‘West Throws Away A lot of Our History’

DR. ENGSENG HO is a renowned anthropologist and Islamic scholar who teaches at Duke University. His study on the diaspora of Hadhrami descendants of the Prophet – The Grave of Tarim – is a remarkable contribution to the study of Muslim histories, and a groundbreaking work combining historiography and anthropology, by extensively using the tool of genealogy, for the first time in history. In his recent visit to India, he gave a key lecture at the History Conference, held at JDT Islam Campus, Calicut. Engseng Ho talked on a range of issues to MUHAMMED NOUSHAD. Excerpts:  

How did you get interested in the study of Hadhrami Sayyids spread across the Indian Ocean regions?

In Malaysia, we receive important things from other places and other civilizations; from the Chinese, from Indians, from Arabs, from Islam, from post-modernists of the west and so on. We always feel that we don’t have the real thing. In order to understand something truer, we need to go to the places where it came from. In my case, I wanted to study Islamic societies. For us, Hadhramis are very important to understand Islam. At the same time, I had studied the Chinese diaspora in the South East Asia. I understood Hadhramis are also a diaspora, like the Chinese. Hadhramis, being Muslims, were considered very local, they intermarry with locals and they mix with locals. It interested me a lot.

The other thing is that I wanted to study a society in which the family members come from different parts of the world. In a Hadhrami family, you can have someone from East Africa, someone from India, someone from Arabia; they are married into the same family. They speak different languages. So, within the Hadhramaut society, you have a kind of new United Nations; plurality of languages, countries and so on. I was interested in that kind of a society.

In such a plural society, do they maintain a sense of unity in the understanding and practice of Islam? Or, are there differences – micro or macro?

Within the Hadhrami family, I don’t think there is any difference in faith, because around the Indian Ocean, Hadhramis have been spreading Islam in the way they practice it. In all the places they went, you have the Shafi’ form of Islam. They do things like Maulid and Ratib al-haddad. It is very similar. There is uniformity.

You largely relied on genealogy in your anthropological explorations on Hadhrami Sayyids. What was its significance in studying this society?

I think genealogy is important as it allows me to trace people in many different countries and over many centuries. I use genealogy because the Hadhrami society uses genealogy. There is no artificial theory or concept that I bring from outside to study the society. Genealogies are generated and produced by the people themselves, for their own purposes: to trace their descent, to trace their connections with other people, to keep track of where their families and members came through. So, because genealogies are used by the Hadhramis themselves, I find it very useful to study this particular society.

I don’t think the same tool will help us to understand another people, say Indian society. Here, the way caste is being articulated becomes important. So, one needs to see the Sanskrit texts, its interpretations, its practical and empirical manifestations, the way people imagine themselves because of their castes, why they want to chose relationships with someone and why they rent or do not rent a house to someone outside their caste and whom they marry and so on. Caste is expressed in thousands of ways, even though people might not talk about it. In Kuttichira (southern side of Calicut) Muslims consider themselves as converts from upper castes. They may not like their children marry from outside Kuttichira because they think others may be lower caste Muslim converts. There is this understanding of being converts from upper caste and they maintain it.

Coming back to genealogy, how far could a historian make use of it to reconstruct history?

The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility Across the Indian Occean

Dr. Ho’s acclaimed work: The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility Across the Indian Ocean

For a historian also it is useful. I think, western historians did not use genealogy in the past centuries or so because they thought genealogies might be corrupt or ossified and so on. One other reason why they did not like genealogy was they assumed a society must be equal and genealogy makes people unequal. But, that is not really true. They think genealogy is not democratic. That is not an issue for me. The issue for me is what the people do with the genealogy. I look at how they use it and why they use it.

In this context, how do you look at the Euro-American historiographical traditions, especially when they write the history of the East?

In the East, you have the writing of history not necessarily in professionalized universities and institutions. In the East, history comes in many forms. It comes in poetry, which is oral or printed. It comes in epic stories, may be written as mythologies. There are many different forms of history writing. They preserve it as genealogies, too. So, there are many different forms of history, unlike in the modern West.

What happens in the modern West is that they have defined a very narrow way of writing history. This way is supposed to be scientific, based on individual facts, verifiable and so on. When they look at others’ history, they look for individual facts, which they can approve. And the rest of history, if it is beyond this narrative form and methodology, they throw them away because they don’t consider them facts. When you throw away such things from the past, you end up with very less history. So the western scientific university approach of history writing discards a lot of history for simply not fitting to their scientific parameters. I think that is a big problem. We lose a lot of our past; I think what we need to do to make us able to understand our past is to use ancient, non-western sources, but there is a difficulty in doing that. In order to do that, to understand the way their histories are being written and transmitted, you need to understand the genres and forms of history writing they used for this purpose. Sometimes, it is poetry, sometimes it is genealogy, and sometimes it is epic. We need to use it to recapture our past. That is why I use genealogy, something like a historical form.

