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Cover of For God or Empire: Sayyid Fadl and the Indian Ocean World, used under Fair Use
The Brink

Unity of Being against State and Capital

In hearing [Fadl’s] story, we follow the travels of wandering saints and pilgrims, the insurrections of Malayali and Arab rebels, and the armed forces of the British and Ottoman Empires.

This post, a contribution to the “Religion, State, Sovereignty: Interventions and Conversations” symposium, is a shortened version of an essay that will appear in Political Theology.

Introduction: Towards a History of Being

How does sovereignty relate to the unity of life?[1] This central question animates Wilson Chacko Jacob’s moving book For God or Empire: Sayyid Fadl and the Indian Ocean World. There, Jacob trains his gaze on the vision of “the unity of life (wahdat al-wujud),” rooted in “the Sufi tradition of Ibn Arabi (d. 1240), which was tremendously influential to the Alawiyya,” the Sufi order to which the subject of Jacob’s compelling biography, Sayyid Fadl Ibn Alawi (1825-1900), belongs.[2]

In seeking to understand Sayyid Fadl, Jacob relates philosophy to history. Fadl and his lineage drew spiritual inspiration from a philosophy of witnessing God in the universe: a “pantheistic play of divine absence and presence(ing)”, understood as the “finding/being (wujud) of the only One (al-Wahid).”[3] In historical terms, Fadl’s career spanned across nineteenth-century Asia. Accordingly, Jacob leads us from the Malabar countryside of southern India, through Dhofar on the southern shore of the Arabian Peninsula, and on to the heart of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul. Sayyid Fadl is an Odysseus of the Indian Ocean. He embodied a form of sacred sovereignty that radically differed from, but also intersected with, modern imperial state sovereignty. His epic ripples across the Arabian Sea. In hearing his story, we follow the travels of wandering saints and pilgrims, the insurrections of Malayali and Arab rebels, and the armed forces of the British and Ottoman Empires.

Rather than rehearse the book’s arguments, I shall draw out from it three layers of sovereignty and relate that to distinct forms of political economy. Robert Yelle argues that “religion is an anamorphosis, a distorted image” of sovereignty.[4] Taking a cue from him, I shall equate these three forms of sovereignty/economy to three forms of theology. After all, specific forms of politics relate to specific economic structures as well as to particular forms of religious consciousness or ways of conceptualizing divinity.

Going further, I shall present these three forms of sovereignty/economy/religion as three descents from Being. When I speak of Being, I think of various forms of human and nonhuman life, and about how these living beings share life-in-common, that is, their modes of being-together. I propose that the ascendancy of social inequality and exploitation, mediated through state and capital, fragments this being-togetherness. The unity of Being is now ruptured; beings are arranged into class, gender, and species hierarchies. Nevertheless, primordial forms of common Being persist even today, allowing us to forge a politics of reassembling Being. Accordingly, the rest of this essay shall focus on case studies to historicize the fragmentation and hierarchization of Being. It will conclude by offering pathways that can help us reunify and decarcerate Being.

First Stage in the History of Being: Communal Governance and Polycentricity of Power

The first form of sovereignty/economy, closest to Being, is where power is most dispersed, most acephalous. As David Graeber and David Wengrow remind us, we find such societies from the most ancient times, even if their material traces are more challenging to discover and interpret than the Ozymandias-like archaeological records of Pharaonic Egypt or Imperial China.[5] Today, we find such pluricentricity in Indigenous societies across the globe – from the Highland societies of Southeast Asia, studied by James Scott;[6] to the Naga polities of Northeast India, analysed by Jelle Wouters;[7] to the Amazonian societies of South America, celebrated by Pierre Clastres.[8] While Indigenous societies in the early twenty-first century are no longer absolute Others of statist-capitalist modernity, they still contain forms of life and consciousness that are fundamentally antithetical to the logic of state and capital.

The Malabar coast of southwestern India, bordering the Arabian Sea, exemplifies this politics as Jacob tells us in For God or Empire. Across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, British colonial observers described local communities here as small republics, characterized by “Parliament”-like “distribution of authority”, that acted as “chastiser of the unwarrantable acts of Ministers of State […] tending always to the maintenance of customary observances.”[9] We find comparable polities in the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, with radical pluralization of power among local tribes. Fadl himself observed how “some customary rules […] were in use among the tribes for the protection of their properties and lives before the constitution of the government.”[10]

Nature ring-fenced these polities and obstructed the entry of the state. The landscape often helped defend houses from tax-collectors. In the Malabar, the local communities “live in woods and in hills, with every house separate, and that house defensible,”, rendering centralized tax-extraction difficult.[11] In Dhofar, “the tribes do not have known residences,” making it difficult for rulers to keep track of them.[12] Charismatic saints elicited allegiance from the locals – dotting the landscape with tomb-shrines, often deeply imbedded in the natural landscape.

