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New Texts Out Now: Nile Green, Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840-1915

[Cover of Nile Green, [Cover of Nile Green, "Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840-1915"

Nile Green, Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840-1915. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

[Co-winner of the 2011 Albert Hourani Book Award]

Jadaliyya: What made you write this book?

Nile Green: It took me some time to realize the importance of Bombay to Muslims from all around the Indian Ocean, but after so many textual trails led me there, I realized I had to write a book about Bombay and its steam-spun web of connections. The documentation was abundant—in Muslim travelogues, vernacular poetry, printed hagiographies—though ironically I found as much of Bombay’s legacy in such cities as Tehran and Hyderabad as in Bombay itself, which like many industrializing cities was a poor preserver of its migrants’ histories.

The challenge lay in creating a methodology capable of holding together and comparing so many accounts and experiences. In working up the model of a religious economy of multiple and competing Islams, I found a methodology that I believe is capable of addressing not only Bombay and its oceanic religious market but also of making sense of similar zones of complex religious interaction elsewhere. Ultimately, what compelled me to write the book was the challenge of understanding the religious history of Islam in the age of modernity—or of industrialization, as I prefer—and in that cause, I’d like to think Bombay Islam is ultimately more valuable for its methodology than its documentation. It’s that bigger question—did the long nineteenth century really belong to the Muslim modernists and reformists?—that made me write the book.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?

NG: One of the topics the book addresses is the question of the relation of Islamic modernism and reformism to the religious forms that came before, what I prefer to call customary Islam but what is often classified as “Sufism.” We have many individual case studies of customary and reformist groups from the period, but I wanted to develop a methodology capable of showing how they interacted and, moreover, competed for followers. Ultimately, I wanted to demonstrate the process and logic by which some parties—some “religious firms”—succeeded more than others. Scholars usually only look at what I would call the religious “production side” of the balance sheet—a certain text was written, a certain association established—and downplay the “reception” or “demand” side that explains the success or failure of a given religious doctrine, practice, or fellowship. Bombay Islam traces this interplay between religious supply and demand, all the more interesting in Bombay since the greatest demographic fuelling that demand in the religious economy was Muslim industrial laborers.

Another topic and literature that the book addresses is therefore labor history, particularly the history of Muslim industrial labor and its cultural and religious ramifications. I maintain that the impact of industrialization—as a social and cultural as well as an economic phenomenon—has been poorly traced in relation to Muslim history, and this is another of the book’s major themes. Bombay created arguably the world’s earliest and largest Muslim industrial workforce. And as the busiest travel hub in the Indian Ocean, Muslim travellers from the Middle East and Southeast and Central Asia as well as India had their first experience of industrial technologies and industrialized lifeways in Bombay, often while en route to Mecca. I wanted to trace the impact of this industrialization—particularly of communications and working lives—on religious production.        

In putting together the issues of Islamic reform and industrial modernity and rephrasing a longstanding question from Weberian sociology, I ultimately sought to ask whether industrial modernity engendered religious reform. I think the answer is a surprising one: Bombay’s industrialization created a highly productive and competitive religious marketplace in which customary religious entrepreneurs and firms were the most successful. Industrial modernity created what I call an “economy of enchantment.” While mainly focusing on such Muslim religious “firms” as shrines, brotherhoods, and anjumans, the book also shows how expatriate Baha’is, Christian missionaries, and other religious firms similarly fared in Bombay’s competitive economy of enchantment. Again, the methodology has multiple applications.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

NG: My previous book—Islam and the Army in Colonial India (Cambridge, 2009)—was a micro-history of the creation of what I called “barracks Islam” through the interaction of Indian Muslims with the infrastructure of the colonial army. In Bombay Islam, I wanted to move to a macro analysis that nonetheless remained faithful to the fine-grained possibilities of micro-history. The book also draws together some of my other interests in the history of printing and travel.


[Nile Green. Image via the author.]

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

NG: I certainly hope Middle East studies readers will make use of it—Bombay was after all a key site for Middle Eastern as well as South Asian history in the period the book covers between 1840 and 1915. In terms of the book’s impact, I’d like it to encourage more scholarship that joins up South Asian and Middle Eastern history.

I’d also like the book to further encourage studies that historicize Islam and explore its multiple sites and manifestations. Recent history has encouraged the retrenchment of a monolithic, “great tradition” model of Islam, as well as the fallacy that we are witnessing the creation of a singular “global Islam.” In the book’s conclusions, I argue against the premises of such a narrow horizon: there are now, as there were in the nineteenth century age of globalization, many competing Islams—many Muslim “religious firms”—operating in the global marketplace. So as a historian, I see many Islams being produced, marketed, and distributed in both past and present. I hope Bombay Islam provides a transferable model for making sense of that process. 

