Wilson Chacko Jacob, For God or Empire: Sayyid Fadl and the Indian Ocean World (Stanford University Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Wilson Chacko Jacob (WCJ): This is my second book, but in a way, it was meant to be the first. I initially set out to specialize in Indian Ocean history for my PhD—because, in the 1990s there was still so little published, and I thought I had the unique fortune of having the right biography and training to make a significant contribution. But my love of Egypt, which goes back to my undergraduate years, and my supervisor’s expertise, took me along other paths. However, even before I finished the first book, which was a revision of the dissertation, I felt something was amiss. In part, this was an intellectual problem and, in part, political. Despite all my best attempts to deconstruct the naturalness of “Egypt,” locate its formation in global discourses and technologies of the body (gender, sexuality, race, nation, sports), Egypt the nation-state stubbornly remained at the center of the narrative. At the time I thought that this was because a normative national subject (the effendi) was the central character, for which I could compensate by gesturing towards the deviant or non-normative in the formation of Egyptian identity and sovereignty, hence my last chapter on futuwwa. I realized this was not adequate.

This realization and a possible answer to the problem lay in a chance encounter I had in the PRO (Public Record Office, renamed The National Archives, UK) with the central character of For God or Empire, which ironically, or aptly, resulted from a fit of boredom. While I was tying up some loose ends in preparation of Working Out Egypt and when I tired of reading endless police reports on Boy Scouts, I wandered the open shelves of catalogues and pulled up some surprising records. The entry, which read “the Moplah Outlaw,” had jogged a faint personal memory. To my surprise, however, the sweeping tale the records told was of a region-hopping, troublemaking Muslim, not a Christian actor as I was expecting. The note I randomly jotted down about Sayyid Fadl “the Moplah Outlaw” in 2005 became the basis of a large research project that I hoped would correct for the artificial national (and regional) bias of modern Middle East historiography. In the end, for various reasons, the book which was meant to be a conceptual history of futuwwa and sayyid became the Indian Ocean history I thought I would write over twenty years ago!

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

WCJ: So, the intellectual and political problem of writing post-orientalist histories alluded to above remained a central concern for me as I set out to research the life of Sayyid Fadl ibn ‘Alawi, a member of the Hadrami sayyid-Sufi diaspora that spread throughout the Indian Ocean world from around the fifteenth century. Though many scholars of “the Orient” continue with business as usual and ignore or reject the implications of Edward Said’s monumental critique of structures of knowledge and their complicity in the perpetuation of global asymmetries, others have made tremendous strides putting it into practice in the production of new knowledge. When I began this project, I was fortunate to have Engseng Ho’s brilliant The Graves of Tarim (2006) as guide to the genealogy and mobility of the ‘Alawiyya over a longue-durée. It set a new standard for writing into world history otherwise sidelined or forgotten actors—in turn rewriting world history. Using the methods and approaches of historical anthropology, which I also borrowed, ‘Alawi histories do not become mere appendages to, or casualties of, those European actors who came aboard gunships representing empires and trading companies and laid a claim to history itself. This teleological narrative-effect is especially common in imperial historiographies of the nineteenth and twentieth century. Taking cues from Ho and recent works on sovereignty, particularly by Lauren Benton and Sugata Bose, who show how the concept was reconfigured in global and transregional theaters, For God or Empire inquires deeper into the question of life’s transformation under the shifting terms of ordering places, peoples, ideas, and things during the long nineteenth century, and a bit beyond.

Through the biography of Fadl, the book tries to do three things. First, it provides a fuller account than most of the complex life lived by this descendant of the Prophet. It is able to do so by accessing multiple archives and a variety of sources, from Sufi treatises to government documents in Arabic, Malayalam, Ottoman, English, and French. Second, it also traces Fadl’s historical entanglements with empires—British, Ottoman, and Omani—as Seema Alavi has recently done, but with an objective different from hers. In part, I reconstruct these histories in order to reflect on the theoretical lacuna in our understanding of modern sovereignty’s genealogy. I try to illuminate forms of sovereignty that were thought to disappear when regarded from the secular perspective underpinning the international order that arose at the intersection of inter-imperial rivalries. Modern history beyond Europe is largely accounts of how this two-tiered order of legal recognition subjugated anew Egypt, India, Iraq, etc. and made (new) politics possible, as subjects were made citizens.

