Lost Voices from the Indian Ocean

By Nile GreenJanuary 20, 2017

Lost Voices from the Indian Ocean

Forging Islamic Power and Place by Francis R. Bradley

IN ASIA AS IN the United States, 100 years ago, writing history meant writing the story of the nation. Plural pasts were silenced to clear the air for a singular national fanfare; old geographies of belonging were wiped clean to map history inside national boundaries. And no sector of the past was more patrolled than the nation’s borderlands, especially if its territories were recently acquired. With their long-marginalized pasts, both Mexican and Pacific, Californians know this well. But along the maritime edges of Asia, the past 20 years has seen the ocean quietly wash over the history of nations whose borders were once sealed with high sea walls. The ocean in question is the Indian Ocean, and nowadays, whether among historians of India or Indonesia, almost every other book seems to turn away from the nation to the cosmopolitan coast.

Given the force of this sea change, it’s worth pausing to examine its substance. After all, to reconstruct a lost maritime crossroads where the people of Africa and the Middle East mingled with Asians from India to the Philippines means delving into a multilingual medley of written sources. National histories have at least the convenience of being, in most cases, monolingual. So how did the pioneering studies of the Indian Ocean world approach the high bar of this linguistic pole vault?

In broad terms, the first generation of studies of the Indian Ocean was of two kinds. There were specialist books on commercial matters, such as Edward Alpers’s 1975 Ivory and Slaves and K. N. Chaudhuri’s 1978 The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company. These books and their kind were studies of economic history, whose source materials usually comprised the archives of the Portuguese Estado da Índia or the English and Dutch East India Companies. The other early books were general surveys that looked at the structuring effect of monsoon winds, long-term human interactions, and the political ascent of European empires. The earliest of these was by the Mauritian imperial historian Auguste Toussaint, who published his Histoire de l’océan Indien in 1961, though it was ahead of its time. It took a quarter century for the far more influential work of the Indian K. N. Chaudhuri to appear, with his Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean (1985). Yet these first two survey works, like the many more published since, have much in common. Their source materials comprised what soon became a gang of evidentiary usual suspects: the ancient Greek Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, the Arabic travelogue of Ibn Battuta, the Persian Ship of Sulayman, and the Portuguese Lusiads of Luís Vaz de Camões — all of them conveniently translated into English by stalwart Victorians.

Here lay the founding dilemma of this new subfield: high historiographical promises were held back by the immense technical obstacles of an ocean with too many written languages for any individual scholar to master. Over the decades since those first books were written, that dilemma has only magnified as the academic industry of “Indian Ocean studies” has rarely shifted from that early reliance on colonial-commercial records and a few familiar translations. For a field that prides and defines itself in terms of the cosmopolitan, multilingual character of the ocean, this is no small irony.

This poverty of sources presented less of a problem so long as the region was framed in terms of economic history. The English and Dutch East India companies stored plentiful data not only on European merchants, but on their Asian competitors as well. When researchers began probing the ocean’s social and cultural pasts, they were forced to find ever more creative ways of reading European accounts of people who thought, spoke, and in many cases wrote in half a hemisphere of different languages. Rather than relying on forlorn and forgotten sources in the ocean’s own idioms, many scholars resorted to taking interpretive cues from the Ibis trilogy of the contemporary Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh. Since all historical novelists rely on historians for their research, Ghosh had been forced to build his own narrative boats from the deficient timber of existing scholarship. And so, as the historians served a novelist badly, a novelist served the historians badly in turn. Powerfully imagined and skillfully contextualized as Ghosh’s novels are, they are contemporary fictions that cannot take the place of original sources.

Yet once in a while, a book comes along that brings to light a whole bookcase of vernacular sources that everyone else has overlooked. Such is the case with Francis R. Bradley’s Forging Islamic Power and Place: The Legacy of Shaykh Daud bin ’Abd Allah al-Fatani in Mecca and Southeast Asia. The volume makes no grand claims; there are no sweeping statements of stale theoretical jargon. Bradley even seems reluctant to position himself in the queue to board the academic cruise liner called “Indian Ocean studies.” Almost unassumingly, he introduces the rich written record of one of the many peoples who traversed the ocean.

