Book review / New Directions in Research on the History of the Indian Ocean World

Eaton, Richard M. ‘The History of the Indian Ocean World: New Directions in Recent Research’. [A review of the four books listed below.] The Journal of Asian Studies 79, no 4 (2020), 1061–66.
  1. For God or Empire: Sayyid Fadl and the Indian Ocean World. By Wilson Chacko Jacob. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2019.
  2. Abraham’s Luggage: A Social Life of Things in the Medieval Indian Ocean World. By Elizabeth A. Lambourn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
  3. Monsoon Islam: Trade and Faith on the Medieval Malabar Coast. By Sebastian R. Prange. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
  4. India and the Islamic Heartlands: An Eighteenth-Century World of Circulation and Exchange. By Gagan D. S. Sood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Excerpts: The academic study of the Indian Ocean region has seen extraordinary growth in recent years….Yet it took time for the study of the Indian Ocean region to break free from the Eurocentric model epitomized by K. M. Panikkar, who in 1953 advanced the thesis that between 1498 and 1945, European colonial enterprises had so overwhelmed the economic, cultural, and political history of the region that the entire period may properly be called the ‘Vasco da Gama epoch’….

The four books under review, by contrast, not only rely on sources in non-European languages such as Judeo-Arabic, Arabic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and Malayalam, but also make imaginative use of them, offering fresh and original insights….

Among the four books, Elizabeth A. Lambourn’s Abraham’s Luggage: A Social Life of Things in the Medieval Indian Ocean World treats the earliest period of the Indian Ocean world… The study is based on a single scrap of paper on which the Jewish merchant Abraham Ben Yiju jotted down a list of items needed for his 1149 homebound voyage from the Malabar Coast to Arabia, after having spent seventeen years in India involved in transoceanic trade…

In Lambourn’s skilled hands, it fills an enormous void in our understanding of the material culture of Indian Ocean commerce, owing to the lack of archaeological evidence from shipwrecks along the Indian seaboard, unlike the wealth of such evidence from recovered wrecks in the South China or Mediterranean Sea….

[By] proposing the category of ‘monsoon Islam’, Prange offers a novel way of thinking about Malabari Muslims as an amphibious society that, profoundly oriented toward the sea, integrated Malabar’s economy with societies scattered across the ocean’s rim from East Africa to South China.

Jacob’s For God or Empire explores precisely this tension, as its title suggests, and it does so through a remarkable sort of biographical writing…

In 1766, a shaikh of the Alawi Sufi order, Sayyid Alawi, migrated from his native Arabia to Malabar just before the East India Company rose to power in coastal India. Jacob’s primary focus, however, is the life and career of his son, Sayyid Fadl (d. 1900). … Central to Fadl’s career was the British drive to suppress periodic disturbances involving Malabar’s dominant Muslim community, the Mappilas, whose claims to land rights were regularly dismissed by colonial officials….

All four books reviewed here will be of interest to students of Indian Ocean studies and of both modern and premodern South Asian and Middle Eastern history.

KSM Editor’s note: For other book reviews of Monsoon Islam, please see the news circulated in the eGroup in July 2020 and January 2021. News of Abraham’s Luggage was circulated by the author in October 2018.


Reposted from Kerala Scholars eGroup


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