After the Rebellion: Religion, Rebels, and Jihad in South Asia

Ilyse R. Morgenstein Fuerst University of Vermont
Abstract: The 1857 Rebellion redefined religion, rebels, and jihad in South Asia. What it meant to belong to a particular religion—specifically Islam—came to signify one’s political leanings. In turn, religious concepts like jihad with long, multifaceted histories became synonymous with a religion and its community. This essay addresses how the events of 1857–58 minoritized and racialized Indian Muslims, with particular attention to the use of jihad as a rhetorical concept in the colonial period.

Historians are keen not to put too much stock into hard-and-fast "befores" and "afters." We know that most events—even the ones that become pivotal moments—have myriad antecedents that allow for that event’s occurrence. Little if anything happens out of the blue; examined carefully, even seemingly shocking events follow from a traceable context. We know that most events become what they are based upon how folks at the time, in an event’s aftermath, and many years later remember that event. History doesn’t just happen: we make it. This essay starts from the assumption that remembered events not only become history but also become the ways people are defined.

Historians are keen not to divide time into "befores" and "afters," and yet the Rebellion is one of those historical moments where antecedents and aftermath coalesce around a cataclysmic series of events.

One such well-remembered event is the Great Rebellion of 1857 in India, a long and terrifying year (or so) of bloodshed, rebellion, suppression, and suspicion. It pitted Britons as colonizers of South Asia against South Asians of multiple backgrounds, positions, and statuses. As I argued in my first book, Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion, the Great Rebellion had a massive, lingering effect on how religion came to be defined in India—and especially upon Islam and Muslims.

Historians are keen not to divide time into "befores" and "afters," and yet the Rebellion is one of those historical moments where antecedents and aftermath coalesce around a cataclysmic series of events. Before the Rebellion, Britons often read Muslims as fanatical, perhaps violent. After the Rebellion, Muslims were almost unequivocally understood as inherently violent, obligated to revolt. The shift here is from seeing some Muslims in stereotypical lenses to understanding all Muslims to be rebels. As I showed in the book, this is clearest in the unmistakable rise and then exclusive use of the terms "jihad" and "jihadi" for and about Islam and Muslims after the Rebellion.

Before the Rebellion, few relied on the notion of jihad to discuss Muslims and yet after the Rebellion, this term proliferates—and many authors cited the Rebellion as evidence that "Muslim" and "jihadi" were interchangeable. But before there was anything we could divide into a "before" or an "after," there was the Rebellion itself.

After the Rebellion, Muslims were almost unequivocally understood as inherently violent, obligated to revolt. The shift here is from seeing some Muslims in stereotypical lenses to understanding all Muslims to be rebels.

Three days in May 1857 set off the long, terrifying year of bloodshed, rebellion, suppression, and suspicion at the center of my inquiry. On May 9, 1857, sepoys (derived from sepāhī; Indian soldiers) serving in the third regiment of light cavalry in the Meerut, India cantonment awaited imprisonment for failing to use their new weapons properly. The latest Lee-Enfield rifles required sepoys to bite the cartridge in order to load the weapon, but they refused, disobeying direct orders. They had heard rumors about these new rifles: the cartridges were greased with lard and tallow, animal products respectively forbidden the Muslim and Hindu soldiers. This was the last straw after months of growing unrest, and these rumors sparked the match that lit a flame of mutiny and rebellion. On May 10, 1857, as the sepoys of the third regiment faced sentencing, other regiments in Meerut broke rank to liberate their imprisoned compatriots forcefully. This was a fierce and bloody internal attack—but the violence was not limited to the garrisoned walls, and Meerut’s civilians were not spared. Some twenty British and fifty Indian civilians, including women and children, were massacred. Many sepoys fled to Delhi, some forty miles away, during the night, and on May 11, Delhi, too, witnessed rebellion. Britons—soldiers and civilians—were taken prisoner, and many were executed on May 16, 1857.


Felice Beato, “A Mosque in Meerut where some Rebel Soldiers may have Prayed,” 1858. Via WikiCommons.

Felice Beato, noted Italian-born English colonial photographer and a witness to some of the Rebellion, took a series of photographs of landscapes and architecture in northern India a year or so after these three bloody days.

