XQs XIII — A Conversation with Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst

Posted by patwari on July 17, 2018 · 35 mins read

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize and promote new scholarship. We thank Anmol Ghavri for conducting this interview. Previously: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII.]

Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst is assistant professor of religion and director of the Middle East Studies program at the University of Vermont. Her research centers on Islam and Muslims in South Asia as well as theories of religion, race, and imperialism. Her first book, Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion: Religion, Rebels, and Jihad was published by I.B. Tauris in October 2017. At UVM, Morgenstein Fuerst teaches courses about theory and method in the study of religion, Islamic practice and history, and, occasionally, Hindu traditions.


Your work deftly explicates the relationships between understandings of Islamic law, “jihad” and the loyalty of British Indian Muslims in the aftermath of the 1857 Rebellion in India — linking the imagined inherent disloyalty and militance of Indian Muslims by Britishers (and Indian refutations of that imagination) to the racialization of Indian Muslims. Could you describe the background and impulse behind your researching and writing of Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion: Religion, Rebels, and Jihad? What drew you to the 1857 Rebellion (and why do you call it a rebellion and not a war of independence or revolt), to the two-particular works by W. W. Hunter and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan that form the backbone of your research?

This is a great set of questions—and since I could spend a lifetime answering them, I'll try to be concise. The Rebellion is inherently interesting: it's a major set of events, it's reported on widely and interpreted in real time as well as for decades after, and it still shows up symbolically, rhetorically, and as part of histories we teach at all levels of education around the world. What interested me, of course, was how this symbolic event of nationalism/imperialism involved and named Muslims.

The 1857 Rebellion has been called so many things: the Great Rebellion, the Uprising of 1857, the Sepoy Rebellion, the Indian Mutiny, India's First War of Independence, the Indian Rebellion, the Indian Revolt, the Sepoy Revolt, the Mahomedan Rebellion, and—commonly—the Sepoy Mutiny. But the term “mutiny” is too technically specific and does not capture what happened. Mutinies are carried out solely by military, disobeying commands from superiors. The Rebellion started among sepoys but was not limited to them, nor were the demands of rebels limited to military concerns. “Rebellion” best gets at what happened—Indians rebelled but it did not materialize into a revolution, since they were quashed by British forces—and narrates events rather than inscribe meaning onto them. This was important to me, since I try to tell the story of how the Rebellion and all its attending terminologies carry rhetorical and political significance. No term is apolitical, but Rebellion comes as close as possible, and highlights how these collective events rewrote political, social, and religio-cultural identifications.

“Why these sources?” Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Sir William Wilson Hunter are notable figures, each representing a particular demographic especially refigured by the Rebellion. And because both of these notable figures were also loyalists, their writing and memorialization about the Rebellion and its aftermath(s) helped me center narratives of minoritization and racialization—the key theoretical nodes of the book.

Could you describe your usage of the terms “racialization” and “minoritization”?

The 1857 Rebellion fundamentally shifts the way Muslims are imagined in India, with global effects. The Rebellion and the way it is remembered help us see both when and how Muslims come to be racialized and minoritized in India, as imperial subjects of Britain, and as an imagined homogenous group worldwide.

Racialization and minoritization are processes by which a group comes to be known as a race (the former) and comes to be seen as a minority (the later). It's important to stress the process, because races are not natural—they are naturalized. Through systems of power, these constructed categories have become so ubiquitous as to seem permanent and utterly natural.

The Rebellion demonstrates how Muslims were both minoritized and racialized at the same time. Muslims were always a demographic minority in South Asia, but minoritization refers to access to power. Before the Rebellion, Muslims were (nominally) rulers of India and even though the great Mughal Empire was a shadow of its former self, elite Muslims held quite a good deal of power. After, making Muslims a minority was a purposeful tactic so that the British could step into positions of power. At the same time, Muslims were racialized. They were painted with one brush, despite official knowledge about the vast diversity of practice, language, interpretation, class, even caste. After the Rebellion, the most important thing to know about a Muslim was that she or he was Muslim; that is to say, “Muslim” had a naturalized meaning to those in power, and that meaning was one of violence, rebellion, and a threat to the imperial state.

