Annotated Syllabus

The following are annotations of some of the works included in the Oceanic Yemen Syllabus. Annotations highlight each work’s scope, aims, and specifically where Yemen enters the scene. Though not every work listed on the syllabus is annotated below, and some annotations are longer than others, each work plays an important role in narrating Yemen’s oceanic histories. Rather than being a definitive list of the most important works in the literature, the aim of these annotations is to provide a starting point for exploring this important chapter in Yemen’s global histories. As such, the annotations are presented not alphabetically; they are organized in a manner that allows for dialogue across works and that illuminates a larger historiographical conversation.

Engseng Ho. The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility Across the Indian Ocean. University of California Press, 2006.

Published in 2006 a few years following the September 11th terrorist attacks and the US 2003 invasion of Iraq, Graves of Tarim recovers a 500 year history of the Hadhrami diaspora across the Indian Ocean. Ho traces the material, genealogical, imaginary, and transcultural exchanges of this old diaspora to demonstrate how these descendants of the prophet Mohammed became “local cosmopolitans” in Southeast Asia, India, and Arabia. Through an analysis of the literary output of Hadhramis and their kinship ties that span across an ocean, Ho demonstrates the fluidity and cosmopolitanism of Muslims. He pushes back against the narrative that emerged in a post-9/11 US academia and public of a monolithic Islamic civilization naturally at odds with the “West.” Graves of Tarim additionally challenges our understanding of the “global.” The Hadhrami Sayyids, Ho shows us, were “global” and traversing the Indian Ocean long before the Dutch or the British voyages of the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Hadhramis established and participated in global trade and kinship networks and became important political and religious actors in the spaces they inhabited. Rather than solely being subjected to European colonial officials, the Hadhramis were powerful and wealthy actors in the Indian Ocean who engaged European empires through various means. Additionally, Graves of Tarim views Yemen as a place that has always been global. By focusing on the space of the grave, which is permanently fixed to a Yemeni landscape, Ho shows that Yemenis’ globality is not tied to their oceanic movement. Even in those instances where Yemeni globality is linked to their oceanic movement, this globality does not lack territoriality: what lies underground is not simply overlooked as people move above ground. The territorial and global are intimately linked. Additionally, others like Hadhrami muwallads on pilgrimage to Tarim bring the world with them when they (re)enter these spaces. Thus, for Yemenis that never leave Yemen, the world comes to them. In this way, the histories of the Hadhrami diaspora helps scholars move beyond the confines of colonizer/colonized and the histories of trade and European empire as well as helps us reconceptualize the “global.”

Nurfadzilah Yahaya. Fluid Jurisdictions: Colonial Law and Arabs in Southeast Asia. Cornell University Press, 2020.

Nurfadzilah Yahaya’s Fluid Jurisdiction seeks to disrupt the colonizer/colonized binary and diminish the widely accepted power of the European colonizer by focusing on the dramas of Dutch and British colonies’ courtroom. Fluid Jurisdiction argues that rather than being passive recipients of colonial law, Arabs (i.e. Hadhrami) actively participated in and petitioned colonial officials to reinterpret Islamic law in a manner that best protected Arab merchants' property and legal interests. In this process, Islamic law was hollowed out of meaning as elite Hadhramis encouraged colonial officials to enter a legal arena that had previously been the domain of local Qadis. The active participation of Muslims in this process in the aim to gain material benefits in this lifetime disrupts the prevalent idea that all Muslims seek to be ruled under a sharia law. Instead, Muslims participated in “forum shopping”, pushing their case into whichever jurisdiction promised their desired result. Hadhrami elites chose to participate in the colonial legal system and wielded its power against their spouses and local Muslim communities to shield their own financial interests. They petitioned both British and Dutch colonial officials to invalidate other laws in the colonies and strip local religious judges of legal power. Thus, rather than seeing religious law as sacred and an entity to be protected from colonial corruption, Islamic law was being used and referenced copiously by everyone, including Muslims, in ways that furthered their ambitions.

Fluid Jurisdiction also illuminates the lives of elite Hadhrami women that are absent in Graves of Tarim and other Indian Ocean works. Yahaya draws on newspaper reports, court proceedings, and even fictional short stories to understand the gendered experience of Hadhrami women living in the colonies. She demonstrates how these women challenged British conceptions of the veiled and secluded figure of the Muslim woman. Yahaya shows how these women relied on court records and written documents to protect their assets. This included drafting Power of Attorney agreements that gave male family members supervisory control over these women’s assets. However, Yahaya argues that this must not be read as an abdication of these women’s rights to their male guardians. Women maintained power over their properties and did not hesitate to take their male guardians to court to exert this right or revoke Power of Attorneys. In fact, Yahaya shows how in some cases, Muslim women living in the colonies entered lawsuits against their own fathers to claim their property and inheritance.