His 1858 photograph documents a mosque in Meerut, a city in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (cf. Masselos, 51). This is a simple enough lithograph of an architectural landscape; par for the course in Beato’s work, which was widely known for war scenes, landscapes, and Britain’s Asian colonies (see Chaudhary, cf. Willcock). What makes it remarkable is its original title, which suggests it is not merely a mosque but rather a space for rebels. It reads: "a mosque in Meerut where some of the rebel soldiers may have prayed." A half-sentence—one clause—and the mosque and the Muslims who prayed within it are marked, in the photograph and in our interpretation 150 years later, as part of the religious landscape from which brutal uprisings grew.

As far as we know, there is no real evidence for Beato’s caption. There isn’t, for example, a log of this particular mosque as one that actually held rebels in East India records; there aren’t other supporting eyewitness accounts that corroborate Beato’s insistence; there aren’t South Asian accounts in Hindi or Urdu (or English) that suggest this mosque was more than a mosque (or, I suppose, less than a mosque, depending on your vantage point). Beato’s caption itself is less than committal, too: it may have been where rebel soldiers prayed. And yet, this caption is telling because despite its problems, it persists. The caption is replicated in quite a lot of secondary literature; every iteration of its digital life replicates the image, since it is publicly accessible via WikiCommons and other digital repositories. Its repetition, availability, and prominence all lend authority to its claims: Beato’s Meerut mosque has become a definitive image of a mosque that may have held not (just?) Muslims but rebels.

The marking of this mosque and its landscape by a European man, not just as a mosque but as something more—and especially something more sinister—than a holy building neatly encapsulates the ways that documenting the rebellion crafted the category "Muslim." Beato took a photo of a mosque in 1858, published it rather later as historians, officials, and civilians still were making sense of the effects of the Rebellion, and assumed that its proximity to one of the earliest and notably bloody revolts of the previous year’s war indicated significance, as his caption indicates. He may not have been wrong. Certainly mosques—as well as other sacred sites—were used as shelter during raids and warfare before and after 1857. But whether this particular mosque was used in this particular instance of revolt isn’t clear to me or other historians. What is clear, however, is that a photographer and witness to some of the Rebellion had no trouble labeling it, classifying it as a mosque-cum-safe haven for the dangerous, seditious Muslim rebels.

This image and its assumed truths tells us all we need to know about religiosity and revolt: they are linked, they are linked to Islam, and they are linked to the events of 1857–58. And it tells us so with the veil of objectivity: a European observer’s documentary evidence.

This image and its assumed truths tells us all we need to know about religiosity and revolt: they are linked, they are linked to Islam, and they are linked to the events of 1857–58. And it tells us so with the veil of objectivity: a European observer’s documentary evidence.

This supposed objectivity is crucial for how we continue to evaluate belonging, identity, and authenticity. Beato’s image of a mosque that was not simple a mosque is one that looms large in my imagination precisely because of how easily it allows an observer—now and in the past—to witness the rebellion with her own eyes, to see where the rebels may have prayed. Connecting a house of worship to rebellion is at once specific—it refers to this pictured mosque—and generic—this mosque is unnamed, unpeopled, a categorical stand-in for all the other mosques like it. What might it mean to assert that rebels may have prayed in this building? What does it tell its viewers about the bloodshed of the Rebellion, the responsible parties, their assumed identities? How does this one image help us, contemporary viewers, understand the legacies of the Rebellion and its simultaneous minoritization and racialization of Muslims?

The three violent days in May 1857 with which we began were the beginning of a long year that marks one of the most important events in South Asian and British history alike. While there are many lesser-known examples of Indic resistance to colonial rule, the centrality of 1857 remains in both Euro-American and South Asian historiographies (e.g., Chatterjee). Perhaps it has been overvalued as the example of Indian resistance to British rule, yet the Great Rebellion is undeniably an exemplar of resistance, and moreover, an indelible set of events which fundamentally altered the ways in which India was ruled and how Britons saw the people and landscape that they ruled—a landscape, of course, dotted with mosques like the one in Beato’s photograph. The events of the Great Rebellion—the initial sepoy involvement, its spread to civilians, its multiple massacres on both sides, the years of famine and deaths that followed, and the brutal ways in which the British regime sought to put down any hint of rebellion in its wake—are enormously significant in their size, scope, and lasting imprint on British and South Asia popular history and imagination. There can be no doubt that 1857 scars the history and historiography of South Asia.

