Michael Christopher Low’s book Imperial Mecca: Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj is a fascinating account of the Hajj pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest city of Makkah (“Mecca”) during the 19th century. It was a time when the semi-autonomous Sharifate in the Hijaz province was effectively at the crossroads of two imperial powers, the Ottoman Caliphate and the British Empire, or more precisely the British Raj in India which was an “informal sub-empire” in its own right.
During this period, the Hajj found itself lodged between and shaped by the competing claims of the Ottomans’ sovereignty over the haramain (Makkah and Madinah), which arguably extended to spiritual authority over non-Ottoman Sunni Muslims living under European colonial rule, and those of the British. Propelled by the Industrial Revolution, Britain had ushered in the steamship-era Hajj and challenged the legitimacy of its Ottoman rivals by portraying itself as a powerful yet benevolent “Muslim” empire, home to the world’s largest Muslim population.
While previous works have touched on the late Ottoman period and its Arabian frontiers, this book focuses on the under-studied area of Islam’s most sacred site placed in the historical and political context of “an Ottoman island adrift on a colonial ocean”.
As with contemporary times, the majority of pilgrims to Makkah came from the Indian subcontinent and Indonesia. We learn from Low that in the 1880s Indian Muslims and Jawis from Dutch East Asia formed the largest contingents of pilgrims every year.
However, the implication of this was that the Hajj became a hub where pan-Islamic and anti-colonial ideas could be exchanged across the Muslim world, which became a security issue for European powers. Anti-western and anti-colonial sentiment had already been fostered among Indian Muslims during the Great Revolt in 1857, for which the community had borne the brunt of the blame. The loss of the Mughal Empire that same year led to many Indian Muslims gravitating towards the authority of the Ottoman Caliphate.
Yet the Indian Muslims in the Hijaz were also viewed with some suspicion as a potential fifth column within the caliphate, as they technically had legal protection as British subjects. These concerns came amid growing colonial extraterritoriality with the colony of Aden and foreign interference in Egypt, which by then had become a quasi-independent state. The Ottomans suspected that the British were encouraging Indian subjects to settle in the Hijaz to lay the foundations for a long-held conspiracy to transfer the caliphate to the Sharif of Makkah.
Most intriguing of all though is Low’s coverage in Imperial Mecca… of the deadly Cholera Epidemic of 1865 which reached the Hijaz and made the Hajj one of the epicentres of the disease before it made its way to the Mediterranean and beyond via Egypt. As with the preceding and later outbreaks, the steamship was instrumental in its rapid spread. Its relative affordability also democratised the pilgrimage in far-reaching ways that weren’t possible before steam.
Low makes the point that the steamship-era Hajj gave way to “the first global crisis of Muslim mass mobility” and, as a result, Muslims became securitised and racialised. He goes as far as to argue that current Islamophobia which revolves around air traffic, immigration, and threats of terrorism is nothing new.
Furthermore, the author explains that Britain’s denial that India was the source of the cholera outbreaks and its attempts to undermine Ottoman quarantine efforts, as well as British opposition to the global consensus about the cause and transmission of cholera played a big part in the spread of the disease. Such an attitude made Britain complicit in cholera’s spread in India which left tens of millions dead, probably as a result of its imperialism and disregard for the environment.
The false reports by British officials on ships’ bills of health were intended to keep the all-important maritime trade flowing, the heartbeat of the sprawling empire. In some ways, this is similar to the current British government’s reluctant imposition of restrictions on the economy throughout the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
As a balanced assessment, Low also acknowledges the poor sanitary conditions and lack of hygiene infrastructure in the Hijaz, as was the norm along the Ottoman Empire’s Arab frontiers in this period. These provinces and their people were perceived as backward in comparison to the “civilised” Turkish Anatolian heartland, where European colonial attitudes to the Orient were applied to the “nomadism and savagery” of autonomous frontier provinces.
Critically, the impact of cholera on the Hajj and the manner in which it facilitated its spread undermined even further the Ottoman Sultan-Caliph’s role in protecting and administrating the pilgrimage and, therefore, Ottoman legitimacy. This was, of course, seized on by the British who wanted to frame their empire as one which was capable of better managing the outbreak, despite its major role in the cause and spread of the disease. Both powers, we read, were restricted in their actual authority in the Hijaz when compared with the office of the Sharif who enjoyed a monopoly on the inland Hajj industry. This was not without its controversies and accusations of exploitation and fleecing of pilgrims, guides, and Bedouin-run camel transportation business.
The tragic, short-lived Hijaz Railway project is also discussed in detail in the book. The building of the line was overseen by Sultan Abdulhamid II to connect Istanbul to Madinah alongside which telegraph lines were also built to modernise the Arab infrastructure and espouse pan-Islamism. It was also intended to rein in the Sharif’s autonomy and British expansion in the region. According to the author, it was the inability of the Ottomans to tame the Hijaz which contributed to their undoing by the Sharif-led and British-supported Arab revolt.
It was appreciated to see a brief mention of the current pandemic in the epilogue and its impact on last year’s Hajj which was scaled back and restricted. The House of Saud is faced with similar issues and challenges as those faced by the Ottomans and the British Raj, both of which also sought to derive legitimacy from managing the pilgrimage.
Imperial Mecca: Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj is an exceptional and informative book which puts Ottoman-era archives to great use. As such, it is an original contribution to writings on the Age of Imperialism and its effect on Islam’s most sacred site and one of the faith’s five pillars, the Hajj.