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Troubled Muslims

Satish Saberwal

By Barbara D. Metcalf
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 365, Rs. 595.00


“Scores  of  studies  exist  on  caste groups,” Mushirul Hasan wrote recently, “but  not  on  the  Muslims.”   For  reasons beyond this review, over the  past half century, social sciences in India have sported a blind spot that may be called the Case of the Missing Muslim. Professor Barbara Metcalf was among the first to sense this blind spot;   her first major work, built around the Deoband madrasa, appeared in 1982.   Fifteen of her essays, published over a quarter century, 1978-2002, reappear in this volume, a cross-section  of work by a versatile scholar.   These essays track her horizon:   from Deoband and Tablighi Jamaat (TJ) to Taliban;   the “nationalist” Muslims, especially Hakim Ajmal Khan, but also, anticipating later work, Hussain Ahmad Madani, a leading scholar at Deoband who was active later in “nationalist” politics;   and larger issues of nationalism and modernity before 1947 and two forays into the scene in Pakistan.    The wide range of her sympathy and sensibility is expressed in her analyses of a Mughal painting, of a long poem by Iqbal, and of numerous accounts of the experience of Hajj pilgrimage.         Metcalf’s overall stance is one of trying to understand the choices made by, and the processes observable among, Muslims, principally in northern India and in Pakistan. She seeks to place these choices in relation to ideas and meanings active among them. Hers is a relativist perspective; it considers a phenomenon from within, seeking the meanings with which particular actors work in their lifeworld. For Metcalf, the professional historian, their meanings and significances have to be understood relative to, in terms of, their own understanding of their own tradition and life spaces. She stops at that understanding. In contrast to a believer, she does not track the sources of action to particular Quranic verses or shariat rules. Within that space of sympathetic understanding, Metcalf offers her appraisals – shades of a rationalist perspective – expressed by way not of judgements about “good” or “bad” but of showing the linkages between choices made and the consequences that have followed. Our author maintains her distance from her field of study, but delicately.         This may be seen in relation to the train of enquiry that began with her first major study, that on the madrasa at Deoband, near Saharanpur in western U. P., founded in 1867, whose alumni have gone on to found scores of madrasas, all working to a Deobandi curriculum, stressing the study of the ...

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