You do an excellent job at explaining the unique racialized position of Indian Muslims in the 1857 Indian Rebellion as disloyal in British explanations of the rebellion, and as inherently fanatical due to British essentialized understandings of Islamic law and the duties it allegedly mandated (like “jihad” as holy war). Did you find any parallel British constructions of Hindu subjects or an eventual collapsing of imagined Muslim fanaticism with an all-India religious zealotry and despotism post-1857?

While I focused on Muslims, there are obviously constructions of Hindu subjects that are also racialized. Some of those predate 1857 and are intensified after: for example, the pre-Rebellion idea of the effeminate, religiously chaste and sensitive Brahmin becomes more prominent afterward and even in stories about the Rebellion. One author, attempting to demonstrate how seditious and dangerous Muslims are, specifically references the weak Brahmin Hindus, who are powerless against Muslims and must, therefore, rebel or risk death at their hands. Another highlights insults to Hindu (and Brahmin) religious praxis, suggesting that even the slightest insult to religion damages these thin-skinned subjects, making them vulnerable to Muslim calls for rebellion. In the immediate aftermath of the Rebellion, those in power characterize Hindus as racially weak and religiously sensitive, even zealous, to explain their supposed vulnerability to the “real” danger, Muslims.

My sources demonstrate two things: 1) despite being a demographic minority, Muslims were imagined by Britons as a real threat; and 2) Hindus were imagined as necessarily subservient to Muslims, a theme later taken up by nationalists and especially by far-right Hindu nationalists. These racialized religious definitions continue to have meaning in contemporary India as well as in global iterations about who and what Muslims and Hindus are.

Edward Said in his 2003 preface to Orientalism wrote that:

the major influences on George W. Bush's Pentagon and National Security Council were men such as Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, experts on the Arab and Islamic world who helped the American hawks to think about such preposterous phenomena as the Arab mind and centuries-old Islamic decline which only American power could reverse. Today bookstores in the US are filled with shabby screeds bearing screaming headlines about Islam and terror, Islam exposed, the Arab threat and the Muslim menace, all of them written by political polemicists pretending to knowledge imparted to them and others by experts who have supposedly penetrated to the heart of these strange Oriental peoples. Accompanying such war-mongering expertise have been CNN and Fox, plus myriad evangelical and right-wing radio hosts, innumerable tabloids and even middle-brow journals, all of them re-cycling the same unverifiable fictions and vast generalisations so as to stir up "America" against the foreign devil. Without a well-organised sense that these people over there were not like "us" and didn't appreciate "our" values -- the very core of traditional Orientalist dogma -- there would have been no war. So from the very same directorate of paid professional scholars enlisted by the Dutch conquerors of Malaysia and Indonesia, the British armies of India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, West Africa, the French armies of Indochina and North Africa, came the American advisers to the Pentagon and the White House, using the same clichés, the same demeaning stereotypes, the same justifications for power and violence.

Despite his contemporaries and W. W. Hunter himself certainly not describing his work as such, Hunter could be viewed as an early purveyor of a form of Islamophobia and the Islam-expertise-punditry industry Edward Said described above in the context of justifying British Imperialism (versus justifying American Imperialism). Your chapter on W. W. Hunter and his Indian Musalmans; Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen? does not dismiss Hunter's lengthy work by modern standards as ridiculous but instead interrogates it as a critical piece of colonial knowledge of British imperial understandings of Indian Muslims post-1857 because of his “demi-official” role in the British administration of India and relationship to decision makers who undoubtedly read his work. You write that Hunter in his work dismissed a Calcutta fatwa declaring post-1857 violence by Muslims against the British colonial state as dar-ul-harb as invalid because it was not rooted in fiqh he found to be to his scholarly standards and logically misguided in its usage of dar-ul-harb and dar-ul-islam. Essentially, Hunter thought he “knew” Islam better than Muslims themselves and looked to out of context original Arabic Islamic legal sources in bolstering his analysis of the essentially disloyal and militant Indian Muslim subject. Do you see any parallels between the influence that Hunter's work had in British imperial understandings of Indian Muslims by virtue of his positionality and modern day US imperial productions of knowledge by political pundits and purveyors of so-called “expertise” for use in the American imperial project, and how do you as a scholar of Islam avoid making value judgements on interpretations of mutable concepts like “jihad” even when those of writers like Hunter are incredibly un-nuanced?

