ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Deoband Patriarchy

There is an ahistorical and free-floating nature to Yoginder Sikand's critique of Ashraf Ali Thanvi's Nikha in Islam ("Deobandi Patriarchy: A Partial Explanation", EPW, 7 May 2011) that is worrying.

Deoband Patriarchy Suneetha Achyutha Muslim, and indeed, European thinkers were. The task of noting Thanvi's “limitations” (and those of many Muslim intellectuals of these times) has already been done by Faisal Devji (2007), Barbara Met-

There is an ahistorical and free-floating nature to Yoginder Sikand’s critique of Ashraf Ali Thanvi’s Nikha in Islam (“Deobandi Patriarchy: A Partial Explanation”, EPW, 7 May 2011) that is worrying.

oginder Sikand’s substantial work on madrasas has proved to be useful in debunking some of the most popular stereotypes on these institutions. His work on Deoband has also brought attention to those aspects of the institution that need to be publicly discussed for making the institution more democratically accountable. But I find his “Deobandi Patriarchy: A Partial Explanation” (EPW, 7 May 2011) that analyses Ashraf Ali Thanvi’s text Nikah in Islam as a way of understanding Deoband’s “continuing anti-women” traditions worrying for the following reasons.

Sikand contends that Thanvi is one of the most important proponents of Hanafi school of jurisprudence. While the long tradition of Hanafi law does exist as a predominant influence in the Indian Islamic jurisprudence, it is surprising that Sikand does not mention that the single most important recorded departure from this tradition in the modern times was heralded by Ashraf Ali Thanvi, i e, the Muslim Marriage Dissolution Act (MMDA) 1937. Almost anyone who is familiar with the debates and the context of this Act would know that it is Thanvi's work on Maliki law and his weight behind that law which brought the law itself into existence (Rohi t De 2009; Ameer Ali 2003). As recently as 1997, in explicating his position on the nikahnama prepared by a Bombay group of women, Maulana Saifulla Rahmani, editor of Bahs-o-Nazar (a journal of Islamic jurisprudence) draws on the precedent set by Thanvi in referring to other schools of Islamic jurisprudence (when Hanafi law falls short) to decide on issues of Muslim women in contemporary times (Ishtirat Fin Nikah 1997).

Thanvi and Muslim Patriarchy

There is no doubt that Thanvi was

Suneetha Achyutha ( “patriarchal” and his texts are “misogyis with Anveshi Research Centre for Women

nist and sexist” just as many of his 19th

Studies, Hyderabad.

century contemporaries among Hindu,

Economic & Political Weekly

june 25, 2011 vol xlvi nos 26 & 27

calf (1990, 2006), Rohit De (2009) and others, in the process of analysing his role and contributions to Deoband or in framing of MMDA. Devji shows up the limitations of Muslim modernists, including Thanvi, in a critique of that particular historical moment. De elaborates the role and the boundaries within which Thanvi worked for framing of MMDA. Devji’s, Metcalf’s and De’s critiques locate themselves in the contemporary situation of Muslim civil society or the Muslim women’s question. It is from this location, that the authors seek to connect what might be the continuities or disjunctures between Thanvi’s era and those of contemporary Muslims, thus, relating their argument to the limitations of contemporary Muslim civil society. This critique is similar to feminist and dalit critiques of nationalist thinking, historiography, leadership and reform projects. Such critiques have emerged as a part of the deconstruction of present history of the nation in an attempt to imagine new visions of democratic politics.

However, Metcalf’s rendition of Thanvi (1990) also marks out his difference from the Hindu reformist thinkers. Thanvi enjoys a unique reputation among the Deobandi scholars due to his well-known handbook Bihisti Zewar, which, she writes, has been handed down to generations of Muslim brides. In the introduction to the translation, she brilliantly elaborates on Bihisti Zewar which was framed (or composed) by Thanvi as a syllabus for the modern Muslim woman. She also notes how, when Thanvi was asked to frame a syllabus for the modern Muslim man, he is known to have replied, “this will do”. She alerts the readers that this response was significant, because it was made at the time when separate schools, education and curriculum were in vogue among all streams education. Metcalf notes that Thanvi was writing at a time when modernist and internationalist strands in Islam were predominant and when the


Muslim intelligentsia thought of recasting the roles of Muslim women and men for modern times. Without this context, Sikand’s analysis, perhaps unintentionally, ends up “showing” Thanvi as a “rabid antiwoman mullah”!

Deoband and Anti-Women Fatwas

There may be many cases where the fatwas being issued by Deoband (in response to the queries of women and men seekers of such fatwas) are not in tune with what Sikand sees as acceptable. But, how does revealing outdated patriarchal notions in one text (i e, Thanvi’s, among the many he is supposed to have authored) by one of the forefathers of Deoband serve to explain this phenomenon? Could one text among the several that scores of Deobandi scholars have produced over a hundred years indicate the way an institution works or has worked over that period? Could this one text explain in any way its attitudes towards women’s issues over the hundred years it has lived and functioned?