Yahaya also demonstrates that imperialism and colonial jurisdiction were never stable nor fixed even at the time of “high empire” and disrupts the image of the all-powerful colonizing European power and the subjugated colonial subject they rule over. She shows that rather than a top-down colonizing project, British and Dutch officials seemed to be always breathlessly catching up with the demands, petitions, and schemes of the colonial subject. In fact, like Reese Scott also shows in his work, colonial subjects exploited colonial powers’ orientalist imaginations of the Muslim Orient at times to achieve their own commercial and political ends. Through this, Yahaya, Enseng Ho, and others demonstrate that “global markets” and capitalism were not imported to the Indian Ocean world through European colonialism. Colonial subjects like the Hadhrami diaspora were also capitalist and merchants intimately familiar with the global market. They took advantage of the courts, lawyers, and written records, and at times exploited others, to protect their assets.

Johan Mathew. Margins of the Market: Trafficking and Capitalism Across the Arabian Sea. University of California Press, 2016.

In his 2016 work Margins of the Market, Johan Mathew traces the hidden networks operating across the nineteenth century and early twentieth century Arabian Sea. In the process, he shows how British colonial officials and everyday Yemeni, South Asian, and African sailors participated in the forging of capitalism on the margins of the free market. Mathew uses the entangled histories of trafficking and capitalism to argue that the struggle happening in the Arabian Sea between bureaucrats and traders over the control of the boundaries of the market is what contributed and helped constitute capitalism itself in the nineteenth and twentieth century. The market only has legitimacy, Mathew tells us, by creating forms of licit and illicit trafficking and trade. It is at these margins, Mathew argues, that we can then see how the market operates. Like Nurfadzilah Yahaya, Mathew also demonstrates how colonial subjects petitioned, hoodwinked, and undermined colonial laws and regulations in the pursuit of their economic interest. In this way, Mathew also demonstrates the need to complicate the colonizer/colonized power dynamic and the need to challenge, like Enseng Ho and Yahaya, our conceptions of the “start” of capitalism, its actors, and its “introduction” to the Indian Ocean world. He also helps bring everyday Yemenis into the story of a global and oceanic Yemen. Through his work, we are able to see that it was not just elite Hadhramis that were traversing the Indian Ocean.

Nancy Um. Shipped but Not Sold: Material Culture and the Social Protocols of Trade During Yemen’s Age of Coffee. University of Hawaii Press, 2017.

Nancy Um’s Shipped but Not Sold explores another crucial element of the Indian Ocean market: the gift economy taking place at the shores of Mokha and the Yemeni hinterlands during Yemen’s “Age of Coffee” (1700-1740). Like Johan Mathew, Um shows how the nature of market exchange cannot be separated from the market of social exchange. That is to say that Yemen’s coffee trade during its “Age of Coffee” could not have emerged in the manner that it did had it not been for the already existing social exchanges. Um is additionally interested in the formation of identity in an ethnically diverse place. She argues that for the “major oversea merchant class” that is the focus of her study, a “sense of belonging was constituted, at least in part, through material objects that were exchanged, consumed, or displayed prominently” by members of this class (13). Members of this major overseas merchant class included not only the usual East African, Indian, and Yemeni Indian Ocean merchants, but also French, Dutch, and English European merchants. By including European merchants alongside local Indian Ocean merchants, Um seeks to “react particularly to the long-standing perception among historians that Europeans were a disruptive or marginalized presence in Indian Ocean markets” (11). She instead shows how in those instances where Europeans introduced new commercial codes, these codes joined rather than replaced long established regional codes. Um also emphasizes the need to look at the privileges members of this class received, the activities they participated in, and the recurring objects they utilized in ceremonies. It is through these privileges and activities rather than just their shared social standing or scope of their trade activity, Um argues, that can help us best “understand this diverse grouping of Yemen’s major merchant class” (14).

