For God or Empire
Sayyid Fadl and the Indian Ocean World
Wilson Chacko Jacob



The original idea for this book, conceived over a decade ago as an even larger research project, was to bring the figures of the sayyid and the futuwwa into the same analytical frame. I wanted to know whether they could be regarded as loci of embodied sovereignty, and if so, what were its terms and how did they change—or not—with the emergence of the modern state in its imperial and national guises. After ending my first book on the question of the futuwwa as repressed other, in a narrative centered on the quintessential modernist subject of Egyptian history, the effendi, it seemed I had to follow the thread that I had just begun to weave into something whose final shape remained unclear. The last chapter of Working Out Egypt raised the specter of the futuwwa transformed, from a classical Islamic model of masculinity into an antimodern savage, as a problem of effendi masculinity rather than a subject in its own right.1

The new project was born in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the US; I was perplexed by the new dispensation that seemed to follow, in which old laws of war and the principle of sovereignty, among others, seemed on the verge of being overwritten. In September 2001, I was in Egypt for research away from my then home of New York City—a home transformed by the time I returned a year later to be greeted by armed National Guardsmen at my neighborhood subway station. My research seeking to reimagine nationalism in terms of masculinity was suddenly rendered somewhat strange in a present that was witnessing the onset of a permanent war on transnational terrorism, or some said, on Islam. As Engseng Ho put it in recounting a similar experience, “My train of thought jumped tracks.” In its flouting of state sovereignty in the war on al-Qaida, the US, as an oddly anticolonial imperial state, may have given birth to a particularly odd species of “the jihadi” as brutal, anti-imperialist colonizers, that is, ISIS.2 In the face of these global developments, the nation-state for which I had mapped what I thought was an alternative history underwent its own transmutations.

In the years that followed, the prospects of researching the futuwwa and the sayyid began to seem overly daunting, however pressing the retrieval of their histories seemed. Blessed with a two-year sabbatical, I sat once again in a sunny yet now sad postrevolutionary Cairo in the spring of 2014, having forlornly reached a decision to abandon the futuwwa, and I began to prepare an initial draft of For God or Empire focusing exclusively on the sufi-sayyid as a specific formation of power and occasionally sovereignty. Though my inquiry into the transformation of futuwwa into fitiwwa/baltagi, or thuggish outlaw, was sidelined, I had plenty to deal with in the story of one particular ocean-hopping sayyid, Fadl Ibn Alawi, as sovereign, outlaw, and window onto a particular conception of life. Actually, the insight that a historical life might reveal something about a “unity of life” that was not historical per se only came later, after “the incident.”

The writing was going quite well; the sources were rich. Then I experienced what might be described unexaggeratedly as a run-in with the return of the repressed. The futuwwa, or fitiwwa as Egyptians would say, seemed to leap out at me as if from the pages of a Naguib Mahfouz story (or a forsaken history, perhaps), and into real life. One evening, as the sun began to set, a band of four men pierced my self-satisfied writing bubble and merrily made off with my treasures: most preciously, my computer—and the backup drive. There is no silver lining where there is no “cloud.”3 As I struggled to recoup what had been lost and to start writing again about sovereignty, the law, and its frontiers, the terrible encounter with present-day fitiwwat/baltagiyya haunted the new process.

The men who came that night claimed to be Egyptian state security, though their rapid flashing of IDs and subsequent words and actions quickly cast doubt on their claim. I recall feeling comparatively relieved when I concluded they were modern-day bandits and not agents of the state. It can’t be known for sure whether they were in fact official agents of the state or baltagiyya or a blend of both. The baltagiyya catapulted back into public consciousness during the Egyptian state’s prolonged crisis that began in 2011, when making distinctions between thug and state seemed impossible and the “thug state” seemed quite real.4

Ironically, my early research was guided by the theoretical insight that the existence of a zone of indistinction at the heart of modern sovereignty between law and outlaw (life as other, naked) was constitutive and that as long as sovereignty remained meaningful for conceptualizing order, there was always already a state of exception. This seemed especially true when politics was thought historically and theoretically as developing not along a straight line in terms of interest and right but in a field of power that targeted the preservation, regulation, and improvement of life, which increasingly seemed to justify declarations of emergency. In the latter conception, of biopolitics, life’s inclusion into sovereignty as a biological form and object of governmental ministrations was also its exclusion. This inclusive exclusion made life both manageable and disposable. A paradox perhaps, but also an irony?

