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Pruss, Maria Magdalena

'The Church of Islam': Esotericism, Orientalism, and Religious Origin Myths in Colonial South Asia

2022

Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 24, 1

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S1356186322000050
Abstract

This article analyzes the construction of religious origin myths for Islam within “universal religion” and esoteric frameworks in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century South Asia and beyond and sheds light on the role of “Western” and Anglo-Indian converts in this process. At its core is a case study of the elusive Hamid Snow, founder of the so-called “Church of Islam” in 1891 in Sikanderabad, Deccan. On the following pages, I reconstruct Snow’s biography from little-known Urdu and English sources, analyze his writings, and place him in a context of religious modernist, esoteric, and convert networks encompassing South Asia, Europe, the United States, the Philippines, and other parts of the world. By focusing on the nature of the scholarship of religion at the time, and the reconstruction of religious pasts under the influence of Esotericism and religious modernism, the article traces the influence of Orientalist and Eurocentric views on perceptions of the Islamic tradition and contributes to larger debates about the role of laypersons, especially those with an interracial background, in interpreting religious history and acting as cultural mediators between different communities during a time of “hybrid transnational occultism”.