For God or Empire
Sayyid Fadl and the Indian Ocean World
Wilson Chacko Jacob



Life In-Between

The present would appear to be one of those instances not uncommon in the East, where a man of worldly experiences and force of character, whose descent gives a kind of claim to religious sanctity, imposes by falsehood and boasted human and divine influence upon the simple minds of people of the country. The Arab character is peculiarly adapted to receive such impressions,—witness the origin and growth of Islam.
—Loch to Jardine, 20 November 1877

Prelude: Intimacy and Distance

For God or Empire is an experiment in writing global Indian Ocean history through biography, as well as being an effort to rethink the genealogy of the concepts of “sovereignty” and “life” through that history. It makes four interlinked arguments that marshal the aid of history, anthropology, religion, and philosophy. First, the life story narrated herein, of the peripatetic sufi-sayyid Fadl Ibn Alawi (22 Rajab 1240 / March 12, 1825–2 Rajab 1318 / October 26, 1900), is local, transregional, and global at once: both multiscalar and multivectored, it can only be told in terms of many places, many times, and many communities. Second, Fadl’s membership in an Indian Ocean Sufi Way with a Prophetic lineage—the Tariqa al-Alawiyya—and his entanglements with empires—British, Ottoman, Omani—mean the life story must also necessarily braid together Islamic and imperial history in and between South Asia and the Middle East.1 Third, those entanglements were conceptually and historically specific, because they were centered on the problem of modern sovereignty accompanying the history of state formation around the Indian Ocean. Fourth, since modern sovereignty was globalized as universal yet remains an unresolved problem in the present, by supplementing the historical with the genealogical in a consideration of returns—of lineages to their rightful places, of places to their rightful lineages, of the repressed other—we are able to view a politics of life confronting a philosophy of life.

Evidently, a book titled For God or Empire could start in a number of different places and times, in a number of different registers. Given such an overwhelming range of possibilities, let us begin with what may seem the least relevant bit: a brief conversation I had with an uncle on the verandah of my parents’ pocket-sized rubber plantation in the foothills of the magical Western Ghats, on the monsoon-blessed, spectacularly green Kerala side of the border with Tamil Nadu in South India.2 On a typical, mind-numbingly hot day in May before the June rains began, my father’s eldest brother, who was born in the late 1920s, dropped in for a visit. The conversation veered toward the improprieties of the “colony” just beyond our land. I asked why he chose to use that English word over any number of Malayalam words. He deployed the word, as others of a similar landed class might, to refer to the closely built houses inhabited by a land-poor group of Christians—who were, he explained, quite unlike us mappilas. I was thrown now by his use of the word “mappila,” since I had come to understand it differently in the course of my research. “Mappilas” in his use marked a historical and racial difference from latter-day lower-caste Hindu converts, whose Christian roots go back “only” to colonial and American missionary activities of the twentieth century. As such, they did not enjoy the gifts of land and accompanying status that Hindu rajas had bestowed on the first Syrian Christian men to arrive on the shores of historic Malabar (present-day Kerala) in the third or fourth century CE. Those men eventually took local wives, which in effect, and legally, made them mappilas (husbands), reproducing a parallel caste structure over time.3

Aside from the persistent class/caste chauvinism that no longer shocked me (even in a man of modest means), my uncle’s words were nonetheless surprising, as they unwittingly evoked this ancient history. He was echoing a certain elite history that connected Hindu-Jewish-Christian-Muslim pasts through what might be called an originary principle of the Indian Ocean world, if there was such a world: that of hospitality. This is a history, however elite, that is often buried or written over by other narratives according to political expediency.4 Such writing over was enabled by the institutionalization of colonial archives that were collected and housed in central repositories and are accessed today by historians. And if “the archive” is conceived more broadly, we might find it imprinted on the tongues of even the remotest of village dwellers, its words displacing others.

