Home > History > Indian Ocean Migrants and State Formation in Hadhramaut

Indian Ocean Migrants and State Formation in Hadhramaut

  • Title: Indian Ocean migrants and state formation in Hadhramaut: reforming the homeland
  • Author: Ulrike Freitag
  • Series: Social, Economic, and Political Studies of the Middle East and Asia; v. 87
  • ISBN 10: 9004128506
  • Publisher: Brill Academic Publishers
  • Published: October 2003
  • Pages: 589
  • Format: PDF

History, says Fernand Braudel, is the sum of all possible histories. The question to ask is not whether an argument is right enough to exclude all others, but how right it is, how much it tells us that we did not know. (Eugen Weber, p. 493)

The internal dynamics of change in Muslim societies have long intrigued historians of the modern Middle East. While much of the Arab world formed part of the Ottoman Empire, the Arabian Peninsula offers intriguing insights into the processes of state building which tribal societies underwent in the 19th and 20th centuries. The case of Hadhramaut, a region on the southern edge of the Peninsula approximately halfway between Aden and Oman, is of particular interest. Many Hadhramis migrated to the areas bordering on the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. They maintained strong ties with the homeland, while at the same time taking active part in the economic, religious and political life of their host communities. I will argue that the dynamics of change in Hadhramaut reflect wider trends predominant in the Indian Ocean region. A study of the political, economic and social change in this South Arabian area thus offers insights into the international networks which formed an important constituent of the historical region which was the Indian Ocean. Such a study also opens perspectives on the interaction between different cultures. As Hadhramis were also in contact with the religious and political centres of Middle Eastern Islam such as Mecca, Cairo and Istanbul, they further served as transmitters of ideas between Muslims in the Indian Ocean region and those in the Middle East and vice versa. Since most of the discussions about change in the modern Middle East focus on the exchange or confrontation with Europe, and neglect the non-Middle Eastern Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, a study of Hadhramaut thus significantly widens the historical perspective and provides a useful corrective to some of the older historiography on factors and agents of change in the modern Middle East.

In terms of Hadhrami history, this book covers political, economic and social change from about 1800 to 1967. Following a period of unrest, two distinct sultanates emerged from the mid-19th century and expanded their control from central cities into the surrounding areas. The military leaders were supported by an elite of merchants, scholars and intellectuals. They were partly based in Hadhramaut, partly members of the diaspora. It is mainly this elite on which the book focuses, bringing its ideas and actions, its struggles and ambitions to the fore as far as possible. This elite increasingly began to show features which allow it to be characterised as a bourgeoisie which undertook to modernise its homeland. However, events in Hadhramaut need also to be placed in the wider context of the imperial expansion of Britain in Southern Arabia following the occupation of Aden in 1839 and the establishment of a British protectorate in Hadhramaut in 1888.

Ulrike Freitag here discusses the modern history of Hadhramaut in a novel way. Linked to theIndian Ocean through a long history of migration, she traces the ways in which members of thediaspora and travellers interacted with the homeland through their remittances, political initiatives and the introduction of new ideas and institutions. The book is based on a wide range of Hadhrami and British sources, as well as on fieldwork in Yemen and Indonesia. Exemplary life histories of merchants and scholars illustrate the wide range of concerns for the establishment of stable politics in a tribal society. This is linked to the careful analysis of the impact of imperial rule both in the lands of the diaspora and in Hadhramaut in chapters focusing on state and institution formation. Developments in Hadhramaut are regarded as a prism for the development of modernity in the wider Muslim and Indian Ocean worlds which was adapted to local conditions and needs.

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