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Indian Ocean Migrants and State Formation in Hadhramaut: Reforming the Homeland
by Ulrike Freitag
2003. Pp.xv + 589. Maps, tables, figures and photographs. Chronologies. Bibliog. Index. Hb. ISBN 90-04-12850-6.
This voluminously detailed book builds upon an earlier work Hadhrami Traders, Scholars and Statesmen in the
Indian Ocean 1750s–1960s (Brill, 1997) with which Dr Ursula Freitag was closely associated both as co-editor and
contributor. Published shortly after Linda Boxberger’s path-breaking study of Hadhrami society between the 1880s
and 1930s (On the Edge of Empire, suny, 2002), the book undoubtedly constitutes a major landmark in the
advancement of the study of Hadhrami history.
Dr Freitag is a gifted scholar and Arabist, clearly devoted to her subject. Drawing on a wealth of previously
unused Hadhrami and British sources as well as on fieldwork in Yemen and Indonesia, she traces the various ways
in which members of the Hadhrami diaspora interacted with the Hadhrami homeland through their remittances,
political initiatives and the introduction of new ideas and institutions. It is impossible to do justice to the
scope of Freitag’s study without touching briefly on each chapter. At the same time it must be said that even a
scholar of her calibre cannot be expected to interpret events with the eye and feel of an indigenous observer.
For example, she seems unaware that in Southern Arabia ‘Dawlah’, which literally means ‘State’ in Arabic, can
also mean ‘the ruling house or ruler’.
Much of the book’s ‘Introduction’ is dedicated to establishing the social and historical definitions under
which Freitag categorises her material, such as the type of migration to which the Hadhrami pattern may be said
to conform; whether the Arabic term ‘Islah’ (‘reform’) implies ‘modernisation’ or ‘modernity’; whether the reform
movement, spear-headed, according to the author, by the ‘bourgeoisie’, was to lead to ‘fringe westernisation’,
with reforms acting as ‘agents’ either of ‘Western-style capitalism’ or of ‘imperialism and non-Muslim
modernity’. Here one needs to make the point that in Hadhrami society no great change, even with Great Power
sponsorship, would have been possible without the support of the traditional elites. The author’s tendency to
view developments in terms of a prescribed sociological or anthropological framework sometimes leads her to draw
analogies and conclusions which are open to question.
In Chapter One the author continues the process of setting the scene of Hadhramaut and the Hadhrami diaspora as
it unfolded during the 19th century, with particular reference to the Indian Ocean, outlining significant
political developments including the arrival of the British in Aden and the consequences which this had for
Hadhramaut, especially after the area became subject to British ‘protection’.
Chapter Two provides biographical notes on a number of eminent Hadhrami figures – scholars, mystics and
merchants – and discusses their role as spokesmen for their communities and their response to popular calls for
safer living conditions, an organised administration and other reforms.
Chapter Three covers the state-building efforts that followed, and the opportunities for political advancement
open to those possessed with the material means, local popular and armed support and a willingness to take risks.
Relations with the Ottomans in Yemen and with the British in Aden up to the end of the First World War are also
examined.Chapter Four discusses the role played by a number of Hadhrami migrant religious scholars in responding to the
general call for revival and reform in the Islamic world. The author chooses to focus mainly on one of them:
Sayyid Abu Bakr bin Shihab (1846–1922) who during his long life managed to travel the length and breadth of the
Islamic world and to attach himself to many of its great centres of learning.
Chapter Five discusses the impact of the reform movement on Hadhrami settlements abroad, especially in South
East Asia, and the emergence of a ‘bourgeoisie’ and an ‘intelligentsia’, with their own concepts of educational
reform but locked in mutual disagreement and rivalry.
