Muslims Consider Soil of India Their Garden of Eden, Says Barbara D Metcalf

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Barbara D Metcalf, Professor Emerita of History at the University of California, was conferred this year’s Sir Syed Excellence International Award by Aligarh Muslim University on its founder’s birth anniversary on October 17.

Syed Ali Mujtaba

“Indian Muslims consider the very soil of India to be sacred and for them, India’s natural marvels were like the Garden of Eden,” said Barbara D Metcalf, the recipient of this year’s Sir Syed Excellence International Award.

The annual award is conferred on the scholar by the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) on October 17, the birth anniversary of the founder of the coveted educational institution, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan.

This year, the AMU is commemorating the 205th anniversary of Sir Syed.

Metcalf, who attended the event virtually from the US, said, “Sir Syed’s modernist interventions preceded those of the Egypt-based modernists who too often are taken as founders of these trends of thought.”

Metcalf’s writings have contributed heavily to the understanding of the history of the Muslim population of India and Pakistan, especially during the colonial period.

In her acceptance speech, Metcalf lamented that despite constituting a quarter of the population at the time of Independence and forming a crucial share of the citizenry in the Republic of India, the history of Indian Muslims has remained “understudied.”

She pointed out that ‘scholarly work on Indian Muslims remained essential for telling India’s history well because just history yields just politics.

The Professor Emerita of History at the University of California completed her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1974. Her doctoral dissertation was on the history of the Muslim religious scholars of Deoband, a reformist religious seminary founded in the late 19th century.

Referencing the main ideology of Indian scholars like Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madni of the Deoband School, Metcalf stated that her studies on the role of Indian Muslims and Islamic scholars in the freedom movement had shown that the ulema are a social group that has “often been subjected to stereotypes just by looking at their physical appearance”. 

In this context, she appealed to historians to “rise above stereotypes and also stressed the importance of fostering “serious evidence-based history writing in India.”

The international award, given to Metcalf this year, carries a cash prize of Rs. 200,000, while the national award of Rs 100,000 was given to the Maulana Azad Education Foundation in New Delhi.

Tahir Mahmood, former chairman of the National Commission for Minorities and legal scholar, was the chief guest at the event, while National Archives of India Director General Chandan Sinha was the guest of honour.

The Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) bestows International and National Sir Syed Excellence Award annually to noted scholars or organisations that produce seminal work in the areas of Sir Syed Studies, South Asian Studies, Muslim Issues, Literature, Medieval History, Social Reform, Communal Harmony, Journalism, and Inter-Faith Dialogue.

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Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He has taken his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees from AMU. He can be contacted at syedalimujtaba2007@gmail.com

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