Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Scott S. Reese's "Imperial Muslims"

Scott S. Reese is Professor of Islamic History at Northern Arizona University and author of Renewers of the Age: Holy Men and Social Discourse in Colonial Benaadir and The Transmission of Learning in Islamic Africa.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Imperial Muslims: Islam, Community and Authority in the Indian Ocean, 1839-1937, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Registrar Khan and Da’ud al-Battah

Sayyid Rustom was not the only Muslim bureaucrat to take a hand in what could be described as largely religious matters. If anything, his successor M. Yasin Khan involved himself even more deeply in the religious affairs of his fellow believers. A native of Meerut in India, Yasin Khan arrived in Aden in 1918 as a fresh Bombay law graduate to serve as a “Temporary Extraordinary Assistant Resident.” In 1919, he was named Acting Registrar, an appointment made permanent in 1920. He served for at least fifteen years in this position in addition to a number of secondments as Hajj officer in the mid-1920s. Registrar Khan did not involve himself in the matrimonial affairs of Aden’s Muslims that seemed to preoccupy his predecessor. As Mitra Sharafi has pointed out, however, for many, engagement with the law offered “special opportunities for social mobility,” and the opportunity to act as important intellectual and cultural brokers between one’s community and the state. Registrar Kahn was certainly an exemplar of this kind of ambitious culture brokering, and, as such, he took an even greater interest in the religious concerns of the Settlement’s Muslim community. The result was a long-standing and complex association with the new Qadi of Crater, Da’ud al-Battah. Over the course of more than a decade, their association in some ways mirrored the confrontational relationship of their predecessors but was in others far more mutually beneficial.

Unlike Rustom Ali, Yasin Khan’s relations with the religious establishment of Aden began on a relatively promising note. Early in his tenure a group of notables led by the Shams al-‘Ulama’, Sayyid Abdullah Aydarus, with the support of the Aden Qadi, Da’ud al-Battah, petitioned the Resident for official recognition of a Wakf Committee to oversee the administration of local properties designated as “waqf” or “pious endowments,”, dedicated to the support of various mosques and shrines. In a letter to the Resident in February 1921, the notables stated that while there were numerous waqf properties in the Settlement, the agents charged with overseeing them frequently embezzled the rents. As a result, the mosques, whose upkeep was supposed to be paid for through them, as well as the properties themselves, were in a disgraceful state of repair. If steps were not taken, they wrote, the mosques of Aden would soon “become a danger to the public and the public health.” In an effort to remedy the situation, they wrote, “A number of leading citizens of Aden have met in [the] Shams al-‘Ulama’s house and appointed a committee of 6 persons ... with [the] Shams al-ulema [sic] as chairman to take delivery of these houses, to recover the rents [and] spend the same in the interests of the mosques and generally to look after (preserve) the mosques and their interests.” The British administration declined to formally recognize the Committee but acknowledged that the formation of such a group would undoubtedly improve the state of sacred sites within the Settlement. As such, they permitted Registrar Khan to act, in “his private capacity,” as an advisor to the group. In its first year of operation, the Wakf Committee encountered a number of problems in which Khan played a pivotal role, becoming an ardent partisan of the so-called traditional elite or, as we shall see, at least some of them.
On being asked to carry out the “page 99” test, like many authors, my first reaction was a sense of unease. What if page 99 was simply intellectual filler of interest to no one other than myself and making no contribution to the central arguments of my book Imperial Muslims? With great relief, I turned to page ninety-nine to discover that, indeed, Ford Madox Ford was right. While I will leave it up to the reader to decide whether or not this is a work of “quality” page ninety-nine certainly highlights certain critical themes of the book as a whole.

Imperial Muslims is a book about the creation of Muslim community within the confines of British rule. Set in Aden between its occupation in 1839 and the eve of the Second World, my work explores how individuals from widely varied backgrounds–hailing as they did from across the Indian Ocean–crafted a community utilizing the one commonality at their disposal: their faith. Specifically, I explore how Aden’s Muslims used common religious institutions, such as mosques, tombs, Islamic law and “pious endowments” to outline the boundaries of a community to which all could belong.

The relationship between Yasin Khan, a Bombay trained lawyer, and Da’ud al-Battah, a local Islamic court judge, is an instructive example. While from different intellectual traditions–and indeed different ethnic backgrounds–the two found common cause in their quest to control the port’s “pious endowments”–rental properties whose proceeds served to support mosques and other sacred Muslim spaces within the Aden Settlement. Such control allowed them to assert authority over the boundaries of community determining who was and was not an upstanding Muslim of Aden. While such efforts were not uncontested, they demonstrate an agency of individual Muslims that was largely independent of the imperial regime. So, while empire may have brought Aden’s Muslims together, it was Islam that made them a community.
Learn more about Imperial Muslims at the Edinburgh University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue