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Travelling Leaders and Connecting Print Cultures: two conceptions of Twelver Shi‘i reformism in the Indian Ocean1


This article explores Islamic networks, as constituted by migration of people, movement of saints and philanthropic institutional links, across the Indian Ocean. Linking Bombay, Hyderabad and the Muslim diasporas of East Africa, these transnational Shi‘i networks forge a print-based public sphere and determine routes for the circulation of media technology. Moreover, this article argues, that they deploy this technology to enable Islamic reformism in ways that are distinct to the local urban cultures in which they are set. The article examines two initiatives that apply technology towards different conceptions of Shi‘i reformism: while one reform initiative attempts to situate itself within a secular liberal public, another seeks to interrogate secular liberal assumptions by establishing an authentic Islamic society; both then, are underpinned by different goals, internal contestations and diverse trajectories. This article seeks to emphasize the ongoing impact of historically shaped networks of community migration and organisation: both the use of technology in mediating Islamic reform, and attempts to articulate a moral Islamic universalism, which have in practice been determined by these existing transnational networks.

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I am truly indebted to my supervisors at SOAS, Stephen Hughes and Edward Simpson, for their contribution to the Hyderabad research. I am also grateful to ‘Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity’ as well as ‘Tata Institute of Social Science’ for their contribution to the Mumbai research and in particular to Peter van der Veer and the participants of the ‘Transcendence and Control in a Global Mega City’ workshop for their feedback on earlier drafts of this paper. Feedback from Justin Jones and the anonymous reviewers has also been extremely helpful in the writing.

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2 See Eickelman, D., “Mass Higher Education and the Religious Imagination in Contemporary Arab Societies”, American Ethnologist, 19 (1992), pp. 643655; Robinson, F., “Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print”, Modern Asian Studies, 27, 1 (1993), pp. 229251; and Mandaville, P., Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma (London, 2001) as instances.

3 By moral universalism, I refer to a transcendental system of ethics applicable to all people regardless of culture, religion, nationality or race. While doing so, I am arguing for a situated universalism or an everyday, practical context from which moral imperatives emerge.

4 Saba Mahmood explores a non-liberal ontology of the self by ethnographically drawing from an Islamic women's mosque movement in Egypt, to show that notions of individual freedom are not experienced in opposition to societal norms, as conceived in western feminist theory. Reflecting on the contours of such a subject, where varied configurations of personhood exist in its gestural and affective capacities, Mahmood posits the idea of a pious subject. Such a subject, she argues, acts upon herself through quotidian ritual practices in a manner that makes norms constitute her subjectivity, forming a distinct topography of the self under different conceptions of ritual within overlapping traditions of reasoning and moral formations. For more on this, see Mahmood, S., Politics of piety: The Islamic revival and the feminist subject (Princeton, 2005).

5 The ethnography in Hyderabad was conducted intermittently from 2006 to 2009, including a year of fieldwork residency in 2007 as part of my doctoral thesis on memory and space in Hyderabad's old city at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the School of Oriental and African Studies. The Mumbai fieldwork was conducted during a six-month residency in 2011, with a follow-up two months of fieldwork in the summer of 2012 as part of a postdoctoral fellowship within the project called ‘Urban Aspirations in global cities’ partnered by Max-Planck Institute for the study (MPI) of religious and ethnic diversity (Gottingen) and Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Mumbai).

6 I locate myself at the curious cusp of being the ‘inside outsider’, despite belonging in anthropological parlance as a native anthropologist, since difference between community trajectories while conducting fieldwork Mumbai as well as those involving gender differences where a woman anthropologist working in an Islamic milieu comes to be defined as an outsider or a ‘non Hyderabadi’ or not local, were both frames of differences assumed and at times articulated, despite the commonality of belonging to the same community. These field experiences established for me that the category of the ‘native anthropologist’ is formulated solely in relation to Europe and is perhaps not very useful when applied to non-western context.