There is also little doubt that the massive imperial reconfiguration and response to Rebellion fundamentally alters definitions of religion, an issue of vital import here: how the Rebellion contours notions of religion has serious implications for the study of humanities. I will return to these implications below. No scholar of religion and the historiography of religion can afford to ignore South Asia: not only have so many of the field’s founding thinkers based their theories on Indic languages, literatures, and racial-linguistic definitions (as I have argued elsewhere [2017]). But as Peter Gottschalk has masterfully established, South Asia was the physical and imagined location for categorizations of religion, and it fundamentally altered how religion is thought about, well beyond British rule historically and Indian borders geographically. The Great Rebellion seismically reconfigures the ways in which both religion and particular religions are defined, characterized, and classified. The year 1857 marks not only South Asian and British histories, but the history of the study of religion as well.

There is also little doubt that the massive imperial reconfiguration and response to Rebellion fundamentally alters definitions of religion, an issue of vital import here: how the Rebellion contours notions of religion has serious implications for the study of humanities.

Religion as a starting point for rebellion was an omnipresent fascination for Britons in and while discussing South Asia. Religion existed as a thing—sui generis, intact, and whole—to be feared for its power, specifically its power over uncouth Indian masses. One commentator remarked: "Religion is not a thing to be trifled with, and the dullest and most phlegmatic will be roused to the boiling point of rage and enthusiasm when it once is affected" (Lewin, 12). But British observers and officials were not equally concerned by all religions—not all religions appeared to contain the possibility of boiling rage. British observers and officials saw Muslims and Islam as uniquely susceptible to violence due to religious offence, obligation, and sentiment. The Rebellion marks a dramatic moment in which Muslims come to be both minoritized and racialized. Just as one cannot understand the history of the study of religion without navigating portrayals of India, neither can one comprehend a contemporary, racialized relationship between Muslims and jihad without first locating its historical correlation to the Rebellion.

The Rebellion is a discernable moment in the processes of the minoritization and racialization of Indian Muslims. Minoritization should not be confused with a demographic minority. It is, instead, the systematic process by which elites deny access to a group through an implementation of power, broadly defined.[1] In the example of the 1857 Rebellion, minoritization is a process by which Britons consolidated power over former Muslim ruling elites and the religious constituency they (supposedly) represented. They achieved this through both de jure[2] and de facto shifts that included the discontinuation of Islamicate and Indic languages in official settings and (real or perceived) mistreatment of Muslims.[3]

Minoritization is one of the key processes I explored in Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion. Racialization is the other. I argue that together, racialization and minoritization create a narrative that forms modern understandings of Muslims. Where minoritization collapses a group into a singularity with both identifiable and marginal traits, racialization marks individuals as having immutable traits because of their membership in a particular group. The concept and construct of race includes essentialization of groups based upon traits imagined to be inherent, hereditary, and prognostic—that is to say, rooted in (pseudo-)biology and therefore scientifically "real" (such as Robb, 1).[4] Racialization identifies individuals as both belonging to one cogent group and possessing those inherent, hereditary, and prognostic characteristics.

The Rebellion is a discernable moment in the processes of the minoritization and racialization of Indian Muslims.…I argue that together, racialization and minoritization create a narrative that forms modern understandings of Muslims. 

Religions are not races—Islam is not a race—but Islam and its practitioners are racialized. After the Rebellion, Britons portray Muslims in India as inherently seditious, bound by both law and intrinsic disposition to violence, and necessarily ill-tempered, incorrigible, and unable to be ruled by non-Muslims. Depictions of Muslims show them possessing inherent, unchanging, and transmittable characteristics. These are decidedly racialized classifications: Muslims cannot escape these traits; they are imagined to be part of the fundamental composition of what and who is Muslim. To be otherwise, in effect, would indicate that one is not Muslim.

