Wilson Chacko Jacob, "For God or Empire: Sayyid Fadl and the Indian Ocean World" (Stanford UP, 2019)


Sayyid Fadl, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, led a unique life—one that spanned much of the nineteenth century and connected India, Arabia, and the Ottoman Empire. For God or Empire: Sayyid Fadl and the Indian Ocean World (Stanford University Press) tells his story, part biography and part global history, as his life and legacy afford a singular view on historical shifts of power and sovereignty, religion and politics.

Wilson Chacko Jacob recasts the genealogy of modern sovereignty through the encounter between Islam and empire-states in the Indian Ocean world. Fadl's travels in worlds seen and unseen made for a life that was both unsettled and unsettling. And through his life at least two forms of sovereignty—God and empire—become apparent in intersecting global contexts of religion and modern state formation.

While these changes are typically explained in terms of secularization of the state and the birth of rational modern man, the life and afterlives of Sayyid Fadl—which take us from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Indian Ocean worlds to twenty-first century cyberspace—offer a more open-ended global history of sovereignty and a more capacious conception of life.

Wilson Chacko Jacob is an Associate Professor of History at Concordia University in Montréal, where he has been teaching since 2006. He is the author of the well-received monograph Working Out Egypt: Effendi Masculinity and Subject Formation in Colonial Modernity, 1870-1940 (Duke University Press, 2011).

Kelvin Ng hosted the episode. He is a Ph.D. student at Yale University, History Department. His research interests broadly lie in the history of imperialism and anti-imperialism in the early-twentieth-century Indian Ocean circuit.

Saumyashree Ghosh co-hosted the episode. She is a PhD candidate in History at Princeton University. She works on South Asia and the Indian Ocean world and her research involves business and legal histories, histories of religious and political institutions in Islam and histories of empire and slave trade.

Your Host

Kelvin Ng

View Profile