Monsoon Islam

February 13, 2018

Wall Scholar Sebastian Prange studies the evolution of Islam across the Indian Ocean.

For millennia the monsoon winds that blow back and forth across the Indian Ocean have allowed the cultures along its shores to exchange goods and ideas. Wall Scholar Sebastian Prange of the UBC Department of History studies the Muslim merchants who sailed this vast trans-oceanic trade network. At its heart was Kerala, a region on the southwest coast of India that was known as the Malabar Coast. Black pepper is native to this region and it drove the lucrative spice trade that drew merchants from as far as Europe and China. In medieval times, gram for gram, pepper was more valuable than gold. It was a prestige object among elites who used the now common spice to show off their wealth.

As Muslim merchants from the Middle East expanded their maritime trade networks across the Indian Ocean, they also helped to spread Islam across this vast region. Some stayed overseas only until the monsoon winds shifted direction and permitted them to sail home. Others settled permanently in those distant trading ports. Although there were Chinese, Christian, and Jewish merchants in Kerala, as well as merchants from other parts of India, from the year 1,000 A.D. on, Muslims were the most powerful economic group of all the foreign merchants in the region. The Portuguese, who arrived in Kerala in 1498, noted that Muslims were in firm control of the all-important spice trade.

Indian Ocean trade routes

The monsoon winds that blow across the expanse of the Indian Ocean facilitated the trade of spices and the expansion of Islam. Credit: National Museum of African Art/Smithsonian Institution.

Trade and faith on the medieval Malabar coast

Sebastian Prange’s book, “Monsoon Islam,” tells the story of how Islam developed in the monsoon trading world of the Indian Ocean.

Sebastian uses the term “Monsoon Islam” to describe a distinct trajectory of Islamic history that developed within the trading world of the Indian Ocean. Monsoon Islam was developed by merchants who tended to be more pragmatic and flexible than rulers and religious scholars. Their main goal wasn’t developing and promoting Islam; their first priority was making money.

When Westerners think about the spread of Islam, they often picture Mecca as the centre from which a coherent set of Islamic ideas and principles was transmitted outward. Sebastian, though, sees the evolution of Islam as a much more circulatory exchange. His book, Monsoon Islam, (to be released in April 2018) tells this other story of how Islam developed and, ultimately, of what Islam is.

Monsoon Islam was shaped by Muslim merchants living in close contact with non-Muslim societies in which they formed only small minorities. The traders typically had to adjust to being continually confronted with new situations for which the standard texts of Islamic law offered no clear course of appropriate action.

“Foreign merchants in Kerala asked their local Muslim judge legal questions and he would write down his legal opinions, known as fatwas, in a book that he made public so everyone could benefit from them,” Sebastian explains. “Almost as interesting as his answers are the questions that he was asked.”

Most of the questions were commercial in nature, in keeping with the nature of these merchant communities. But some reveal the everyday challenges that Muslim traders faced as they were trying to adjust to living in a non-Muslim society.

“For instance, one question that popped up was, I’m a Muslim man and if I walk down the street in Kerala and a Hindu woman waves at me and says good morning, what do I do?,” Sebastian recounts. “Do I greet her back? Is that proper? Do I ignore her? What am I meant to do? This wasn’t a problem that was addressed in the standard Islamic legal texts, which assumed you lived in a more or less homogeneous Muslim society and within a culture in which women don’t holler at strange men across the street. Such questions simply weren’t covered and so they didn’t know how to deal with it.”

Ranging from the mundane as in this example to very momentous matters—such as the question of whether Muslims living under non-Muslim rule can declare a jihad—Monsoon Islam is the sum of individual and communal answers to these specific situations and circumstances. We see that there was a real demand for this because other Muslim communities in other parts of the Indian Ocean quickly adopted the books of legal opinions issued by Muslim judges in Kerala for their own use.

Two mosques in Kerala

Two mosques in Kerala, one in the region’s traditional architectural style (right) and the other in the modern fashion (left). They illustrate the changes and adaptations that Islam underwent as it entered new cultural zones.

Islam: More than a desert faith

“Islam wasn’t complete and uniform and then brought to these different places,” Sebastian explains. “It was constantly reimagined and reinvented as its adherents faced different situations in different places. And we get a feedback loop. Books circulated, but so did people and ideas. A Muslim judge from south India would go to Mecca and teach there and talk to other Muslim scholars. So it was a much more circulatory exchange rather than a linear transmission from an Arabian source to a periphery that passively received Islam. And one particular story of that re-creation of Islam is that story of the Indian Ocean that I write about, the story of Monsoon Islam.”

Map: Ten countries with the largest number of Muslims

Ten countries with the largest number of Muslims in 2010. Source: Pew Research Centre’s Forum on Religion & Public Life “The Future of the Global Muslim Population”, January, 2011.

Westerners tend to base their perception of Islam on media representations portraying it as an essentially Arabian faith. There are, however, very different ways that Islam is understood and practiced, both historically and today.

“It’s a very diverse and heterogeneous faith and there are many other stories of what Islam is,” Sebastian says. “I’m telling one of those stories. The main point of telling that story is to highlight that there are those other stories that defy easy stereotypes and categories of what we think Islam is.” 

Asking new questions in new ways

During his year at the Peter Wall Institute, Sebastian has appreciated how collaborating with his fellow Wall Scholars has influenced him. “Coming in, I expected to naturally gravitate towards colleagues from the Humanities. Instead, some of the most challenging but also most rewarding exchanges have been with people working in completely different fields who use completely different methods. As with the fatwas from medieval Kerala, what has intrigued me more than the specific answers they come up with are the types of questions they ask, and how these frame their ways of tackling the issues and problems they grapple with.” As one of the most junior members of his cohort, Sebastian is convinced that this experience will have a lasting effect on how he conceives of his own research.