I say irony because I realized after my face-to-face encounter with the exception that was the norm that such philosophically clever accounts of sovereignty could not account for the power of futuwwa or sayyid. In other words, ironically, I did not suddenly wish to appeal to state legitimacy as an antidote to the chaotic and dangerous forces swirling about me in local and global spheres of life. Surely the modern Egyptian state, like other states in the Middle East and across the Indian Ocean world, already fit the terms of sovereignty as put forward by Schmitt and elaborated by Agamben and others. Many of these polities inherited a state of exception from their prior histories as colonies, protectorates, mandates, or otherwise controlled political communities with very minor projects of liberal institution building in some. Thus, what better example of the topological figure of homo sacer or the camp than entire populations existing in a precarious relation to sovereignty, that is, their abandonment by state and their simultaneous inclusion in machineries of state violence?

Hence, who would seek more of the state? Likely, the majority of people—particularly when transnational terrorist groups threaten social peace and political stability in spectacular fashion, causing the exercise of state security to begin to appear more innocuous. The modern state’s sovereignty in various degrees of perfection may be the global story of the long twentieth century, but it can’t be the whole story. Other stories become legible when “the Middle East” and its constituent states, for example, are spun outward, as historical formations along longer timelines and broader spatial grids, and forward into a future after ISIS, after empire, and after state.5

Though reproducing some key tropes of modernity that historians have problematized, sociologist Armando Salvatore’s reappraisal of the long routes by which liberal states in the Christian West and more-or-less authoritarian states in the Islamic East emerged as seemingly discrete civilizational blocs reveals the interconnectedness of the narratives of privatized religion and individual rights, on the one hand, and their failure or self-conscious, mostly rhetorical refusal, on the other. Famously, one side became powerful and had political sovereignty, ostensibly as a result of creating a dynamic, human-centered order, while the other became weak and struggled to mimic the Westphalian dispensation in an anticolonial register. However stark and ahistorical these comparisons may seem, rereading Marshall Hodgson for the present, Salvatore makes a valuable contribution in recuperating the Islamic “transcivilizational ecumene” and dislodging its plural transnational or supranational form from its reduction to a jihadist singularity. He offers an opening to think more critically about what the Islamic historical, ethical, political, and cultural (civilizational in Salvatore) formation (Islamdom in Hodgson) that did not mesh well with modern sovereignty might offer for thinking a shared future.6

It is, then, due to the troubling present and through the opening that Salvatore and other scholars of Islam, modernity, and transregional spaces have created that I chart in the following pages the course of Sayyid Fadl and others searching for meaning, reaching for more of life, while living in an oppositional or ambivalent relation to changing terms of sovereignty on a global scale.7 It was no coincidence that futuwwa and sufi-sayyid overlapped in their historical developments and rose to prominence as urban and frontier modes of organizing life and as a perspective from which to think life in general when the universal Muslim caliphate faced its greatest and eventually fatal threats in the thirteenth century. The locations of their rise and expansion also suggest that it was no accident that they became conceptually capacious and linked categories, capable of deep and broad discourses of peace, compassion, charity, and love as well as war, cruelty, self-interest, and violence.

When facing the return of the repressed in its monstrous form on that day in Cairo, as light faded to dark, it was not the law or the state that I conjured as potential savior, nor was it God or a divine being of some other kind. Rather, in the thuggish life facing me I wondered where the real futuwwa had gone: Where might I find the futuwwa of compassion, charity, and protection that might redress this wrong for me? In which body or bodies does the life-form of al-futuwwa and the sufi-sayyid reside today? I found an answer in the aftermath of the incident that killed the first version of this book: in fact it is all around us, and in far greater numbers than the always highlighted barbaric life-forms versus compliant subjects of juridico-political bodies beholden to sovereignty and capable of repression just as readily as they are often repressed.

