Habib Abd Rahman al-Zahir, a Hadrami Acehnese diplomat,

Extracted from Empire through Diasporic Eyes:A View from the Other Boat, by:ENGSENG HO (Harvard University)

In the thirty-year war of conquest launched by the Dutch against Aceh in Sumatra in the late nineteenth century, a Hadrami leader figured prominently. Born in Hadramawt in 1833, Abd al-Rahman b. Muhammad al-Zahir was taken to Malabar in India at the age of two, then educated in the Islamic sciences empire through diasporic eyes in Egypt and Mecca.

He returned to India as a young man, began trading between India and Arabia as supercargo on his wealthy father’s ship, and married in Malabar. He visited Turkey, Italy, Germany, and France. Like the mid-nineteenth century founders of the three Hadrami sultanates (Kathiri, Qa ayti, Kasa-di), he commanded troops on feudal commission as Jamadar for the Nizam of Hyderabad (Aka ¯sha 1985). But he was footloose, set up shop and villa in Calcutta as a successful goldsmith, shuttled between Bombay, Hyderabad, and Calicut, and found service with the Westernizing sultan of Johor in Malaya.

In 1864, he finally went to Aceh, where his superiority in religious learning was quickly made apparent, and he became a leading jurist and administrator, marrying the sister of a senior minister, the widow of Sultan Ali Iskandar Shah. He streamlined taxation and organized cooperative efforts to build large central mosques and public works. He gained the ear of the sultan and became regent when the latter died, holding the reins of state in his hands.

When war broke out between the Dutch and the Acehnese, al-Zahir travelled to British Malaya as envoy of the Acehnese sultan, went on to Malabar in India where he visited with his wife, then to Jedda where he collected recommendations from the Sharif of Mecca and other notables. Then he was on to Istanbul where he was received by the Ottomans as emissary of Aceh, decorated by the Ottoman ruler, and promised help against the Dutch. His presence stirred reports in the pan-Islamic press of Ottoman intervention in Aceh, creating consternation in European diplomatic circles. Ottoman help never quite materialized, but on his return trip he was now well received by Dutch and British consuls in Jedda, Singapore, and Penang.

By involving the Ottomans and the British in the Acehnese war, he set up many new, international constraints on the Dutch. The British had their own reasons for getting involved, including arms sales and pepper purchases. When al-Zahir finally returned to Aceh, he was lionized, and received as a representative of the grand Ottoman Caliph, who to the Acehnese was the leader of the only Muslim empire in the modern world.

Al-Zahir went on to lead the Acehnese in war against the Dutch. As he moved around, al-Zahir’s sophisticated strategies of self-representation increased his stature. His visit to the governor of British Penang on horseback in full regalia created “a spectacle” (Reid 1972:39). His expensive international diplomacy was financed by telegraphic transfers of Acehnese pepper profits.

He was like a mirror which reflected the glory of the ever more powerful figures he met and was associated with. While on one level he moved in a very personal space of the Hadrami diaspora, visiting wives and relatives along the way, on another he was able to harness and actualize potentials embedded in the larger Muslim networks of the Indian Ocean. In his mobile actions, wemay say that his masterful command of a whole diasporic repertoire of constituting a persona—routes, relatives, and representations—magnified a local conflict in Aceh to international proportions, making it larger and more protracted.

Diaspora against empire
Al-Zahir was not the first such figure in the Hadrami diaspora, nor was he to be the last. This model, of a confrontation between an empire and an Islamic community represented by a diasporic persona, provides a framework for thinking about the current confrontation between Usama bin Ladin and the United States. Bin Ladin is a member of the Hadrami diaspora. The geography of hisoperations, from East Africa to the Philippines, is an old venue for it. Wealth and mobility combine iconically in the family, in the ownership of airplanes and travel in Europe. In his movements between Arabia, Sudan, and South Asia, he has been able to build his stature by association with important states and causes.

He has been able to harness great potentials by expressing, in a religious idiom, notions of unity in an otherwise discombobulated congeries of Muslim states, societies and causes. Like pepper-rich Aceh, another state endowed with a prized world commodity is involved—Saudi Arabia. Whether he is actually intermarried with Taliban leader Mullah Umar’s family or not, the issue arises precisely because it is part of an old pattern. Diasporic mobility often proceeds via moral exchanges within local institutions in new locations.

The salience of communications technology recurs also. Abd al-Rahman al-Zahir cut his teeth trading as supercargo on his wealthy father’s ship between India and Arabia. His long journeys undertaken in conducting resistance against the Dutch were aboard European steamers.

Usama bin Ladin’s wealthy father Muhammad Awad, flying in his private airplane, claimed distinction as the first Muslim since the Prophet to have prayed in Jerusalem, Medina, and Mecca inthe space of a day. He had bought the plane while executing exclusive contracts for rebuilding some of the holiest sites of Islam. When he crashed and died, the Saudi king Faysal took the family under his wing, and banned them from fly-ing for a decade. Usama’s brother Salim, an avid pilot, also died in a plane crash,in Texas in 1988.

Salim’s family still owns the Houston Gulf Airport, bought on the recommendation of his U.S. trustee James Bath, an erstwhile friend of George W. Bush who invested in Bush’s early oil ventures. They met while pi-lots in the Air National Guard. The use of airplanes and satellite television against the United States in recent events needs no reiteration here.

Although the war in Afghanistan and beyond is of a scale and complexity which dwarfs all the previous confrontations between Europeans and Muslims empire through diasporic eyes 221led by Hadramis in the Indian Ocean, the existence of this pattern, of moments of cooperation and conflict between empire and diaspora, gives us one way o thinking about relations between Muslims and Westerners. Specifically, alertness to historical precedent helps us think through the peculiar suddenness with which the stakes have been rhetorically ratcheted upward to the moral absolutes of a conflict between whole religions and civilizations, as has happened more than once before.

In the Indian Ocean, the notion of jihad as just war was articulated directly in response to Portuguese depredations of the sixteenth century. It emerged out of diasporic Muslim circles, and its expression affords us one view of empire through diasporic eyes, in the earliest encounter.

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