieval peaks in the early-13th century, and Abu Makhrama, a native Adani who lived in the 16th century. Despite the 300-year gap between the two, both place Aden in a "cosmological topography".

Ibn Al Mujawir describes Aden as a place of exile for djinn. Its hot, arid climate made for suitable misery, a barren town built on an inactive volcanic crater.

Just as its people had a fluid identity, so did its djinn. Adanis wove supernatural creatures from Egypt and India into mythology. Hindu Gods were present but described as demons, or afreet. Stories of Aden's foundation starred the Hindu deity Hanuman and Alexander the Great.

A few centuries later, Abu Makhrama's narrative is more self-consciously Islamic. Abu Makhrama includes the tale of Alexander the Great but stories of Indian afreet have disappeared. Instead of Hindu-based theology, he connects Aden to Abrahamic myth. In one account, Aden is the exile for Cain after he commits mankind's first murder.

Abu Makhrama described a vibrant commercial and intellectual centre, known for religious learning and sanctity. His Aden is a town of warehouses, stone houses and palm-thatch huts, mosques, sufi hostels and shrines. Holy men, pilgrims and religious scholars travelled from Egypt, Baghdad, Persia and India to visit Aden's shrines and learn from its scholars.

When Muslims came from India to the rubble-strewn settlement of Aden in the 1800s, they repaired old medieval mosques and tombs and revived festivals for saints who had ceased to be venerated. This spiritualism took on a life of its own and it became popular for Muslims to be buried near holy sites, like the tomb complex of Abu Baker Al Aydarus, who died around 1506. The town was rebuilt by the Indian community in the mid-1800s and became the site of a major saint festival.

"You could regard this as simply laying claim to place but my argument is that there is a less materialistic reason for this and that is to actively intersect with the unseen, with the supernatural," says Reese. "One's goal to the idea is to connect with God. So you have these people recreating and reviving these conduits that already existed."

It was not just spiritual identity that was fluid. The Luqman family considered themselves Arab, spoke Gujarati, had Gujarati relatives and travelled back and forth across the ocean regularly.  This fluid identity is exemplified by the life of Mohammed Ali Luqman, who serialised his biography in the English-language Aden chronicle written for Adani elites. Luqman spoke both Arabic and Gujarati, taught at a Gujarati school and considered himself Arab.

"This notion of identity is a very fluid one, it's not constricted by national identity at this point," says Reese. "By the twenties and thirties, they're at the very end of this."

The advent of Arab nationalism and anti-colonialism in the 1920s and 1930s, forced a choice: was Mohammed Ali Luqman Gujarati or was he an Arab? 

"He chose to side with Arab nationalism largely because of the disdain of Indian nationalism," says Reese. "They're the ones who push him and deride his idea of a fluid identity."

At this point, religious festivals are also threatened by growing Salafism. 

Aden was governed by the British from Bombay until 1937, at which point the intellectual community had shifted towards Arab nationalism.

"I think the end of the colonial period in a lot of ways constructs these very solid boundaries between places. It's the triumph of nationalism itself, if not the idea of the nation state."

Aden remained a model for tolerance well into the 20th century. Under the shadow of the current war, freedom of thought and expression have disappeared with the takeover by extremist groups. But it is worth revisiting history to see the tolerance and diversity that made Aden a centre of economic and strategic importance.


Imperial Muslims by Scott Reese is published by Edinburgh University Press in November


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