One is not claiming that Deoband should not be criticised. Deoband, claiming to be a modern institution, cannot and should not be seen as immune to democratic demands. It is rightly being criticised from inside, if the recent controversy around the comments of its current head is any indication, where the battle is about the curriculum and the orientation. Perhaps such battles are underway in many other Islamic (and “secular”) institutions, waiting to be written about.

Similarly, the criticism about the Deoband’s anti-women attitude and its supposed effects on the condition of Indian Muslim women through its fatwas is something that requires a more rigorous analysis. For one, the charge of anti-women attitudes has been too easily been used to castigate Deoband in particular, and India n ulema in general, as the “primary” obstacle in the path of Muslim women’s liberation. I wonder if there is substance to this charge. Is not the condition of Musli m women more affected by the Indian state’s failure (as Zoya Hasan and Ritu Menon have forcefully demonstrated in a series of books) to provide basic services such as education, health and legal services? The question that immediately comes to mind is – if Muslims in general, and Muslim women in particular, are sure of obtaining informed and speedy orders (even if not justice every time!) from the courts, why would they even go for fatwas? If men and women continue to seek fatwas, despite their “pernicious tendencies”, surely, there must be reasons that go beyond the “rational explanations” of “blind faith” or “religious ignorance”, which is all the more reason to study the institution and its effects more seriously.

Without a convincing answer to these prior questions, pegging the explanation for Deoband patriarchy to the tradition of “respecting buzurg log”, even partially, would be a specious exercise. Is there any institution or disciplinary knowledge system that is not framed by its own formation of buzurg thought? The analyses of Metcalf and other scholars of Deoband or Thanvi are anchored in a specific context and are attuned to the shifts in historical circumstances. It is the ahistoricism and free-floating nature of Sikand’s critique (despite his good intentions and committed writing) which makes a reader wonder what the purpose of such a critique may be.


Ali, Ameer (2003): Preface to the First Edition 1880 and Preface to Third Edition, 1908 of Commentaries on Mohammedan Law, revised, enlarged and updated by justice S H A Raza (Allahabad: Hind Publishers).

Devji, Fateh Faisal (2007): “Gender and Politics of Space: The Movement for Women’s Reform, 18571900” in Sumit Sarkar and Tanika Sarkar (ed.), Women and Social Reform in Modern India, Vol II (Ranikhet, Permanent Black).

De, Rohit (2009): “Mumtaz Bibi’s Broken Heart: The Many Lives of the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act”, Indian Economic and Social History Review, 46, 105.

Hasan, Zoya and Ritu Menon (2006): Unequal Citizens (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

Ishrirat Fin-nikah (1997): “In Conditions in Nikah: Problem of Conditional Nikah and Meher and giving Talaq in the Light of the Shariat”, compiled by Mujahid ul-Islam Qasmi (former president of the AIMPLB), Islmaic Fiqah Academy, New Delhi.

Metcalf, Barbara Daly (1990): Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi’s Bihishti Zewar (trans) (Berkeley: University of California Press).

  • (2002): Islamic Revival in Modern India, Deoband, 1860-1900 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).
  • (2006): “Reading and Writing about Muslim Women in British India and Two Fatwas on Hajj in British India” in Islamic Contestations Essays on Muslims in India and Pakistan (New Delhi: Oxford University Press).

    China after 1978: Craters on the Moon

    The breathtakingly rapid economic growth in China since 1978 has attracted world-wide attention. But the condition of more than 350 million workers is abysmal, especially that of the migrants among them. Why do the migrants put up with so much hardship in the urban factories? Has post-reform China forsaken the earlier goal of “socialist equality”? What has been the contribution of rural industries to regional development, alleviation of poverty and spatial inequality, and in relieving the grim employment situation? How has the meltdown in the global economy in the second half of 2008 affected the domestic economy? What of the current leadership’s call for a “harmonious society”? Does it signal an important “course correction”? A collection of essays from the Economic & Political Weekly seeks to find tentative answers to these questions, and more.

    Pp viii + 318 ISBN 978-81-250-3953-2 2010 Rs 350

    Windows of Opportunity


    A ruminative memoir by one who saw much happen, and not happen, at a time when everything seemed possible and promising in India. K S Krishnaswamy was a leading light in the Reserve Bank of India and the Planning Commission between the 1950s and 1970s. He offers a ringside view of the pulls and pressures within the administration and outside it, the hopes that sustained a majority in the bureaucracy and the lasting ties he formed with the many he came in contact with. Even more relevant is what he has to say about political agendas eroding the Reserve Bank’s autonomy and degrading the numerous democratic institutions since the late 1960s.

    Pp xii + 190 ISBN 978-81-250-3964-8 2010 Rs 440

    Available from

    Orient Blackswan Pvt Ltd Mumbai Chennai New Delhi Kolkata Bangalore Bhubaneshwar Ernakulam Guwahati Jaipur Lucknow Patna Chandigarh Hyderabad Contact:

    june 25, 2011 vol xlvi nos 26 & 27

    Economic & Political Weekly

    Dear reader,

    To continue reading, become a subscriber.

    Explore our attractive subscription offers.

    Click here


    (-) Hide

    EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

    Back to Top