Burying Muhammad Ali Jauhar: The Life and Death of the Meccan Republic

By John M. Willis
Submitted to Session P4067 (Trans/nationalism in the Arabian Peninsula: Continuities and Disjunctures, 2015 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula; Indian Ocean Region;
19th-21st Centuries;
In early 1931, the Indian Khilafat Movement activist Muhammad Ali Jauhar was buried in a grave not far from Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque. His death and burial in Islam’s third holiest city marked the passing of the most fervent supporter for the establishment of a republican government in the city of Mecca, which he had hoped would sit at the center of a global Islamic revival. Born of the Indian Khilafat Movement in the wake of the First World War, the idea of the Meccan Republic sought to take advantage of the rise of the Sa‘udi state and the conquest of Mecca and Medina by 1925 to formulate a new nomos of the world that would depart radically from the international system of nation states and European empire by rejecting the normative status of territory as the space in which sovereignty operated.

In this paper I would like to argue that the Meccan Republic’s radicalism was located in the centrality of migration, rather than territory, to its constitution. It was not residence in the holy city that determined one’s belonging to it, but membership in the universal community of believers, brought together within the temporal and spatial boundaries of the annual Hajj pilgrimage. While the normative place of human mobility distinguished the republic from the post-Westphalian order of states, it was largely sympathetic to other transnational and even internationalist movements that arose out of the devastation of the First World War, whether Pan-Asianism, bolshevism, Pan-Africanism, or the universal humanism of figures like Tagore. While Muhamad Ali himself was buried in 1931, one could argue that the republic was officially buried a year later in 1932, with the foundation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its adoption of territoriality as a tool of sovereign power.

What might a figurative exhumation of Muhammad Ali and his republic tell us about the modern Arabian Peninsula/Persian Gulf and the place of migration and diaspora in it? And in what sense would this recuperative move allow us to think about migration and transnationalism as modes of political possibility rather than as threats to sovereignty? On the basis of Muhammad Ali’s Urdu writings, I will chart the rise and fall of the Meccan Republic not only in its historical specificity, but in the broader context of global politics between the two world wars, with a gesture toward the present.