In the single word “mappila,” the vast geography, history, and language of modern empire were evoked, though in whispers of an older generation it bespoke other forms of connected life not always discernible to geography, history, or even language—“disciplines” reborn in empire. “Mappila,” as remembered and used by my uncle, evoked mobile formations, waves of wanderers bearing multiple spatial, temporal, and linguistic codes grafted onto local forms of kinship, caste, and power—without the aid of gunboats or soldiers. There was certainly room for interpretation here extending beyond crude elitism or equally crude romanticism or essentialism.

As one of the disciplined, I first encountered the Mappila (or “Moplah”) through the empire’s archive in London. I found this label and another, the “Outlaw,” stamped onto the life and career of Sayyid Fadl Ibn Alawi, the subject I began to research over a decade ago.5 At the time, “Moplah” was only a vaguely familiar term lodged in the recesses of my inchoate cultural memory as a Malayali born in central Kerala but raised almost entirely in the US. It was only years later sitting on that verandah in the sleepy hamlet of Punaveli that I began to suspect from my uncle’s hushed tones that the term “mappila” contained many layers of meaning beyond a superficial indexing of difference. “Mappila” was clearly not a native term exclusively denoting Muslim, as was authoritatively asserted by colonial officials in the nineteenth century and has become quite widely accepted today. It is a general term that—in addition to meaning “husband,” which I had always known—in ancient times signified a stranger to the land received as an honored guest, as the Syrian Christians were, as Jews were before them, and as Muslims were after. Accordingly, a global Indian Ocean history that ignores the vernacular in expressions of hospitality and attends instead to capitalist cosmopolitanism or colonial epistemes is not only inadequate—it is also often inaccurate.6

Another place I could have more obviously begun the book is with Sayyid Fadl, the central character of the narrative, though in fact we must first hear about his father, Sayyid Alawi (ca. 1750–January 28, 1844), because in some important ways it was this other traveler, more than the colonial official, who gave shape to the synonymous Mappila-Muslim identity in Malabar. In the middle of the eighteenth century, two interrelated things happened that set our global Indian Ocean history in motion: one, a peculiar outfit’s military victory; and two, the voyage outward of a holy man and saint in the making. The peculiar outfit (though it was less peculiar after roughly a century and a half) was the English East India Company (EIC), granted Elizabethan royal charter in 1600; the victory was its defeat of the Nawab of Bengal at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. The voyage outward was the departure of Sayyid Alawi for India; his heading was the opposite end of the subcontinent, where the EIC had not yet penetrated. The former event is often said to have established the basis of British domination over South Asia. The revenue of Bengal at its command a decade or so after Plassey, the alliances it formed with local rulers, and international developments allowed the EIC to move into a preeminent position in India by the close of the century.

By comparison, Sayyid Alawi’s migration from his home in Tarim in the southern Hadhramawt region of the Arabian Peninsula (or the “Arab subcontinent,” as Sayyid Fadl would see it later when he journeyed in the opposite direction) across the Indian Ocean to the southwest Malabar Coast of India, ca. 1766, would seem far less significant and utterly mismatched. Certainly if our eyes are set solely on stories of conquest, organized resistance, wealth, and empire, the story of Sayyid Alawi’s life may pale in comparison and fade from view. The movement of Alawi sayyids, descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, through space and time may assume greater significance in an investigation that seeks to establish historically and theoretically the limits of capital, state, and secular ideologies in the determination of life’s possibilities. In other words, for god or empire was always a question for many, and it remains a question that matters.

That said, the mid- to late 1700s witnessed upheavals so transformative of life in the century to follow that typically historians locate the beginning of the modern era in those years, and many have identified the empires that had come to span the globe as the major vectors, crucibles, or engines of change.7 Revolutionary forces operating globally and in the overlapping domains of politics, economy, and science in turn demystified the world and made it properly ours, a kingdom of men. As our story progresses, we will have reason to reconsider the nature of change and the process of disenchantment that ostensibly marked this moment. For now, it suffices to note that grounding sovereignty in divine—mysterious and mystical—sources was deemed no longer sufficient to advance mutually recognized claims of political authority over territories or subjects. Through the course of the nineteenth century, so the story goes, this ungrounded yet ever more absolute or indivisible form of sovereignty became the universal global dispensation. This particular shift famously undergirding the rise of the modern nation-state and its evolution politically—an old mystery in a new bottle, some argue—entailed a repositioning of the ends of life such that the ministrations of pastors, sayyids, and other men of religion were relegated to increasingly narrow, private domains.

Sayyid Alawi and Sayyid Fadl encountered this state in its formative period. The EIC was not by name or constitution a state; yet its edifice and practices of rule, which were by both necessity and design a hybrid of English, British, Mughal, and other Indian institutions, illuminate in stark relief the formation of the modern state through a confluence of war-making, market relations, and ideas of economy.8 The Battle of Plassey was one instance and outcome of the alliance politics of the long eighteenth century, through which the British and French empires vied for global supremacy, in turn forcing and fostering rapid innovations in military and administrative technologies. Another instance was the Mysore wars in southern India, which by 1799 ended in a total EIC victory and the acquisition of lands on the Malabar Coast, placing the fate of the Alawis in the hands of British magistrates.

Sayyid Alawi’s route from Arabia in the mid-eighteenth century was an ancient one, as were the terms of exchange he would have encountered along the way and upon arrival in India, or al-Hind, as the (sub)continent was known to Arabic speakers and others. His son’s forced departure from India nearly a century later and return to his “homeland in Arabia,” as the British considered it, encompassed routes and terms of exchange that were vastly different. It was not simply the introduction of rail and steamship technology or communication by telegraph that reshaped the circuits of travel and the experience of crossing the Indian Ocean. The “sea-change in sovereignty” that swept across all shores and spaces in between, as Sugata Bose evocatively maps in his Indian Ocean history, ensured that Sayyid Fadl’s movements would never be the same as his father’s.9 His “passport” to travel was issued by the EIC magistrate of Calicut and was not a letter of introduction penned by a famous scholar, long-distance merchant, sultan, or amir.10

In Sayyid Alawi’s case, he had family members waiting for him in India, as well as the prospect of marriage. He made his way from Tarim in Wadi Hadhramawt, the home base of the Alawi sayyids and Sufi Way, to the southern coast of the Arab subcontinent. He likely found passage to India on a “dhow” sailing out of the port of al-Shihr or al-Mukalla, both of which are roughly four to five days on foot from Tarim.11 He disembarked at the port of Calicut, which had risen to prominence in the thirteenth century as a major entrepôt—aided in part by Mongol conquests across continental Eurasia—for merchants sailing from Southeast Asia and China, on the one hand, and Western India and the Middle East, on the other.12

So Tarim, Shihr, and Calicut were points along an extensive transoceanic network of exchange whose “progressive intensification of contact” since the thirteenth century virtually constituted the ground of a “new world” with recognizable Islamic forms of trade, culture, and politics.13 The centuries after the Mongol destruction of Baghdad saw not the demise of “Islam” as once portrayed but quite the contrary: Islam, without an Abbasid caliph, in fact expanded further into new domains after 1258, especially across maritime spaces, and aided in the founding of Muslim polities in South and Southeast Asia. Moreover, the recovery and reticulation of trade routes and new alliances between Turkic dynasties and Sufi lineages led to the reinvigoration of old Muslim societies, laying the groundwork for the rise of the great territorial empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.14

The primary Indian Ocean ports during Sayyid Alawi’s voyage outward from Tarim to Calicut in the mid-eighteenth century.

Some attribute these globally significant shifts—especially the impact of nonsedentary peoples moving over greater distances but also the demise of once-great trading ports—to the waning of the Medieval Warm Period and the onset of the Little Ice Age that would last until the eighteenth century, wreaking most of its havoc during the cooling of the seventeenth century. Historians with a nearly religious commitment to causal explanations and an aversion to environmental explanations continue to debate whether the dramatic events of the seventeenth century throughout Eurasia (relating to wild fluctuations of price, population, and taxes) were products of a general economic crisis, separate regional developments, an exclusively European phenomenon, or in fact the growth pangs of a capitalist world system that began with sixteenth-century globalization.15 Yet most seem to agree that a mix of good fortune, good government, and the effective use of violence decided who came out on top, who moved down in the rankings, and who was erased from the map. The latter would be the fate of the Safavids, the Mughals, and the Ming.