Racialization and minoritization do not function solely as external labels thrust upon Europe’s Others. Indeed, they often demand and require the participation of those who have been racialized and minoritized. These are pernicious systems of power, definition, and classification. For Indian Muslims, racialization and minoritization requires stories of the Great Rebellion.

The Rebellion triggered questions about Muslims, specifically how and if Muslims belonged to—or in—British India. In the book from which this essay in drawn, I critically and primarily engaged with two authors invested in this question. W. W. Hunter’s The Indian Musalmans: Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen? (1871; 2nd. ed. 1872) resoundingly stated that, yes, Muslims were bound in conscience to rebel against the Queen and, therefore, constituted a distinct problem to be solved by the British ruling elite. Sir Syed Ahmad Khan wrote about the Rebellion meaningfully in Causes of the Indian Rebellion (Asbab-i-Baghawat-e-Hind [1858]) and later rehashed many of these points as he responded directly to Hunter in Review on Dr Hunter’s Indian Musalmans: Are They Bound in Conscience to Rebel Against the Queen? (1872). His defensive writing about the Rebellion demonstrates a minoritized and racialized Muslim community, distinctively and uniquely held accountable for the violence of 1857–58. This exchange serves to demonstrate discursive minoritization and racialization, and the ways that those processes become hegemons against which Muslims, too, must struggle to be defined. In other words, while Britons asked and demanded answers to the so-called Muslim question, Muslims engaging in this discourse similarly perpetuated the idea that Muslims stand as a unique, cogent group. They thus participate—albeit asymmetrically—in the processes of definition, racialization, and minoritization.

There are numerous examples to be had here—Beato’s abovementioned photograph, for example. But for clarity and brevity, I will focus on one other salient example: the debate about whether or not jihad was permitted against the British, and specifically what came to be known as the Calcutta fatwa. This was a ruling that declared jihad was not permissible: it bluntly dismissed the religious obligation and permissibility of a (religiously defined or sanctioned) revolt against British rulers in South Asia. However, the Calcutta fatwa was routinely dismissed by British observers—or, worse, used as evidence against Muslims by a logic rooted in racialized notions of Islam: such a argument suggested that even if a few Muslims could prove their trustworthiness, the masses could not due to their inborn violent natures. I argue, due to the logics of racialization and minoritization, that the Calcutta fatwa therefore came to represent the precise opposite of what it literally stated: Muslims were indeed bound and altogether likely to rebel against the Queen.

Much has been and could be written about jihad. As historian Ayesha Jalal brilliantly argued,

Few concepts have been subjected to more consistent distortion than the Arabic word jihad—whose literal meaning is "striving for a worthy and ennobling cause" but which is commonly thought today to mean "holy war" against non-Muslims. (Jalal, 3)

We live in a political era in which the word "jihad" is ubiquitous and heavily debated. The period shortly following the Rebellion was, in this respect, rather similar. "Jihad" was seen with increasing regularity in official documents, newspapers, speeches, and various other types of writing in English and South Asian languages. Its presence suggests a preoccupation with a complex Islamic legal term that, as Jalal points out, does not literally mean "holy war," even if it can and has been used in that context. In the context of the Great Rebellion and in its repercussions, jihad was both a conceptual metric by which to measure the loyalty of Muslims, and, perhaps more importantly, how Muslims came to be known and understood post-1857.

For both nineteenth-century British imperial agents and South Asian Muslims, jihad was a religious legal concept as well as a potential outcome. Jihad, like any legal concept in Islam, is addressed by trained scholars and relevant pronouncements (i.e., fatāwā) incorporating germane Qur’anic passages, Sunna and hadith (examples and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), and, in later texts, a discussion of previous legal rulings.[5] Legal scholars disagreed on principle, on interpretation, and on logical grounds, as well as along the so-called sectarian alignments (e.g., Shi’i, Sunni, and others), or according to Sunni classical legal schools. Islamic legal scholars have debated jihad in terms of its uses, definitions, and deployments, and these jurisprudential conversations have been neither simple nor simplistic across epoch and region.

