An Extraordinary Story of Five Colonial Indians and the Myth of Muslim ‘Insularity’

M. Asaduddin in The Wire:

BookMuslim Cosmopolitanism in the Age of Empire is an exhilarating book encompassing broad swaths of trans-imperial history, religio-cultural geography and a stunning breadth of vision. Seema Alavi’s credentials as a historian of substance are well-established. Starting with a book on India’s military history and the Sepoys of the Company that came out of her doctoral research work in Cambridge with C A. Bayly, she later forayed into the history of indigenous medicine, producing the gem of a book, Islam and Healing with another book thrown in between—The Eighteenth Century in India. The current tome has a distinguishing feature that sets her apart from the ordinary run of historians – her multilingual scholarship, her willingness and ability to access source materials in several languages and her skill in marshalling arguments from different perspectives combined with insights drawn from literary sources to give a comprehensive, almost definitive, view of the phenomenon under discussion.

The seed of Muslim cosmopolitanism was, perhaps, sown when the Prophet had exhorted his disciples to undertake even the hazardous journey to China in quest of knowledge. Unlike some cultures, where travel across seas and mountains were proscribed for fear of losing purity/caste, Islam always put a premium on travel and trade, the Prophet himself being the best exemplar of both. When one travels one gets exposed to multiple cultures, belief systems and world-views, thus shedding one’s parochialism and embracing traits of cosmopolitanism. Baghdad (of Baitul Hikmah fame), Constantinople (current Istanbul, the seat of Ottoman empire), Cairo, Cordoba, Damascus, Bukhara, and Delhi were all Muslim cosmopolitan cities at different historical moments where scholars, statesmen, adventurers from all over the world congregated and conducted dialogue in a spirit of openness and catholicity. In the current times, when Muslims, for a variety of reasons, have become victims of insularity and ghettoisation, Alavi’s book is a potent antidote to the widespread but ill-informed media narrative about Muslim resistance to forces of modernity and globalisation.

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