Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion

Religion, Rebels, and Jihad

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Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst
International Library of Colonial History
  • London, England: 
    I. B. Tauris
    , October
     2017.
     288 pages.
     $94.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781784538552.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

     READ INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR HERE

1857 is often marked as a watershed moment in Indian history. A turning point in colonialism, politics, economics, and many other areas of academic interest, the 1857 rebellion of sectors of the Indian population against the British East India Company is such a widely discussed historical moment that it may seem impossible for any new conversations to occur. But with Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion: Religion, Rebels, and Jihad, Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst adds another measure of depth to the historical analysis of the revolt. Beyond the broader conversations about shifting politics due to the 1857 rebellion, Morgenstein Fuerst adds nuance to our understanding of contemporary conceptualizations of Muslims. Morgenstein Fuerst provides a brief overview of the rebellion to acclimate readers and then deepens the discussion. Each chapter adds another layer of complexity to the events as they are commonly presented. While focusing specifically on anti-Muslim sentiments during the time period, Morgenstein Fuerst is also able to show the myriad responses to the rebellion even as it was still going on.

Through focusing on contemporaneous texts, Morgenstein Fuerst argues that the rebellion was also a turning point for how powerful (and often political) voices depict Muslims in the popular imagination. While the events of history do not take place exclusively within tidy timelines, Morgenstein Fuerst is able to demonstrate through a linear structure precisely how and what changed because of the rebellion. She begins by setting the stage for the events of 1857, particularly showing that anti-Muslim sentiment was nothing new. The middle portion of the book is a deep dive into two texts: Sir William Wilson Hunter’s The Indian Musalmans: Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen? of 1871 and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s Review on Dr Hunter’s Indian Musalmans: Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen? published the following year. Morgenstein Fuerst focuses on these two texts to demonstrate that although they are clearly in opposition to one another regarding jihad and Muslim loyalty to the British, they both essentialize aspects of Islam that would not have been readily assumed before the rebellion.

Specifically, Morgenstein Fuerst argues that while anti-Muslim sentiment was certainly present before the rebellion, popular discourse about Muslims after the rebellion explicitly labeled all Muslims as jihadis. Morgenstein Fuerst’s argument is nuanced. By no means does she claim that all anti-Muslim sentiment originates in the response to the 1857 rebellion. Rather, her argument rests on concepts of essentialization, racialization, and minoritization, categories she deploys to analyze the language used to describe Muslims. In the epilogue, Morgenstein Fuerst addresses the 2016 presidential election. Again, her argument here is nuanced. It is not simply that one political group is deemed bad for their Islamophobia. Rather, she points out that even opposed political views engage in the essentialization of a large and diverse group.

While the book brings a fresh analysis to the events of 1857, that analysis could go further. Morgenstein Fuerst spends a good deal of time in the first chapter defining the terms “minoritization” and “racialization,” but never actually uses these terms in application to the historical events and texts she presents. A good portion of how these terms are present in the data Morgenstein Fuerst provides can be inferred, but her argument could have been strengthened through their explicit use.

Through its attention to the politics of Muslim identity, Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion opens the door for discussion of not just what the British were doing in India, but also why they viewed their subjects as inferior. The first section of the book may be appropriate for use in undergraduate courses. The book in its entirety, however, may be better suited for graduate seminars. Ultimately, though, I would recommend this book for anyone even mildly interested in the 1857 rebellion, Islam, or the origin of modern conceptions of Islam.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah Griswold is a graduate student of Religion in Culture at the University of Alabama.

Date of Review: 
January 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst is assistant professor of religion at the University of Vermont. She has previously published in peer-reviewed journals and her research deals with Islam in South Asia, historiography and the development of theories of religion.

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