As we will see in the following chapters, the survival of the Ottomans in a weakened position throughout the long nineteenth century would figure significantly in the life trajectory of Sayyid Fadl, whereas in the life of his father it was the expansion and strengthening of the British at the expense of the Mughals and regional contenders, namely, the Mysoreans, that formed the backdrop to his ascension to sainthood in Malabar. The burial place of Sayyid Alawi in turn became a holy site that was enshrined by the Mappilas in the form of the Mampuram Maqam. And though the shrine only makes marginal appearances, it is a major figure in the larger picture this book attempts to draw.


Epigraph: Francis Loch Pol Resident Aden to John Jardine Sec’y to Govt, Bombay, November 20, 1877, in TNA FO 78–3615.

1. Although tariqa when applied to institutionalized Sufism is conventionally translated as “order,” following Engseng Ho I opt for the more literal “Way,” to preserve the sense of movement over fixity important to Sufi history and to spiritual exercises. Ho, Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 28.

2. I started making trips to India to research the Indian history of the Alawis starting in 2007.

3. The origins of the Syrian Christian community and its churches in South India are hazy. It has held for centuries that the arrival of St. Thomas, first on the eastern coast, then in Kerala, around the year 53 CE planted the roots of Christianity in India. If a nineteenth-century Anglican missionary can make a good argument for its plausibility, then “hard” evidence can’t be everything. W. J. Richards, The Indian Christians of St. Thomas Otherwise Called the Syrian Christians of Malabar: A Sketch of Their History, and an Account of Their Present Condition, as Well as a Discussion of the Legend of St. Thomas (London: Bemrose and Sons, 1908), 65–94.

4. Or in a moment of rightward political drift, that history may be deployed quite ironically. In the first visit of an Indian prime minister to Israel, in July 2017, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gifted Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with a replica of ninth-century copper plates from central Kerala belonging to the Syrian Christian Church. They document a land grant to the church and the existence of trading associations that had West Asian members, including Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians, and Muslims. That the nation-state and its international order had wiped out a prior Indian Ocean world is of course only part of the irony in this case.

5. TNA FO78–3615 and FO78–4790 (Public Record Office [PRO] at the time). I stumbled on these fascinating sources, which in their scope traversed the Indian Ocean world and beyond, purely by chance and boredom in 2005. Tired of reading police reports on Egyptian Boy Scouts, I wandered the open stacks and thumbed randomly through catalogues when the entry for “Moplah Outlaw” jumped out at me

6. Nile Green, “The Waves of Heterotopia: Toward a Vernacular Intellectual History of the Indian Ocean,” AHR 123, no. 3 (June 2018): 846–74. For how far the study of the Indian Ocean has come, one could start with the review of the field in India offered by one of its leading historians, Ashin Das Gupta, “India’s Quest for the Indian Ocean: The Collection at the National Library,” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 49 (1988): 420–24; the role of the vernacular was deemed virtually unworthy for writing maritime history. Other helpful reviews include Markus P. M. Vink, “Indian Ocean Studies and the ‘New Thalassology,’Journal of Global History 2 (2007): 41–62; Isabel Hofmeyr, “The Complicating Sea: The Indian Ocean as Method,” CSSAME 32, no. 3 (2012): 84–90; and Jeremy Prestholdt, “Locating the Indian Ocean: Notes on the Post-colonial Reconstitution of Space,” Journal of Eastern African Studies 9, no. 3 (2015): 440–67,

7. For recent iterations of this point, see Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011); John Darwin, After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire since 1405 (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008); and Christopher A. Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World, 1780–1914: Global Connections and Comparisons (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004).

8. Philip J. Stern, The Company-State: Corporate Sovereignty and the Early Modern Foundations of the British Empire in India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Ritu Birla, Stages of Capital: Law, Culture and Market Governance in Colonial India (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009); Christopher Bayly, Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion 1770–1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983). See also the classic by Ranajit Guha, A Rule of Property for Bengal: An Essay on the Idea of Permanent Settlement (1963; Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996). Manu Goswami makes a strong case for seeing the post-1857 dispensation as markedly different for shaping a global “colonial state space” in her Producing India: From Colonial Economy to National Space (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

9. Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 39.