I absolutely do see parallels between scholar-officials like Hunter and scholar-officials in today's world, especially in the US and UK. It is terrible history to suggest that these are part of a continuous linear progression. It is equally bad scholarship, however, to pretend like these discursive continuities don't exist.

A lot of scholarship about race, and race and religion is limited to the American context and, even more so, the United States. This makes sense—the legacies of enslavement, of forced conversions, of persecution and genocide of Native folks, the racialization of waves of immigrants, and prominent white supremacy is fodder for these kinds of analysis. But racialization isn't a uniquely American phenomenon, and especially in the case of Islam/Muslims, thinking about global antecedents is critical.

British racialization of Muslims after the Rebellion was not an “ignorant” enterprise. It was not some evil stereotypes with evil imperialists bandying them about willy-nilly. It was—to reference Said as you do, Anmol—a purposeful wielding of imperial power in the form of knowledge-making. When the British arrive, they bring armies as well as armies of scholars. So it's important for me, as a scholar of this period and religion in this period specifically, to take Hunter seriously, to demonstrate how his writings were deeply important, scholarly works, and how the study of religion (in particular) ought to take them seriously as part of a long history of the racialization of Muslims in specific terms.

The way that “jihad” came to be the prominent term to think about Muslims and Islam, and the simultaneous way that “Muslim” and “jihad” became inextricably linked as normative is something we see all the time in contemporary politics, policies, and news. But I argued that one of the first places we saw it was after the Rebellion and most clearly in works like Hunter's, which is why it's such a valuable source to South Asian studies, Islamic studies, and religious studies—all of which should be concerned with the study and development of racial categories.

As to how to write about this without making value judgments? I don't agree with anything Hunter says, his bigotry is painful to read at times, and his “solutions” for how the British ought to manage their inherently untrustworthy Muslim subjects are appalling. He suggested removing children from families to teach them better, weakening Islamic teachings as the only way to ensure Muslims could maybe become pliant and compliant subjects. With the benefit of historical records, I can also see how some of those suggestions were taken up, to great determent to real people, real communities. My job in the book is to think about the legacies of his words and the words of scholar-officials like him, but it is also to take seriously how his words came to be seen as scholarly and official in the first place. Hunter is a person, writing what he was hired to write in light of what he was trained to do as an expert. He is a primary source, his context is part of the tapestry in which the racialization of Muslims is possible. He is also part of how Islam comes to be defined and interpreted. As a scholar of religion, I take seriously Hunter's role in shaping definitions of Islam. I disagree with them, I challenge them, but I have to see them as part of how empires, officials, Britons, Indians, and Muslims come to define Islam.

In your chapter on Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and his Review on Dr. Hunter's Indian Musalmans; Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen? you argue that even as Khan refuted the points of evidence used by Hunter to construct Indian Muslims subjects as essentially militant, disloyal and a threat, he continued the process of racializing and minoritizing Indian Muslims within British India as a discrete unit, nonetheless, by relying on the same frameworks and “game” as Hunter. What do you mean by this and what was the main argument of this chapter?

