Islam and the European Empires
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 18
In the heyday of empire, Britain, France, Russia and the Netherlands each ruled more Muslim than any independent Muslim state. European politicians and colonial officials believed Islam to be of considerable political significance, and were quite cautious when it came to matters of the religious life of their Muslim subjects. Governing the religious affairs of Muslims became, in fact, central to imperial rule. In the colonies, European authorities regularly employed religious leaders and Islamic institutions to enhance social and political control. At the same time, however, they felt increasingly challenged by religious resistance movements and pan-Islamism.
This round table will bring together scholars who work on the intersection of Islam and empire in different geographical and imperial contexts. Over the last decade, the history of Islam within the European empires has attracted considerable attention among scholars. Studies have examined the ways in which the imperial powers engaged with Muslims and their faith, addressing the accommodation of Islam in the colonies as well as anti-colonial Islamic resistance movements. Yet, although these works have significantly increased our knowledge of the engagement of the imperial states with their Muslim subjects, they have been written primarily within the historiographical frameworks of specific empires and geographical regions. Comparative studies are missing. This round table will constitute the first attempt to provide a comparative view on the history of Islam in the European empires.
The question about the ways in which the European imperial powers engaged with Muslims and their faith will be addressed by four papers. Looking at the British Empire, John Slight will show how imperial officials, in very different colonial contexts, increasingly engaged with Islamic practices, including religious figures, Islamic legal structures, pious endowments, religious education, the hajj, and Sufi institutions. The paper of Michael Reynolds will explore similar themes in the case of Imperial Russia, discussing how Tsarist policies towards Islam veered between accommodation and confrontation. Looking at the role of Islam in the French empire, Julia Clancy-Smith’s contribution will examine how French authorities tried to mobilize Muslims for their war effort, and will show how their views of Islam changed over the course of the conflict. After all, the French – just like the British and Russian – authorities were terrified by the Ottoman declaration of jihad in 1914. These pan-Islamic policies are discussed by Cemil Aydin, who will examine the relationship between the Ottoman Sultan and the Muslim subjects of the ‘Christian’ European empires, and the increasing attempts to promote the Caliph as the leader of an imagined global Muslim community.
Building on these case studies, the discussion will evolve to encompass broader and more general questions about the relations between Islam and empire in the imperial age, and will pay particular attention to interaction and comparison. It will not only appeal to scholars who work on the history of Islam and Europe, but also to a broader audience interested in history of religion, imperial history, and comparative world history.