J: What led you to focus specifically on Bombay as a site for discussing the particular issues raised in this book?

NG: While being important as a major world city in itself, Bombay is also important as a comparative type of city, perhaps the primary example of the Asian and African port cities—Istanbul, Alexandria, Aden, Mombasa, Singapore—where Muslims increasingly congregated either side of 1900. But more than any of these cities, Bombay witnessed the industrialization of a religious economy that saw the overseas “export” of Muslim entrepreneurs, products and services. Industrialized printing and cheap rail and steamship travel were key to Bombay’s dominance of this oceanwide marketplace. Although Bombay Islam has its titular port city as the main focus, it also has chapters on Iran and South Africa, tracing the impact of Bombay’s religious economy at both ends of the west Indian Ocean. Like other port cities of the period, Bombay belonged as much to Middle Eastern and African as to Indian history.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

NG: I’m currently working on a book about the first group of Iranian students who came to Britain in the 1810s, one of whom—Mirza Salih Shirazi—left a wonderfully rich and humane diary of his four years in England.

I’m also working on a history of Islamic printing and a collection of my essays on Muslim global travellers in the age of steam, looking at travel accounts of Japan, East Africa, and Afghanistan as well as Europe. I have also recently co-edited Afghanistan in Ink, a history of modern Afghan literature. My Sufism: A Global History is due out in March 2012.

Excerpt from Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840-1915

At 10:15 on the night of 31 May 1903, the D-block of the recently completed Sita Ram Building in Bombay “suddenly came down with a crash.” Most of the multi-storey building was unoccupied, but on the ground floor was a saloon bar which over the past months had done a brisk and boozy trade with the port’s many British sailors. It was mainly the customers of the bar who made up the dead and injured when the building collapsed. Because the Windsor Bar stood right across the road from the shrine of a Muslim saint, rumors spread quickly that the disaster occurred through an insult to the holy man by the Hindu bar-owner and his bibulous Christian patrons. But for all his defense of the antialcoholic norms of sharı‘a, the saint in question was himself something of an oddity. His name was Pedro, and according to urban legend he was a Portuguese sailor who had converted to Islam two centuries earlier. This Pedro Shah was no more commonplace a saint than his feat of leveling a tower block was an act of everyday grace. From his shrine’s location in the heart of Bombay’s bazaar district, his spectacular miracle was symptomatic of the larger pressures of cosmopolitan modernity that helped create a marketplace of religions in the city surrounding him.

The implications of Pedro Shah’s story—that the moral life of the metropolis was regulated by supernatural policemen, that capitalist cosmopolitanism could be undone at the whim of a dead Muslim—have profound implications for the ways in which the trajectories of religion in the nineteenth-century Indian Ocean should be understood, and it is the goal of Bombay Islam to unravel these implications. The fact that rumors of righteous supernatural indignation causing Sita Ram Building to collapse spread so quickly tells us something important about the moral landscapes and vernacular imagination of a city which at the turn of the twentieth century stood at the vanguard of industrialization in both India and the Indian Ocean. For Pedro Shah’s cult was not the superstitious detritus of an earlier age, but part of a larger supply of religious productions being generated by the experiences of modern urban life. If such supernatural interventions as that seen in the punishment of the Windsor Bar drinkers are not part of the familiar story of the industrial city, then, like the internationalized Yoga of Swami Vivekananda in Chicago and the scientific table-tappers of Victorian London, they comprised the ruptures and reprises of culture that accompanied the ascent of the no less invisible powers of capital.

At the same time that, in London and Manchester, Marx and Engels were attempting to identify the vast but hidden forces that governed the industrializing process, the laborers and merchants of Bombay were developing their own readings of those powers. Just as the two overseas Germans made their models from the building-blocks of their continental intellectual heritage, so did the Muslims who gathered in Bombay from all around the Indian Ocean resort to their own cultural resources to make sense of their brave new world of cotton mills and dockyards. With its saints and miracles, its theologies and pamphlets, its festivals and schools, Bombay Islam was no less a response to industrial change than the leftist ideologies and working-men’s clubs that form the familiar stock-in-trade of the labor historian. If the Methodist, Spiritualist, and other alternative Christianities of the proletarian Atlantic are now well known, this book tries to draw from their shadow a parallel oceanic Islam of the industrial era.