The other part is also the third aim of the biography, which is to reflect on perhaps a fantasy, a mystery: life beyond relations to sovereignty. While Fadl’s historical and biological existence was mediated and to some extent determined by the global processes that made modern sovereignty possible (commodification of agriculture, changes in property relations, abolition of slavery, industrialization, governmentalization, steamships, telegraphs, etc.), his life as Sufi and sayyid was not simply reducible to these. Hence, the biography of Sayyid Fadl did not seem complete unless the form of life that could escape worldly sovereignties and even the limits set by biology were also explored. This was especially true since “it” (in the book I use a label of convenience drawn yet departing from the Sufi tradition: wahdat al-wujud) formed the horizon of the struggle that Fadl understood to constitute the meaning of life in the ‘Alawi Way. Accordingly, this life, signs of which are still scattered around the Indian Ocean littoral in the form of shrines, texts, genealogical tables, and talismans (ranging from wooden clogs and walking sticks to beds and swords), was one that preceded and exceeded his historical present.

The book is thus informed by Fadl’s own conception of life, which led me to hagiographies, the shrine of his father in Malabar, and contemporary debates about the ‘Alawis in cyberspace in order to reflect and to demonstrate the temporalities of a Sufi-sayyid form of life. I use the attention to life as something more than biological and historical in turn to connect in non-imperial, non-national ways a Malayali Malabar (contemporary Kerala) to an Arab “Subcontinent” (which I argue is how Fadl perceived the peninsular geography that also included Egypt, Syria, and Iraq). Sayyid ‘Alawi’s shrine in Malabar then transported me, as it has others, to another shrine in Oman that also had a claim on Malabar and vice versa. Imperial and international boundaries and borders fail to contain or define life when death as an end is also a beginning. And when the trajectories of territorialization and bio-politicization of life are bracketed as a result, writing a history of sovereignty, modern or divine, means creating an opening to recognize the possibility of its impossibility, the moments of its in-operativity.

Thus, the book is an experimental biography that aspires to global history while taking mystical leaps through interconnected dimensions of life that confound two- and three-dimensional conceptions of time and space.

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

WCJ: As I noted in the first section, while departing from the Egyptian soil that nourished me intellectually to new shores, For God or Empire nevertheless builds on the concerns of my first book with the naturalization and universalization of the state-form and the normalization of the national subject. It plays with biography to show that teleological narratives of state and subject informing histories and theories of sovereignty depend on a secularized, anthropomorphized view of life and its relation to non-life. In that way this book is a product of a different time, as planetary crisis makes conventions of history writing seem inadequate in new ways. The notion of wahdat al-wujud, or unity of life as I have translated it, and Fadl as a historical subject struggling to live within its horizon of presupposed interconnectivity along multiple axes, required much more discipline hopping and time travel than in my previous work.

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

WCJ: Everyone, and to solve the planetary crisis! But realistically, I hope students of any field interested in how life and power intersect or do not in different moments will find something worthwhile here. That is enough impact for me. Of course, if members of the ‘Alawiyya and those who follow them find that I have done some justice to the life of Sayyid Fadl and to life as conceived in the tradition, I would be overjoyed.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

WCJ: Transforming the rollicking historical adventures of Fadl into a screenplay or novel is one (crazy?) idea. There were so many amazing aspects of this life that evidentiary requirements of historical scholarship made impossible to flesh out. Another idea is to return to gender and sexuality, picking up where my first book left off, focusing on scientific and legal investments in the 1940s and 50s.

Excerpt from the book 

Certainly, the wider geopolitical universe enfolding Fadl in its warp and weft involved dynamic relations among empires, regional powers, tribes, city-states, and mobile religious men that were already several decades old by the latter third of the nineteenth century and had transformed the political relations of the Indian Ocean world, including the Middle East. One could say that as the Tanzimat came to an end of sorts in 1876, with bankruptcy and a constitution, the modern political subject had already become a globally intelligible creature. It marked a future horizon, new ends of sovereignty that departed dramatically from the past and was to touch every life on the planet. Nonetheless, the confrontation or negotiation between Islamic and secularized Christian traditions of conceptualizing sovereignty, which we have argued fundamentally shaped the meaning, direction, and outcome of global politics, was for many actors still unfinished business in the 1870s.

Perhaps the final proof of Fadl’s profound engagement with worldly power was the grand state funeral he was accorded after his death on October 26, 1900. Layers and layers of the imperial order, from palace attendants and Armenian merchants to top judges and high State Council members, were represented—the presence of the Ottoman ambassador to the United States confirming his global reach.  His body was retrieved from his house in the Machka neighborhood of the Nishantashi quarter and in procession accompanied by police, gendarme, imperial guards, city officials, and Shadhli Sufis, Fadl made his final trip. After funeral prayers held in no other mosque than the monumental Aya Sofia, he was transferred to Mahmud II’s Cemetery—his final resting place decided by order of the sultan to be alongside Tanzimat luminaries. It would seem the ambivalence of a life’s relation to sovereignty was finally interred.