Chapter Six deals with the effects of this ferment in the homeland, notably the reform of traditional religious
education and the political tensions which this aroused but which were usually ironed out with the aid of
intermediaries such as the al-Kaf family in Tarim, to whose philanthropic activities this chapter rightly devotes
considerable space. The heated debates in the Hadhrami diaspora concerning the type of reforms that should be
enacted at home, and the development of journalism both in the diaspora and in the homeland are also touched
upon. In this context the author mentions the tradition of travel literature which Sayyid Muhammad ibn Hashim’s
rihla ila al-thaghrain al-Shihr wa-l-Mukalla helped to revive. Other Hadhrami writers of the time included Ali
Ahmad Ba Kathir (rihlat al-ashwaq al-qawiyya), Salah Abdul Qadir al-Bakri (fi janub al-jazira al-arabiyya also
republished as ‘Adan wa Hadhramaut), Ahmad Abdul Qadir al-’Aydarus (Dastan-e-Hadhramaut in Urdu) and, of course,
Sultan Saleh al-Qu’aiti (rihla ila Du’an). Although an account of Sultan Umar al-Qu’aiti’s trip to the interior
of Hadhramaut in 1934 was recorded by Abdul Qadir Ba Faqih, its planned publication in Hyderabad was prevented by
the Sultan’s subsequent illness and death.
Chapter Seven deals with the emerging political aspirations of Hadhramis who wished to see their country (the
Qu’aiti and Kathiri States) united as one realm in the march towards stability and progress. Every step in the
direction of such changes was stiffly resisted by those who were incapable of appreciating the benefits and who,
understandably, feared the loss of their freedom, their values, their status and even their traditional means of
livelihood. Since the loudest call for reform was to come from Hadhramis in South East Asia, the ongoing,
uncompromising struggle there between the ‘Alawis (the religious aristocracy), keen to maintain their ascendant
status in any future socio-political set-up, and the Irshadis (mashaikh, tribesmen and others) bent on
challenging and erasing that status, was to frustrate efforts to promote a national dialogue. Unfortunately the
al-Kafs bore some responsibility for this failure by compromising the neutrality of the Hejazi scholar, al-Tayyib
al-Sasi, who was commissioned to sound out public opinion in the overseas settlements. Of particular interest in
this chapter is the celebrated five year truce between the tribes which was inaugurated during the visit of
Britain’s representative, Mr W. H. Ingrams, in 1936/37 and which became known as ‘Sulh Ingrams’ (Ingrams’ Truce
or Peace). This followed in the wake of an earlier truce of between 5 to 7 years duration arising from the visit
of Sultan Umar bin Awadh to the interior of Hadhramaut in 1934. Ingrams’ arrival signalled the adoption by the
British of a ‘forward policy’, albeit one based on the principle of minimal financial liability, and paved the
way for the Advisory Treaty and for the different aspects of development which are discussed in Chapter Eight:
administration, security, justice, education, health, agriculture and the economy in general, with an emphasis on
self-help which was in tune with national sentiment.
Chapter Nine reflects on the changes which followed the Second World War, including those affecting Hadhrami
communities in lands which were to achieve independence such as India, the East Indies and in Africa; and on the
rise of new elites in competition with traditional sources of power. This chapter deals with the crucial issues
posed by the demise of empire and the looming prospect of British withdrawal: Hadhrami unity or accession to the
South Arabian Federation, issues which the author sees as conforming to ‘Robinson’s theory of collaborative
imperialism’ in reverse, since the ‘collaborators were to lose a ‘patron’ and fall ultimate victims to their own
success at ‘state-building’.
A tome of this compass is bound to contain controversial judgements and errors of factual detail – doubtless
incurred in attempts to meet a tight time schedule. Some such pitfalls might have been avoided in closer
collaboration with an indigenous observer of the post-war scene such as the centenarian Sheikh Abdullah al-Nakhibi (former soldier, scholar and Qu’aiti State Councillor now resident in Jiddah). That said, Freitag’s study
is a major and unique contribution to our historical knowledge of Hadhramaut and its diaspora during the century
and a half preceding independence.
Ghalib Bin Awadh Al-Qu’aiti