The major, relevant issues of interpretation centered on India’s status—namely, what sort of region India became under British rule and whether that rule impeded the practice of Islam. The legal concepts of dar-ul-islam (a land of peace or Islam) or dar-ul-aman (a land of protection or peace) and dar-ul-harb (a land of war) reigned supreme in debates about the application of jihad beginning in the mid-eighteenth century and gained prominence in the early nineteenth century.[6] A region in which Islam had ascendancy was deemed by clerics dar-ul-islam, a notion that was tied classically to early Islamic history and expansion but retained legal importance well after the classical and medieval periods of Muslim political conquests. Dar-ul-harb, contrastingly, referred to regions in which Islam had not yet spread or taken a position of primacy; in this way, dar-ul-harb marked territories that might merit just or holy wars.[7] Of course, these terms effectively split the world in two, appearing to describe a rather stark dichotomy. In reality, though, most Muslim empires and, indeed, many jurists—especially Hanafi jurists[8]—troubled simplistic definition and actions based upon such simplistic interpretations (Ahmad, 6).

Muslims reinterpreted and recast the notions of dar-ul-islam and dar-ul-harb, issues that gained urgency in the context of land-grabs and European expansion. Jihad, as a possible outcome of these designations, emerged as a concern across colonial contexts, certainly within the British Empire and also for French, Russian, Dutch, and other European imperial powers. Thus, there are two related issues hidden in the notion of jihad: first, the threat of anti-imperial movements, specifically those rooted in Islamic discourse; and second, a racialized conceptualization of Islam and a corresponding idea of a universal Muslim identity.

There are two related issues hidden in the notion of jihad: first, the threat of anti-imperial movements, specifically those rooted in Islamic discourse; and second, a racialized conceptualization of Islam and a corresponding idea of a universal Muslim identity.

All of these issues are the context in which the Calcutta fatwa came into being. In November 1870, in response to inflammatory newspaper articles, ongoing accusations of sedition, and a general climate of suspicion, the Muhammadan Literary Society of Calcutta asked Maulvi Karamat Ali, a Hanafi jurist, to offer a ruling on whether Muslims were required by religious law to rebel against the Queen—to rule, in other words, about jihad. The Muhammadan Literary Society was an elite group of Muslims, and its founder—and its November 1870 meeting host—Maulvi Abdul Latif, was a noted intellectual, known modernizer, and well respected man within Muslim and British circles. Maulvi Karamat Ali ruled "that, according to Mahomedan law, British India is Darul Islam, and that it is not lawful for the Mahomedans of British India to make Jihad." (Abstract of the Proceedings of the Mahomedan Literary Society of Calcutta, 1). Karamat Ali added that "ignorant Mahomedans" had posed the question and that he only answered it at some insistence by the Mahomedan Literary Society. Despite rejecting the question out of hand—which could have been the end of the fatwa—he then proceeded to also outline how the threshold for jihad had not been met.

Hunter, writing Indian Musalmans in the following year, was well aware of this particular ruling; it was published as a pamphlet in both Urdu and English, and it was but one of a few that had been issued around and in the decade following the Rebellion. Hunter addressed the Calcutta fatwa directly. One would think that a group, loyal to the British—some of its members had even fought on behalf of the British during the rebellion—offering a solid and official ruling supporting British rule in India would be welcomed. Readers: it was not. Instead, he argued: "It would be a political blunder for us to accept without inquiry the views of the Muhammadan Literary Society of Calcutta as those of the Indian Musalmans" (Hunter, 124, my emphasis).

While Hunter went on and on about this fatwa and the ways in which it was incorrect, this particular line at its heart helps us get at racialization and minoritization. The Muhammadan Literary Society conducted public meetings, usually in Urdu, but sometimes in English, to discuss a great range of literatures in Urdu, Persian, Arabic, and English. Its membership was necessarily elite: literate, of means, often with deep connections to multiple streams of power in northern India in the mid-nineteenth century, which is to say, they had past connections to Mughal rule, current connections to the East India Company, possible connections to the ulema, as well as ties to Calcuttan financial, political, social elites. Despite many being noted supporters of the British regime, despite some fighting for the British during the Rebellion, Hunter dismisses the Calcutta fatwa entirely, first by attacking the legitimacy of its claims, but later, by the line above—by suggesting it folly to conflate the Muhammadan Literary Society of Calcutta with Indian Muslims. Hunter implies here, and later states, that these elite Muslims are decidedly not real Muslims—they are not Indian Muslims.

