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SherAli Tareen’s Book Review of Muslim Cosmopolitanism in an Age of Empire by Seema Alvi

1 March 2018

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International Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 15, Issue 1, January 2018, pp. 126-131

Muslim Cosmopolitanism in an Age of Empire.
By Seema Alavi. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015. Pp. 504. ISBN 10: 0674735331; ISBN 13: 978-0674735330.

Reviewed by SherAli Tareen, Franklin and Marshall College
E-mail stareen[at]


At the crux of Seema Alavi’s Muslim Cosmopolitanism in an Age of Empire is an argument for decentering the normative claims and aspirations of British colonial modernity. This it seeks to do by reorienting our understanding of the modern career of Islam in South Asia. More specifically, this book narrates, in considerable detail, the intellectual, political, and physical journeys of five modern South Asian Muslim scholars who straddled trans-imperial fault lines and interstices. The five figures that drive this book include Sayyid Fadl (d. 1901), Rahmatullah Kairanwi (d. 1892), Haji Imdadullah (d. 1899), Siddiq Hasan Khan (d. 1890), and Ja‘far Thanesri (d. 1905). These scholars came from varied scholarly backgrounds and persuasions. They ranged from a Sufi master in exile (Imdadullah), a rebel scholar deported to the Andaman Islands (Thanesri), an arch inter-religious polemicist (Kairanwi), a Moplah rebel of Arab origin (Fadl), and the founder of the Ahl-i Hadith School and Nawab consort of the Begum of Bhopal (Khan). But despite their variance in intellectual and social backgrounds, what bound them together, in Alavi’s view, was the way they brought into question the modern colonial promise of curating a world of passports, borders, and nationalist identity. By looking towards and drawing on networks of power from other imperial centers and peripheries such as Istanbul, Mecca, and Cairo, these scholars presented alternative logics and landscapes of modernity.

At the heart of this alternative modernity was the articulation and performance of what Alavi calls “Muslim Cosmopolitanism.” Muslim cosmopolitanism, as Alavi seems to see it, has three defining features: 1) a trans-imperial worldview that privileges the global Muslim community (umma) over more local vectors of belonging; 2) a reformist hermeneutical temperament that valorizes the Qur’an and Hadith over other sources of canonical authority; and 3) the embrace of modern science, reason, and an individual-centric egalitarian social order. Historically, this book sets its gaze on the period immediately following the 1857 mutiny. Alavi tries to show that this otherwise tragic and catastrophic event also catalyzed unprecedented intellectual creativity, ferment, and movement across imperial frontiers. The five actors who undergird the story of this book were animated by what she calls “the spirit of 1857.” While benefiting from and drawing on the technologies and possibilities of colo- nial power, they also brought into view the limits of that power. This is the overarching argument of Muslim Cosmopolitanism.

This book presents as much a detailed account of the stories of five curious South Asian Muslim travelers and scholars as it conducts an indictment of the British colonial project of cultivating bounded imperial citizens. The ways in which these five South Asian Muslim cosmopolitans forged a trans-imperial vision of Islam show the porosity of borders and the possibilities of imagining a political horizon that interrupts and exceeds the inevitability of modern sovereignty and citizenship. This suggestion is arguably the most important and profound conceptual implications and promises of this book, even though the execution of that promise is at times problematic, as I will have occasion to discuss below.

Perhaps the most commendable feature of this book is the painstaking detail with which it recon- structs and elaborates the thought and strivings of five scholars who played a critical part in the modern history of South Asian Islam. Alavi combines the close reading of religious texts with a riveting analysis of the historical, material, and political conditions that channeled and made possible the careers of these five men. This book is brimming with a treasure trove of novel insights and narrative threads connected not only to its five protagonists but also to the broader context of late nineteenth-century Islam in South Asia and beyond. But for all these merits, I did find some major problems with this book.

First, while Alavi’s attempt to provincialize European modernity by pointing to alternative imaginaries of a Muslim cosmopolitan modernity is laudable, she leaves rather unaddressed the question of power differentials. Alavi’s argument seems eerily similar to recent attempts in the humanities and social sciences to identify “alternative modernities” by excavating the agency of the colonized native, as a way to bring the hegemony of a singular Western modernity into question. [ . . . ]


Tareen’s Review of Seema Alvi’s Muslim Cosmopolitanism in an Age of Empire