Barbara D. Metcalf Biography

By David Gilmartin, North Carolina State University
From the General Meeting Booklet, 2011 AHA Annual Meeting

Barbara Daly Metcalf was born in Philadelphia. As she tells it in the autobiographical “fragment” with which she prefaced a recent collection of her essays, she grew up in a family whose “most distant travel was by train to the Jersey shore.”1 But exposed in high school to a culture in which foreign languages (though all European) were valued, and at Swarthmore College to a culture of engagement with social issues that increasingly encompassed what was referred to during the Cold War as the “third world,” Barbara’s sights turned further afield. In 1963, she went to the University of Wisconsin to study “comparative tropical history” with Philip Curtin. It was there that she developed an interest in India. Focusing on South Asian Muslims and on the Urdu language, Barbara subsequently completed her doctoral degree at the University of California, Berkeley in 1974, under the guidance of Ira Lapidus, a historian of the Islamic world, and Hamid Algar, a scholar of Persian and Islam. At Berkeley, she developed an interest in the modern history of the South Asian ulama, the religious scholars of Islam, that was to mark her career as a historian.

That very subject suggested the concerns that have shaped Barbara’s influence on the field of South Asian history. The history of British colonial South Asia was marked at that time by the abiding influence of a powerful set of dichotomies, which were just beginning to be seriously challenged during the years that Barbara was working on her dissertation. Foremost among these was the distinction between “colonial” influences, the product of a particular form of modernity, and what were conceptualized as older, or “traditional” forms of social organization and thinking in Indian society. This dichotomy was, of course, deeply rooted in European ideas about progress and development, which had gained new political influence in the American academy after World War II. But in the context of India’s history, such ideas were easily reinforced in historical writing by their confluence with the underlying assumptions shaping the voluminous writings of generations of British colonial administrators, on the basis of which much of India’s colonial history previously had been written.

In focusing her doctoral dissertation on the history of the Muslim religious scholars of Deoband, a reformist religious seminary in northern India founded in the 1860s (a study subsequently revised and published in 1982 as Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860–1900), Barbara challenged the assumptions that shaped a generation of historical writing on modern India.2 By basing her work solidly on the Urdu writings of what had been taken to be “traditional” religious leaders, Barbara developed a historical perspective on India’s colonial past that resonated well beyond the story of the ulama. Her analysis took seriously the terms in which the ulama presented themselves and their ideas, analyzing these not primarily in their relationship to colonial discourse, but in the light of far older arguments and contestations. Theirs were hardly a set of unchanging presuppositions or arguments, galvanized by a colonial assault. Though Barbara recognized and analyzed the many ways in which the changing contexts of colonial India shaped their debates, she also traced their preoccupations to shifts in Islamic thinking predating the advent of British colonial rule in India in the late 18th century. At the same time, she emphasized the ways in which the school at Deoband was also a product of its colonial times—in its institutional structuring, in its reliance on newly expanding markets of print, in its quietist political stance, and its reliance not on the patronage of the state, or local rulers, but on new frameworks for popular fundraising.

Perhaps most importantly, Barbara’s work opened the worlds of these ulama to historical analysis in ways that few works on reformers under colonial India had done. Previously viewed as “traditionalists,” or even as “fundamentalists,” these scholars were portrayed by Barbara as inhabiting a much more complex intellectual and institutional world. Characteristically, Barbara took us inside the worldview of these religious scholars, avoiding easy categorizations in favor of an analysis that allowed us to hear their own voices and to understand what was of importance to these religious scholars themselves. Moving from their dissemination of fatwas (religious rulings) to their interpretations of dreams, she emphasized first and foremost how they made sense of their world and their work. Showing us the compelling framework of knowledge within which they operated, even as they sought to come to terms with change, Barbara provided a new foundation for assessing their significance within larger Indian, colonial, and Islamic contexts.

The importance of Barbara’s work lay in breaking out of the dichotomous distinction between “tradition” and “modernity” that continued, at that time, to dominate much of the scholarship on religious reform in both India and in the Islamic world. Indeed, she was able to do this partly because of the critical intersection between South Asian history, Islamic history, and British colonial history that shaped her work. Rather than simply showing, as some scholars had before, that religious reform movements might combine elements of the “traditional” and the “modern,” as Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph did in their classic book The Modernity of Tradition, Barbara showed us a way to escape the tyranny of these categories by taking seriously the language and world view of reformers themselves.3

