Barbara Metcalf is a famous historian specializing in the history of South Asia, particularly the colonial era. Along with her scholarly accomplishments, she has served as the president of the oldest and largest society of historians in the United States, the American Historical Association. When I was an undergraduate history student, her textbook A Concise History of India was required reading in my classes. In her book, Islamic Contestations, she writes about visiting Deoband for research and describes the way the male ‘ulema interacted and treat her—a  foreign non-Muslim woman.

In 1969 I arrived in Lucknow, the elegant old princely city that is now the capital of the populous north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, and shortly thereafter I made my first trip to Deoband, by train to Saharanpur, overnight in the Ladies’ Retiring Room, then the first train out the next morning on narrow gauge track to Deoband. As I disembarked, an elderly bearded man, dressed in the grey long fitted coat, the sherwani, and cap of the old fashioned courtly and educated elite– Nehru used to wear a sherwani — came forward to greet me. This was the late Saiyid Mahbub Rizvi, the archivist and historian of the school, to whom I had addressed a letter of inquiry, who then and later was generously ready to help me understand the school. Saiyyid Sahib took me, via cycle rickshaw, through the brick streets and lanes to the seminary itself and directly to the upstairs guest house where I would stay and, in due course, return several times during the course of my research. I mostly stayed in that room, making an occasional foray to the library, from which materials would be sent to me, or to visit the homes of teachers or staff of the school.

I was remarkably fortunate in choosing this topic. Deoband could be studied by a historian because there were an abundance of records and printed materials. The elders of the school, shaped by their old world traditions of hospitality and, especially, respect for scholarship, were generous and helpful to a stranger. There was also a tradition of openness to outsiders thanks to the school’s involvement in the nationalist movement. The fact that it was a woman who sought this help seemed more of a problem to American academics than it was to the Deobandis. I remember an occasion at the University of Chicago when I was writing my dissertation. I presented a talk describing my research and later had lunch seated next to my host, a political scientist of the Islamic world. As I described my work on these religious scholars or ‘ulama, this person kept repeating, “But of course the ‘ulama will never talk to you. But of course the ‘ulama will never talk to you.” He literally could not hear me as I tried to get across that they already had.

I also was lucky because I was able to interact with individuals of a background I, as a scholar, normally did not meet. The grandson of the founder of the school was then the school’s director. He was an elderly man, known above all for his Quranic recitation– he was usually spoken of as Qari (the title for a Qur’an reciter) Muhammad Tayyib — and also for his spiritual guidance to tens of thousands of disciples across north India, in East Africa, and elsewhere. Every visit, this old man would slowly come up the stairs to the guest house to see if I, an unknown student, was comfortable. I met the lively women of his household, who rarely went outside the home, but had a busy and varied life, led by Qari Sahib’s wife.

And there and in other homes, I got a sense of everyday life, in part by my mistakes. When 12 children mistook me for a Hindu because I was wearing a sari, not the loose trousers and long shirts of women of their family, I learned something– as I did about ritual purity when these same children reacted negatively to my spontaneously picking up a puppy.


I’d like to make one more point about these theories of self-realization, a point related to gender. The issue of women and Islam is a particularly vexed one and the point I made briefly above — that what is often described as “tradition” is in fact a product of the colonial period — is nowhere truer than it is here. One of the Deoband texts, a text I have translated, implicitly makes that point clear. This text, whose title translates loosely as “Heavenly Jewels” was written by one of the first generation of Deoband graduates, an enormously prolific writer and a spiritual guide to thousands and thousands of followers. His book emerged as an enormously influential work, meant to be the complete education of a Muslim girl, written in Urdu but translated into many other regional languages and also, a number of times, into English. It has often been part of the dowry of a Muslim bride. What does the title “Heavenly Jewels” mean? Now one guess might be that it means precisely the daughters and wives, properly instructed and pious, who would be the pearls, the adornments of their husbands’ and families’ lives. We might think that would be a traditional attitude toward women. Let me explain why it is not.

What this text presents is a major theme throughout Muslim writings that posits a single notion of the person and of personal capacity for both women and men. It turns out to be a particularity of 18th century and, particularly, Victorian thought in the West that posits the idea that women are fundamentally different, physically and morally, from men. Women, in this view, were subject to different physical processes — we all know the theories of hormones and cycles for example –that were intimately related to their cognitive and intellectual development. Women who studied too much would harm their reproductive powers. Women should study female subjects, not male subjects. These pseudo-scientific theories were coupled with what can be seen as equally limiting praise of women: women also had a higher spirituality, a finer morality than men — women were, in the Victorian phrase, meant to be on a pedestal, they were the angels of the home — something like “heavenly jewels.”

But look at the difference in this Deobandi book. Here there is no notion of a distinct nature or morality for women. Women are meant to practice the same kind of disciplines and self-control and focus on the same kind of self-realization as men. Women have the same religious obligations as men. Women should read precisely the same books as men and, the author notes in contrast to the burgeoning emphasis on “domestic science” in Europe at the time, far from wasting their time on cooking and sewing, they should take advantage of not having to go out to work to use the time to learn Arabic and become legal scholars –just like men. There is no suggestion that women have higher spirituality — on the contrary in the current age, the author argues, their education has been neglected and they need to work harder than men.

The “heavenly jewels” are simply the rewards of discipline and piety that will bedeck all believers, women and men, in the paradise they hope to attain. There is a story that the author of the book, Maulana Thanawi, was asked to write an equivalent guide to behavior for men once the first work proved such a success. His answer was that there was no need and men could use the book as well; he ultimately added an appendix on such obligations as the Friday prayer which were specific to men. What guide for women published in England or America at this time — roughly 1906 — would have that kind of cross-over? If one is interested in opportunities for women to become educated and to have access to authority, there are clearly strengths in the Islamic tradition which have been masked in developments of the colonial and post colonial period.

6 Responses

  1. Sara

    So many thoughts are swimming in my mind after I read this article. I feel at once validated as a Muslimah, in a way that is more empowering than a list of “rights Islam gives to women” can offer….but I also feel a bittersweet sadness. What a rich history our tradition has, but it’s sad how misrepresented Islam is – and often by Muslims who prioritize pleasing Allah’s creation over Him.

    • Mohmmed Hassim

      Well said how true, glad there’s people out there who see the difference and beauty of Islam through a different perspective. Our ultimate goal is solely to please Allah through all aspects of our daily lives, was salaam Hassim south Africa,

  2. Arif Rasheed

    A good +ve approach by B.metcalf.Still, there are persons who observe things in right perspective. They put on transparent clear glasses on their eyes,and not shaded ones.We should value & regard Islaam ,the eternal religion in which equal rights & esteem granted to women that are the first school for children so as to develop them physically,mentally & spiritually strong enough to achieve worldly success and doomsday salvation, the real success !

  3. Aaqib Anjum Aafi

    Every year I spent few days in this great seminary Alhamdulillah. One scholar said that one of his friend visited the Madrassa and said: I felt that even the sweepers of the institutions are great friends of Allah.

    May Allah protect it. Aameen


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: