Theses Doctoral

“Recasting Minority: Islamic Modernists between South Asia, the Middle East, and the World, 1856-1947”

Bar Sadeh, Roy

This dissertation examines how Indian Muslim thinkers participated in and contributed to regional and global debates about the concept of minority as a category of governance and identity constituted through law, politics, and daily life. Focusing on the period from the end of the Crimean War in 1856 to the 1947 partition of India, it follows the writings of Islamic modernists, a transregional group of thinkers who championed an egalitarian view of Islam as an alternative vision for universal rights and ethics. Using periodicals, letters, memoirs, pamphlets, treatises, official documents, and other sources (mainly in Urdu, Arabic, Russian, and, English, and, to a lesser extent, in Persian, Hebrew, and French) mostly from archives and libraries across India, Britain, and Israel/Palestine, this dissertation traces how Britain’s classification of Indian Muslims as a minority put them at the center of global conversations about rights, citizenship, and emancipation. It also shows how South Asian Islamic modernists, in dialogue with one another and political and intellectual projects across the British Empire, Khedival Egypt, Ottoman and post-Ottoman Middle East, Tsarist Empire, and Soviet Russia and Central Asia, formulated novel modes of belonging that challenged both colonial rule and national territorial partitions.

The concept of a Muslim minority emerged in the context of the trans-imperial “Muslim Question”—i.e., how European powers sought to “manage” Muslim subjects, and how Muslims responded to such politics and sought to transform them. After the Crimean War (1853-56), Britain began to link its governance over Muslims in the Indian subcontinent to its diplomacy with the Ottoman Empire and Khedival Egypt. On the one hand, British officials now invoked their status as rulers over the largest Muslim population in the world to increase their influence in Ottoman and Egyptian politics. On the other hand, these officials pointed to their military and diplomatic support of Ottoman sovereignty in the Crimean War in an attempt to win over “Indian Muslim public opinion.” At the same time, by creating the categories of “Muslim minority” and “Hindu majority” through technologies of enumeration and identification, most notably the All-India Census of 1871-1872, Britain quantified and politicized religious difference among Indians.

Amidst these upheavals, Islamic scholars and activists in North India joined hands and articulated new visions of rights, identity, and unity across difference. However, this was not only a subcontinental story. Rather than historicizing the minority question only via European imperial or local lenses, this dissertation breaks new ground by showing how Islamic modernists interpreted, applied and produced models of mutilingualism, multiconfessionalism, and federalism from and across the British, Ottoman, and Tsarist empires and Khedival Egypt, and, after 1917, Soviet Russia and Central Asia to challenge both imperial and national “solutions” to the minority question.

Taking an interdisciplinary view of “minority” as a complex interplay between demography, bureaucracy, discourse, practice, and experience, “Recasting Minority” argues that the concept of minority structured core debates about and in modern South Asia and the Middle East and their transregional linkages, from the conception of halal meat, to questions of Arabic as a language of belonging for Muslims and non-Muslims alike, to the creation of anticolonial solidarities.

In so doing, this dissertation questions the dominant historiography that binds minority within European genealogies of nation-state formation and politicization of religious difference.

Rather than regarding minority solely as a persecuted group or a predicament produced by “secular governance,” this dissertation shows that the emergence of this concept in trans-imperial geopolitics, and the precarious position of Muslims working within and beyond them, enabled Islamic modernists to produce alternative visions of sovereignty, religious difference, and worldmaking. In so doing, my dissertation synthesizes the global intellectual history of the concept of minority with the socio-political and cultural history of South and West Asia and Eurasia, helping explain the enduring potency of this concept in these regions today.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Elshakry, Marwa
Rao, Anupama P.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 20, 2022