An important part of colonial knowledge-making was the classification of people into discreet categories: ethnic groups, races, religions. The impact of these classifications on the people of the Indian-Ocean rim was profound, forcing individuals increasingly to identify in terms of the categories supplied by the colonial state. It is far more difficult, however, to connect colonial projects of community definition with precolonial conceptualizations and identifications, including the question of the genesis of colonial-period terminologies beyond either asserting the fundamental difference of precolonial community identifications, or their ‘fluidity’ and non-specificity. At the same time, scholarship has continued to use terms such as ‘Arab’ or ‘Muslim’ with a certain sense of continuity. How are we to make sense of this problem, and are there ways in which we can connect social histories to those of nomenclature?
Torsten Tschacher is a Heisenberg Fellow of the German Research Foundation (DFG) and lecturer for Tamil at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. His research focuses on the history and discursive traditions of Tamil-speaking Muslims around the Bay of Bengal. His book Race, Religion, and the ‘Indian Muslim’ Predicament in Singapore was published in 2018 with Routledge. He has also translated two novels from Tamil to German.
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Global Intellectual History is a research group at the University of Amsterdam, Utrecht University and the University of Groningen.