Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Merchants and Faith

Book Cover

Book Title

Merchants and Faith: Muslim Commerce and Culture in the Indian Ocean. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995


Risso, Patricia


The main focus of Patricia Risso’s very succinct study is the intersection of Islamic and Indian Ocean histories, with a view to illustrating the relationships between ideology, culture, and economics. These exist in a potentially rich area for research complicated by subspeciality boundaries and spatial, temporal and linguistic challenges; in particular, the failure of general histories of the Islamic world to draw upon research of Indian Ocean commerce due to the latter being couched in the technical language of economic theories and systems.

In addition to making such material more accessible to non-specialist readers, the author seeks to answer the following questions: 1) what relationships existed between littoral Asia and land-based empires; 2) how the role of Western Europeans in the maritime development of the region can be best understood; 3) and lastly, what difference it made for a merchant to be Muslim.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book is divided into six chapters, providing a summary of Muslim commercial, political and religious activity in the Indian Ocean basin in the respective periods from the rise of Islam in the 7th Century AD to the 1860s, when Western technological and British political hegemony displaced it as dominant factors. In the introductory first chapter, Risso sets a straightforward geographical definition for this large and diverse region as the nautical space encompassing not just the littorals of the Indian Ocean but connected bodies of water, for example the Red Sea, Persian Gulf and South China Sea. A theme repeatedly returned to throughout the book is the inseparability of this space from the historical development of land-based polities, either in relation to one another or in response to being acted on by outside forces- whether Europeans or Mongols, as important to our understanding of maritime history commerce as the physical characteristics that shape it: the role of monsoons in creating seasonal trade patterns, the locations of natural harbours, islands, reefs, and accessibility to hinterland production.  Apart from geography, Risso also addresses problems of historiography and the role played by Islam, devoting special attention in particular to the debate over the existence of an “Islamic civilisation” – as a socio-cultural phenomenon encompassing all aspects of life, including politics and the economy – and the extent to which (if it indeed existed) this Islamic worldview influenced maritime and land-based history in the Indian Ocean.

Although mainly concerned with events in Muslim Asia, East Africa and the Levant, the chronological discussion in subsequent chapters often extends to discussions of such topics as patterns of competing overland Inner Asian trade; the production roles of China and southern India; the nature of the Asian trade revolutions of the 16th and 17th Centuries; and the increasing European penetration in the region from the 1500s onward, and the Muslim response. Thus in the second chapter – ostensibly about Muslim expansion in Asia from the time of the Prophet Muhammad through the later Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates – one can find a parallel account of the Tang and Song periods in China, and how cultural and technological developments there affected Muslim traders: Muslim maritime domination was as dependent on its eastward expansion into commercially important areas like Sind, at the terminus of rivers and caravan routes, as it was on the Tang’s reliance on Muslim shipping.

The third and fourth chapters carry the narrative from the late medieval into the early modern period, with Risso contrasting the lack of interest in maritime affairs among the major land-based empires (Mongol, Ayyubid, Mamluk, Ottoman, Safavid, Mughals and Ming) with the spread of Islam to western India, East Africa, and Southeast Asia through the actions of “maritime Muslims”, namely the establishment of fluctuating, often interlinking networks taking advantage of the broader patterns of maritime trade in the Indian Ocean region. The chapters provide a cogent summary of not only the historical developments, but the arguments made by existing scholarship regarding the character of such, in each period. Risso’s ability draws on this literature allows for a relative sophistication of analysis that belie the conciseness of Merchants of Faith: for example, in situating the fluorescence of overlapping Muslim merchant networks as components of the emerging 14th century world economic system proposed by Janet Abu-Lughod in Before European Hegemony. This is employed again in Chapter 5, which covers the developing competition among Asian and European commercial powers from 1500-1800, in particular the beginnings of Dutch, English and Portuguese involvement in the Indian Ocean trade, the course and impact of Niels Steensgaard’s “Asian trade revolutions”, Muslim resistance to European incursions in South and Southeast Asia, and the final ascendency of British domination in the region.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The three principal frameworks through which the author examines the interaction of the Islamic and Indian Ocean worlds provide a useful conceptual underpinning for the various subjects and time periods engaged in the study. The first lies in her integration of the histories of land-based Asian empires and the Indian Ocean trade. While acknowledging the general lack of involvement by these states in maritime affairs and the limited headway made by Muslim merchants in securing political positions powerful enough to affect their maritime policies, Risso reiterates Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s warning against the temptation to separate the two. The littoral concerns of such imperial Islamic regimes as the Arab and Mamluk caliphates, Persia, the Ottomans and the Mughals were not precluded by their origins and power base in land-based military conquest or their limited ability (or inclination) to affect maritime policy. On the contrary, Risso highlights nascent attempts by Asian imperial states in developing their maritime interests (such as Ottoman and Egyptian naval expeditions east of Suez) as well as the integral role played by these land-based polities in the Indian Ocean economy, in the guise of commodity production and government direction of internal trade systems to which the Muslim overseas merchant networks were connected, to suggest a deeper and more intimate connection between the two than previously assumed. Indeed, the considerable amount of space devoted to the inclusion of China, a seemingly incongruous area for a book about the Islamic world, helps restore a very important piece of the puzzle where economics is concerned.

The second deals with the extent of the European impact in the Indian Ocean region. The historical controversies that emerge are economic in nature: how and when Asia was suborned to a European centre in the emerging capitalist world system, and if European imperialism was responsible for cutting short indigenous Asian development towards industrial capitalism or its alternatives. Here Risso argues for the need to see European encroachment in the Indian Ocean vis a vis the long period of Muslim domination preceding it. It was only when the major Islamic empires – Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal – started to weaken, diminishing the economic opportunities for maritime trade, that the structural and naval strengths of European empires and the unwillingness of Muslims to reinvent themselves and alter trade patterns to compete began to undermine this hegemony. The two countervailing orthodoxies – Asian passivity and European brutality – should more accurately be reconsidered as the encounter of aggrandising land-based Muslim empires with aggrandising maritime ones, with differing institutional and structural characteristics and economic and political priorities eventually conceding control over the Indian Ocean to one.

The third, and the one unfortunately the weakest in spite of the purported emphasis, was how Islam itself figured in this story. Risso argues that it was not a constant ideological constraint on Muslim individuals and governments, and helped to shape, rather than determine, events, ultimately failing to provide the ultimate explanation for Muslim maritime success or failure. Sectarian, ethnic, and political differences all created divisions between different Muslims groups, although shared features – a common law, Sufism, and the experience of being Muslims among non-Muslims – certainly existed. The relationships, however, are not explored fully enough given the importance attached to them, with several important networks – such as the Naqshbandiyya Sufi order and the Karimi merchants of Egypt – noted by other reviewers as absent from the analysis. For a study carrying the title of Merchants of Faith, this omission is unfortunate. The author has attempted to compress a very broad topic over a long span of history into a compact volume that presents a useful framework for re-examining the era of Muslim commerce in the Indian Ocean; though successful in that regard, it might require a more comprehensive treatment than its constraints allow for here to fully realise its potential.

Annotated by Daniel Lee