Into the Bazaar

By Fahad Bishara

There’s nothing like a global pandemic to get us to appreciate how far we’ve come in thinking about the history of law and economic life in the Islamic world over the last decade or so. In my reading of it, the field is crossing an important threshold: it was once a popular topic (in the 1960s and maybe until the 1980s), then it fell out of favor for some time, and now it seems as though the pendulum is swinging in the other direction once again. Work on the intertwined economic and legal histories of the Islamic world has become far more common than it was ten years ago, mirroring the resurgent interest in political economy across the academy more generally. We have excellent work on law in agrarian economies across the Islamic world, in commerce, and a burgeoning literature on Islamic law and consumption as well. Were it not for a global pandemic, it would be a great time to take stock and look ahead – to think of what we might do to bring this work together under a single carapace.

But seeing that we’re on the topic, I want to resuscitate a somewhat old idea, one that I’ve been thinking about for the last couple of years and that I’ve gotten some push-back on (and have decided to double down on): the bazaar. What do I mean the bazaar? Well, I think it depends on who you ask. The idea has old roots in orientalist writings on the Middle East, but as far as academics are concerned, it came into use in the 1970s, mainly through the work of Clifford Geertz. In his seminal article on the bazaar, Clifford Geertz described it as “a distinctive system of social relationships centering around the production and consumption of goods and services,” and highlighted the processes of clientelism and bargaining that shaped exchange in the bazaar.[1] Following Geertz, social scientists have understood the bazaar not only as a physical site, but also an analytic idea: a marketplace of buyers and sellers characterized by a high velocity of exchanges, often very local in their dimensions.

By contrast, historians have been inclined towards an understanding of the bazaar as one of the frontiers of Euro-American capitalism (something I’ll take on in a later post). In a landmark article on the subject, historian Rajat Kanta Ray defines the bazaar as an “indigenous money market which finances, through promissory notes, bills of exchange (suftajas, hundis, etc.) and other negotiable instruments, the wholesale and forward trade over the longer distances,” one that unfurls across the Indian Ocean, from Southeast Asia to East Africa. For Ray and others, the bazaar was a site of “intermediary” capital, in which Indian merchants mediated between large financial institutions in the Subcontinent and more peripheral markets around the Indian Ocean.[2] In doing so, they expanded the confines of the bazaar from the bounded locations that Geertz was interested in, though they circumscribed it as a market for financial services.

My understanding of the bazaar is, similarly, less as a physical space than as an historical phenomenon. I see the bazaar as a market – a money market, yes, but more broadly as a site of connected and overlapping contractual and transactional processes and artifacts. Though these practices often take place in the locus of the bazaar, and the principal actors are often shopkeepers, thinking capaciously about the world of the bazaar necessitates that we decouple it from the physical space itself and open it up as a site from which we might think (and write) about history more broadly. Like Geertz, I am mostly interested in the commercial relationships formed in the bazaar, many of which resemble the clientelism he recalled, but I see those as being deeply bound up in law in a relationship that is central to understanding the dynamics of cross-cultural trade, but also the bazaar’s place in the history of capitalism more generally (again, the subject of another post). As far as I conceive of it, the bazaar cannot be understood as an arena (however bounded or unbounded) of exchange or finance without simultaneously being one of lawmaking – of legal discourses, institutions, and practices.

I am thus interested in the bazaar as a site of world history, spanning from the souks of Sefrou to the pasars of Indonesia, and beyond. However, in giving it these broad contours I don’t want to suggest that bazaar is just a synonym for “market,” even though it incorporates everything that one understands to comprise the market. In using the term bazaar, I want to deliberately demarcate it as a “world-economy” (in the Braudelian sense of the term) – a platform for thinking about world economic history. More specifically, though, I want to mark it out as an arena that is grounded in an Islamicate field of texts, artifacts, institutions, and practices, even while conceding that it is already-always entangled with other non-Muslim fields of thought and practice.

All of this might seem a little abstract, and so I’ll spend the next few posts giving it some meat and bones. In my next two posts, I’ll dig into pockets of work already being done on this idea: I’ll share materials from the Indian Ocean maritime bazaar (my own field of inquiry), and will highlight work being done on these sorts of questions in the Persianate world (in a group project headed by Nandini Chatterjee, of which I am a part). And in my final post, I’ll reflect on the bazaar as a platform for thinking about (and writing!) world economic history over the longue durée.


[1] Clifford Geertz, “The Bazaar Economy: Information and Search in Peasant Marketing,” American Economic Review 68, no. 2 (1978): 29.

[2] Rajat Kanta Ray, “Asian Capital in the Age of European Domination: The Rise of the Bazaar, 1800-1914,” Modern Asian Studies 29, no. 3 (1995): 554. For other South Asian historians who have similarly conceived of the bazaar as a site of intermediary capital, see Sugata Bose, A Hundred Horizons: The Indian Ocean in the Age of Global Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006); Anand Yang, Bazaar India: Markets, Society, and the Colonial State in Bihar (California: University of California Press, 1998); Christopher Bayly, Rulers, Townsmen and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770-1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

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