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Cosmopolis Of A Shared Worldview

Francis Robinson

By Seema Alavi
Harvard University Press, Harvard, 2015, pp. 490, Rs. 1495.00


A feature of scholarship on Muslims and Islam in South Asia until recently was that it tended not to explore their connections beyond the subcontinent. The British as historians, though not as rulers, established this tendency. After Partition Indian Muslims for very good political reasons chose not to draw attention to their historical links with the wider Muslim world. Recently this has all changed. Several books on the Mughals, in particular Moin Azfar’s The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam(Columbia University Press, 2014) has demonstrated that it is not possible to understand Mughal kingship without becoming aware of its Timurid background. The same goes for much else of the Mughal period from the role of women at court through to Islamic scholarship. Nile Green has demonstrated in his Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840– 1915 (Cambridge University Press, 2011) that to understand Islam as practised in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Bombay it is not nearly enough to take into account its hinterlands in northern India and Hyderabad. One must also take into account the great networks of trade, princely and Sufi connections linking the Indian Ocean worlds of South and East Africa, the Hadhramaut and Iran to the great seaport. Seema Alavi is concerned to show how in the nineteenth century networks of primarily Indian Muslims grew in the spaces which lay between the British and Ottoman empires, and also to a lesser extent the Russian empire. Important underpinnings of these networks were the improved communications provided by the British Empire but also largely similar positions on Islamic reform, that is being against worship at saints’ shrines and for a personal engagement with scripture. Sufi connections were also there, in particular those of the reforming elements of the Naqshbandiyya, so too, frequently, were those of trade. Particularly important in fashioning a world of connected sensibility was print, only seriously adopted in the Ottoman and Indian Muslim worlds in the early nineteenth century. Printed books, and increasingly newspapers, helped to fashion a shared world of ideas and feelings. Thus the Muslim world of India linked into Mecca, Cairo, Istanbul and further afield. This world of personal connections, and often a shared worldview, Alavi terms a Muslim cosmopolis. Alavi begins with an excellent chapter on the Muslim reformers in the context of the transition to British rule. She argues that the central processes of reform—the reduction of ...

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