This approach shaped the active role that Barbara played in the late 1970s and early 1980s in a project of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC)/American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) joint committee on South Asia (one of a number of “area studies” committees at that time) focusing on “indigenous conceptual categories.” Working together with a group of historians and anthropologists, Barbara organized a series of conferences that put the term “adab,” meaning, loosely, “proper conduct,” at their center. By focusing on the meanings that this term took on in different contexts, these conferences drew on the interdisciplinary “area studies” paradigms of the era, but at the same time challenged those paradigms by exploring the ways that language itself was shaped by historical flows, the changing meanings of terms indexing shifting historical and social contexts. The concern with language, as a window on distinctive cultural perspectives, marked the project as one with Barbara’s particular intellectual stamp. Barbara brought the papers from the first conference of this project together in an edited volume (entitled Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian Islam).4 The larger project helped to focus the difficulties in pinning down “indigenous conceptual categories,” which are, of course, themselves open to contestation and change, but it exerted a significant influence on many younger scholars of South Asian Islam and caught the attention also of a number of scholars of Islam working on other parts of the Islamic world.

In the wake of this project, Barbara became the founding chair of a new SSRC/ACLS Joint Committee on the Comparative Study of Muslim Societies. This was a joint enterprise including scholars working on virtually all parts of the Islamic world. As William Roff, a historian of Southeast Asia, has written, the approach to scholarship that defined this committee was one focused on “the relationship between what may be called prescriptive, universal (or global) ‘Islam’ and the social practice of particular, historically situated Muslim communities, all of which are by definition local.” The goal was to understand “the social reproduction, in a great variety of local circumstances, of what is implied in ‘being Muslim,’ and not the discovery of an essential ‘Islam’ alongside which local variations may be assessed or measured.”5 This was an agenda very much in keeping with Barbara’s approach in her Deoband book, but it also brought the sort of work she had pioneered in South Asia into direct dialogue with a range of scholars working on other parts of the world, including Roff, Dale Eickelman, and Ira Lapidus, who collaborated (along with David Szanton of the SSRC) on the original project statement.

For Barbara, the project was important in expanding the concerns shaping her work. First, the focus of the committee suggested the critical importance of a restructuring of the old approach to Islamic history that privileged the Middle East and the Arab world as the center of all that was “authentic” in Islam. The committee encouraged the development of comparative scholarly studies among Muslim societies as a key to challenging this essentializing and Arab-centric stereotype. Beyond this, it suggested the importance of South Asia as a center for creative Muslim thought and influence, a historical framework not only for rethinking Islamic history but also for reorienting historical thinking about the importance of the history of Indian Muslims in the larger narrative of South Asian history as well. The committee was important, as Barbara has noted, in reorienting old Cold War notions of area studies themselves, suggesting the importance of examining the intersections between geographically bounded cultural areas and the larger historical processes defined by cultural flows between areas. It also provided an important framework for encouraging exchange among doctoral students working on different parts of the Muslim world, a process in which Barbara played a central role. Barbara became a mentor not only to her students at the University of California, Davis, where she taught from 1986 to 2003, and afterwards at the University of Michigan, but to far wider circles of students whose work was shaped by these projects. In fact, Barbara’s participation in these committees crystallized what was to become a defining feature of her career—an extraordinary capacity to galvanize cooperation and interaction among scholars from wide areas of academic interest.

The concerns of this project also influenced Barbara’s approach to a major translation project that occupied much of her time in the 1980s. This was a translation of an Urdu text called the Bihishti Zewar (“Heavenly Ornaments”), a large compendium of information and advice for women, written by one of the leading reformist scholars of Deoband, and published just after the turn of the century.6 As one of the most widely disseminated books in 20th-century Muslim India, a work regularly given to newly married Muslim brides, this book was a natural for translation. The book illustrated the ways that reformed religious ideas, the subject of Barbara's earlier work, were transmitted to the common (literate) population.

But in light of Barbara’s larger interests in the comparative study of Islam, this project took on a far broader significance. Few issues are more central to contemporary stereotypes of Islam than the treatment of women. In her introduction and annotations of the Bihishti Zewar, Barbara highlighted the distinctive vision of women’s roles that shaped the thought of the reformist ulama, a vision influenced by the social pressures of society in India, and yet rooted in exemplary models from the time of the Prophet. As always, Barbara tried to break the ideas in the Bihishti Zewarfree from prevalent dichotomies: though far different from contemporary European visions of women’s appropriate place, the ideas in the book also shared little in common with those of later Islamists, or Muslim nationalists. Barbara saw instead ideas with far older roots. Though the Bihishti Zewardifferentiated clearly the appropriate roles of men and women, and stressed women’s domestication, it also posited fundamental similarities in the innate capacities of men and women, for both of whom the Prophet himself represented the ultimate moral and behavioral model. Barbara’s translation has now become one of the primary texts used in undergraduate teaching on Muslim women in 19th-century India—and one of the most compelling challenges to easy stereotypes about the relationship between Islam and women.