7 Existing historical literature on the Shi‘i character of the Qutb Shahi dynasty has focused on the common participation of both Hindus and Muslims in Muharram commemorations, reading this period as one in which Indo-Islamic cultural synthesis took place in the pre-colonial Hyderabad context. See for instance Naqvi, S., “Cultural Synthesis in the Qutb Shahi kingdom”, Proceedings of the Andhra Pradesh History Congress (Bab-ul-ilm Society, 1985) as an instance of this. Other studies of Shi‘ism in Hyderabad have focused on Muharram practices as elaborating the following themes: sermonising traditions linked to the history of state patronage for Shi‘ism in Howarth, T. M., The Twelver Shîa as a Muslim minority in India: pulpit of tears (London, 2005); as popular religion in gendered settings with regard to the women's gatherings in D’Souza, D., “In the Presence of the Martyrs: The Alam in Popular Shi‘i Piety”, The Muslim World, 88, 1 (1998), pp. 6780; or neighbourhood communities that sustain processions and men's flagellation in Pinault, D., The Shiites: ritual and popular piety in a Muslim community (London, 1992). Shi‘i practices have also been studied as a performative tradition noteworthy for the popular confluence of local, Islamic and Persian cultures where the body in particular has been studied as a site of enacting Shi‘i theology, see Wolf, R. K., “Embodiment and ambivalence: Emotion in South Asian Muharram drumming”, Yearbook for Traditional Music (2000) 32, pp. 81116. Further, Shi‘i practices have been studied as a literary tradition that has generated narrative genres of lament and literary publics, in particularly becoming tools for political articulation in the colonial context in South Asia. Hyder, Reliving Karbala: Martyrdom in South Asian Memory (Oxford, 2006). These different perspectives on Shi‘i practices in Hyderabad have traced their popularity amongst the Hindus and the Muslim communities to the varying patronage of Shi‘i practices amongst the ruling dynasties in the region.

8 The population of the Twelver Khoja community is dispersed amongst countries like India (40,000) Pakistan (20,000), Africa and Indian Ocean Islands and more recently in Europe, Canada and the USA (15,000). In Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands, Khojas are dispersed into some fifty agglomerations located in more than a dozen countries. Apart from South Asia, the highest concentrations of Khojas are in Tanzania (11,000), Kenya (3,050), Madagascar (5,000) and Réunion Islands (1,400). See Lachaier, P., “Mapping the Gujarati Muslim Communities in Paris”, in Gujaratis in the West: Evolving Identities in Contemporary Society, (eds.) Mukadam, A. A. and Mawani, S. (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 1025.

9 Nile Green's insights on the idea of a religious market as commercial economies and the ways in which it functions are useful here. Religious economies, he argues, function like commercial economies in that they are constituted as a market of customers, consumers, competition, religious products and services made available by firms. Conceived as a social and collective enterprise as well as interaction between people, it brings together a social dimension underlying for instance, careers of miracle-workers, prophets and thinkers. See Green, N.Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the Western Indian Ocean, 1840–1915 (Cambridge, 2011), pp. 2728.

10 My effort here is only to indicate the broad trends that link places and people: such as between the Twelver Khojas, the mainstream Twelver Shi‘a, the Iraqi Shi‘i establishment and Iranian Shi‘ism.