10. “The name of the Tangul [sayyid in Malayalam], according to the passport furnished by the magistrate of Malabar, dated March 10, 1852, is Syed Fazil, son of Syed Alibi Bin Saib [sic].” T. Pycroft, Secretary to Government of Fort St. George to Capt. S. B. Haines, Political Agent at Aden, September 10, 1853. Correspondence on Moplah Outrages in Malabar for the Years 1853–59, vol. 2 [henceforth CMO] (Madras: United Scottish Press, 1863). The most well known of ancient Muslim travelers, Ibn Battuta, carried such letters with him on his voyages from Morocco to China and back. As James Leduc astutely commented on an earlier draft, European empires and companies had begun introducing passes to travel and to trade centuries prior. Yet Sayyid Alawi’s travels in the eighteenth century suggest that the borders they created were highly permeable.

11. By the mid-nineteenth century, the word dhow in English usage denoted a class of “native” ships of various names and builds—“bagalas, bedans, jalboots, kotias, ganjas, jahazi, sambuks, mtepes, and more”—that were regarded by the British as categorically different from Western ships. Erik Gilbert, “The Dhow as Cultural Icon: Heritage and Regional Identity in the Western Indian Ocean,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 17, no. 1 (2011): 62–80, 65–66. See also, for earlier periods, George F. Hourani, Arab Seafaring in the Indian Ocean in Ancient and Early Medieval Times, rev. and expanded by John Carswell (1951; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).

12. For a more detailed account of how conquests and nomadic movements affected trade routes and constituted a unified Indian Ocean world of sea and land, see the now-classic K. N. Chaudhuri, Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean: An Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985). For general works, see Auguste Toussaint, History of the Indian Ocean (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966); Michael Pearson, The Indian Ocean (New York: Routledge, 2003); and Edward Alpers, The Indian Ocean in World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

13. Ho, Graves of Tarim, 100. See also Nancy Um, The Merchant Houses of Mocha: Trade and Architecture in an Indian Ocean Port (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009); Roxani Eleni Margariti, Aden and the Indian Ocean Trade: 150 Years in the Life of a Medieval Arabian Port (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Nelly Hanna, Making Big Money in 1600: The Life and Times of Isma‘il Abu Taqiyya, Egyptian Merchant (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1998); and Janet Abu Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World-System, AD 1250–1350 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). And, of course, revolutionizing the study of medieval commerce was the “India Book”; see S. D. Goitein and Mordechai Friedman, India Traders of the Middle Ages: Documents from the Cairo Geniza (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2008). On Calicut and Malabar’s history of defending its maritime trading autonomy, see K. K. N. Kurup, ed., India’s Naval Traditions: The Role of Kunhali Marakkars (New Delhi: Northern Book Centre, 1997), and Kurup, The Ali Rajas of Cannanore (Trivandrum: College Book House, 1975).

14. The classic early revision of the old Orientalist decline thesis is Marshall Hodgson’s magisterial three-volume work The Venture of Islam, vol. 1: The Classical Age of Islam, vol. 2: The Expansion of Islam in the Middle Periods, and vol. 3: The Gunpowder Empires and Modern Times (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974–1977). See also A. Azfar Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012); Rifa‘at Ali Abou-El-Haj, Formation of the Modern State: The Ottoman Empire, Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2005); Rula J. Abisaab, Converting Persia: Religion and Power in the Safavid Empire (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2004); and Kathryn Babayan, Mystics, Monarchs and Messiahs: Cultural Landscapes of Early Modern Iran (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003); Richard M. Eaton, Sufis of Bijapur 1300–1700: Social Roles of Sufis in Medieval India (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978).

15. Aside from sharp dismissals of other views, in “The Economic Crisis of the Seventeenth Century after Fifty Years” Jan de Vries gives a rather thorough overview of the problem in his contribution to “The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century: Interdisciplinary Perspectives,” special issue, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 40, no. 2 (Autumn 2009): 151–94.