Barbara has since worked on several different projects, including a South Asian history textbook (co-authored with her husband, University of California, Berkeley South Asian and British imperial historian Thomas Metcalf).7 Her scholarship has continued to listen closely to the voices in her sources, which have broadened in recent years to include interviews and field work (for her studies of the Tablighi Jama’at), literary sources (for hajj narratives), and contemporary architecture and uses of space. What unites her subsequent work, whose emphases also reflected the larger concerns of the SSRC committee, is an interest in issues of migration and movement. Barbara has focused on migrations and travel as critical elements in the construction by Muslims of the relationship between Prophetic ideals and everyday life. Tensions between the world and the faith of course preoccupied the religious reformers in her earlier work. But by focusing on migrations she has brought the study of Muslim reformers into a larger contemporary scholarly discourse focusing not on the power of fixed identities, but on the ways that individuals negotiate a wide range of identities through the construction of transformative narratives of the self.

Perhaps most noteworthy has been her ongoing research on the Tablighi Jama’at, a transnational movement of religious reform originating in the Indian subcontinent, that has stressed periodic travel and proselytization in the name of the faith. “Travel,” as Barbara has written in one article on the Tablighi Jama’at, “is believed to encourage a state of permanent vulnerability and uncertainty in which one learns to be dependent on God, outside of one’s normal moorings.”8 While others who have worked on the Tablighi Jama’at have stressed its transnational political implications, Barbara’s work on the Jama’at has been far more original, stressing the ways that members of the Jama’at have dealt creatively with the tensions of gender, race, class, and nationality, playing these off against an idealized vision of sanctity associated with the model of the Prophet. The metaphor of movement, of becoming, remains central to the ways these identities have been negotiated, and in emphasizing this, Barbara has shown, in a series of articles, how members of the Tablighi Jama’at are engaged in the same struggles to come to terms with the contradictions of modern identity that face many other groups in an era of mass migration and travel.

It is no accident that Barbara’s work on the Tablighi Jama’at led her into a broader interest in modern Muslim migrations generally and to immigrant Muslim communities in Europe and America in particular. In the late 1990s, she published an edited volume entitled Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. In addition to her own article on the Tablighi Jama’at in Europe, Barbara wrote an introductory essay drawing the study of Muslim migration and Muslim identity construction into the larger story of displacements and migrations that have shaped the contemporary world. “Their experiences of cultural displacement, their negotiations of hybridity and authenticity,” she writes of the Muslims of Euro-America, “are at the heart of contemporary life.”9 With a firm grounding in the study of reformist Islamic ideas within the subcontinent, Barbara has brought the study of South Asian Islam into larger scholarly discussions about the relationship between transnational movement, identity, and postmodernism in a way no other scholar has.

Yet Barbara’s work has reflected, at the same time, an ongoing awareness of the inescapable pressures on the historian of contemporary political realities. The realities of the increasingly beleaguered position of Muslims in India in the wake of the post-Ayodhya riots of 1992 provided a backdrop for her commentary on the responsibilities of scholars who write on Muslims in the contemporary world. This lay at the root of Barbara’s presidential address to the Association for Asian Studies (AAS) in 1995 (subsequently published in the Journal of Asian Studies) entitled, “Too Little and Too Much: Reflections on Muslims in the History of India.”10 A focus on the study of Muslims largely in their relationship to the “Islamic world” comes, as Barbara noted, at a potential cost, implying as it does a privileging of Muslim identity over other local and national attachments.11 As she indicated in her speech, scholarship on Islam in India must be seen against the struggle for the modern history of India, in which anti-Muslim feeling has played a significant role. “Too little” scholarly attention to the role of Muslims in the modern history of the subcontinent is politically dangerous, she argued, for it has played into the hands of those attempting to define a distinctively “Hindu” national culture in India. But “too much” attention to the role of Islam as a definer of history can also be dangerous, for the emphasis on “Islam” as an autonomous historical force had led to the essentializing, stereotypical ideas about Muslims that have long colored popular attitudes towards Muslims in North America and in India alike.

Barbara’s address defined, in fact, what has precisely been of most value in her own work. Unlike many scholars who have written against increasing communalism (and the growth of Hindu nationalism) in India, including those of the subaltern school, Barbara has taken seriously not only the place of Muslims in South Asian history but also the role of Islam in shaping Muslim lives. But at the same time, Barbara has developed a language for analyzing that role that has allowed us to see Islam not as a monolith, but as a set of concerns operating in interaction with a range of other identities and at times in tension with the hierarchies and commitments of everyday life. Barbara has also published numerous articles that engage directly with the problems facing Muslims in contemporary India.12 In this work, as earlier, Barbara’s main concern is to show us that Islamic ideas do matter, and must be evaluated in their own terms; yet, at the same time, they must be analyzed within their own distinctive, complex contexts—and outside the stereotypes that continue to shape a large body of writing on Islam.