The people in question are the Patani Muslims of what are today the coastal southern borders of predominantly Buddhist Thailand. Almost a century ago, the “father of Thai history,” Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, took a special interest in their little-known province in Thailand’s deep south. Keen to claim it for the nation he was helping consolidate in his writings, Prince Damrong declared that “Patani has belonged to the Thai [nation] since time immemorial.” Yet Patani’s past was far more complex than Thai nationalists have cared to admit.

Peopled by Malay-speaking Muslims who looked outward to the ocean rather than inland to Bangkok, in the 16th and 17th centuries Patani’s flourishing port hosted merchants from as far as China and Holland. Its Muslim elite grew rich on commercial profits, funding a sophisticated court culture that shared much with the era’s many Malay sultanates. But from the 1780s on, a series of invasions by the Buddhist kingdom of Siam (now Thailand) saw Patani repeatedly plundered. Those who were not killed or carried away as slaves to Bangkok fled in search of shelter to coastal towns from Arabia to Vietnam. In time, the instability caused by a sequence of wars with Siam deterred the merchant ships from returning to Patani. With no trade to support it, Patani’s old court culture was starved of its lifeblood. Gradually, the region was absorbed into Thailand. In 1909, its subjugation was sealed under international law through the Bangkok Treaty with the United Kingdom. Today, Patani remains one of the poorest provinces of Thailand and, since 2001, has been rocked by the violence of secessionist (and possibly Islamist) rebels.

Fortunately, this depressing political history forms only the backdrop to Bradley’s book, which is careful not to stoke the fires further with careless rhetoric. Taking Patani’s fall as his starting point, he follows a small group of exiles who fled the destruction of their homeland to seek sanctuary in Mecca. Unlike the princes, courtiers, and merchants who had dominated and defined Patani culture in previous centuries, the exiles were Muslim clerics formerly affiliated with Patani’s main mosque. As the status of the courtiers burned in the ruins of the palace, the influence of the clergy — and the mosque — grew rapidly. This status reversal was all the more striking for taking place in exile.

From their safe haven in Mecca, Patani’s Muslim clergy reached out to their fellow outcasts on the opposite side of the ocean; they kept in contact with old compatriots in far Sumatra, Cambodia, and Borneo. So effective was their proselytizing that it completely transformed the culture of the penurious Patani diaspora. With the status of being dispatched from Mecca, the clerics’ teachings “revolutionize[d] people’s relationship with Islam and Islamic authority,” giving rise to a new vision of life in which to be Patani was to be Muslim, and to be Muslim was to follow the missives sent from Mecca. Local Malay visions of Islam were now undermined by an imported, and more legalistic, version of the faith.

What was all the more remarkable about this religious transformation of Patani identity was that its main tool was the manuscript. Though Mecca was the sacred urban center of Islam, when the first Patani exiles arrived there in the 1780s, the holy city did not have even a single printing press. When printing in Malay and other Muslim languages subsequently spread widely around the ocean in the mid-19th century, the humble handwritten text remained the Patani clergy’s preferred means of reaching their dispersed followers. Carried across the waves by students who came to study in Mecca with the Patani experts on Islam, such manuscripts spread their teachings to the far corners of the diaspora.

Over the past quarter century, the National Library of Malaysia and the Islamic Arts Museum of Malaysia have collected around 1,300 of these manuscripts from the heirs of the original Patani exiles. A small proportion is in Arabic. Most are in Jawi, that is, the Malay language written in Arabic script that emerged centuries earlier through a monsoon-chasing pattern of educational circulation. Given the poor survival rates of such manuscripts — the climate of Southeast Asia is not kind to paper, still less to the palm leaves that preceded it — the Patani corpus represents a massive addition to our knowledge of not only the people of Patani but also of the vernacular maritime world that these texts once traversed.

