Reviewed by Warren Dockter (University of Cambridge)
Published on H-Diplo (April, 2016)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
In 1911, while contemplating an alliance with the Ottoman Empire, Winston Churchill told Edward Grey, then foreign secretary, that the British Empire was “the greatest Mohammedan power in the world.” Though Churchill was undoubtedly engaging with this concept in geostrategic terms and drawing on a view which had been privately contemplated in Britain since the late 1870s and publicly acknowledged since 1881, his point was still valid. In terms of global power, the British Empire was an Islamic power as well as a Christian power. However, this has been relatively overlooked especially in popular conceptualizations of the British Empire.
John Slight’s brilliant book The British Empire and the Hajj, 1865-1956, rightly returns the Islamic dimension to the historiography of the British Empire by examining the British administration of one of the most central elements of Islam, the pilgrimage to Mecca, or the Hajj. The archival sources alone make this book stand out as an important study. Among the book’s many strengths is its innovative conceptual framework. The author splits the British Empire into an “inner empire” which was composed “territories that had substantial Muslim population” and an “outer empire” made up of “white settler colonies and dominions” (pp. 2-3, 317). This complex concept is made significantly more accessible by a glossary and maps which illustrate the Hajj routes as well as the “inner empire.” This is a useful tool to lay out the framework of the study, particularly concerning the time period after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire when Britain’s grasp stretched from the eastern Mediterranean to the Far East.
Much of the scholarship on the British administration of the Hajj has been confined to medical history. Studies such as Saurabh Mishra’s Pilgrimage, Politics, and Pestilence: The Haj from the Indian Subcontinent, 1860-1920 (2011) and Mark Harrison’s Public Health in British India: Anglo-Indian Preventive Medicine 1859-1914 (2008) have focused British colonial administrators’ fear that the Hajj was little more than a vehicle for pandemic diseases. However, by using a broader lens that incorporates political, diplomatic, and cultural elements, Slight is able to focus on components of British colonial administration of the Hajj that have been fairly neglected. Slight identifies this thread and explores how the British dealt with what he terms “pauper pilgrims,” or destitute pilgrims. This is particularly fascinating in the Victorian age and details about Muslim thinkers such as Sayyid Amir Ali and the generosity of people like Sayyid Mahomed Abu Saleb add depth and character to the complex nature of British bureaucratic infighting. The author is excellent at illustrating the need to regulate destitute pilgrims grew from concerns about pandemics into “an important feature of the British relationship with the Hajj” regarding imperial prestige (p. 318), which forced British officials “deeper into the intricacies of Islamic religious practice” (p. 319).
This was reinforced by another group that has received less attention and which Slight brings to prominence in his book, the Muslim colonial administrators. Those who worked in the administration of the Hajj played the incredibly important role of bridging the gap between the pilgrims and the administration of the pilgrimage, especially in Bombay. It was in Bombay where the Muslim agents in the administration of the Hajj were to push for “a resolution to the destitute pilgrim issue” and raise the importance of the British Empire’s prestige among its Muslim subjects to improve the status quo (p. 163). By drawing attention to Anglo-Muslim cooperation, Slight has been able to underscore the importance of understanding that “Anglo-Muslim cooperation and collaboration on the Hajj were an undeniably important aspect of Britain’s relationship with the pilgrimage” (p. 319).
The time frame of the book also exposes the depth and exceptional nature of this study. Unlike other works which typically end their study of Britain’s relationship with the Hajj around 1924, Slight’s study continues until 1956, which offers much-needed nuance and insight about the period after the collapse of the Hashemite regime in Mecca. This is especially clear regarding the complex shift in British policy toward nonintervention in the Hajj to accommodate the Wahhabist administration “precisely because it held sway over the Holy Places” (p. 264). Perhaps even more enlightening are the effects of British administration of the Hajj on Indian law after independence, such as “subsidizing the cost of the Hajj” (p. 308), which is still hotly debated in the Indian press.
Slight’s study also contains interesting characters with personal accounts of the British administration. J. N. Zoharb, who urged his superiors to adopt a Dutch system for dealing with destitute pilgrims, including a ”compulsory return ticket” (p. 97) that would confer the status of Hajji on the recipient, seemed to have a very pragmatic approach to Anglo-Muslim relations. Another interesting character, Dr. Abdur Rahman, the vice-consul in Jidda, described the plight of the destitute pilgrims as a “disgrace to Islam as well as to the British community” (p. 158). This drew the attention of the Hajj administrators, marking Rahman out as a true believer in the Hajj as a function British imperial power.
Another figure who raised awareness of the poor conditions of the Hajj under British administration was Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, the famous Arabist, political radical, and counter-orientalist poet. Slight quotes from Blunt’s The Future of Islam (1882), in which he argues that Britain should engage in the “systematic development” of Hajj (p. 98). Curiously, Slight does not follow much more of Blunt’s career after the publication of The Future of Islam and simply concludes that Blunt’s “proposals were generally disregarded in official circles” (p. 98). However, Blunt remained a major figure in Anglo-Muslim relations, taking Arab nationalists Jamal-al-din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh to meet Lord Randolph Churchill while he was secretary of state for India in 1885. Blunt was also successful in raising the issue of the terrible mismanagement of Hajj maritime transportation arranged by Khedivial Company after he and his friend Sydney Cockrell were themselves shipwrecked on a steamer called the Chibine in the Red Sea in 1900 on their way from Suez to Tor. Blunt’s public letters to the Times on April 14, 1900, and September 26, 1900, led to a naval inquiry that found against the Khedivial Company and Blunt being “publically thanked.” But these trivialities fall outside the scope of Slight’s study.
While this study places political and cultural history back at the heart of the study of the Hajj and Britain’s colonial administration of the pilgrimage, it also manages to provide nuanced understanding of that colonial administration, particularly where identities such as “British” and “Muslim” exist simultaneously. Extremely well written, Slight’s book stands out as a major accomplishment that highlights the Islamic character of the British Empire.
. Winston Churchill to Sir Edward Grey, November 4, 1911, in Winston S. Churchill: Volume Two Companion, ed. Randolph Churchill and Martin Gilbert, part 2 (London: Heinemann, 1969), 1369-70.
. Wilfrid S. Blunt, My Diaries 1888-1914 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921), 362.
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Warren Dockter. Review of Slight, John, The British Empire and the Hajj: 1865-1956.
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