Barbara Metcalf, Deoband and Cambridge

Last night we were treated to a lecture at Cambridge University from the leading expert on Deoband, at least in Western academia; Barbara Metcalf. The lecture was titled: ‘When authorities clash: the differences of two Islamic scholars over the secular and plural state’.  Once again, Barbara displayed her intricate knowledge of  South Asian history and her intimate familiarity with the scholars of Deoband.

Her contribution to this arena is immense. Her doctoral dissertation focused on the history of the Muslim scholars of Deoband. Her work has opened up the works of the Ulama of Deoband to historical analysis in ways that very few others have done. She takes us into the worldview of the religious scholars and shows us how they made sense of their world and their work. One only needs to read ‘Islamic Revival in British India; Deoband, 1860-1900’ to appreciate her colossal contribution to understanding the complex world of the scholars of Deoband. She really has laid the foundation for further research to be conducted on Deoband and its scholarly output – an undertaking that is sure to reveal a treasure trove of knowledge.

When we spoke with her afterwards, we felt duty bound to thank her for her phenomenal output. She mentioned how she spent time at Deoband to conduct her fieldwork, all under the auspices of Qari Tayyib – whom she was awe inspired by. Her humility was marked by her continued insistence that she is only laying the groundwork for others to follow. And in that she is unique and unparalleled, leaving behind reams of writings and notes for future generations to build upon. I wished that more scholars of the Deoband tradition here in the UK knew of her work.

As the debate continues around Deoband and its trajectory, we could all do with engaging with this unique personality and her contribution.


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