International Ibnu Batuta Conference on Travel, Trade, Tradition and Trajectories
The University of British Colombia, Canada
Sebastian R. Prange is Assistant Professor of South Asian History at the University of British Columbia. He researches the organization and trans-oceanic exchanges of Muslim trade networks in the pre-modern Indian Ocean, with a special focus on South India. He obtained his doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London in 2008 and has since held academic appointments in Canada, the United States, and Germany. His scholarship has been recognized with major awards by the Institute of Historical Research, the International Economic History Association, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies. In articles, he has examined the topics of piracy, the pepper trade, and religious exchanges between South and Southeast Asia. His book, Monsoon Islam: Trade and Faith on the Medieval Malabar Coast (Cambridge University Press, 2018), traces the evolution of Islamic law and practice among the merchant communities of the medieval Indian Ocean world.
This talk argues that the development of Islam on the Malabar Coast was part of much broader trajectory of Islamic history across the trading world of the medieval Indian Ocean. Between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries, a particular form of Islamic thought and practice emerged among Muslim merchant communities. This Monsoon Islam was shaped by merchants and itinerant mystics rather than by sultans and scholars, forged by commercial imperatives rather than in battle, and defined by the reality of Muslim merchants living within non-Muslim societies.
The talk’s central focus is placed on the Malabar Coast, the much-fabled “land of pepper” that attracted traders from faraway places and of diverse backgrounds. Muslims proved particularly adept at negotiating with local sovereigns and societies and came to dominate the immensely profitable spice trade. Monsoon Islam emerged out of this context and, in part, from these negotiations. At its core, it was the product of the tension between the distant and the local, between these Muslims’ role in far-flung trading networks and an Islamic cosmopolis on the one hand and, on the other, their need to negotiate the specific social, economic, and political conditions of particular trading locations. Drawing on a broad range of sources, this talk explores the social complexities of Muslims living in a predominantly Hindu society. It describes a plexus of Muslim trading communities that were interlinked not only by mutual commerce but by the need for religious and political institutions that could address the particular needs and concerns of these far-flung diasporic settlements—institutions that in many ways continue to define the character and distinct structures of Islam across monsoon Asia.