The shrine of Cheruman Perumal, ancient saint-king of Kerala, “set among groves of papaya, coconut, and banana” in sylvan Oman, affords a typical example.[13] The divine manifested festively here, in the epiphany of communal gathering. “The contours of the unity of life […] are but faint flashes felt and found while beside oneself in a state of hal (entered when being called to God) or by millions in the gathering and reaching for blessings, for a touch of care, compassion, or joy.”[14] Saints’ tombs, even though dilapidated and hard to find in today’s dispensation of the capitalist state, are material traces of this first level of sovereignty/economy, that which is closest to Being. They are records of a primordial sacred sovereignty still present in the margins.

We find such formations of power, such epiphanies of the divine, in other parts of the precolonial world too. For example, in Tripura, in northeastern India, sovereignty remained polycentric well into the nineteenth century. The rulers of Tripura drew revenue from the Bengal plains, but had weak fiscal control over the shifting cultivator tribes of the hills. Highlanders regularly deposed, killed, and elected rulers. Gods blessed revolution, manifesting in history in moments of tyrannicide. The Rajmala, premodern Tripura’s chief political chronicle, hymns: “Whenever the ruler will desire the destruction of the subject, [the god] Shiva will then destroy the ruler.” “When the ruler commits injustice, he will fall.” “If the ruler becomes unrighteous, he will soon fall. The earth does not belong to anyone.”[15]

As highlanders assembled in revolution, there emerged abstract concepts of the demos: “people” (loka, jana), “all people” (sarvaloka), “everyone” (sabe), “all Tripurs” (Tripur sakal). In public assemblies, ideally, “everyone engaged in deliberation” (mantrana karila sabe); “everyone came together” (ekatra haiya sabe); “all people spoke” (sarvaloke bole). Democratic politics mandated an ethic of “nonviolence towards beings” (prani ahimsan).[16]

From Tripura to Malabar to Dhofar, I see comparable patterns of life. Local communities engage in forms of production and exchange that significantly, but not entirely, evade centralized state taxation. Political power is dispersed, though not totally egalitarian – there are hierarchies of class and gender, albeit weaker than in state societies. Being manifests itself in continuous epiphany – in tribal deliberation and regicide, in oracles and miracles, in cults and shrines. The rise of class and gender inequalities has partially fragmented Being, and forms of sovereignty have started crystallizing. Social inequalities have sometimes occluded the unity of Being-in-common. But common life, a life of mutual aid and assembly, still persists. This common life deposes invaders. The tax-extracting state is primarily a foreign virus.

Second Stage in the History of Being: Social Contract and the Centralization of Authority

In a second step of descent from Being, divisions within community may lead to the replacement of communal governance by the rule of a single person. In Dhofar, warring tribes, torn apart by civil war, approached Fadl in the mid-1870s, to be a ruler over them. In Fadl’s words: “We made a treaty [mutual swearing of an oath] with members of all the tribes on terms of their obedience to me.” However, tribes retained substantial power: “four people from every tribe should come to the council of government […] every day to discuss the affairs and the state of pacification of their respective regions and to exchange views.”[17] The Malabar-born saint Fadl thus became a ruler in Dhofar through a social contract.

When intellectual historians write about social contract, they generally focus on modern Europe. In The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India, I show how interwar-era Hindu-Indian nationalists referenced ancient Sanskrit texts like the Mahabharata and Arthashastra and Buddhist texts like the Digha Nikaya and Mahavastu. They found in such texts, composed between the late first millennium BCE and the early first millennium CE, social contract theories that resembled arguments offered many centuries later by the English philosophers Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and John Locke (1632-1704). Indian Muslim thinkers and politicians like Syed Ameer Ali (1849-1928), Muhammad Ali (1878-1931), and Ilyas Ahmad also championed contractual theories of government, drawing on Arab-Islamic theology and history.[18] Even lower-caste-Hindu and Muslim peasants offered contractarian theories of governance.[19] Through such discussions, Indian thinkers rooted democracy in vernacular political theory. That Indian-born Fadl became a ruler in Arabia through social contract was thus not a historical anomaly. It was made possible by deep-rooted political traditions pervasive across Eurasia. However, his rule was short-lived, with British colonial intrigues contributing to his deposition in 1879.