The other thing is that if you follow the western scientific approach, you lose time-depth, you lose geographical connections; someone from Calicut going to China, to Malaysia to East Africa. They say it unbelievable. You forget they had connections with all these places. But, these places may be mentioned in stories and I think they can be taken as history. In many cases, people actually mention many different places in stories and if you go by western historiographical standards you wouldn’t accept them. So many things have been lost that way. I think it is important to use these native sources so that we can understand a society in a far better way.

You mentioned the importance of using native sources. Along with the methodological constrains you explained, don’t you think the West also has the trouble of many indigenous literatures being left untranslated or even neglected?

I think they have been neglected. The western emphasis on facts-positive empirical facts-which can be verified, is why many non-western sources are neglected.

Is there any conscious effort in the academic circles to cover this missing area?

Many people are doing it. For them it is a big opportunity. If people are doing it, especially in the past 30 years, scholars from the west have been neglecting these. Edward Said, in Orientalism, attacked many scholars for the way they worked on Asian texts. He criticized them for being colonial, for using their knowledge to oppress them. The result of his attack on orientalism was that somehow many people decided that they needn’t read oriental texts any longer. For, if they read, they will be considered orientalists, who work for the western agenda of colonizing the Asians. So they didn’t read it. I think this is exactly the wrong thing. When you withdraw from reading an oriental text, you are doing a big disservice to non-western countries. We need to re-read the orient.

The Islam Hadhrami Sayyids preached and practiced had a very visible and influential undercurrent of Sufism. How do you estimate the Sufi aspects of the Hadhrami diaspora, particularly when there is an increasing interest in Sufism in different corners of the world?

I think the Salafi trend is not very old. I also think the Salafi trend is associated with people who are not historically part of the Muslim literate classes, rather they are part of the new western educated classes. They find it hard to believe many things that the Sufis practice. Sufism was previously associated with the old generation, also with people who are less educated, people who go to Sayyids with their children, or for some blessings for their jobs or some other things.

I suspect, over the past one decade, the anti-terrorism and anti-Islamism of the West might have had some impact; that may be the reason why Muslims have an increasing interest in Sufism and aversion to Salafism. People are tired of identifying themselves with Islam and they need a change.

What we often call Salafism is hyper-legalism. What I mean by hyper-legalism is the idea that all aspects of social life are covered by law. They want to derive law from the Prophet’s tradition. They believe that law, with all its finer details, could be derived from Quran and Hadith and not just law. That is why some Salafis say you can’t wear your watch on your left hand as prophet would have preferred to begin things with the right hand. So in minute details, they derive law. Such laws are derived, not from any systematic rationale or methodology, but simply from this Hadith and that Hadith. I think many people would find it very inappropriate to have this kind of hyper-legal approach.

I think the kind of Sufism the Hadhramis practiced was not the Sufism of esoteric specialists. So from the late 18th century onwards, you have an important figure called Abdulla Alawaiya al-Haddad, who lived in Tarim. He was blind and he wrote many books and other writings. He had a big impact on the nature of Sufism and on the ability of Hadhrami Sadath to spread, therefore Sufism. One thing is that he put less emphasis on the genealogy of Hadhrami Sayyids; he put more emphasis on issues that are common to all human beings, values of compassion, mercy, justice, humanism and so on. He put emphasis on issues that are common to human beings. Thus, Hadhramis were able to freely mingle and mix with non-Arabs and Muslims wherever they went. In Haddad’s approach, the first thing was that he gave prominence to human values and secondly, he propagated a simple Islam, not a very complicated Islam. It was easier for people to understand that form of Islam and Sufism. You can see many similarities in their beliefs and practices. For instance, one common thing in the diaspora is the recital of ratib al-haddad. You can see it in Malabar, Malaysia, Indonesia and East Africa.

In anthropological field work, there is this debate of outsider versus insider. When you are in a field, you need to be an outsider to produce scholarship. What kind of conflicts this outsidership produces in the mind of scholars, when they look at their subjects?

The spread of Hadhrami Sayyids across Indian ocean: a depiction.

The spread of Hadhrami Sayyids across Indian ocean: a depiction.