The presence that I have struggled to identify in this work, as resisting or exceeding the terms of sovereignty and for which I have used the shorthand “unity of life,” was after all an absence in a double sense. The solitary secular scholarly enterprise in which I had become deeply enmeshed involved a gradual forgetting of this absence, and only in the aftermath of the incident did it slowly make its way back to my consciousness as being not there. The solidarity that binds together stranger and host, the unseen and the seen, all that has come and that which is yet to come, faith to some—this was the absence that I forgot or learned to ignore. The care and kindness of friends and strangers reminded me of the absent, leading to the book’s rebirth. Thus, I owe a profound debt of gratitude to all those who helped restore my faith in our capacity to live life in terms that exceed our bounds and our boundedness.


1. Wilson Chacko Jacob, Working Out Egypt: Effendi Masculinity and Subject Formation in Colonial Modernity, 1870–1940 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011). For an opposing view, that the fitiwwa had few links to the medieval tradition of al-futuwwa but was rather a socially embedded actor and product of the modern state’s assertions of sovereignty, see Nefertiti Takla, “Murder in Alexandria: The Gender, Sexual and Class Politics of Criminality in Egypt, 1914–1921” (PhD diss., UCLA, 2016), 85–86.

2. Engseng Ho, “Empire through Diasporic Eyes: A View from the Other Boat,” CSSH 46, no. 2 (2004): 210–46, 212. Ho argues that distinguishing between imperialism and colonialism is necessary for explaining the “new mode of domination” represented by US empire, when old modes of resistance shaped by anticolonial nationalists and the modes of knowledge associated with them are insufficient to grasp the global, plural, and open-ended powers at work in the present.

3. I was repeatedly “asked” after the incident, “Surely you stored everything on a cloud!”

4. “Al-Baltajiyya Changes the Shape of Politics in Egypt,” Al-Jazeera Online (3 February 2011),–9b81-fc908c31ac8c. See also Paul Amar, “Turning the Gendered Politics of the Security State Inside Out? Charging the Police with Sexual Harassment in Egypt,” International Feminist Journal of Politics 13, no. 3 (2011): 299–328; and Wilson Jacob, “Revolutionary Mankind: Egypt and the Time of al-Futuwwa,” Cairo Papers in Social Sciences 33, no. 1 (2014): 32–52.

5. In “Rethinking the ‘Middle East’ after the Oceanic Turn,” CSSAAME 34, no. 3 (2014): 556–64, Nile Green argues that “the Middle East” needs a “conceptual pluralization” and offers three “arenas” that would “disaggregate and enlarge” it: Mediterranean, Inner Asian, and Indian Ocean.

6. Echoing Kantorowicz, Salvatore writes, “In contrast to this development, the Ottoman counterpart to the second, abstract, political body of the king or body-politic in Europe remained like a penumbra and was not able to materialize a vivid aura.” Essentially, a society that was able to fit within the confines of a worldly state was never hived off from the transcivilizational Islamic dialectic of din and dawla, unlike the trajectory of regio and religio in Christian Europe. Armando Salvatore, “Repositioning ‘Islamdom’: The Culture-Power Syndrome within a Transcivilizational Ecumene,” European Journal of Social Theory 13, no. 1 (2010): 99–115, 112, doi: 10.1177/1368431009355756. Salvatore elaborates his arguments further in The Sociology of Islam: Knowledge, Power, and Civility (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016). One of the few works by a historian frequently cited in studies of sovereignty by philosophers, political scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, and others is Ernst Kantorowicz, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957).

7. Unfortunately, I discovered Bhrigupati Singh’s exciting recent ethnography of Rajasthan, Poverty and the Quest for Life: Spiritual and Material Striving in Rural India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), too late for serious engagement; however, we seem to share similar concerns about and approaches to conceiving life and power. I thank Andrew Ivaska for the reference.