Sebastian R. Prange. Monsoon Islam: Trade and Faith on the Medieval Malabar Coast. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Monsoon Islam illuminates the histories of a diverse range of merchants, particularly Muslims, participating in the oceanic trading networks with a focus on twelfth to sixteenth century Malabar Coast. Prange argues that these Muslim merchants, which included everyday Yemenis, produced a particular form of Islam. Contrary to the narratives in the historiography on the spread of Islam in South Asia, Prange shows how “Monsoon Islam” was shaped by “merchants not sultans, forged by commercial imperatives rather than in battle, and defined by the reality of Muslims living within non-Muslim societies.” Monsoon Islam, Prange argues, developed in response to concrete economic, political, and socio-religious challenges faced in the Malabar Coast. To demonstrate this process, he goes on to trace the history of its development through four spaces: the Port, the Mosque, the Palace, and the Sea. In engaging with both territorial and oceanic spaces, Prange argues for the need to see past the ocean and the port into the hinterlands of a place. He, and the works of others like Nancy Um, Nile Green, Scott Reese, demonstrates that all global flows also produce local territoriality. That is, the local is as much an important part of the story as the global. While Prange share’s Enseng Ho and Green’s understanding of Islam as one not predicated on an Arabian identity as well as shares their emphasis on the role of maritime networks in formulating an interconnected oceanic Islamic world, he takes issue with Ho’s emphasis on the [trade] “diaspora.” He instead argues that we must view these merchants as a “community” who came on shore, built mosques, set roots, and created communities. We should instead think spatially and consider a relational framework of the global and the local.

Prange also helps us come to know a different Yemen as well as read the histories of non-Hadhrami Yemenis. Yemen, Monsoon Islam demonstrates, is not only a place of departure for merchants and traders but also a place that houses other’s histories. His engagement with the records of Yemen’s Rasulid dynasty (1229-1454) reveals this Yemen. These records help tell the histories of Calicut Muslim merchants whose archives were largely destroyed by the Dutch East India Company’s bombing campaigns of the Indian coastline. Thus, rather than being a fossilized space of Islamic knowledge, Yemen becomes a place whose spiritual, economic, social, and political history are intimately linked to places like the thirteenth century Malabar Coast.

Prange also shows us that contrary to the widely accepted narrative in the historiography, it was not Hadhramis who brought Islam to the Malabar Coast. Indeed, the first Hadhrami family did not arrive in the Malabar region until the sixteenth century by which time, Islam was already firmly established. The distinction between the arrival of Hadhrami from that of other Muslim and Yemeni merchants, is both important and political. This is because, “the entire notion that Islam was brought to the Malabar Coast by Hadhramis can be shown to be a product of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when it was concocted to legitimize the powerful position that ethnic Hadhramis had come to occupy within Malabar’s Muslim community” (55). Thus, the histories of Hadhrami has been mobilized to keep ordinary Yemenis merchants as less powerful or significant in the broader world of Yemeni traders in the Indian Ocean.

Nile Green. Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840–1915. Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Nile Green’s influential 2011 work explores the competitive spiritual marketplace of nineteenth-century industrialized Bombay. Through an intersection of Islam, imperialism, and industrialization, Bombay Islam disrupts notions of a uniform Islam exported from the Arabian Peninsula to the Indian Ocean world. Instead, Green argues that colonial industrialized Bombay was a “primary city of Islam” that had a thriving industrial “economy of enchantment” where various forms of Islams and spirituality competed for “consumers.” Muslim migration from both Bombay’s continental hinterlands and the steamship era oceanic flows fueled a demand for a wide range of spiritual suppliers. The British colonial policy of non-intervention in religious affairs allowed for a free market of spiritual exchange where Sufis, reformist, Christian missionaries, and other spiritual “entrepreneurs” equally competed for Bombay’s diverse consumer base. Utilizing the language of the “marketplace” to shed light on this process, Green poses another challenge to the histography of Islam in the nineteenth and twentieth century. He argues that it was not a “reformist” or “modern” Islam that dominated the spiritual marketplace of Bombay, but rather a Customary Islam with a “dazzling enchanted modernity” characterized by hierarchal relationships with saints, holy men, and imams.

Green also demonstrates the role of ordinary people in shaping the demand of the market and the Islams that emerged to meet it. In the case of Bombay Islam, these actors (or consumers to use Green’s analogy) were mill hands, merchants, and dock workers. Many were proletariat Arab, East African, and South Asian workers who were drawn to festivals, Sufi spirituality, and an industrial economy of enchantment that provided quick spiritual payoffs. In demonstrating the domination of Customary Islam in the Bombay spiritual marketplace, Green also disrupts the dichotomy found in the literature on the “traditionalist” and the “reformists” Islams. Such dichotomy, Green shows, does not capture the mixing and borrowing of ideas and practices that was happening between the two. It additionally often renders the non-reformists as “static” and “old fashion” unwilling to “modernize” with the time. Bombay Islam instead demonstrates that all spiritual entrepreneurs “modernized” to meet the consumer demand of the new market. They relied on new steamship era travel networks and technologies such as the introduction of vernacular printing so as to attract as many consumers as possible not only in Bombay but as far off as Iran and South Africa. Green (and Sebastian Prange) thus disaggregate the “Muslim community” found in the literature to demonstrate the various intersection of networks, class, and histories at play.