Actually, in anthropology there is a term called participant observation. It means you participate and you are part of the action in the social field you are studying. Observation means you are observing from outside. So, participant observation is supposed to mean that you have a combination of being inside and outside. When you are a participant, you are doing the work people are doing. Of course, you cannot fully do what they do so long as you are not fully in that community. Still you can try to be as you are participating. At the same time, this is half of your being. On the other half, you are observing with outsider’s eyes to be able to see and describe the society to itself and others. There is a constant tension; you stay neither outside nor inside. I think this position is important to understand a society. You understand it from outside; you also understand it from inside. When scholars study a society or a country outside and when they come back they will be able to understand their own society in a better way. I think it is important to combine this outsider and insider views together.

What are the major problems that scholars face when they engage with the culture of another people in order to produce scholarship?

I think the biggest hindrance is language. Because, if you go without knowing the language of a people, you will miss out many things. It takes a long time to understand a language very well. It takes a long time to understand all the nuances in it, all the references a people make so easily and so commonly when you talk to them. For instance, when people say Farook College or Farook town, if you don’t know that it is named after Farookabad and it is related to Tipu Sultan, you are missing many relevant connections. But, initially an outside scholar may not be able to make out all these connections. The need for the command over the languages of a society is the biggest issue while studying a society or culture.  Even if you know the language, you may not know the history of the people; I think it is again a problem. Learning their history is a big challenge; in certain cases, you may not have a textual history to learn.

Another kind of practical challenge is that people may not accept you; people may not want you to be there. May be in some Muslim societies, some people might say, since you are not a Muslim, you mustn’t be here. Another thing is that you may be caught between two sides. If there is a struggle, say between Sufis and Salafis, the Sufi may think you are Salafi and the Salafi may think you are Sufi. And the final thing is that most anthropologists had been in a situation that people think they are spies. They are doing espionage for another country or a company or an agency or whatever. So often anthropologists are accused of being spies, because they get very close to people, they ask many close questions to understand a society very deeply.

And historically, there has been a criticism that the very discipline of anthropology is being colonial.

Right. I think it is true that many early colonial administrators acted like anthropologists. Or they had anthropological interests, let’s say. I think many of the colonial administrators had a genuine interest in understanding the societies in which they lived, simply because, if you understand them, you do things better. If you don’t understand them you’ll have to fight often. With better understanding of the colonized society, they could reduce violence. So, yes, you can say there is an instrumental reason behind this. But as a scholar, I think understanding itself is a good thing and I have no problem with colonial officials trying to understand native societies. So, anthropology does have this history, it has been part of colonizing societies. But within the colonizing societies, after early colonial officials, many anthropologists, who were liberal or even radical, acted against the policies of their own governments who went on colonizing people, against their own governments and so on. They argued for the rights and welfare of the natives against the colonizing powers. So, there is something like a contradiction, where the discipline is used for colonization and on the other hand many of its practitioners have been anti-colonial.

In a post-colonial society, what is the relevance of contemporary anthropology?

I don’t think it is a post-colonial society. I see it as a society very much shaped by colonialism and I think anthropology is still very useful to understand it. It doesn’t matter if it is a colonial or post-colonial society, because anthropology is about observation, it is about words, concepts and meanings. We try to identify and understand the words and concepts people use in their lives. There we make some kind of systematic analysis of concepts and the ways they are used in practices. It applies to social life in general, whether it is colonial or post-colonial.

The meaning of culture, or rather its classic definition, often gets changed in a post-globalised society, in people’s every day experiences. How do cultural anthropologists like you look at this phenomenon, particularly when you use words like urban hybridity?

Actually, I don’t want to use the word cultural anthropology; I prefer social anthropology. There is a difference. The term cultural anthropology applies more to the American tradition which is influenced by the German tradition. It emphasizes culture as a whole.

Social anthropology more comes from the British – French traditions, which is more structural, more sociological, it has a symbolic approach, it hasn’t depended so much on the notion of society being an integrated whole. It is in a smaller level observation.

There is a relatively recent discipline called Cultural Studies as well. How do the anthropologists look at this discipline?

I think it has been a very influential discipline. But I don’t think cultural studies offers very integrated analysis of people’s cultural lives. It is often anti-historical; it is sort of politico-economic analysis, often western-oriented. I don’t think it uses history in a significant way. They are not looking to recognize non-western forms and genres of narrative. They are very unhelpful for me to understand a society

[Originally published in Interactive Webportal: http://interactive.net.in/west-throws-away-a-lot-of-our-history/]

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