Interview with Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst, author of Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion

Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion: Religion, Rebels, and Jihad was published by I.B. Tauris & Co. in 2017. I spoke with the author, Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst, at the AAR annual meeting in Boston in November 2017. —Troy Mikanovich, Assistant Editor

TM: Can you give us a general introduction to Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion?

IMF: The 1857 rebellion in India was a movement that started in and around Delhi and spread throughout North India, intended to make sure that the British were no longer in control. I argue that it is at this moment that we start to see a racialization of Muslims, and that the ways that this racialization happens center on the word jihad. Rebellion gets labeled as jihad, rebels get labeled as jihadis, and Muslims, who had always been a minority in terms of population in India, become further minoritized after this event. It's a marked difference. We see all sorts of people—white British intellectuals, Muslim intellectuals, newspapers—talking about Muslims as suspicious, as suspect, as inherently rebellious because of their relationship to this category of jihad

As a historian, my inclination is to be cautious, to say that we can’t draw a direct causation from 1857 to today. But I wrote the epilogue of the book after the inauguration of Donald Trump, at a time when I was reading about Muslim bans and hearing Muslims described as inherently violent. Of course, we saw an uptick of this kind of talk after 2001, but it definitely accelerated during the US presidential campaign of 2016. So yes, I see corollaries. I would not be a good historian if I said that these understandings of Muslims are exactly the same, but I would also be a terrible historian if I didn't say that there were rhetorical and discursive ties from that period in the 19th century when we were starting to learn—and by “we,” I mean Western Orientalist, colonialist powers—about these religiously defined and racially defined others. Those definitions have been tough to shake.

TM: In your author bio, you mention that you're interested in asking questions about the definition of religion, but you also want to ask questions about the purposes of that definition. Does this book factor into that conversation?

IMF: Yes. In this book I'm looking less at the term "religion" and more at the terms "Islam," "Muslim," and "jihad," but these are all related. Islam as an operative category matters when we're talking about religion and vice versa. Peter Gottschalk's Religion, Science, and Empire does a lot of this work. He talks about how all these words were being defined and invented in the same crucible of colonial power in the nineteenth century. I see my work in that vein. I want to know not just who is defining these terms and how they’re getting defined, but how they’re getting weaponized and mobilized and by whom.

TM: What made you look at the 1857 rebellion as an occasion to discuss these themes?

IMF: This was a really interesting second project after my dissertation. While I was researching my dissertation, which relied on a manuscript that was a palimpsest of Sanskirt, Persian, and a Hindi/Urdu dialect. My eyes were going crossed in the archive rooms of the British Library. So I would take quick walks through the stacks as an English language break from foreign language work, and I was pulling parliamentary records from the 1800s, just for fun. And I kept coming upon these quotes from house hearings on the East India charter that were fixated on whether or not Muslims were inherently more rebellious than other South Asians. It was one of those serendipitous research finds. After I finished my dissertation I picked this topic up because a lot of the sources that I wanted to look at were in English, digitized, and available outside the archives. They were more accessible to me as a new mom, working from afar and without a substantial research budget.

There were myriad sources, but I honed in on this one dialogue between a really prominent British figure and an equally prominent South Asian Muslim figure. The British man was named William Wilson Hunter, and he wrote a book deliciously titled The Indian Musalmans: Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen? It's this exceptionally long book, but the answer to his titular question is, “Yes, yes they are. They are absolutely bound religiously to rebel against the Queen.” Some of the time Hunter uses religious sources. He cites in a cherry-picking way from the ulema, the religious leadership of Muslims at the time. He cites the Qur’an too, though later we see critics saying, "Check your Arabic, man!" He cites generic principles of jihad, generic principles of what are called dar al-Islam and dar al-aman, the world of peace, which legally has been used to reference spaces in which Muslims can practice their religion freely. It doesn't always mean a kingdom or polity or democracy run by Muslims, but a space where Muslims can practice freely, versus dar al-Harb which is the opposite of that, the world of war, or a world that’s hostile to Muslims. There are a lot of boring tomes written on each of these legal concepts, but Wilson simplifies them and says, “When there's a foreigner here, it's dar al-Harb, it's the world of war. Muslims can't live here, they can't abide it, and thus they are required to rebel. So, if we were to take over, we would need to do it in a really sneaky way, and if we are not very sneaky we will have a world of pain on our hands, because boy are these Muslims violent, boy are these Muslims well-funded, boy are these Muslims connected to each other!” So from here, he starts to make this global jihadi argument.

