A sweeping account of three Gujarati Muslim trading communities, whose commercial success over nearly two centuries sheds new light on the history of capitalism, Islam, and empire in South Asia.
During the nineteenth century, three Gujarati Muslim commercial castes—the Bohras, Khojas, and Memons—came to dominate Muslim business in South Asia. Although these communities constitute less than 1 percent of South Asia’s Muslim population, they are still disproportionately represented among the region’s leading Muslim-owned firms today. In No Birds of Passage, Michael O’Sullivan argues that the conditions enabling their success have never been understood, thanks to stereotypes—embraced equally by colonial administrators and Muslim commentators—that estrange them from their religious identity. Yet while long viewed as Hindus in all but name, or as “Westernized” Muslims who embraced colonial institutions, these groups in fact entwined economic prerogatives and religious belief in a distinctive form of Muslim capitalism.
Following entrepreneurial firms from Gujarat to the Hijaz, Hong Kong, Mombasa, Rangoon, and beyond, O’Sullivan reveals the importance of kinship networks, private property, and religious obligation to their business endeavors. This paradigm of Muslim capitalism found its highest expression in the jamaats, the central caste institutions of each community, which combined South Asian, Islamicate, and European traditions of corporate life. The jamaats also played an essential role in negotiating the position of all three groups in relation to British authorities and Indian Muslim nationalists, as well as the often-sharp divisions within the castes themselves.
O’Sullivan’s account sheds light on Gujarati Muslim economic life from the dawn of colonial hegemony in India to the crisis of the postcolonial state, and provides fascinating insights into the broader effects of capitalist enterprise on Muslim experience in modern South Asia.
No Birds of Passage is a brilliant and strikingly innovative contribution to the history of trade and diaspora in the Indian Ocean. Based on an impressive array of sources, it tells a compelling story about the emergence of a distinctive form of Muslim capitalism that continues to shape the region today.
The intersection of community, caste, and capitalism is a matter of abiding interest for South Asian historians of both the early modern and modern periods. Michael O’Sullivan’s well-documented and closely argued work on Gujarati Muslim entrepreneurs over two centuries is a significant intervention in this field. It merits a wide readership, and is also certain to provoke debates well beyond the confines of South Asian studies.
This sophisticated and fine-grained case study is a model of how to write revisionist economic histories that resonate with the experiences of people in most of the world. No Birds of Passage succeeds precisely because its conceptual apparatus is built on giving endogenous institutions their due, bringing together a range of sources in multiple languages, and openly embracing paradoxes without which this story of Muslim capitalism would have remained illegible. This is an exciting contribution to the burgeoning global histories of capitalism.
A major contribution to South Asian history. O’Sullivan’s sweeping account of Gujarati Muslim business communities is more than a business history. It is an impressive examination of how the Khojas, Bohras, and Memons reshaped community corporate identities through their interactions with the colonial state, Indian nationalism, Muslim politics, and postcolonial regimes.
This is a landmark work of scholarship, meticulously recovering the transimperial worldviews of Gujarati Muslim business communities both before and after the age of imperial capitalism. Attentive to historical asymmetries of race and sovereignty, O’Sullivan’s dynamic and capacious study will inform future work on imperial and postcolonial economic history as well as on the social-religious logics of capital accumulation.
- 400 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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