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Who is Barbara Metcalf, the winner of this year’s Sir Syed Excellence Award?

Metcalf, who attended the award event virtually from the US, stated that the histories of Indian Muslims have been “understudied”, and also called upon historians to “rise above stereotypes”.

barbara metcalfBarbara Metcalf is Professor Emerita of History at the University of California, Davis. (Photo: American Historical Association via UC Davis).

American historian and internationally acclaimed scholar of South Asian history and Islam, Barbara D Metcalf, on Monday (October 17) received the Sir Syed Excellence International Award for 2022.

The annual award is given by the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) on its founder Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s birth anniversary. This year, AMU is marking the 205th anniversary of Sir Syed.

Metcalf, who attended the event virtually from the US, stated that the histories of Indian Muslims have been “understudied.” In her acceptance speech, she also called upon historians to “rise above stereotypes” because “just history yields just politics.”

She also stressed the importance of fostering “serious evidence-based history” in India, PTI reported.

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

Who is Barbara Metcalf?

Professor Emerita of History at the University of California, Davis, Metcalf completed her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1974. It was during her postgraduate studies that she developed an interest in the modern history of the South Asia ulema (religious scholars of Islam).

Her doctoral dissertation was on the history of the Muslim religious scholars of Deoband, a reformist religious seminary in northern India founded in the late 19th century. According to the American Historical Association, her work on the Urdu writings of the ulema showed that they were not “traditionalists” or “fundamentalists”, as often portrayed, but instead inhabited a far more complex intellectual and institutional world. Metcalf served as the president of the organisation from 2010-11.


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

She has also worked on the the Tablighi Jama’at, the international Sunni missionary movement of religious reform that originated in the Indian subcontinent.

Apart from her academic scholarship on the group, she has given expert testimony on behalf of prisoners at the US detention camp in Cuba — Guantanamo Bay, who had been detained for attending a Tablighi congregation, according to TRT World.


Her scholarship on Islam

Apart from her (and Thomas R Metcalf’s) classic book, A Concise History of Indian (2002), which is widely used as a textbook for students of South Asian history, her other writings include: Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860–1900 (1982), Making Muslim Space in North America and Europe (1996), Islamic Contestations: Essays on Muslims in India and Pakistan (2004), Husain Ahmad Madani: The Jihad for Islam and India’s Freedom (2008)

During her acceptance speech, Metsalf said 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.” Scholarly work on Indian Muslims remains essential for telling India’s history well, she added.

Metcalf stated that her studies on the role of Indian Muslims and Islamic scholars in the freedom movement had shown that the ulemas are a social group that have “often been subjected to stereotypes just by looking at their physical appearance” and she appealed to historians to “rise above stereotypes,” PTI reported.

Referencing the main ideology of Indian scholars like Maulana Hussain Ahmad Madni of the Deoband School during the struggle for independence, Metcalf said that the Indian Muslims considered the very soil of India to be sacred. “For them, India’s natural marvels were like the garden of Eden,” she said

Who is the award named after?

The Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) bestows a yearly International and National Sir Syed Excellence Award to noted scholars or organsations 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, according to an AMU press release.


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.

The award is named in honour of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), one of the foremost social and political reformers of modern India. He founded the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental (MAO) College in 1875, which was influenced by Oxford and Cambridge Universities in Britain, and sought to instill a scientific temperament in the Muslim community and allow Indians to access Western knowledge in their own languages.


In her acceptance speech, Metcalf stated, “Sir Syed’s modernist interventions preceded those of the Egypt-based modernists who too often are taken as founders of these trends of thought.”

First published on: 18-10-2022 at 15:53 IST
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