Scott S. Reese. Imperial Muslims: Islam, Community and Authority in the Indian Ocean, 1839-1937. Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

Scott Reese’s Imperial Muslims demonstrates that the Adeni Muslim community was one of the most ethnically heterogenous in the British Empire with Arabs, Indians, Somalis, and East Africans drawn to the new colony. These Muslims included Sunnis, Shi’is, and Isma’ili in addition to non-Muslim subjects such as Christians, Jews, and those practicing various indigenous African religions. Through a particular focus on Imperial Muslims, Reese argues that it was Islam and a Imperial subjecthood that connected this ethnically heterogenous Muslim community. The ethnically diverse community crafted an “Adeni” identity through their participation in Aden’s enchantment economy. Both the rich and poor performed their membership in the Adeni community through the participation in communal prayers, annual saint festivals, spirit-possession rituals, and/or the restoration of saint shrines. In the cases of saint festivals, Adenis participated either by funding or performing in them depending on their wealth or class status.

Reese’s discussion of the making of “Adeni” identity and the various ways members participated in this process across class, gender, and ethnicity significantly makes legible a new group of Yemenis often missing in the historiography. This included the African Zar women, and the Jabarti and Akhdam community participating in Tambura spirituality. Reese’s discussion of the everyday social lives of these dispossessed communities illuminates a Yemen often erased from both Middle East and Indian Ocean historiography: a Yemen of not just merchants, port workers, traders, and tribal sheikhs, but also of everyday dispossessed Black Yemenis, African women migrants, and marginalized public servants. Additionally, though Reese describes members of these communities as being on the “margins of public spirituality,” he inadvertently shows us how Zar women and Tambura men were in fact active and important participants in Aden’s enchantment economy. We see this in the Zar and Tambura community response to Muslim scriptualists’ attempts to ban them and their “un-Islamic” rituals from the Adeni public spirituality sphere. Reese demonstrates how Jabarti were successful in petitioning British colonial officials to overturn the ban on Tambura performances at the annual saint festivals. Jabarti and their merchant supporters convinced colonial officials that these performances were not un-Islamic but rather “innocent amusement.” Merchants who immensely benefited financially from the annual saint festivals also quietly reminded British colonial officials that any interference in the festivals would in extension be an interference in the colony’s economy that relied on these annual pilgrimages and festivals.

While the Jabarti and their supporters were successful in overturning the ban on Tambura, the African Zar priestess were less successful. Though they faced similar accusations and attacks from the scriptualist, they were only able to temporarily lift the ban on Zar. Reese argues that this was in due part to the fact that Zar spirit possession rituals and performances often happened in the private homes of elite women unlike the public performances of Tambura. As a consequence, Zar was banned, and these women were pushed further into the margins and forced underground. Yet, even at the margins they remind us of Yemen’s deep roots to African spirituality. They and the rest of Aden’s dazzling enchantment economy as Nile Green might call it, challenge the historiographical narrative of a Yemen at the center of traditional Islamic knowledge. Yemen, like many places in the Indian Ocean world, is a place of a robust spiritual atmosphere with various Islams and faiths in constant dialogues.

Reese also situates Yemen in the context of East Africa and South Asia not only spiritually but geographically. Imperial Muslims begins by exploring the legends that link these three places together. This includes the tale of the fabled Hanuman’s Tunnel which is said to link al-Hind and Aden. Another legend explores the excavation of the Red Sea as a way to keep the constantly warring Yemenis and Abyssinians of East Africa apart. In this way, Reese reminds us of Yemen’s connections outside of the “Arab” world arguing that it was not until the 1960s with the decolonization of Aden and emergence of a Pan-Arabism that Yemenis turned their back on the ocean and oriented themselves landward. In this way, and like the other works included in this syllabus, Imperial Muslims teaches us that when we situate Yemen in the context of East Africa and South Asia, new historical actors and histories become legible.

Michael Christopher Low. Imperial Mecca: Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj. Columbia University Press, 2020.