For Hunter, Indian Muslims are zealous and violent by nature. The "fanatical masses" as he refers to them, will pay no mind to the Muhammadan Literary Society or its fatwa. In a clause, elite, learned, loyal Muslims—the Muslims who clearly see themselves as respectable answers to the so-called Muslim question—are dismissed as fundamentally not Muslim. To be Muslim, in Hunter’s view, is to be seditious as his answer to his titular question ("are they bound in conscience to rebel against the queen?") proposes. Evidence to the contrary doesn’t stand to prove that Muslims are loyal, but rather, that those folks are decidedly less Muslim, perhaps not even Muslim. And so this fatwa, sought as salve to an untenable political climate post-Rebellion, instead rendered its seekers exceptions that proved the rule. Per Hunter’s argument, their inherent untrustworthiness—that they seem to be Muslims but in fact cannot represent Muslims at all—stands to uphold a racialized Islam.

Hunter’s work investigated the effects of zealotry on the masses:

I propose, therefore, to scrutinize the Sunni Decisions with a view to ascertaining the effect which they will have on the more zealous Muhammadans; men with whom the sense of religious duty is the rule of life, and whose minds are uninfluenced either by fear or danger or by habits of prosperous ease. . . . For it is no use shutting our eyes to the fact that a larger proportion of our Muhammadan subjects belong to this class. (Hunter 124, my emphasis)

The majority of Muslims are fanatics: their religious duties, Hunter argued, rule their lives, unencumbered by fear or danger, or even by prosperity. This is how Hunter questioned the motives and authenticity of the elite Muslims who procured a ruling that appeared to favor British rule. Favorable ruling aside, their elite status—their "prosperous ease"—does not guard against the inherent zealotry of their co-religionists.

It stands to reason, then, that should these elite lose their prosperity, they would necessarily regain their seditious zealotry. This matters in the context of minoritization. In a political moment in which Muslims—and especially elite Muslims—were adjusting to a purposeful deduction of political, social, economic, and cultural capital, Hunter implied that losing status would lead to fanaticism. Their minoritization plays into their racialization: as a result of being minoritized—of being denied access to power and having previous social standing limited or altered—these elite Muslims will necessarily "revert" to their inherent and predictable state as violent, seditious, untrustworthy. This circular but powerful cycle demonstrates how pernicious these processes were and are—one cannot escape the classifications. Arguing against them, logically and with evidence, does not ensure the desired outcome.

The Muhammadan Literary Society played a willing role in crafting definitions of authentic Islam; perhaps unwillingly, their attempts at demonstrating "real" Islam were used in ways they couldn’t have anticipated, ways that solidified the very racialized image they were working against. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, likewise, can be read in this light.

That he stridently disagreed with Hunter may not surprise, but Khan’s writing is all the more fascinating and noteworthy for Hunter’s argument that people like Khan—that is, both loyalist and modern Muslims—might not exist. Or, according to Hunter, if such Muslims existed, they merely inhabited a minority class of Muslims morally and financially above their majoritarian, rebellious counterparts, and were therefore politically inconsequential. Moreover, Hunter expressly denied the veracity of the very proof-texts Khan relied upon. Their "debate" may well be seen as a one-sided argument, where Hunter set the parameters and Khan merely participated within those boundaries. Sir Syed’s reply, however, echoed in certain communities, English and Indian, Christian and Muslim. Khan did more than participate in a discourse central to the questions of Muslims, identity, loyalty, and the Crown—he helped shape it.

His response to Hunter’s impactful monograph illustrates that Khan and others were challenging depictions of jihad as solely representing their identity, as persons of faith, racially identified subjects, and as members of a local (increasingly political) milieu. His most withering critique was reserved for Hunter’s assertions that Muslims ought to be understood as seditious and disloyal. Sir Syed included a lengthy quote in which Hunter claimed that "fanatical" Muslims had "engaged in overt sedition," but the "whole Mahomedan community has been openly deliberating on their obligation to rebel" (Khan, 22–23).[9] He followed the citation with an admonishment, and retorted: "Now, I have no hesitation in saying that this is one of the most unjust, illiberal, and insulting sentences ever penned against my co-religionists" (Khan, 23).

