Terrains of Exchange

Terrains of Exchange: Religious Economies of Global Islam
Nile Green
Oxford University Press  288pp  £25

In 1902 the Reverend Henry Smith went to Aurangabad in the princely state of Hyderabad on behalf of the Church Missionary Society of Birmingham and the souls of Aurangabad’s Muslims. In five years of street preaching and distributing Urdu pamphlets, Smith failed to win a single convert. Instead, he stimulated a Muslim revival in the city by attracting competition from the Ahmadiyya Jama’at.

As Nile Green explains in his enthusiastic and enlightening Terrains of Exchange, what happened next is a case study in the ‘religious economy’ whose currency is not salvation but ‘social power’.

The Jama’at, founded in 1889 by the ‘entrepreneurial’ Punjabi messiah Mirza Gullam Ahmad, adopted the print technology, organisational methods and outreach strategies of its Christian competitors. Supported by Hyderabad’s Muslim rulers and businessmen, the Jama’at pushed the Reverend Smith out of the market. By 1920 the Jama’at’s ‘franchises’, riding the waves of a global economy, were propagating its mishan (mission) to auto-workers in Detroit. 

Meanwhile, back in Hyderabad, the Christian missionaries targeted a new market: low-caste Hindus. Religions may insist on the separation of the holy and the profane, but the modern history of religion, Green shows, cannot be separated from the impure workings of industrialisation and empires. 

Green traces a three-phase cycle, from the 18th to the 20th centuries. In the first phase, British missionaries exploited the presence of the East India Company to launch ‘evangelical imperialism’ in Bombay and other communications ‘hubs’. This created a ‘middleman’ class of upwardly mobile Indian converts. The number of converts was low, but its ‘catalytic effects’ and ‘social repercussions’ were immense. The Christian ‘onslaught’ triggered the creation of ‘local markets’. In this second phase, ‘self-strengthening’ groups like the Jama’at internalised the Christian critique of Islam, adapted the Christian missionaries’ marketing techniques and promoted its brand as the ‘true Islam’. In the third, post-imperial phase, ‘impresarios of Islam’ exported these ‘adaptive hybridizations’ westwards as authentic traditions. Yet the ‘reform’ programme, whether sectarian or liberal, was an inherently modern ‘market product’. 

Economics is the ‘dismal science’, Carlyle said, because it excludes the unpredictable inner life and emphasises a fiction of rational choice. The religion-as-market model possesses explicatory power: all history is written in the shadow of the present and our present of firms and markets can certainly comprehend a past in those terms. 

Sometimes, though, Green’s model works too well and we lose a sense of the living reality he seeks to describe: when ‘farmers of faith’ cultivate good harvests from their ‘rich terroirs’, the manure is laid on a little too thickly. Yet Green does not claim to describe the changes in the inner lives of believers, only the creation and functioning of religious institutions and their integration into the world system. Green’s speciality is Islam in South Asia, but similarly complex processes can be seen among Hindus, Zoroastrians and Muslim Middle Easterners. Integrating religion with social and political history, Terrains of Exchange digs deeply into the meetings of East and West.

Dominic Green is the author of The Double Life of Dr. Lopez (Century, 2003) and Armies of God (Random House, 2008).

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