The Power from Elsewhere: Mysticism, Migration, and Non-State Sovereignty in the Islamic World

By Wilson Chacko Jacob
Submitted to Session P2700 (Between Law and State: The Politics of Acting Up in the Middle East, 2011 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula; Indian Ocean Region; Ottoman Empire;
Colonialism; History of Religion; Islamic Thought; Modern; Mysticism/Sufi Studies; Ottoman Studies; South Asian Studies; State Formation; Transnationalism; World History;
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My paper examines two documents from the Ottoman archive written by a “Malayali-Arab” in the nineteenth century, which adumbrate a hybrid notion of state grounded in old and new conceptions of space, time, and sovereignty. The paper forms part of a larger project investigating the Indian Ocean peregrinations of one family of Ba-Alawi Hadhrami sayyids (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad), who made the Malabar Coast of the present Indian state of Kerala their home from the eighteenth century until their exile by the British in 1852 on the charge of incitement to violence. I read the documents authored by Sayyid Fadl bin Alawi—the Pukoyya Thangal in Malayalam—two decades into his exile as maps of a shifting ground on which the very axes of space and time are thrown into a confused spiral as he is forced to reconceptualize sovereignty under new conditions of Empire, which I term colonial modernity. These are analyzed against the backdrop of Fadl’s life, which as form I argue was constitutive of an ancient politics. The documents are also examined in relation to his works of mysticism, which as performative texts illuminate a heterogeneous domain of humans, non-humans, and the supernatural.

The paper follows Engseng Ho’s study of the Hadhrami sayyids in regarding their long history as structured by a particular intercalation of genealogy and Diaspora while also departing from it in order to grasp the specific 19th century transformations in arrangements of space, time, and sovereignty that the emergence of the modern state predicated. Viewed as arresting of movement and as site of license, the new state presented a paradox to an Indian Ocean world that had formed through largely unregulated flows enabling the coexistence of multiple languages of power. In these documents and through the life of Sayyid Fadl, one is afforded a rare glimpse at an effort to reconcile the state paradox with a prior world of movement in which angels, spirits, and baraka were contiguous with zamorins, rajas, and caliphs. The paper concludes by probing the implications of the futures-past that are pregnant in these reflections.