11 In seeking to articulate ways in which distinct localities are shaped by transnational Islamic networks, the article attends to theorisation of Islam in the Indian Ocean. The spread of Islam across the Indian Ocean between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, for instance, has been understood to have woven a pattern of economic and cultural unity that enables a discourse of the Indian Ocean as a coherent entity, often in contrast to the subaltern accounts of slave trade and forging of trade relations that enabled the development of capitalism in the trans-Atlantic. For instance, see Gilroy, P., The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (Cambridge, 1993). Among the elements of commonality that describe networks across the Indian Ocean, Islam with its religious activities, like Hajj, is seen to have forged oceanic patterns of circulation created through movement between the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and South East Asia. See, for instance, the works of Chaudhuri, K. N., Asia before Europe: Economy and Civilisation of the Indian Ocean from the Rise of Islam to 1750 (Cambridge, 1990) and McPherson, K., The Indian Ocean: A History of People and the Sea (Delhi, 1993). And yet, the idea that socio-religious Islamic networks between distant lands are symbolic of a unity in pattern and structure across the Indian Ocean has been questioned. The questioning of unity of circulating patterns via Islam within the Indian Ocean is done, for instance, by highlighting the migration of local practices and customs through a process that Edward Simpson and Kai Kresse, employing Chaudhuri's notion of equivalence, understand as one where geographies of home are transposed and recreated in new setting. This process of migrating local customs within global Islamic exchanges, they argue, has led to competing forms of Islamic interpretation and rival forms of cosmopolitanism amongst people who travel to new places. See Simpson, E. and Kresse, K. (eds.), Struggling with History: Islam and Cosmopolitanism in the Western Indian Ocean (New York, 2008).

12 See Subrahmanyam, S., “Connected Histories: Notes towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia”, Modern Asian Studies, 31, 3 Special Issue (1997), pp. 735762; and more recently, Bose, S., A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in an age of Global Imperialism (Cambridge, 2005).

13 See Robinson, F., “Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print”, Modern Asian Studies, 27, 1 (1993), pp. 229251.

14 Unlike the historical meta-narrative employed by these perspectives that see developments within Islam in a uni-directional movement from custom to ideology, I would rather employ an immanent approach that studies tradition based on its own avowed norms and modes of practice. This would conflict with some concepts of rationality or ‘scientific’ approach to critical theory based on universal methods and criteria, by attending to popularly acknowledged and yet intrinsic forms of rationality within everyday practice.

15 Deeb, L., An Enchanted Modern: gender and public piety in Shi’i Lebanon (New Jersey, 2006).

16 For more on the argument, see Green, N., Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the Western Indian Ocean, 1840–1915 (Cambridge, 2011), p. 242.

17 The converted Khoja families, as historians describe, came to uniquely identify themselves as Shi‘i Muslims of the Nizari Isma‘ili persuasion, who regard the Aga Khan as their religious and spiritual leader or the present Imam of the time. Both communities, the Isma‘ilis and the Twelver Shi‘as, believe in the idea of the Imamate as charismatic leadership, transmitted through blood of Prophet Muhammad to his descendants (sayyids) from his daughter Fatima and son-in-law ‘Ali. By virtue of direct descent, it is believed, spiritual gifts to interpret the Quran and provide authoritative guidance on all matters, religious or otherwise are passed on, constituting the basic premise of Shi‘ism. Where the Isma‘ilis (also called the Seveners or sabiyyah) differ from the Twelver Shi‘as is first in branching out after the sixth Imam Ja‘far Sadiq, following his elder son Isma‘il. They also differ in their belief in the idea of the manifest Imam of the time (hazir Imam), while for the Twelver Shi‘as the institution of the Imamate ends with the Twelfth Imam—the Mahdi or ‘the rightly-guided one’, who is believed, is present in his Occultation and will reappear at the end of time as the Mahdi. See Arjomand, S. A., “History, Structure, and Revolution in the Shi‘ite Tradition in Contemporary Iran”, International Political Science Review, 10, 2 (1989), pp. 111119.

18 Green, Bombay Islam.

19 On more about the social change of the Isma‘ili Khoja community and the secessionist movements staged in colonial Bombay, see Masselos, J.C., “The Khojas of Bombay: The Defining of Formal Membership Criteria during the Nineteenth Century”, in Caste and Social Stratification among Muslims, (ed.) Ahmad, I. (Delhi, 1973), pp. 120; Mujtaba, A., The Origins of the Khojahs and their Religious Life Today (Bonn, 1936); and Papanek, H., Leadership and Social Change in the Khoja Isma‘ili a Community (unpublished PhD thesis, Cambridge, 1962).