[1] I am grateful to Alapan Bandyopadhyay, Shuvatri Dasgupta, Noah Salomon, and Jelle Wouters for their comments, which have sharpened the argument of this essay.

[2] Wilson Chacko Jacob, For God or Empire: Sayyid Fadl and the Indian Ocean World, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019, 9.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Robert A. Yelle, Sovereignty and the Sacred: Secularism and the Political Economy of Religion, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019, 187.

[5] David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, London: Penguin, 2021.

[6] James C. Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

[7] Jelle J. P. Wouters, In the Shadows of Naga Insurgency: Tribes, State, and Violence in Northeast India, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018.

[8] Pierre Clastres, Society against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology, New York: Zone Books, 1977.

[9] Jacob, For God or Empire, 31.

[10] Ibid., 173.

[11] Ibid., 33.

[12] Ibid., 173.

[13] Ibid., 196.

[14] Ibid., 202.

[15] Milinda Banerjee, “A Non-Eurocentric Genealogy of Indian Democracy: Tripura in History of Political Thought”, in Jelle J. P. Wouters, ed., Vernacular Politics in Northeast India: Democracy, Ethnicity, and Indigeneity, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022, 83-109.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Jacob, For God or Empire, 172.

[18] Banerjee, Mortal God, 224-33, 358-61.

[19] Gautam Bhadra, Iman o Nishan: Unish Shataker Banglar Krishak Chaitanyer ek Adhyay, c. 1800–1850, Calcutta: Subarnarekha, 1994; Milinda Banerjee, “Gods in a Democracy: State of Nature, Postcolonial Politics, and Bengali Mangalkabyas”, in Jyotsna Singh and David Kim, eds. The Postcolonial World, London: Routledge, 2016, 184-205; Milinda Banerjee, “How a Subject Negates Servitude: A Peasant Dialectic about Mastery and Self-Rule from Late Colonial Bengal”, in Rafael Klöber and Manju Ludwig, eds. HerStory. Historical Scholarship between South Asia and Europe: Festschrift in Honour of Gita Dharampal-Frick, Heidelberg: CrossAsia, 2018, 87-104; Milinda Banerjee, “Periodisation as Dialectic in a Peasant Discourse from Late Colonial India”, in Barbara Mittler, Thomas Maissen, and Pierre Monnet, eds. Chronologics: Periodisation in a Global Context, Heidelberg: Heidelberg University Publishing, 2022, 89-105.

Introduction: Religion, State, Sovereignty: Interventions and Conversations

The essays seek a genealogy of and reckoning with the place of religion in modern regimes of sovereignty, its pre-colonial histories and post-colonial legacies, as well as an accounting of the fissures that remain in its emplacement, out of which new life continues to grow.

Unity of Being against State and Capital

In hearing [Fadl’s] story, we follow the travels of wandering saints and pilgrims, the insurrections of Malayali and Arab rebels, and the armed forces of the British and Ottoman Empires.

On Milinda Banerjee’s The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India

Specifically, in Banerjee’s work, the sovereign is at once a figure that was used extensively for conjuring anew political and ethical communities and a bridge (or more accurately a plurality of local constructions) for forming, ironically, a non-monarchical Indian nation-state.

The “Ideal” Islamic Polity: History-Making and the Modern Nation-State in Khoja-Moolji’s Sovereign Attachments

At its core, Khoja-Moojli’s work explores the Pakistani culture wars and the affective attachments they elicit in the public domain as a discursive clash between the Tahrik-e-Taliban (TTP) movement and the Pakistani state.

The Public Lives of Sovereignty

By furnishing us with analyses of protests, citizen-generated media, and everyday conversations through which relations of sovereignty are rerouted, the books extend our understanding of the cultural dimensions of sovereignty.

Religion and National Integration in Sudan and India

How can political actors use and misuse the ‘facts’ of history to rally constituencies to their side (and against one another), facilitate transfers of power, and legislate policies that unevenly impact different communities under the guise of corrective work?

A Comment on Christopher Tounsel, Chosen Peoples: Christianity and Political Imagination in South Sudan

My concluding question is whether the idea of religion itself both in its oppressive and liberatory manifestations becomes, in combination with the state, a recipe for spiraling trauma and terror.

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