On Thursday, March 4th, Historian Lale Can gave a talk on her masterful new book Spiritual Subjects which looks at Central Asian pilgrims and the Hajj during the late Ottoman period and the entangled trajectories, negotiations, and contestations that mediated how this group of hajjis interacted with and shaped Ottoman governance. Spiritual Subjects follows these pilgrims as they navigated shifting legal, social, and political regimes through different imperial realms—from Russian and Chinese empires to Central and South Asian emirates and khanates—as they sought to perform a sacred journey during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when material transformations also changed the experience of the pilgrimage to Mecca. The empires and governance structures through which they traversed, too, had an invested interest in how Central Asian Muslims moved through these spaces conditioned in large part around the so-called Eastern Question in which British and Russian claims over populations, spheres of influence, and protectorates loomed large for Ottoman and European interests.
But on this point Dr. Can emphasized an important reminder for attendees—that while these political and diplomatic conditions and anxieties permeate this period, scholars shouldn’t see these hajjis as just objects that empires co-opted, manipulated, surveilled, or instrumentalized. Indeed, while the marshalling of ideology, spiritual authority, and power through the Hamidian and Young Turk periods are well known to scholars of this period, placing Central Asian pilgrims and their options and choices at the center of the narrative provides new insights into how their movements shaped power and governance in late and post-Ottoman social orders. In doing so, these hajjis can be considered not just pilgrims but also migrants and not just as tools of empires but as subjects making sense of their best options and religious rites during a period of profound change.
Can vividly portrayed the kinds of resources and networks that enthusiastic and weary travelers utilized to make their journeys, including some systems with long histories such as those of Sufi tariqas and their lodges, texts, spiritual leaders, and official capacities to provide both spiritual and material encouragement for pilgrims. She emphasized how diverse these pilgrims were and that they solicited forms of consular and capitulatory support for a variety of reasons. Dr. Can underscores how much religion mattered for people across all degrees and levels of pious behavior and intent and her book accounts for this wide range of desires, beliefs, and motivations that in time were constitutive elements around categories of nationality, citizenship, ethnicity, and belonging.
The implications and contributions of this work are far reaching and in engagement with several fields of study including but not limited to: global history, imperial and diplomatic history, Islamic studies, Ottoman and Russian history, Central Asian history, the Persianate world, and the modern Middle East to name a few. Spiritual Subjects contributes an important humanizing perspective to this work by attending to the everyday experiences of ‘ordinary’ Central Asian pilgrims and the contingencies, choices, and decisions that constituted their journeys.
By Amy Fallas (PhD Candidate, History, UC Santa Barbara)