20 While writing about these secessionist movements, Ali Asani describes these developments as a story of negotiation and formalisation of identity that once drew from multiple identities that could be Sunni, Shi‘i, Hindu while being Isma‘ili, that is a story “. . .colorful and sometimes confusing. . .involving the courts of British India, murder and intrigue, excommunications and expulsions, and lots of money. It is the story of a community's identity, once consisting of multiple strands, being narrowed in its scope as it entered the modern world, so as to better fit spaces deemed appropriate by new cultural and religious environments”. See Asani, A., “The Khojahs of South Asia: Defining a Space of their Own”, Cultural Dynamics, 13 (2001), pp. 155168, for more on this.

21 Asgharali, M. M. J., An Outline History of the Khoja Shia Ithna Asheri Community in Eastern Africa. Paper presented at the Conference of World Ahlulbayt League (London, 1983). (accessed 20 July 2012).

22 Jama‘at, Mumbai, Khoja Shi‘a Isnaahari Jama‘at Mumbai-India 1319–1419 A.H.: A centenary presentation (Bombay, 1998).

23 Qadir, H., Memoirs of Mulla Qadir Husain Sahib, trans. Prakash, H. (Karachi, 1972).

24 Ibid.

25 See Z. Bhalloo Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris in Lamu and Mombasa 1870–1930 (2008), (accessed 24 July 2012).

26 Ibid.

27 Asgharali, An Outline History.

28 Bhalloo, Khoja Shia Ithna-Asheris.

29 See Rizvi, S. S. A. and King, N. Q., “Some East African Ithna-Asheri Jama‘at (1849–1967)”, Journal of Religion in Africa, 5, 1 (1973), pp. 1222.

30 Qadir, Memoirs.

31 Asgherali, An Outline History.

32 Some Swahili books published at Crown and Ink in Bombay include: Medical Education in Islam: Treatment by the Imams (Elimu Ya Tiba Za Kiislamu by Matibabu Ya Maimamu) by Al-Husain Istaam Na Abu Atab Abdullah Bistaam; Several provisions in question relative to the mosque (Vipengee Kadhaa Katika Swala Ya Jamaa Na Msikiti) by Shiekh Hasan Musa as-Saffar; Islam and quantity of din (Uislamu Na Uwingi Wa Din) by Ayatullah Shahid Murthadha Mutahhari, Masnawi of Maulana Jalaalud-Din al-Rumi, published by the Cultural department of the Embassy of Islamic Republic of Iran, Imam Ali (A.S.) brother of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) Review of History and Research on Shi‘ism Volume I and II, Learn to read the Quran (Jifunze Kusoma Qur’an) by Hamid Muhammadi.

33 See Lachaier, P., “Mapping the Gujarati Muslim Communities in Paris”, in Gujaratis in the West: Evolving Identities in Contemporary Society, (eds.) Mukadam, A. A. and Mawani, S. (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 1025.

34 Helena Basu translates the idea of jama‘at as community/caste or brotherhood of spiritual specialists distinguished by spiritual kinship ties. See Basu, H., “The Siddi and the Cult of Bava Gor in Gujarat”, Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society, 28 (1993), pp. 289300. The organisation of the Twelver Khoja jama‘at could be traced genealogically to Khoja community organisations, in which elected elder members of the community are much like those held by various castes, where disputes are discussed and settled, including those related to marriage. See Asani, A. S., “The Khojahs of South Asia: Defining a Space of their Own”, Cultural Dynamics, 13 (2001), p. 157.

