This article offers a new interpretation of the “Indian Wahhabi” beyond an ostensibly religious identity. Examining encounters between a centralizing state and decentralized circulatory regimes, the study thus illuminates an overlooked sociolegal genealogy of the jihadi militant in colonial India. From 1818, the East India Company secured its sovereignty by designating as deviant or permissible a host of itinerant figures in and around South Asia. In police records, court transcripts, and legislative archives, pilgrims with links to Arabia accordingly began appearing as suspected Wahhabis. Yet, in then seeking to distinguish “faqirs” from “fanatics,” colonial law used logics and exceptions with two important implications. First, as the “Wahhabi” came to imply a violent counterclaim to sovereignty, it also became a juridical formulation more political than religious. The faqir pilgrim here supplied the conceit of religion. Second, the complex question of jihad produced a deeper paradox, as grappling with a “religious” problem without “religion” stretched secular jurisprudence to breaking points. Until 1857, around South Asia, states of emergency hence dominated official responses to Wahhabis. Ultimately, colonial law's gestures not only rendered unexceptional its regimes of exception. Ironically, they also reified religion, such that Islam and violence became culturally consubstantial in colonial thought.

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