His analysis of Hunter’s inferences about the Rebellion centered on Hunter’s misread of plurality, nuance, and—as we might say today—diversity, in belief, population, and law. Khan ably punctured Hunter’s arguments of totality, which, despite Hunter’s careful research, typifies the conclusions of Indian Musalmans: the Muslims he envisioned and produced in that work were categorically and definitionally treasonous, seditious, and suspect. And yet that does not mean that Khan was immune to the totalizing effects of racialization. He stated: "It is not to be expected that Mahomedans, who are made of much sterner material than Hindus, will adapt themselves so readily to the various phases of this changing age" (Khan, 51). Like Hunter, Sir Syed saw Muslims as a distinctive group with categorical identity traits—stern (or at least sterner than their Hindu counterparts) and naturally less willing or able to adapt to British rule.

The fact remains that after the Rebellion, one could not talk about subjecthood of Muslims without talking about jihad.

Khan demonstrates that the sort of Muslim Hunter believes to be decidedly unrepresentative of the fanatical masses is, in fact, Muslim and Indian. We also know that Khan systemically, point by point, undoes Hunter’s argument in Review. We have here a voice that is, at once, playing into respectability politics while offering well-read criticism of a major British figure and his widely held and widely trusted pronouncements.[10] We still, however, are left with the process of minoritization and racialization, which Khan does not escape—as a man and as an author.

He is minoritized precisely because while he might have experienced a more powerful position years prior—or men like him may have—he is already arguing from a defensive, apologetic position.[11] He finds himself without the same status even as he maintains a significant and lasting position of power. Second, he both is racialized and participates in racialization, because after 1857, an imperial understanding of jihad linked—and reduced—Muslim actors and Muslim organizations to rebellion and violence.

Hunter and Khan both deployed jihad in ways that encapsulate the battle to define the post-rebellion South Asian landscape—most relevantly, the definitions of Muslims and Islam. As such, both participated in a discourse that served to produce Muslims as minoritized and racialized, even as they disagree with each other. The fact remains that after the Rebellion, one could not talk about subjecthood of Muslims without talking about jihad.

The Rebellion matters on a global scale because it was, at the time, a truly sensational, sensationalized event that captured a global imagination. It signaled a previously unthought possibility of massive loss—not, as in the case of the loss of the United States, by one white Christian army comprised of defectors and long-standing political enemies, but of the colonized. High atop this list of terrifying circumstances was the notion of a realized Muslim world.[12]

A Muslim world was a thing in which Indians could participate, receive funding from, and—most alarmingly—rally other Muslims to overthrow the British in their locales. Hunter’s text supposedly addressed Indian Musalmans as a unique subset of Muslims, but it is riddled with so-called evidence from everywhere and anywhere else, ranging from the Arabian Peninsula to Persia to North Africa to the Afghan borderlands to the Indian subcontinent. Khan replies in kind. A global set of evidences to prove the global identity and character of Indian Muslims belies both a fear of and an implicit calling upon a universal Muslim, or a universally accessible Muslim world. These terms and characteristics—jihad, trustworthiness, ability to belong to a nation-state, Muslim world—still carry meaning, still inform racialized understandings of Muslims.

How we imagine and remember the past is integral to how we imagine and chart our futures.

Part of my charge here was to think critically about humanities futures, or perhaps to rethink work that I’ve already written within a framework of futurity. I have two primary and interrelated thoughts. First, an easy one: how we imagine and remember the past is integral to how we imagine and chart our futures. Can we hear echoes of the Rebellion in how we tie violence to Islam, imagine Muslims as a cogent whole, talk of the "Muslim world" across divides of language, nationality, ethnicity, race, geography, ritual and theological praxis, gender identity, class, and ability? Can we imagine how the fact that Muslims are racialized in a real, often dangerous, and omnipresent reality in 2018 is related to essays penned in the aftermath of one of the 19th century’s most important and bloody anti-colonial movements? Can we imagine how the politics of naming the Rebellion a "mutiny" as it is taught in England or the "first war of independence" in India refigures not just the past but the future of those nation-states? Thinking about how we got here and where this trajectory could lead is the unique task and promise of humanities scholarship. We cannot draw a line of causation from the Rebellion to today, but we can historicize, contextualize, and theorize the rhetorical and discursive similarities we see between these myriad arenas.

