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Rishad Choudhury on Studying the Breakdown of Muslim Empires Through the Hajj

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Rishad Choudhury is a Kluge Fellow as well as Assistant Professor of History at Oberlin College. He is currently working on a book-length project, ‘‘Hajj between Empires: Indo-Muslim Pilgrimage and Political Culture, 1739–1820.’’

Mike Stratmoen: Could you describe your project for us?

Rishad Choudhury: My book on the hajj pilgrimage is set in an age that was defined by a twin set of tensions. On the one hand, the years between roughly 1750-1850 saw the decline of the old regimes of the great Muslim empires: the Mughals in South Asia and the Ottomans in the Middle East. Both polities rapidly fragmented in the face of rebellions within their domains and wars and invasions from without.

On the other hand, this was also an era that saw unprecedented levels of human circulation between these two regions. The intensity of traffic even led scholars — such as former Chair of Countries and Cultures of the South at the Library of Congress, the late C.A. Bayly — to argue that this period heralded an “archaic phase of globalization” in world history. In this regard, one of the most prominent groups of mobile peoples were hajj pilgrims.

From the Indian Subcontinent alone, thousands annually poured into the Indian Ocean to reach the Islamic sacred sites of Mecca and Medina, located in the Ottoman-ruled Arabian province of the Hijaz. By recovering the itineraries of these footloose figures (pilgrims who were also scholars, mystics, military servants, and statesmen), my book seeks to understand how Muslims responded to the breakdown of traditional imperial societies by building connections with the wider world.

MS: What led you to research the hajj, and especially in the 18th and 19th centuries?

RC: The book grew out of my doctoral dissertation at Cornell University, which in turn grew out of a fascination with the worlds of the Muslim empires. Trained as a historian of South Asia, I had earlier spent some time living in Turkey, the main successor state to the Ottoman Empire. As a graduate student, I thus naturally gravitated towards studying these two regions in conjunction.

So I scraped together some funding, set off for libraries and archives in Delhi, Istanbul, and further afield, and like all students of history groping towards a project, sought out sources that might speak to the kinds of connections I was after. At the time, I had no intention to work on hajj. This might sound strangely mystical, but I let the archives guide me, willing to be surprised with an exciting lead if it came about, but knowing as well that research means entering disappointing cul-de-sacs.

Ultimately, though, whether I was thumbing through moth-eaten manuscripts or squinting to read the handwritings of eighteenth-century scribes, the materials kept pointing me to the hajj as a key axis of exchange. So far as my governing research questions were concerned, all roads certainly led to Mecca. But the decision to work on the topic was also inspired by one of my teachers, Eric Tagliacozzo, who at the time was finishing his book on Southeast Asian hajj pilgrims (primarily Malay but also Burmese and Buginese Muslims).

MS: Why did you decide that the Library of Congress is the appropriate venue to conduct this research? What, if any, notable finds have you made here so far in your time as a fellow here in the Library’s collections?

RC: The Library of Congress is home to an embarrassment of riches! To give you only one example of how it has enriched my research, I am presently poring over a rare and important Persian manuscript in the Library’s collections. It was written by the Nawab (or ruler) of Arcot, a crown that emerged in South Asia as the Mughal state relaxed its hold over provincial agents of the empire in the eighteenth century. The kingdom is at the heart of one chapter of my book.

A compact polity located in what is today the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Arcot had managed to establish dense links with the Ottoman Empire by patronizing the hajj from India. Royal investments in pilgrimage were meant to generate religious legitimacy, which the kingdom felt was urgently required in a context of regime change and immense political uncertainty. In fact, though the state of Arcot has of course long ceased to exist, to this day there is an Arcot House in Saudi Arabia. Built by the Nawabs, it still annually hosts visiting Tamil pilgrims from South Asia.


  1. I was a Fellow at the Kluge Center and have a deep interest in pilgrimage. I just published “Without Oars: Casting Off into a Life of Pilgrimage” (Broadleaf) which is mostly about the practic of Christian pilgrimage, drwan from my time on the Camino de Santiago. But I am struck by your summary of the Hajj on the political configurations of the period you mentioned. My book is not primarily academic, but I utilized research to provide context and example. One of my chapters is titled “Leaving the Empire Behind.”

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