‘The Indian Ocean Muslims’ have contributed to the synthesis of Islamic history for over a millennium, but their roles have been continuously downplayed and disregarded in the historiography. Indians [al-Hindīs], Malays [al-Jāwīs] and Swahilis [al-Zanjīs], in South and Southeast Asia and East Africa respectively, interacted across the Indian Ocean highway and all shaped Islam in their own ways. Only a small number of people actually voyaged overseas physically, but they were all influenced by the ideas brought in by those who did. The history of Islamic law in the Indian Ocean world tells us the story of this general pattern of mobility across communities, doctrines, texts, sources, places and periods. In this essay, I explore the Africans who worked in South and Southeast Asia as judges, jurists, scholars and preachers in premodern period.
The circulation of texts across borders before the printing press remains largely unexplored. The Indian Ocean world is a case in point: it reveals many fascinating life stories of Islamic books.
Manuscripts were an important commodity sought after across the oceanic highway from Southeast Africa to Southeast Asia. Not only were they objects of learning, but also of diplomacy, rituals, treatment, plunder, gifts, and social status. Studies on the circulation of books across Asia and Africa – and the Indian Ocean littoral that bound them – mainly focus on the mobility of printed books and related technologies. The circulation of texts before the printing press, however, remains largely unstudied.
During the archival and ethnographic research I conducted for my doctoral dissertation on the transmission of Islamic legal texts across the Eastern Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean world between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries, I observed a great depth and breadth of unpreserved and unstudied private and official collections of thousands of Islamic manuscripts in South Asia alone. While the collections in Southeast Asia have been considerably catalogued and preserved, their South Asian counterparts continue to be neglected and poorly maintained.
Fatwas are legal opinions by Muslim jurists, akin to responsa in Roman, canon and Judaic legal traditions. Fatwas are presented to the public in the form of decisions and rulings in response to questions addressed to them. Fatwa collections have been analysed as a vital source for social and cultural histories. In the existing literatures on Islamic legal history and on South or Southeast Asian Islamic traditions fatwa-collections from the “peripheries” of the Muslim world (South Asia and Southeast Asia) have been largely ignored, despite the fact that both regions currently accommodate the largest Muslim populations in the world. One such collection from premodern South Asia is the al-Ajwibat al-‘Ajībat ‘an al-as’ilat al-gharībat (henceforth Ajwibat), or Marvelous Answers to Uncommon Questions, compiled by Zayn al-Dīn Ahmad al-Malaybārī (d. 1583).
Exactly 400 years ago, on the 10th March of 1616, King Zamorin of Calicut wrote his first letter to King James I of Great Britain, France and Ireland.
In the letter, he wrote:“I do hereby faithfully promise to be and continue a friend to the English, and my successors after me. […] I also will endeavour, with the aid of the English to take in the fort and town of Cochin, belonging formerly to my crown and kingdom, and then to deliver it into the possession of the English as their own proper land and possessions, provided that the charges of the surprise thereof be equally borne, the one half by myself, the other half by the English nation, and the benefits of the spoil thereof, in whatsoever quality, the one half to belong to me and the other half to the English nation; the Samorin to have thenceforward no right, title or interest in the town, fortress, precincts or appurtenances of Cochin at all.”
Once we read this letter in 2016, we cannot help but notice a few ironies it presents in a historical lens.
The horrific attacks in Paris have reinvigorated debates about terrorism, Islamic extremism and (in)humanity. Memorial events should be approached in a more inclusive way, calling attention to similar tragedies that take place further from "home."
On 16 November, one minute of silence was held across the EU to mourn the victims of the terrible events in Paris. The Humanities Faculty of Leiden University called on its staff and students to “observe a minute’s silence as a token of respect for the French nation.” Although this gesture was intended to commemorate “all innocent victims of terror,” it is clear that the reason was Paris, not the attacks in Beirut (one day earlier, also claimed by ISIS) or Turkey, the ongoing violence in Iraq, Syria and Nigeria, or the brutal massacre of 132 school children in Peshawar and 147 university students in Kenya (both less than one year ago). These other places and incidents remained, in sharp contrast to “Paris,” unnamed.
In The Coffee House of Surat, written in 1885, Leo Tolstoy brings together a Persian theologian, an African slave, a Brahmin, a Jewish broker, an Italian missionary, a Protestant minister, a Turk office-holder, the Assyrian Christians, Llamas from Tibet, Ismailians, and Fire-worshippers, all arguing about the nature of God and whose country owns the true God. The debate was started by the Persian over a zip of opium and was ended by a Chinaman with a long conversation in which he says: ‘… it is chiefly pride that prevents men agreeing with one another on matters of faith… it is pride that causes error and discord among men…Each man wants to have a special God of his own, or at least a special God for his native land. Each nation wishes to confine in its own temples Him, whom the world cannot contain.’Moving forward chronologically and geographically southward, we arrive at the Malabar Coast in the twentieth century. There, I am tempted to place all these argumentative representatives from diverse ethnic backgrounds into a single religious community of ‘Keralite Islam’, which has been numerously factionalized and fighting each other.