While the collapse of Sita Ram Building was an unusually dramatic intervention of enchanted agency in the humdrum life of the city, it was unusual in scale and not kind. For in Bombay and its continental and maritime hinterlands, the new social conditions of modernity were highly receptive to an Islam of holy men and their strange powers. The survival—indeed, the increasing production—of such “old” religious forms in the industrial epicenter of the Indian Ocean demands a reconsidering of industrial modernity and the ways in which Muslims responded to and experienced it. If the story here is one of Bombay, then it is one of a Muslim city which has long stood in the shadows of other Bombays, whether British, Maharashtrian, or Parsi. It is also a story of the oceanic reach of Bombay Islam that through railways to Hyderabad and Gujarat and steamships to Iran and South Africa found markets far beyond the city’s own platforms and quays. As the rumors of a Portuguese Muslim imply, the picture painted by Bombay Islam also differs from familiar depictions of other globalizing Asian or African cities of the nineteenth century, where the social and intellectual forms of modernity have been read through secular or national trajectories. Seated similarly in the second carriage is the colonial, for Bombay Islam is constructed in the main from indigenous materials that, in reaching beyond the colonial archive, question the scale of imperial influence on the urban lower classes. In focusing on the Indian products of Bombay’s “economy of enchantment,” the following chapters place Muslim writings in the trans-regional languages of Persian, Urdu, and Arabic at center stage to explore an industrial and cosmopolitan environment that was at the same time enchanted with imaginaries and energies that industrialization did as much to empower as suppress.

With shipping routes connected together from every direction, such was the city’s status as travel hub of the west Indian Ocean that even Muslims making the hajj from Africa, Central Asia, or Iran found themselves on layover there. Muslim Bombay was to maritime itineraries in the second half of the nineteenth century what Dubai would become to airplane journeys in the second half of the twentieth. All underwritten by commerce, these steamship and sailboat networks ferried in African deckhands and Iranian merchants to add to this character as Islam’s industrial carrefour. Drawing Muslims from far and wide, in the mid-nineteenth century Bombay emerged as the cosmopolis of the Indian Ocean, a global city in which Muslims were forced to deal with the competitive pressures that also shaped its Atlantic counterpart, New York. Bombay’s industrialization was signalled to these Muslims in many different ways. Its mechanical advances offered urban visions of a progressive future; its iron printing-presses produced books in Persian and Arabic, English and Urdu, Malay and Swahili; its steam-fed factories created a jostling of new Muslim proletarians; its sheer size allowed Muslims to alternatively discover the collective unity of the umma or to learn instead that they were above all “Indian.” By the mid-nineteenth century, not only was Bombay urbs prima in Indis (as its proud citizens were fond of calling it), but also a primary city of Islam. While in the same period Istanbul, Alexandria, and Beirut experienced comparable patterns of demographic and cosmopolitan expansion, in scale and speed none could compete with Bombay’s industrialized pace of growth, and the oceanic rather than Mediterranean remit of its pluralism. From Africa, India, and the Middle East, Bombay attracted Muslim industrial workers; from the small towns of the Konkan came others in their tens of thousands, along with shiploads of Iranian pilgrims whose journeys to Mecca now involved a stopover of weeks or even months in Bombay. For the Muslim aristocracy of landlocked Hyderabad, Bombay served as a window to the world; for Iranian political and religious exiles as a place of refuge. For a new breed of Muslim missionaries the city’s demoralized workforce offered fertile ground for proselytization, while the wealth of its Muslim merchants lent these missionaries the routes and resources to expand beyond Bombay. The city brought together far more linguistically and ethnically diverse Muslim groups than the smaller dar al-Islam of the ports of the Mediterranean.

In the earliest major source on Bombay Islam, the Persian Jan-e Bomba’ı (Bombay soul), written in 1816, the port was already presented as the crossroads of the world. In addition to the English, Portuguese, Greeks, Dutch, Zoroastrians, Jews, Chinese, and the many “sects” (farqa) of Hindus described as residents of the city, Jan-e Bomba’ı spoke of a bewildering range of Muslim groups who also lived there: Arabs and Turks, Iranis and Turanis, Sindis and Hindis, Kabulis and Qandaharis, Punjabis and Lahoris, Kashmiris and Multanis, Madrasis and Malabaris, Gujaratis and Dakanis, Baghdadis and Basrawis, Muscatis and Konkanis. These Muslims did not collapse themselves into an indistinguishable and uniform religious community, and the author of Jan-e Bomba’ı tells us that each group deliberately made themselves appear different through their forms of dress: “Every one of them has invented an attractive and different style of tying their turbans (dastar) and of curling the locks of their hair in individual ways.” Drawing Muslims from Iran and Iraq, Central Asia and Arabia, as well as every corner of the Indian subcontinent, with its wide pull of visitors Bombay came to serve as the mercantile shadow of Mecca that would in time produce its own Islams in boisterous counterpoint.

[Excerpted from Nile Green, Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840-1915. © Nile Green 2011. Excerpted by permission of the author. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]

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