‘Far from the Orthodox Road’: Conceptualizing the Shiʿa in the Nineteenth-Century Official Mind

  • Conor MeleadyEmail author
Part of the Britain and the World book series (BAW)


While scholarly accounts concerning imperial Britain’s engagement with Islam have tended to emphasize the image of a monolithic, essentialist ‘Islam’ which apparently dominated British minds in the Age of Empire, this chapter offers an alternative perspective, arguing that British officialdom conceptualized Islam in terms of its many perceived sectarian schisms. As British knowledge and understanding of Islam grew throughout the nineteenth century, accompanied by expansion into regions inhabited by a variety of Muslim peoples, so too did a fascination with explaining and classifying the doctrinal differences and historiographical narratives held to define relations among the many Islamic sectarian and reformist movements increasingly drawn into the imperial orbit. This chapter examines how British officials of the long nineteenth century incorporated the most prominent Islamic sectarian minority, the Shiʿa, into their broader conceptualization of the nature of Islam, arguing that this engagement was heavily shaped by a collection of preconceived ideas on what constituted the ‘true’ or ‘orthodox’ spirit of Islam. Drawing on the colonial archive of British India and the Persian Gulf, as well as a variety of contemporary scholarly and travel accounts concerned with the question of the place of Islam in Britain’s imperial mission, it argues that British understandings of Shiʿi doctrine and history, in addition to British experiences of encountering Shiʿi rituals, practices, and peoples across India and the Middle East, drove the categorization of the Shiʿa as a heretical Islamic sect whose distinctive features placed them beyond what the British conceived of as the normative fold of Islam. Yet concurrently, the formalities and processes of imperial governance had the effect of consolidating their status as a legitimate religious minority, with all the rights and privileges such a position implied.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.St Antony’s CollegeUniversity of OxfordOxfordUK

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