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Hajj Pilgrims and the Politics of Empire

Pilgrimage, Politics and Pestilence: The Haj from the Indian Subcontinent, 1860-1920 by Saurabh Mishra (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2011; pp 177, Rs 595.



Hajj Pilgrims and the Politics of Empire

Asiya Alam



“is the rise of public health and sanitary administration in several parts of the world, as a result of which the idea of disease importation and spread of contagion came to be more widely discussed” (p 2). The foundation of this approach is that it views the hajj through the eyes of the co

he experience of religious travel, particularly the hajj, underwent crucial transformations in the colonial period. Informed by medical, political and commercial developments in modern times, its narration too reflected these changes and was significantly different from earlier precolonial accounts of the journey. Recently, Mushirul Hasan and Siobhan Lambert-Hurley explored the transitions rendered by the colonial rule in the specific accounts of Amir Ahmad Alawi and Nawab Sikandar Begum, respectively (Hasan and Jalil 2009; Lambert-Hurley 2007). Adding to these narratives of hajj historiography, Saurabh Mishra now examines the impact of imperial politics on the administration and management of the hajj in south Asia. (The English spelling “hajj” used in this review reflects a more accurate rendering of the Arabic word.)

In Pilgrimage, Politics and Pestilence, Saurabh Mishra explores the transformations brought upon the hajj from south Asia due to the policies of the colonial state from 1860 to 1920. The aim of this historical exercise is to demonstrate that the pilgrimage was “deeply implicated within political, commercial, religious and medical issues of the time and the interaction between these various issues and compulsions led to a constant change in

Pilgrimage, Politics and Pestilence: The Haj from the Indian Subcontinent, 1860-1920

by Saurabh Mishra (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), 2011; pp 177, Rs 595.

the nature, organisation and meanings of the pilgrimage during our period of study” (p 4). In particular, Mishra emphasises that “it is necessary to recover the pilgrim’s voices not only during the period of quarantine but also during the rest of the journey”, for there is a “wealth of material-travelogues written by pilgrims, newspaper reports, journals and periodicals – that allow us to do this” (p 9). Methodologically, it therefore attempts to juxtapose colonial or European records alongside pilgrims’ documents to “judge the level of difference and interpenetration between the two” (p 9). Taking hajj to be a useful site for examining policies of the colonial state, Mishra also aspires to “look at the manner in which these policies were perceived, negotiated and resisted by pilgrims and various sections of Indian Muslims” (p 11).

Ambivalence of the Colonial State

The central idea that Mishra emphasises in his study is the “medicalisation” of the pilgrimage arguing that medicine “had the greatest impact on the organisation of the pilgrimage” (p 7). What is peculiar to his period of study, according to Mishra, lonial state and not that of the pilgrims or the colonial subjects and subsequently the state’s concern of controlling epidemics and disease remains the pivot of the argument. Here, Mishra successfully demonstrates the ambivalent and fraught nature of state policy where it “was being pulled by the desire to encourage and ensure free trade, by the necessity of maintaining a propilgrimage position in the eyes of Indian Muslims, by European demands to impose sanitary regulations on Indian pilgrims, and by demands from pilgrims and various sections of Indian Muslims” (p 42). From 1865 onwards, according to Mishra, the desire to prevent the entry of cholera into European territories dominated the western medical discourse of the hajj and pilgrimage was intimately tied to discourses of pestilence and the spread of epidemics. The British’s perception of Muslims as “fanatic” “combined with the perceived centrality of Mecca in Muslim lives, acted as a very strong deterrent against any possible intrusion into the pilgrimage” (p 8).

Besides these fears, Mishra elucidates a second feature of the State’s ambivalence involving the interplay between commerce, politics and the idea of contagion where commercial rivalry and politics of laissez-faire informed the medical examination of ships and vessels. In order to contain the competition of free trade and British imperial interests, Mishra

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demonstrates that the theory of non-contagiousness of cholera became influential amongst colonial officials to combat arguments against quarantines and prevent impairment of trade.

One of the important criteria in understanding the idea of non-intervention of the colonial state would be the opinion of Muslims. Utilising a class-based distinction, Mishra argues that educated Muslims resisted hajj reforms or any form of intrusion because they believed that it would have the adverse effect of preventing poor hajis from embarking on the journey. A problem for Mishra here is that even though he claims that “countless letters were exchanged on the subject of poor pilgrims”, (p 20) he offers only one correspondence between the secretary of the Mahomedan Literary Society and the undersecretary to the government of Bengal in his evidence and concludes from Rafiuddin Ahmed’s analysis “that these elite Muslims who were in constant touch with officials, employed the rhetoric of ‘Muslim masses’ to meet what they saw as their own class or community interests” (p 21). Drawn almost exclusively from secondary sources and devoid of Urdu or Persian materials, Mishra never unpacks the full implications of this statement. What were these interests and how were they discussed in the vernacular press? There is, for instance, no discussion or even mention of the term sharafat or sharif Muslims, the descriptive categories that characterise much of the scholarship on Muslim modernity and concerns of educated Muslims in the works of David Lelyveld, Gail Minault and Mushirul Hasan.