Even as spaces of autonomy and the concomitant potential for independent action shrank throughout the nineteenth century—explaining in part the different trajectories of father and son—the specific temporal and spatial dimensions of the Alawiyya exceeded the time(s) of the historical and gifted to Fadl another, un-faded “map” of life that promised to show the way to a relationship with a non- and even anti-historical, i.e., transcendent, divine sovereignty. That life and its ways were marked by genealogical and mystical texts, spiritual exercises, discipleships, and gravesites, which we have argued amount paradoxically to less than and more than sovereignty: unity of life. As he read this map of a multidimensional universe towards the end of his earthly time, modern political sovereignty and sayyid sovereignty could not but be mediated by the question of life in relation to the paramount sovereignty of God.

One of the maps that Fadl revisited and reconfigured for the time was titled This True and Merciful Way (Hadhihi al-tariqa al-hanifa al-samha’), which was a guide to the Alawiyya, to its long chain of sayyids and saints, to its wise teachings, to the performance of dhikr, and to the fundamental truthfulness of the Way. Interestingly, this second printing in 1900 was done under government auspices as a short Turkish note on the cover indicates: “This was published with the authorization, number 181, of the Ministry of Education, at the printing house of the Crimean Abdullah Efendi, which is situated on Kiztashi Street (Istanbul).” Hence, looking to this map of the Alawi Way—bearing its literal stamp (no. 181) of government approval—for unambiguous answers about Fadl’s final years would be a mistake. The other Ottoman “intrusions” into the Arabic risala, which seemed positioned to domesticate the text, make reading This Way as some pure Sufi meditation problematic. Nonetheless, the marginal markings index a moment of aporia that Fadl must necessarily have experienced in his last years and point to the unsettl(ed)ing relationship of life to sovereignty. The marginalia were Ottoman translations of the Arabic, only appearing at strategic points in the text and mirroring strategic points in the world: when the relevance of the Alawis to Hadhramawt was being elaborated.

This Way begins with the teaching of al-Arif Billah Abd al-Rahman bin Abd Allah bal-Faqih Ba Alawi. A fundamental pillar of the Alawiyya is explicated here in the very first line: “The time of the social yields no benefit in the absence of kinship” [la tufid tul al-mujalasa ma ‘adam al-mujanasa]. Engseng Ho has extensively mapped the genealogical imagination and practices of the Alawis over the longue-durée, so the intricacies of its development as a “society of the absent” in a diasporic context need not be rehearsed. For the purposes of establishing the life that Fadl was an heir to, beholden to, and challenged to forsake, we need only to note the juxtaposition of sociality and intimacy, of which kinship was a primary and operative modality. Within the larger rubric of Islamic society and Islamic conceptions of sovereignty, the weight of the genealogical was felt strongly even as it was regularly contested—hence the need to reiterate it at the fin-de-siècle in the face of new challenges, specifically the governmentalization of state discussed in previous chapters.

In this regard, the time or duration of the social formation was assumed to have a history and politics that often diverged from the Way which presupposed a series of relations made possible and extended to man by the grace of God, with sayyids and mystics playing leading roles. Overt critique of the former (orthodox dispensation, if you will) was always a problem, hence, Sufi orders which stressed intimacy with God, in an expansion of traditional kinship and prophetic lineages, in some cases, always walked a line between acceptance and rejection. In the case of the Alawiyya, the kinship that truly mattered was that linked to the Prophet Muhammad. The matter of Alawi kinship was at once historical—when regarded from the perspective of the timeline of the social—and universal—when considered as exemplary practice on a path to oneness with God and the suspension of time. All other relations of souls to bodies and people to each other remained chaotic and ephemeral, returning to dust, when deficient in the remembrance of God. Without the unifying power of God, souls remained but “conscripts” [junud mujannada] and bodies a bundle of contradictory passions [al-ajsamu amzijatun mutadadatun]. Within this cosmology, prophets and their descendants mattered; they helped facilitate a glimpse of unity of life.

In reaffirming the universality of God’s Truth, sovereignty in its various worldly guises could not but become a problem. However, the historical “problem space” for which Fadl offered his map was quite different from the time of al-Faqih. The standard solution grounded in genealogy was surely rehearsed extensively. Each person’s birth and existence on earth was analogized to the familiar blank slate of human essence or nature [kullu mawludin yuwladu ala al-fitra] and the language that always preceded it, which was recursively inscribed upon it. The person born unmarked was conditioned into a tradition: “Judaized, Magiized, or Christianized” by fathers and mothers. Then in the familiar monotheistic move, divine government, by definition impossible and inoperative on earth, was seconded to caretakers: “the shepherd of a flock [abu al-ra‘iyya] is its sultan.” The genealogical ties binding man to man were indispensable to any community existing at any time. But without the knowledge and wisdom of God, which is self-knowledge, an empty existence remained, the soul, a mere conscript to the will of bodily desires.