Such material enables Bradley to build his book an altogether sturdier hull than those made with the imported timber of European sources. To make sense of so many manuscripts, he focuses on the writings of the most influential of the early exiles: Shaykh Daud bin ’Abd Allah al-Fatani, one of the first generation of Patani clerics who fled the Siamese invasion. Reaching Mecca around 1790, Shaykh Daud began his career translating Arabic works into Malay before writing his own works on many a religious topic. Among his prolific output were spiritual inquiries into the afterlife and the mystic doctrines of Sufism. But the main focus of his writing was on the importance of observing the outward practices of Islam; in short, the primacy of obeying the Sharia. As Bradley explains, what Shaykh Daud’s vast textual output added up to was an attempt to recreate Patani as a religious rather than a political community.

By around 1810, Shaykh Daud’s reputation had spread wide enough for him to draw fellow Patani students from across the diaspora. He took the responsibility seriously, penning a series of works on pedagogy, not merely to better teach his own students, but to show them how to spread his teachings in turn among the distant communities of exiles. For nearly four decades till his death in 1847, Shaykh Daud dispatched these disciples to found local versions of madrasa schools known as pondoks. As Bradley details in his final chapter, this new network of religious schools stretched from Mecca to southern Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, and Cambodia. Even in Bangkok the descendants of slaves carried captive from Patani were exposed to Shaykh Daud’s pious doctrines. By the late 19th century, “the pondok became Patani’s new social and cultural center.” A hundred years after the destruction of the Patani sultanate, a powerful new class of Muslim clerics had replaced the old courtly elite as community leaders throughout the Patani diaspora.

The world revealed by the textbooks that Shaykh Daud sent to his far-reaching network of schools is not the enchanting Asian cosmopolis created in the novels of Amitav Ghosh. It is a world of sharp definitions and boundary marking, of religious law and clerical authority. With their ignoring of non-Muslims, their emphasis on Sharia, their attempts to replace local Malay traditions with legalistic Muslim norms, Shaykh Daud’s writings can hardly be called “cosmopolitan” by any redefining stretch of the imagination. Yet, as Bradley explains, the manuscripts found many readers and expounders among the impoverished and exiled of a multiply conquered and colonized ocean.

The setting for these developments is entirely that described in many standard studies of the Indian Ocean: a world of commerce and contact, migration and multilingualism, oppression and empire. Yet through Bradley’s careful contextualization of his sources into the lower-class lives of exiles and slaves, Forging Islamic Power and Place reveals the currents of power within the ocean’s communities. He shows how the vernacular tools used by Shaykh Daud and his disciples could be more subtle, familiar, and persuasive than the blunter weaponry of colonialism. As all intellectual historians should, Bradley shows how ideas find resonance with particular social conditions.

There were other, different voices than Shaykh Daud’s calling across the seas in the 19th century. Many of them surely were more cosmopolitan than the clarion call of the clergy, more creole, ecumenical, irreligious even. But those other vernacular voices must be documented and demonstrated, tracked down in the languages of the ocean’s many peoples. Because postnational histories need to recover the evidence of moving ideas, not only the transit of goods. Fortunately, Francis R. Bradley is part of a new generation of scholars whose first books are taking the trouble to do precisely that. The maritime borderlands still have much to teach us.


Nile Green is professor of history at UCLA. His latest book is The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London. The LARB review of The Love of Strangers can be found here.

LARB Contributor

As Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA, Nile Green brings global history into conversation with Islamic history. He has researched and traveled in around 20 Muslim countries, including Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen. His many books include The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austens London, Global Islam: A Very Short Introduction, and How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding. Green also hosts the podcast Akbar’s Chamber: Experts Talk Islam, which is available on all major platforms.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!