In 1892, Maulana Shibli Nu’māni, an internationally celebrated Indian Muslim historian, (Urdu-Persian) literary critic and theologian of his day, traveled by sea from Bombay to the Ottoman Empire, journeying through Cyprus, Istanbul, Syria and Egypt. Of this journey he kept a journal that he later published under the title of Safarnāma-i rūm va misr va shām (A Travel Account of Turkey, Egypt and Syria).2 He claims that he had not intended to write a travel account but that European prejudices with regard to the Turks had led him to do so. Even well-meaning Europeans, he observes, remain bound by the Islamophobic prejudices they are raised with. His aims in writing it are therefore corrective and pedagogical: to correct prejudiced European travel accounts of Turkey that form the basis for European histories, and to instruct Indian Muslims by documenting exemplary “progress” among Turkish Muslims.
The Turkey or Ottoman state of Shibli’s time, we must remember, was the only one of the three great early modern Islamic states – the other two being Safavid Iran and Mughal India – to still be extant. Moreover, its emperor, Abduḥamīd II (1876 – 1909), had only recently achieved radical advances in the movement to modernize or “reorganize” – “reorganization” or tanzīmāt bespeaking the bureaucratic character of this modernity – of his state on European models. Shibli intends therefore to focus on the “developments and reforms” of the Muslim world, especially Turkey.
The turn of the century preoccupation with lost Mughal sovereignty among North India’s Reformist Muslims – a sovereignty they understood as Muslim in the wake of the formal end of the Mughal state in 1857 – led them to regard the still regnant Ottoman empire with special attention: in it they saw a Muslim empire that was modeling itself through technological and institutional reforms on Europe, the very ambition of Sayyid Aḥmad Khān, the founder of what became Aligarh Muslim University, and his colleagues like Shibli Nu’māni. Shibli thus discusses formerly Ottoman Cyprus, when he passes through it, in terms of the history of its political sovereignty under Muslim and then British rule. Furthermore, everywhere in his travels he singles out educational syllabi, technology, and such empirical aspects of a society as clothing and food, treating them as indices of a polity’s development.
Shibli desires and is at pains to discover signs of a continuous Muslim world. That he conflates all Arabs in the Ottoman territories with Muslims and vice versa signals this desire. The historical motivations for this desire lay both in the Pan-Islamism adopted as a policy against European meddling in Ottoman affairs by Abdulḥamīd II as well as in the sense of shame at their civilizational “decline” (inḥitāt) pervasive among intellectuals and literati in the Arab world of the time. From Bombay to Aden, writes Shibli, he had been “longing to see a Muslim” and, in Cyprus, when he hears a boy in a seminary recite from the Qur’an he is filled with an emotion of wonderment: “At the priest’s signal the boy recited a few verses from the Qur’an. It affected me strangely. It occurred to me: what was the affecting power in these holy words that, becoming electric power from East to West, shot across from the distant deserts of Arabia to the far-flung islands of the Mediterranean and still survives?” The “affecting power in these holy words” became “electric power” in its rapid global spread: the metaphor succinctly formulates the Muslim Reformist goal of a modernity for a single if heterogeneous global Islam that would validate and include Western technological inventions.
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- Prashant Keshavmurthy is Assistant Professor of Persian Studies in the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University. He spends his days biting his finger in wonderment at the strangeness of pre-19th century Indian and Middle Eastern literary cultures and his nights disentangling the dreadlocks of his affections. [↩]
- Shibli Nu’māni, Safarnāmā-i rūm va misr va shām (Ā’zamgarh: matba-i ma’ārif, 1940). All the translations from Urdu in this essay, unless otherwise indicated, are my own. [↩]