35 Lachaier (Cambridge, 2007), p. 15.

36 I have deliberately maintained the anonymity of the leader at the request of my informants.

37 Pinto, R., Between Empires: Print and politics in Goa (New Delhi, 2007).

38 This Khoja modernity can be understood against notions of Shi‘i modernity that Lara Deeb, for instance, has termed as pious modern. Being modern, as Deeb describes in the context of the Shi‘i community in Al-Dahiyya suburb in Beirut is explained by notions of authenticity, organisation, education, cleanliness, hygiene, social consciousness and piety, whereas not being modern is linked to tradition, ignorance and incomplete morality. Deeb describes a distinct Shi‘i modernity that inhabits multiple temporalities, in that it returns to the paradigm of the Imams, which in a liberal vocabulary is posited as ‘return’ or ‘cyclicality’ inhabited by a stagnant religious time. By putting forward the immanent idea of multiple temporalities in relation to liberal notions of progress and modernity, she argues that ‘cyclicality’ and linearity are constructs linked to other binary oppositions, such as modern/not-modern, secular–religious, and national–mythic, occluding much more complex relationships and possibilities that fall between these poles. The idea of a pious modern then, she argues, is a combination of modern, progressive and religious values as the coexistence of multiple ‘mythic’ and ‘historical’ pasts rather than as the structure or experience of time itself. See Deeb, L., “Emulating and/or embodying the ideal: The gendering of temporal frameworks and Islamic role models in Shi’i Lebanon”, American Ethnologist, 36, 2 (2009), pp. 242257.

39 See Marcus, G. E., Connected: Engagements with media (Chicago, 1996).

40 Eickelman, “Mass Higher Education”, p. 643.

41 The emphasis of a singular form of memory as a political practice within the transnational Shi‘i network is not to stress Islamic media forms as propaganda but instead to point towards a uni-linear dimension of representation of otherwise complex national and trans-national power relations and discourses. As Jeremy Stolow cautions against an instrumental perception of media as technology employed to further religious message as “tricks of mystification” that reinforce previously specious assumptions about the “putative distinct realms of religion and media”. For more on this, see Stolow, J., “Religion and/as Media”, Theory, Culture & Society, 22, 4 (2005), pp. 119145.

42 This importance of memory as a category of political practice in the analysis of a transnational Shi‘i network has been explored by Roschanack Shaery-Eisenlohr, who argues that contestations of memory order the power dynamics between various national actors within the network. And as Shaery-Eisenlohr shows these national and contextual differences between Iran and Lebanon are glossed over or de-emphasised, in accounts like the celebration of Mustafa Chamran as a founder of the Hezbollah. See Shaery-Eisenlohr, R., “Postrevolutionary Iran and Shi’i Lebanon: Contested histories of Shi’i transnationalism”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, 39, 2 (2007), pp. 271289, for more on this.

43 Anderson, B., Imagined Community: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (London, 1991 [1983]).

44 Fraser, N., “Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: On the Legitimacy and Efficacy of Public Opinion in a Post-Westphalian World”, Theory, Culture & Society, 24, 4 (2007), pp. 730.

45 Anderson, J. W., “New Media, New Publics: Reconfiguring the Public Sphere of Islam”, Social Research, 70, 3 (2003), pp. 887906.

46 Charles Hirschkind employs Michael Warner's notion of counterpublics or the idea of a subaltern publics of subordinated status groups, such as queer or religious publics that are excluded from dominant norms but mobilise their own collectivities in which participation is one of the ways in which member's identities are formed and transformed. However, Hirschkind departs from Warner in stressing the disciplinary and authoritative structures and traditions that undergird this notion of a religious counterpublics, further emphasising the formation of political opinion not through inter-subjective reason but through the deployment of the disciplining power of ethical speech, resulting not in policy but in pious dispositions, embodied sensibilities and modes of expression understood to facilitate Islamic virtues and Islamic ethical comportment. See Hirschkind, C., The ethical soundscape: cassette sermons and Islamic counterpublics (New York, 2006).

1 I am truly indebted to my supervisors at SOAS, Stephen Hughes and Edward Simpson, for their contribution to the Hyderabad research. I am also grateful to ‘Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity’ as well as ‘Tata Institute of Social Science’ for their contribution to the Mumbai research and in particular to Peter van der Veer and the participants of the ‘Transcendence and Control in a Global Mega City’ workshop for their feedback on earlier drafts of this paper. Feedback from Justin Jones and the anonymous reviewers has also been extremely helpful in the writing.

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