The second thought regarding futurity is that disciplinary thinking quite simply doesn’t get us to any answers—it is impartial at best and misleading at worst. As a scholar of religion, like many scholars of religion, I claim my training as decidedly without a discipline—religious studies is a field. As such, it is interdisciplinary by nature. If interdisciplinarity is a feature of humanities futures, and I believe it is, then religion and its study has to be a feature as well.

Here’s how the interdisciplinary field of religion can help us understand the nuanced connections among the past, present, and even the future, to use this essay as an example: The Great Rebellion is a catalyst for the minoritization and racialization of Muslims, and in its wake, Muslims in India emerge permanently differentiated as a result of the epistemological and physical violences of imperialism. But we should not assume that because the Great Rebellion ended in 1858 that its effects are limited to the past. I began this essay by suggesting that no historian would recklessly divide the world into "befores" and "afters," because we know that nothing happens so cleanly, so surprisingly, so finally. The Great Rebellion matters precisely because it continues to reverberate, to bear weight and offer meaning not only in contemporary settings, but in the ways in which folks imagine various futures. The Great Rebellion, when read through the lens of religion and the racialization of religion, has a lot to tell us about the past, present, future—and how we imagine all those epochs.


  1. Many have discussed, defined, and redefined "minoritization." A particularly concise and productive definition appears in Tettey and Puplampu.
  2. E.g., The Law Relating to India, and the East-India Company; with Notes and an Appendix. 2d ed. (London: W. H. Allen, 1841); Ebrahim Moosa, "Colonialism and Islamic Law," Islam and Modernity Key Issues and Debates, ed. Muhammad Khalid Masud, Armando Salvatore and Martin van Bruinessen (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 158–181; Alan Guenther, "A Colonial Court Defines a Muslim," in Islam in South Asia in Practice, ed. Barbara D. Metcalf (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.), 293–304.
  3. E.g., Sanjay Sharma, “The 1837–38 Famine in U.P.: Some Dimensions of Popular Action,” Indian Economic and Social History Review, 30.3 (1993): 337–72; Rachel Lara Sturman, The Government of Social Life in Colonial India: Liberalism, Religious Law, and Women’s Rights (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012); David Lelyveld, "Colonial Knowledge and the Fate of Hindustani," Comparative Studies in Society and History 35.4 (1993): 665–682.
  4. E.g., Peter Robb, "South Asia and the Concept of Race," in The Concept of Race in South Asia, ed. Peter Robb, SOAS Studies on South Asia: Understandings and Perspectives series (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995), 1.
  5. For a concise but comprehensive overview of the topic, see Hashmi
  6. E.g., Taufiq Ahmad Nizami, Muslim Political Thought and Activity in India During the First Half of the Nineteeth Century, with a foreword by Mohammad Habib (Aligarh, India: Singh for T. M. Publications Aligarh, 1969), 3-4, 23-25.
  7. “Just war” tends to be a term used in Western contexts, and it has a rich history of philosophical reasoning and militaristic deployment. I use both “just” and “holy war,” here, to gesture toward the complexity of jihad traditions as well as attempt to capture the ways in which legal, political, and religious debates about jihad have been framed. For a concise comparison of just and holy war, see:Blankinship, . For a longer explication of jihad as just war, see Kelsay.
  8. The Hanafi maddhab, or school of legal thought, is one of the four primary Sunni madhāhib. It is also the foremost maddhab in South Asia, though not the singular legal school represented.
  9. Cf. Hunter, Indian Musalmans, 10.
  10. Cf., e.g., Khan 1860.
  11. Faisal Devji’s concept of an apologetic modernity is useful here..
  12. Cf. Aydin 2017.


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This paper draws upon my book Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion: Religion, Rebels, and Jihad (London: I. B. Tauris, 2017).

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