Religion as an enterprise


It was two years ago that I met M. Ikram Chaghatai for the first time in Lahore. He had just finished working on his most recent book in Urdu, the biography of Aloys Sprenger, and I was hoping to secure some copies and conduct an interview. Sprenger originally hailed from my native village in Austria and, as an employee of the East India Company during the first half of the 19th century, was one of the strongest proponents of fostering vernacular languages — in his case Urdu — rather than English. Chaghatai not only covered his life and work over the past few years, but has also dedicated his time to the meticulous research of the contributions of a number of Austrian and German orientalists to the intellectual discourse on the subcontinent.

He told me, much later, that for him one major motivation to publish these biographies was to show young Pakistani students of Urdu and the history of the subcontinent how much attention was given to fostering Urdu more than a century ago, while today it seems to pale in comparison to English. If those foreigners invested so much in local languages out of curiosity and the urge to control how is it that here, where it is still the mother tongue, it is given so little appreciation? To do so he has not shied away from travelling across Pakistan and Europe, to go through the archives of famous museums in Germany, newspapers in Switzerland, as well as small churches in the remote Austrian countryside.

My motivation to learn more about Sprenger’s and Chaghatai’s work lies in the opposite direction. For many people in Central Europe the Asian continent — and even more so ‘Muslim Asia’ — is a different, difficult world to comprehend, sometimes even laced with fear and resentment against growing immigrant populations. The fact that a compatriot, from a very simple background, moved to these lands more than 150 years ago and became a respected figure in his field provides some challenging food for thought. Any of his descendants are since extinct in the village, and although it is widely acknowledged that he is the most famous citizen the village ever brought forth, Sprenger is still eyed with suspicion. Rumours still hold that he converted to Islam and that he never returned to Austria, frustrated with the conservative and elitist society of his home country.

Nile Green offers illuminating historical accounts of people advocating for their faith as entrepreneurs in the exchange between East and West

Based on stacks of old and dusty sources, this topic of exchange is once again gaining recognition and not just within the scholarly community. Migration to Europe and its ensuing challenges is increasingly seen through the prism of religion. Emphasising how this is a process which has been ongoing for centuries, in both directions, could likely alleviate many unfounded fears.

The location where I had meetings with Chaghatai to discuss this topic of exchange couldn’t be more appropriate. It took me a while to find the Jesuit Convent on Waris Road, behind big gates and shaded by trees. Run since the 1960s by Jesuit priests, it hosts a library where Chaghatai regularly does his research. Outside on the wide lawn, a long-time resident Jesuit from Australia takes a stroll. Not a sound from bustling Mozang Chungi, nearby, reaches here. It is difficult to tell whether this place functions as a place of exchange between Christianity and Islam. If so, it is the Muslim Chaghatai, researching in a Christian convent on the life of Christian men, in the area of exchange. And this allows one to wonder how such exchanges were facilitated before these post-colonial missions were established.

Based on numerous original sources recounting very personal stories of exchange, Nile Green has written a compelling introduction on this subject in Terrains of Exchange: Religious Economies of Modern Islam. The book reaches from 20th century Detroit in USA to 19th century Cambridge in UK, from 19th century Hyderabad in India to 20th century Kobe in Japan — hence, it provides a more global outlook than his earlier book, Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean.

Green builds on his tenet by seeing religion as an enterprise, and people advocating for their religion as entrepreneurs. Although he stresses that the “book aims less to present a treatise on theory than to recover the empirical texture and ethnographic terrain that shapes different religious exchanges,” these accounts, vividly narrated, do possibly provide some indications for a future theory which could develop around this concept.