Mishra’s claim is further complicated by his observation that when the most farreaching hajj reforms were implemented following the Khilafat movement in the 1930s, “they hardly elicited any reaction from the pilgrims” (p 21). What was the status of poor/illiterate Muslims in the understanding of Muslim elites in the early 20th century and what were the factors responsible for generating conditions favourable to reform? In order to confront these questions, it would be necessary to study in longue durée conversations between Muslims and the colonial state to arrive at a clear picture of their interaction. The dialogical nature of state policy involving responses and counter-reactions between state and its subjects is thinly represented in the text. The only clue given is that “whereas in the late 18th century there was a greater reliance on the opinion of those who were considered knowledgeable in scriptures and religious tracts, a century later” this community of informants “had been replaced to a large extent by a new breed of professional, western-educated, ‘enlightened’ Muslims” (p 22). But these claims are poorly connected to the issue of hajj reforms and Mishra hardly reveals any debate on the hajj amongst Muslims themselves to adequately tackle these questions.

Pilgrims’ Voices

Moving away from the State to explore briefly the experiences of pilgrims, Mishra describes some moving stories of the spiritual quest and feelings of love and longing that often accompanied these journeys. The preference, however, is given to colonial policy and Mishra a rgues that “the medical and sanitary d imensions of the pilgrimage do not receive the prominence that they might have deserved and this was perhaps due to the haji’s preoccupation with their spiritual experiences” (p 9). In order to recover the voices of pilgrims, it would have been useful here to go beyond the medical d imensions of the hajj and to study the style and structures of hajj narratives produced in south Asia and outline the commonalities and contrasts in the experience of hajj. In their Introduction to the hajj account of Amir Ahmad Alawi, Hasan and Jalil demonstrate that his religious narrative not only reveals the experience of the haji but also his own culture accompanied by an insight into the social, economic and political conditions of the places he passed through. According to Hasan and Jalil, Amir Ahmad Alawi’s S afar-I Saadat is not only an account of the management, administration and regulation of the hajj by the government but is also a critique of Wahhabi Islamic practice in the Hejaz, an expression of qasbati culture and a rite of passage involving moral, psychological and intellectual development (Hasan and Jalil 2009).1

One of the crucial factors in the production of hajj narratives was the changing social relations between men and women in Indian society. Beginning in early 20th century, the movement for women’s education and a critique of gender relations enabled greater production of hajj accounts by women. In this regard, Hasan and Jalil mention the writings of Nishatul Nisa (1885-1937), wife of Urdu writer Hasrat Mohani, who authored Safarnama-i Iraq and Safarnama-i Hijaz published in 1937 (ibid: 29).The journalistic space of Urdu women’s magazines also provided a public platform for hajj accounts and in 1927,




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Economic Political Weekly


Tahzib-e Niswan serialised the hajj travelogue of a Hameeda Begum Khairi, a denizen of Delhi (Khairi 1927). Before the 20th century, the voyage of Bhopal’s ruler Nawab Sikandar Begum to the holy land had been published in 1870 (a text missing from the book). Siobhan Lambert-Hurley has argued that “what emerges is a snapshot of a genuinely complex individual as she negotiated with the colonial power, her fellow Indians and her south and west Asian co-religionists to craft an image of herself as an effective administrator, a loyal subject and a good Muslim”.2

Politics of the Hajj

As a text focused largely on external and non-spiritual aspects of the hajj, one of the important dimensions that Mishra points out is the symbolic employment of the hajj as a force of pan-Islamic politics and its role in the formation of Indo-Muslim consciousness in early 20th century. From mid-19th century onwards, Mishra illustrates that colonial policy was determined by the negative depictions of Mecca and the Arabs in European records along with

Akyuz, Yilmaz, ed. (2011): The Management of Capital Flows in Asia (Malaysia: Third World Network, Penang); pp 232, price not indicated.

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FitzGerald, Valpy, Judith Heyer and Rosemary Thorp, ed. (2011): Overcoming the Persistence of Inequality and Poverty (New York: Palgrave Macmillan); pp xxi + 301, £ 60.

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growing distrust of colonial subjects especially the Muslims. These beliefs strengthened British fears about Mecca as a place of intrigue and reprisal and attached political urgency which “became stronger by the second decade of the 20th century, when Mecca became a much more powerful political symbol” (p 128). Citing Gail Minault’s scholarship on the Khilafat movement, Mishra argues that hajj by the 1910s and 1920s had become strongly associated with anti-British sentiments and was employed to rouse public opinion.

The basic structure of the book traces the trajectory of hajj policy of the colonial state “from the days when it was seen as a subject of exclusively commercial or sanitary importance” to when “Mecca had begun to be increasingly seen as a beehive of anti-British propaganda, and a close watch was maintained on it” (p 134) demonstrating not only a “growing medicalisation of the pilgrimage but also a growing politicisation” (p 151). The text highlights hajj as a site for the interaction of medical, religious and commercial imperatives and for those seeking to understand the role of the colonial

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Jeremiah, David (2010): The Coming Economic Armageddon (Gurgaon: Hachette Book Publishing); pp xvii + 293, Rs 595.

Kapur Mehta, Aasha, Andrew Shepherd, Shashanka Bhide, Amita Shah and Anand Kumar (2011): India Chronic Poverty Report: Towards Solutions and New Compacts in a Dynamic Context; Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi; pp xvi + 185, Rs 300.

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state in shaping the administration and management of the hajj, Pilgrimage, Politics and Pestilence is an important contribution.

Asiya Alam ( is at the Department of Asian Studies, University of Texas, Austin.


1 See “Origins, Journeys and Return Hajj in Colonial India”, pp 1-69 in Hasan and Jalil (2009).

2 Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, “An Introduction to Nawab Sikandar Begum’s account of Hajj” in A Princess’s Pilgrimage: Nawab Sikandar Begum’s ‘A Pilgrimage to Mecca’ (Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2006), lx-lxi.


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    Economic Political Weekly

    may 14, 2011 vol xlvi no 20

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