It would be easy to say something like Hunter and scholars like him did this racialization and minoritization to Indian Muslims. That's true, but also far too simplistic. Hunter's work and Khan's review of it, the central nodes of my book, both further the racialized, homogenized, minoritized version of Islam and Muslims that Hunter (and others) establishes.

As a former and wannabe athlete, I rely on sports metaphors a lot—so bear with me. Let's call the game tennis (because despite years of trying I cannot master that other British game, cricket). Hunter set up the game—its rules, its boundaries, its name, the names of the equipment, and so forth. Hunter had been playing tennis with other folks like him for years; they had an all-white, all-male, all-Christian club, of course. Khan, however, is smart—respectable—he learns the rules, he respects them, he wants to play. He writes the Review, and it follows all of Hunter's rules: Hunter has served a work that insists “jihad” is the only category that matters, and Khan returns that volley. He does not suggest a radical revisioning of Islam compared to Hunter, throwing jihad out or calling a foul; he volleys every single ball Hunter has served, literally point by point, page by page. In doing so, one imagines that Khan thinks he is winning the argument: he has strongly returned each and every ball and an objective observer might conclude that he has, therefore, won points, tallied a score, defeated Hunter.

But I contend that he has not. Drawing on Audre Lorde's better metaphor about masters, tools, and oppression, I suggest that Khan has merely played Hunter's game. Khan is not the server; Khan does not have the advantage. And this is not actually tennis—this game does not have servers take turns for fairness, it does not have a referee to ensure fair play or make decisions on close points. Khan is on the defensive from the start. More importantly, though, because Khan is a respectable Muslim—because he is loyal to the throne, because his own actions during the Rebellion were to save Britons, an act for which he later earns his title—he can be read in two ways. First, he can be seen as assenting to the terms Hunter has set. He is, after all, playing tennis. In playing Hunter's game, in agreeing to hit back every volley, he has given those volleys legitimizing authority to both the British and non-Muslim readers as well as elite Muslims in his own intellectual and social circles. Second, Khan can be read as the exception that proves the rule. He is a good tennis player—loyal, educated, “modern”—but the fact that he and he alone are given access to the court proves that other Muslims cannot play, should not be allowed to play, do not agree with his playing in the first place.

Khan's work tries to win against Hunter, and when we read it we might say that it does a good job of scoring points. Ultimately, though, it becomes a part of the narrative against which it struggles. He may have found that every ball he was served was ridiculous, and yet because he plays, because he continues to keep the ball in motion and in-bounds, suddenly what is in-bounds is ridiculous.

To be clear, I do not expect Khan to have challenged Hunter to, say, a game of backgammon, to have reset the game and the rules entirely; the power was already asymmetrical between the two, between Indian Muslims and British Christians. Now, dropping tennis for a moment, none of this is to say that I think an historical record that fully ignores, omits, and obliterates non-white, non-Christian, non-male authors is acceptable. I am glad that Khan's retort to Hunter has been preserved, translated, and much more recently made digitally available through a variety of libraries and initiatives worldwide. But discursively and historically, it is important to see how Khan's resistance against Hunter can and does fortify Hunter's claims.

In both texts, jihad becomes central, Muslims as a cogent whole is a theme, and a unified Muslim minority with credible grievances against a British ruling elite can be found in these pages. If the themes are the same and repeated by authorities like Khan and Hunter, then those themes are authorized and proliferated. That's the point of the chapter: thinking through how the hegemon of imperialism fundamentally restructures what counts as knowledge and fact, and how everyone—including those whom that hegemonic power harms—can reinforce the very definitions they seek to change.

