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.