Imperial Mecca demonstrates the potential of bringing together Indian Ocean historiographies and the traditionally territorial historiographies of the Ottoman Empire and Middle East. Imperial Mecca, shows how European colonialism “arrived in the Ottoman Hijaz as a steamship stowaway.” Low argues that European colonial powers attempted to use the management of repeated cholera outbreaks that marked steamship Hajj as an entry point into the Hijaz. He contributes to a long historiography discrediting the Ottoman Decline Thesis once dominating Ottoman historiography. He shows that well into the nineteenth century and final years of the empire in the twentieth century, the Ottoman Empire contributed to scientific knowledge production and expertise, engaged in technopolitics and major infrastructure projects, and continued its role as the managers of the Islamic pilgrimage. Though not the main focus of his thesis, Low also demonstrates how Yemen continued to resist Ottoman control and posed a danger to the Empire's control over its Arab provinces more broadly. Ottoman officials thus used their policy of managing the Hajj’s cholera outbreak as a pretense to reasserting sovereignty and control over its “hot provinces” on the tribal frontier. In this way, the Yemen of Imperial Mecca is a familiar one in Ottoman and Middle East historiography. It is an unruly tribal frontier that Ottomans and other outsiders (including the British Empire) fail to “tame.” This Yemen is also simultaneously the site for bipolitical and technocratic experimentation. This latter Yemen comes to light in Low’s discussion of the quarantine station on Yemen’s Karman Islands. These islands and its inhabitants become a site for quarantining pilgrims to the Hijaz and as a consequence a place where Ottoman technocrats can perfect their sanitary, surveillance, and quarantine technologies. Yemen as a site of bipolitical and technocratic experimentation arguably echoes present day Yemen as American drone technologies and Saudi-UAE bioweapons are perfected at the expense of everyday Yemenis.

Giancarlo Casale. The Ottoman Age of Exploration. Oxford University Press, 2010.

In his foundational work The Ottoman Age of Exploration, Giancarlo Casale argues that the Ottoman’s conquest of Egypt brought the Ottomans into physical contact with the then unfamiliar Indian Ocean. He also demonstrates that the Ottoman occupation of Yemen in the sixteenth century was part of a larger Ottoman “age of exploration” that extended along the Malabar Coast and beyond Arabia. He argues that the Ottoman Empire’s policies and campaigns across the Indian Ocean demonstrate that historians can no longer view the empire as an exclusively land-based empire with only regional and territorial interests. Additionally, the Ottoman Empire was not simply a “victim” or “obstacle” to the first era of European overseas expansion; rather, it was amongst its chief beneficiaries. Ottoman policy was not exclusively preoccupied with the acquisition of territory, but like their European rivals, they were responsive to maritime commercial interests. He thus seeks to tell the history of the Ottoman Empire’s “victory” in the world’s “first truly global struggle for dominance.” Yemen, Casale shows, played a significant role in this “victory” with the Ottoman corsair Selman Reis in 1525 asserting that whoever captured this crucial province “would be master of the lands of India.” Here again, Yemen appears as a crucial link between the greater Indian Ocean world, Ottoman Empire, and what we now understand as the “Middle East.”

Jane Hathaway. “The Ottomans and the Yemeni Coffee Trade” (2006)

In addition to its critical access to Red Sea trade routes and important cultural and political links to the Egyptian province, Yemen held a monopoly on the lucrative coffee trade of the time. Hathaway’s article of “The Ottomans and the Yemeni Coffee Trade” (2006) unpacks this relationship and how Ottomans managed and benefited from Yemen’s coffee trade even after their expulsion from Yemen in the 1630s. More crucially, Yemeni coffee allowed Ottomans to compensate for Portuguese control and inroads into the Indian spice trade following Vasco da Gama's discovery of the Cape Route around Africa. Yet, like Ottoman control in other parts of Yemen particularly the highlands, benefiting from Yemen’s coffee trade meant carefully navigating relationships with local Yemeni Isma'ili tribes of the central highlands where coffee trees grew. Hathaway reminds us that the Isma'ili tribes existed geographically and politically in between the Zaydis who were hostile to Ottoman rule and the more supportive Shafi‘i coastal populations. Ottoman strategy included rewarding quietist Isma'ili leaders by bestowing tax farms on their sons and grandsons while not engaging with militant ones to avoid pushing hostile Isma'ilis towards the Zaydi Imam al-Mutahhar b. Sharaf al-Din and his declared “jihad” against the Ottomans (1566). However, even after the violent expulsion of Ottoman rule in 1636 by Imam Mu’ayyad billah Muhammed (bin al-Qasim), Ottoman merchants and grandees in Egypt maintained connection to Yemen’s coffee markets. Hathaway argues that their experience in Yemen allowed these merchants and grandees to become familiar with the web of communal and regional loyalties. They then utilized this knowledge to entrench themselves in the trade “forming a geographical and commercial complement to the Yemeni growers and carriers that remained unshakable even after the Ottoman ouster.”