Pilgrimage, Politics, and Pestilence: The Haj from the Indian Subcontinent 1860-1920.

Author:Metcalf, Barbara D.
Position:Book review

Pilgrimage, Politics, and Pestilence: The Haj from the Indian Subcontinent 1860-1920. By SAURABH MISHRA. New Delhi: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2011. Pp. ix +177. $55.

This is a study of the hajj, the canonically enjoined travel to Mecca on the part of Muslims, here the Indians who in the late nineteenth century typically provided the largest proportion of pilgrims arriving by sea each year. The title's alliterative phrase "politics and pestilence" signals the book's particular angle: an investigation of the way political calculations and public health concerns shaped British policy. Colonial politics in the late' nineteenth century, Mishra argues, primarily revolved around the goal of avoiding any kind of intrusive regulation that would violate the famous promise of the Queen (in the wake of the massive uprising across much of India in 857-58) to refrain from interference in religious life, in this case avoiding restrictions even in the interests of health and safety on a sacred ritual of Muslim Indians. "Pestilence" from the beginning provided counter-pressure to such a hands-off policy, particularly as intrusive regulation and controls on pilgrims were increasingly demanded by European and international bodies who identified the Indian Gangetic valley as the source of cholera and disease and Muslim Indian pilgrims to Mecca as the critical vector of its spread. By the turn of the century the political calculation changed to a different concern, namely, fear of the jihad and fanaticism associated with Muslims that were so much a part of the imperial imagination. This concern led to increased surveillance of pilgrims, masked to whatever extent was possible.

Key colonial officials were influenced by two theoretical arguments in resisting European demands to regulate the hajj out of their own fears of disease reaching their shores. The first was a false etiology of how cholera (the primary form of "pestilence") originated and spread; and the second, an almost religious commitment to free trade leading to fears that any kind of regulation might impede its flow. This was a cornerstone of British international policy. In the end, Mishra argues, medical issues emerged as the most important policy consideration, hence his chapter title, "Medicalizing Mecca." In this, of course, the British were not free to act as they wished in the Hijaz proper, given the role of Ottomans and, particularly after the first World War, Arabs, who throughout put in their own...

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