Right! In the same chapter, you mention how Khan understood that his positionality as an Indian Muslim critiquing a Britisher meant that his words automatically lost some weight. This points to a larger question of critiquing power even as one remains a subject to it — and the anxiety-inducing subjecthood of Muslims expected to profess loyalty continues to this day. Like Indian Muslim subjects post-1857 (who were considered doubly disloyal due to their role in the revolt and their religion), American Muslims post-9/11 are expected to explicitly disavow “jihad” and reaffirm their loyalty to extents others are not. In your epilogue, you succinctly and poignantly reflect on and relate the essentializing processes of racialization and minoritization of Muslim-subjects in post-1857 British India linking colonial knowledge and imperial anxieties over conceptualizations of “jihad” in colonial India to current political discourse on Muslim-subjects in the United States during the 2016 Presidential Election. You write that serious political figures in both mainstream US political parties partake in this phenomenon to various degrees, whether by explicitly denying Islam as a monolithic and essential religion is compatible with so-called “Western” values (like Dr. Ben Carson and Donald Trump) or by reifying a good-Muslim/bad-Muslim dichotomy (like Hillary and Bill Clinton). What are your thoughts on the matter now, with all that's transpired since you wrote that epilogue (SCOTUS upholding Trump's immigration ban on select Muslim majority countries, the appointment of known Islamophobes like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton to positions of authority, and the ongoing political and popular discourse in European countries on the compatibility of Muslims with “Western” values and the symbol of the Burqa, etc.)? How do you grapple with the current historical moment we live in, as a scholar and an educator?

I think most of us engage with the past best when we can make connections to the present. Teaching about Muslims' histories, for me, means balancing historical subjects with current iterations of similar debates or issues. Classroom spaces are experimental spaces for me, often; I want students to learn but also to think. Sometimes we line up primary sources like Hunter and Khan next to contemporary officials' remarks and Muslim critiques of it. Sometimes we'll look at debates about women in colonial contexts and then debates about women today, noting, of course, how much more interesting history might be if the record actually recorded what women said, did, wore, instead of men's debates about it. No classroom is apolitical; my pedagogy does not assume some sort of apolitical space. We read multiple perspectives, we discuss, but we also name racism as racism, sexism as sexism, etc.

As a scholar, I find that because I'm working at a nexus of race, religion, Islam, and discourse that I want to do more work that is public-facing, contemporary, accessible. Some of that is political, of course, but a lot of that is about how I imagine expertise. A quick glance at Amazon top selling book lists about Islam will reveal that my book is not there but anti-Islam books by non-academics are. Why is that? Where are the scholarly-but-legible works that avoid polemics? Surely Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion is not a public-facing work. But in shorter pieces, blogs, public lectures I find I want to connect the theory and subjects I know and study to folks outside small academic bubbles. Additionally, I find that I deal with the politicization of Islamic studies by seeking to write academic pieces for bubbles that aren't my own. What might my work on Indian history, race, and Islam have to say to folks in Jewish studies, American studies, European studies?

As I was reading your book, I was struck by the centrality of postcolonial theory in your work and the confluence of religious studies, history, sociology and postcolonial studies. One could certainly trace an intellectual genealogy and scholarly impulse to critically deconstruct notions which have become popularly essentialized in the post-9/11 world like “jihad,” “Muslim” and “Islam” back to works like Orientalism and the thousands of works it inspired and influenced like those of Cohn and Dirks. What do you see the role of postcolonial studies in your work as a scholar of religion and its future and directions for junior scholars like myself?

There is little I can think about without thinking about it through postcolonial lenses. Cohn, Dirks, Spivak, Chakrabarty, Guha, Mahmood—I return again and again to these foundational authors for a reason: it's just that important. I'd add that I see the future of postcolonial scholarship really interrogating and honing its theoretical foci on race and religion. I think, especially from the history side of things, religion is often a passing fact or a simplified explanation. I'm not sure I can overstate the importance of religion and how it's racialized—historically or contemporarily. We can't think about postcolonial diasporas without thinking about how imperialism defined and deployed new definitions of race and religion, and how diaspora also transmutes and reifies those definitions. We can't think about religious movements that appear reactionary or revolutionary without thinking about postcolonial realities in which religion is seen not as voluntary but as inherent, racialized. My hope for the future of South Asian studies is that it continues to pick up on themes of race and religion and integrate them more holistically into phenomenal work in postcolonial theory and history already published. Race, religion, colonialism, and imperialism appear definitionally at the same historical period. Let's do more work that tries to get at this complicated palimpsest!