These issues became all the more important in the wake of the events of 9/11. Given Barbara’s sympathetic treatment of the early history of Deoband, and given the historical connections between Deoband and the emergence of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the 1990s, Barbara’s work has taken on a new significance (as reflected in the reissue of her Deoband book). Barbara has been extremely active in speaking publicly about the importance of South Asia’s Islamic history in framing recent events. She has made clear that sweeping generalizations about the ulama and about the historical influence of Deoband itself are highly problematic. Deobandi influence has expressed itself in markedly different ways in different political and social contexts—in India, in Pakistan, in Afghanistan, and in the broader Muslim world as a whole—as recent events have shown. The complexity of the Deobandi legacy is evident in her recent biography of Maulana Husain Ahmad Madani, one of the leaders of the Deobandi tradition who fought for the economic betterment of Muslims and who opposed the creation of Pakistan as a separate Muslim state in 1947.13 But as Madani’s life also makes clear, the lives of the ulama in the early 20th century have considerable relevance for understanding contemporary politics. Madani was radicalized during his long imprisonment on the island of Malta in the name of British colonial security, an episode central to Barbara’s analysis of his life. His story, as Barbara has forcefully pointed out, thus has considerable relevance for thinking about today’s “war on terror” and the history of Guantanamo.

Beyond her scholarship or engagement in public debate, however, Barbara’s influence on the field of South Asian history is also a product of her vision of scholarship as a collective enterprise. She has never shied away from shouldering the institutional responsibilities that come with being part of a scholarly community, whether they be in university administration (as, for example, her service as dean at UC Davis), in disciplinary associations (as in her presidency of the AAS or service as vice president for the Professional Division at the AHA), or in her work with the joint committees of the SSRC/ACLS. But she has always seen the collegial bonds among scholars to be as important as intellectual or institutional bonds. Much of her influence in the historical profession has derived from her commitment to bringing scholars into mutual conversation, whether through institutions, conferences, joint intellectual projects, or simply through informal networks and conversations. In the end, it is Barbara’s generosity of spirit as a mentor, colleague, researcher, and intellectual leader that has defined her importance for a generation of scholars of South Asia.


1. Barbara D. Metcalf, “Introduction,” in Islamic Contestations: Essays on Muslims in India and Pakistan (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004), 5. I want to thank Rachel Sturman, of Bowdoin College, for her help in preparing this review of Barbara’s career.

2. Barbara D. Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860–1900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982).

3. See Lloyd I. Rudolph and Susanne Hoeber Rudolph, The Modernity of Tradition: Political Development in India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967).

4. Barbara D. Metcalf, ed., Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian Islam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

5. William R. Roff, “Afterward: The Comparative Study of Muslim Societies,” in Muslim Diversity: Local Islam in Global Contexts, ed. Leif Manger (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999), 244–55.

6. Barbara D. Metcalf, trans., Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanawi’s Bihishti Zewar (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).

7. Barbara D. Metcalf and Thomas R. Metcalf, A Concise History of India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

8. Barbara D. Metcalf, “Islam and Women: The Case of the Tablighi Jama’at,” Stanford Humanities Review: Contested Polities, Religious Disciplines and Structures of Modernity 5, vol. 1 (1995): 51–59.

9. Barbara D. Metcalf, ed., Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 22.

10. Barbara D. Metcalf, “Presidential Address: Too Little and Too Much: Reflections on Muslims in the History of India,” Journal of Asian Studies 54, vol. 4 (1995): 1–17.

11. Metcalf, Islamic Contestations, 15

12. For example, Barbara D. Metcalf, “Imrana: Rape, Islam, and Law in India,” Islamic Studies 45, no. 3 (2007): 389–412; Barbara D. Metcalf, “Madrasas and Minorities in Secular India,” in Schooling Islam: The Culture and Politics of Modern Muslim Education, ed. Robert Hefner and Muhammad Qasim Zaman (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 87–106.

13. Barbara D. Metcalf, Husain Ahmad Madani: The Jihad for Islam and India’s Freedom (Oxford: Oneworld, 2008).


Islam in South Asia in Practice. Editor and Contributor. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Husain Ahmad Madani: The Jihad for Islam and India’s Freedom. Oxford: Oneworld, 2008.

Islamic Contestations: Essays on Muslims in India and Pakistan. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860–1900. 2d ed. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2002.

A Concise History of India, with Thomas R. Metcalf. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe. Editor and Contributor. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf 'Ali Thanawi's Bihishti Zewar. Translation, annotation, and introduction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

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