“In each of the terrains examined here, the slippery signifier of ‘religion’ is socialised or substantiated as a particular person or organisation that uses texts, technologies and practices to invoke the authority of God, tradition or community in the pursuit of social power. This enables us to see how religion serves as a way of getting things done — of making things happen, of making people act — through allowing the religious entrepreneur to access and deploy the various kinds of resources that substantiate religion, resources that may be human or textual, mechanical or symbolic. In social (and political) terms, religion is therefore a means of action and persuasion as well as identification: it is perhaps the most flexible of all tools of social power. […] For not only does religion’s fusion of symbolic and material capital allow individuals to accomplish things, it also enables them to make other people do things. […] Religion — particularly, in the present case, Islam — thus emerges as a product or outcome of exchange. It is when the intersection of different religious agents or networks makes this happen that we enter the crossover point between the study of religion and of globalisation. This crossover between religious agents and globalising mechanisms is one of the characteristics of the Old World that remained after the Cold War.” — Excerpt from the book

Although the book focuses on Islam, Green emphasises in the very beginning that he wants to “break down religion from such analytically slippery monoliths as ‘Christianity’ and ‘Islam’, to examine the entrepreneurial framework which lies at their base, that was an essential aspect of the exchange between these monoliths. And so he begins with the old scholars of Cambridge, who are essentially convinced of the supremacy of Christianity and, with the help of the printing press, want to further their cause in the subcontinent. Their apprentices from the colonies, however, often simply apply these new-found techniques of propagation to further spread the message of Islam among the local population.

At the same time, however, he shows how important religion is to understanding imperial machinations. “Tracing [the interactions between religious agents] allows us to see how central religion was to both the actions of imperialists and, in turn, to Muslim responses to the empire. In the case of the British Empire, so often seen as a broadly secular enterprise, a case is made for understanding it as being conceived as an ‘evangelical empire’ whose structures were penetrated if not created by missionaries and their sympathisers.”

This is where the aforementioned Sprenger fits in. Active in the production of one of the first Urdu newspapers in the subcontinent, he also authored a book on the life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), which was widely regarded among Western orientalists but (within his lifetime) heavily attacked by Muslim scholars in India for its obvious shortcomings. Brought up in a strictly Roman Catholic environment, in a small Alpine village, his background would surely have been very different from that of the evangelicals in Cambridge. Although he himself was not active in proselytising religion, he was one of those who facilitated the exchange.

It is, then, also a concept which can be applied to globalisation — not only might it help explain how religion is employed but also how, contrary to claims of secularising societies, religion might stay on. “If the underlying argument of this book is correct, that religion is increasingly generated as an outcome of exchange, then the logical consequence is that increasing interactions will produce increasing amounts of religion. […] While narratives of progress and modernity once taught us to look back to the medieval word as the great age of religion, we may instead need to brace ourselves for a future that hosts more religion than at any time in history.”

This exchange is exemplified on a small scale by the multitude of anecdotes Green provides of encounters between Christians, Hindus and Muslims, and how they benefitted from this exchange. On a large scale, Green spans the arc of exchange from the orientalist West to the East, only to bounce back again a century later. “If a century earlier the evangelical orientalists of Oxford and Cambridge had learned to publish their own propaganda in the languages of India, then by 1920 India responded by sending its own evangelical occidentalists to publish in the chief vernacular of the American melting pot.” Muslim organisations developed their own approaches on how best to spread their beliefs with more modern techniques. One of them, a Punjabi missionary from the small town of Bhera, now in Pakistan, went to Detroit to preach to labour migrants among the factory workers of the Ford Motor Company.

The topic holds numerous chances for pitfalls, from sliding into orientalist tropes (the most obvious and easiest to circumvent) to unsatisfactory conclusions being drawn from singular stories linked together for the sake of proving an argument, hence providing an overly theoretical scholarly work. Green circumvents all these pitfalls, leaving the reader with a trove of exciting life stories of religious entrepreneurs and theoretical concepts which can be usefully applied to accounts of global exchange in the future.

Terrains of Exchange: Religious Economies of Modern Islam (HISTORY),By Nile Green, Hurst Publishers, United Kingdom, ISBN: 978-1849044288,418pp.

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