What five works would you say your book is in conversation with, building upon and/or influenced by?

I'm rooted in religious studies, so three of the biggest influences here are Religion, Science, and Empire by Peter Gottschalk, Empire of Religion by David Chidester, and The Invention of World Religions by Tomoko Masuzawa. Masuzawa's now-classic text does so much work to demonstrate how religions are invented as part of European imperialism and her chapter on Islam (“Islam, a Semitic religion”) is really instructive. Gottshalk and Chidester both nimbly weave definitions of religion and imperial practices together. I've been really influenced by Sylvester Johnson's masterful book, African American Religions 1500-2000; the innocuous title belies an intense global history of how imperialism is about race, racialization, and religion all at once. And, while I read this after my own book was off to the press, I hope my book is in conversation with Cemil Aydin's The Idea of the Muslim World, since that global history attends to issues I get at in my book, especially when he talks about making Muslims a homogenous, anti-imperial unit. There are many more whose work I rely on and look up to (Avril Powell, Yasmin Saikia, and Margit Pernau especially). These stand out off the top of my head as books I've returned to time and again and alongside which I hope my book stands.

Did this work grow out of your dissertation? If so, what was the process of going from dissertation to publishing your first book and grad-student to professor?

I did what no early-career scholar is supposed to do: I got a tenure-track job, defended my dissertation, moved across the country, and immediately left my dissertation behind to work on something new. My department chair was barely able to conceal his terror when I told him my plan; advisors—gently but with pregnant wording—asked when I would return to the “work I had already finished.”

I was proud of my dissertation work but it needed more time and specifically more time abroad, more time doing in-person manuscript work on a text. (I do intend to return to it and have published one article—with another in process—on it.) I'll be honest, though: I was new to the tenure-track and newly expecting my first child. I knew I did not have the luxury of international research and hours upon hours of more translation and manuscript work. I chose to dive head first into a project I was excited about, had done preliminary research on, and most importantly, could do with one or two short(er) trips abroad. The book grew out of research that didn't fit the dissertation but ultimately fit the kind of labor I could do and do well at that point in my life.

My advice to current students is the same: write the book you can write well. For me that meant brutal honesty with myself about what I could do and then switching gears. For many it means making the dissertation a book. Tenure-track jobs are few and far between, so do the work you need to do and can do well to keep it.

What are you currently working on as your next project?

I have a bunch of small projects and two new book projects going on—the post-first-book and tenure-packet-nearly-submitted excitement means I'm working on a lot of new material. The smaller projects are about gender and Islam in colonial South Asia and, in a different direction altogether, how academic job ads script the boundaries of Islamic studies. The book projects are in research stages at this point. One is tracing connections between anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish rhetoric, policies, and norms in colonial/imperial settings. The other revisits the Rebellion and memorialization by way of examining the various tours of rebellion sites in northern India as sites of meaning-making and religio-national definitions. All of these projects try to build upon and expand the work in Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion; they each take a facet of race, religion, Islam, and the definitions thereof and think about them in new locations or historical contexts.


Anmol Ghavri is a graduate of Dartmouth College and an incoming master's student in the international and world history program at Columbia University. He is interested in psychological thinking in colonial South Asia, colonial and anti-colonial thought and praxis - especially the role of time and teleologies in constructing "civilizations," modernities, religions and races, and their co-option by anti-colonial thinkers across broader South Asia and the Islamicate world.


XQs XIV — A Conversation with Ammara Maqsood | August 01, 2018

This Article was mentioned on chapatimystery.com

CM Roundtable III: The Skull of Alum Bheg — Morgenstein Fuerst | August 07, 2018

This Article was mentioned on chapatimystery.com