Contested Universalisms: Indian Pilgrims and the Inter-War Hajj

By John M. Willis
Submitted to Session P2917 (Travel, Transmission, and Transnationalism: Twentieth Century Muslims Reach Out, 2011 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula; India;
19th-21st Centuries;
This paper interrogates the relationship between Islamic internationalism, empire, and the annual Hajj pilgrimage in the period after the Saudi occupation of Mecca in 1924. Contrary to Sugata Bose’s formulation of a “modernizing colonial state and an ultra-orthodox Islamic one” causing “rifts in the expressions of religious universalism” in the inter-war period, this paper proposes a more complicated reading of the Indian Muslim engagement with the Saudi regime and the British Empire in Mecca.

The crisis of European state system and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire following the First World created a space of possibility in which Muslims could actively imagine new forms of political community beyond empire and the nation form. In the absence of an Ottoman caliphate, Muslims in both the Middle East and South Asia organized to defend or redefine the Islamic umma. Scholars and activists of the salafi reformist movement in the Middle East and those of the Khilafat movement in India found common ground in their programs to translate the universal message of Islam into an effective counter-empire in the face of a resurgent British empire. In particular, both movements shared a geographical imagination that placed the holy city of Mecca at the center of a unified Muslim community, independent of European rule and a sanctuary for the world’s believers.

The 1924 Saudi conquest of Mecca and the vigorous campaign against popular devotional practices brought to light the often conflicting visions of Islamic unity held by Arab and Indian activists: was it to be achieved through the salafi program of standardizing belief and practice according to the normative model of the Prophet or through an emphasis on religious universalism driven by personal ethics. The increasing harassment of Indian pilgrims by the Saudi authorities, suggested that at least at the level of the everyday, it was salafi reformism that mattered. It is ironic, then, that conditions for Indian pilgrims only improved once Britain asserted its duty to protect its imperial subjects in Mecca and the global depression forced the Saudi state to accommodate difference among a decreasing number of Muslim pilgrims, the state’s primary source of foreign revenue.

This paper is based on British archival material and political and religious tracts in Arabic and Urdu.