10 Questions for Nile Green

10 Questions for Nile Green

In his 2009 book, "Islam and the Army in Colonial India: Sepoy Religion in the Service of Empire," Professor Green follows the development of a "barracks Islam" that was practiced by Indian soldiers and their faqir holy men in 19th- and early 20th-century Hyderabad, a princely state then under de facto British rule.

"For me," said Green, a historian of India, "neither Islam nor any other religion exists in the abstract," but only in particular times and places, and then sometimes in curious forms.

UCLA Today

What about this book will surprise people?

The first thing it addresses is a little-known fact: In the armies of the British Empire, particularly in India, over a period of perhaps 200 years, there were literally tens of thousands of Muslims who fought on the side of the British as loyal partners in empire. So, against a picture of Islam and Muslims as inveterate obstacles or enemies of European colonization, it explores the religious tensions created as Indian Muslims served in the armies of an ambiguously Christian empire.

And this book is about their religion?

What I'm trying to show is that the particular environment of the army nurtured a specific kind of Islam, what I've called "barracks Islam." Like any other religion, Islam is historically mutable. It's changeable according to circumstances and according to the needs of the people who practice it.

The well-paid soldier, for example, didn't want to be moralized and told not to serve Christians or enjoy the company of dancing girls. He wanted to be told that it's okay to ask for miracles that enable him to rise through the ranks or enjoy forms of Islam that actually fit in with the festivities of the Indian soldier's lifestyle.

What was barracks Islam like?

Barracks Islam, as I explain it, was an Islam of holy men and miracle workers, of charismatic individuals who were at once the patrons and protégés of their soldier followers. What these holy men provided was what I call an Islam of the carnivalesque, an Islam of carnivals and festivals. In a couple of cases, these were Muslim holy men for whom Islam allowed the use of cannabis and the company of courtesans. According to the demands of their client base, these holy men legitimized practices that outside observers would see as anti-Islamic. The book explores this tension between Protestant Christian ideas of religion as discipline and alternative Indo-Muslim notions of religion as festivity, what I have termed the politics of pleasure.

Islam and the Army

How did the army respond to it?

The colonial army, to some extent, enabled the promotion of this barracks Islam. As a relatively wealthy and mobile social unit, the soldiers or 'sepoys' spread their cults from one town to another as they were deployed. And in the more successful cases, these cults were able to move beyond their military client base as soldiers helped found shrines that other people could visit.

What kind of shrines?

Shrines of dead Muslim holy men considered awliya allah or 'Friends of God' who can work miracles after their death.

Did you visit some of these?

Yes, that's how I began this book. I was writing my first book about a local pantheon of Muslim saintly shrines from the pre-colonial Mughal period when I came across a later shrine to one of the colonial soldiers' holy men. Nowadays it's more popular among local Hindus than Muslims; religious boundaries are no less mutable than any other aspect of religion. Visiting this shrine led me to be introduced to not only the oral traditions of the saint but also to uncover a number of early 20th-century printed texts in Urdu that described the life of this soldier-saint and the network of other shrines to which he and the soldiers were connected.

Did British officers tolerate barracks Islam?

Although the colonial army had an official policy to protect the religious rights of its Indian soldiers, I found that many evangelical Christian officers brought with them to India either the desire to convert their troops to Christianity or the idea that their soldiers' religion should at least resemble 'religion' in the Protestant European sense. Through their position of institutional power, such officers promoted a model of religion defined in terms of scripture, quiet piety and individual prayer, and not a medium for supplying miracles, festivity and — to quote one evangelical army officer — plain "debauchery."

Was barracks Islam really unusual, or do you find similar things elsewhere?

Although the book presents a microhistory of what was quite literally subaltern religion, I also argue that there was a larger structural process at work and that the book's model of a barracks economy of religious production and suppression might be applied to other regions as well.

Does barracks Islam exist today?

Many of the features of the Islam the book describes belong to an Islam that does still exist for millions of Muslims in South Asia to this day, an Islam of miracles and holy men. But the time of a specific 'barracks Islam' that had high status through its patronage by the soldiers of empire is long gone and largely forgotten.

How did it lose its status?

Partly, this was the process of modernity itself. In this, the army played a role by encouraging the literacy of its Indian soldiers and exposing them to new ideas by moving vast numbers of them to fight overseas in the First World War. So the Indian soldiers were taken away from their ancestral villages and holy men and experienced in a wider world in which their old religion of the barracks no longer worked.

There was also the process of Islamic reform emerging in the same period. And this type of Islam, which is much more soberly text-centered and opposed to saint cults, miracle stories, intoxication, and often music — opposed, then, to all of the hallmarks of barracks Islam — also had its influence on the soldiers. After Indian independence and the formation of Pakistan, the constituency base of well-paid, prestigious soldiers supporting this type of miraculous and carnivalesque Islam slipped away. The Muslim soldier and his social and moral world changed in South Asia, and with it changed his religion.

Green will be giving a public lecture on his book, October 14, 2009

Published: Wednesday, September 02, 2009