TM: It seems very strategic.

IMF: Exactly. And that makes sense, right? He's a British colonial officer, and his concern is about keeping control of the empire. But then Wilson’s book is critiqued by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the first Indian Muslim knighted by Queen Victoria for his work of heroism during the rebellion—so he is someone who is quite sympathetic to the crown and to British rule, though he is not a mindless champion of it; at any rate, he's not looking for Indian independence. Khan’s rejoinder is titled Review on Dr Hunter's Indian Musalmans, and it goes point-by-point, page-by-page. The tone of this entire piece is "Nope. First, you didn't understand this; second, jihad hasn't been declared.” He proceeds in a very defensive way, and I argue that in a way, he ends up giving credence to the terms that Hunter lays out. Hunter has named the sport and given the rules, and Sir Syed (he's fondly known as Sir Syed in South Asia) is hitting the ball back. He's playing a mean game, but Hunter has already set the terms of the game. So, I’m interested in this dialogue as the pinnacle of a certain kind of conversation: how South Asian Muslims—even the ones who the British would see as "good," those in favor of British rule—were labeled as rebellious and suspicious, and got stuck using British terminology for their own religious views. That's where I see issues of racialization and essentialization and minoritization: once these terms have been set, even as you're trying to say they're completely not true, or they're inaccurate, the terms stand.

TM: Why do you focus on South Asian Muslims to understand these processes at work in the Western view of Islam?

IMF: Both religious studies scholars and the American population in general tend to locate Islam in the Middle East. The classic game I play with my students is to ask them to draw a circle around South Asia: Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and then part of southeast Asia, like Indonesia and Malaysia. There are more Muslims inside that circle than outside of it. But we imagine Islam as Arab, or Middle Eastern. Thinking about how we talk about Muslims, what languages we offer at universities to study Islam—these are concerns that frame my big-picture academic questions.

TM: What's the most surprising echo of this history that you see continuing into the present?

IMF: I really think it's this use of jihadi, which is in some ways the Anglicized, semi-Persianized way to talk about people who engage in jihad. In Arabic we would say muhajadeen, but we add that "i" to jihad and think it sounds authentic. In this way Islam becomes collapsible first with violence—the historic, stereotypical image of the Turk and his sword—which is not accurate, and is gross. But besides this, we have a religiously defined, highly specialized term—jihad—that had been the jurisdiction of Muslim lawyers and jurists and legal scholars become this completely popularized word to describe Muslims and frame how they will act as civilians within your population. The fact that the British Parliament starts talking about “jihadists” is fascinating to me, because this word all of a sudden has capital and cachet, and some kind of signification for those who are in charge of administering India as a British colony. And not just India, right? Of course not, because the British Empire is not just India.

I think scholars of religion broadly ignore the ways in which early Western definitions of religion disproportionately came to affect bodies of color, and particularly Muslims. The majority of the Muslim populations came under foreign rule during the nineteenth century. If the rise of the study of religion coincides with colonial expansion, skipping a conversation about how those terms are enacted legally, discursively, and rhetorically about Muslims and in India, I think misses the bedrock of our study.

Also, in terms of its lasting impact, the 1857 rebellion is so important precisely because it fails, and because for a brief moment it was spectacularly celebrated by people who were critical of empire. I think that in global history it is this moment that is a real turning point for the British empire. It changes the trajectory of how Indians can and cannot relate to Western histories and polities. And it pre-factors those kinds of transnational movements of bodies that we don't think about. But also, for me, it's a moment where the solidification of power and the fear of almost losing that power are so clear. Because it's a complicated and messy narrative, but one that was recorded in a neat and tidy way, it's a perfect place for a historian to think about how that story became told.

TM: Do you engage with any other disciplines or methodologies to make your argument?

IMF: One of the main theoretical frameworks I use is postcolonialism, obviously. But I also use critical race theory quite a lot, because of this collapsing of Muslim-equals-violent-equals-jihadi, and the idea that these are inherent and transmittable qualities. The argument was made in the nineteenth century that Muslim people will have Muslim babies, and it's not about how they're being raised—they are inherently violent.

TM: How do you want people to use this book?

IMF: I could see seminars using this book, and obviously graduate students could find the whole monograph useful. But I think that introductory level classes in religious studies could easily use the introduction and the first chapter to set up the problem of studying religion, the problem of studying religion in India, and the problem of studying Islam effectively. More broadly, though, anyone who is interested in the way that history still affects us might find something useful here, even if they aren’t familiar with this particular history.