Scholars of Faith:
South Asian Muslim Women and the Embodiment of Religious Knowledge
by Prof Usha Sanyal
Oxford University Press 2020, 409pp

Reviewed by: Prof Humeira Iqtidar, King’s College London
2 February 2024
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Usha Sanyal has established a strong reputation as a nuanced and thoughtful scholar of Islamic learning in South Asia. This new book further consolidates that standing and brings a sharper focus on the transformations in women’s Islamic education in South Asia. Here, she brings together two very different institutions: a deeply locally embedded madrassa in Shahjahanpur, North India, and Al-Huda, an international women-led organisation. Her primary claim is that Islamic education for women in the twenty -first century is deeply modern in terms of the interpretation of religious texts enabled by these institutions. It would have been immensely helpful to have a sharper definition of what makes these interpretations and interpretive practices modern. Nevertheless, the book provides a detailed insight into the ways in which to Muslim women approach and engage with Islamic knowledge.

Al-Huda’s women led and women focused educational programme has received some academic attention, especially in the context of Pakistan (Ahmed 2009; Mushtaq 2010). Valuable for the detailed insight they have brought to the working of the organisation and some of the implications that have manifested themselves in Pakistani society, these studies have not placed Al-Huda in a comparative perspective. A short piece I wrote some time back on the spin offs from Jama’at-e-Islami that approaches Al-Huda as one of the many new organisations started by former or current JI affiliates indicates some comparative features but again did not provide extensive analysis through this comparison (Iqtidar 2013). Sanyal’s comparative research broadens the scope significantly. The other type of institution that Sanyal studies here is the madrassa. Madrassas have received much academic attention but detailed studies of women’s madrassas remain limited in number. For instance, Masooda Bano’s (2017) wide ranging study of women’s Islamic education movements allows useful insights into women’s madrassas. Bringing the two different types of institutions together Sanyal helps us think about the relationship between institutional arrangements, target audiences and interpretive approaches.

The first part of the book, comprising five chapters, builds on the ethnographic work that Sanyal carried out in a women’s madrassa in Uttar Pradesh. She provides helpful pen portraits of the inhabitants of the madrassa: its owner, the various key characters, teachers and the women who study there. Chapter three, my favourite chapter in this section, provides a deeply helpful insight into the daily routine of the girls in the madrassa. Their schedule is demanding in terms of numbers of hours devoted to study and the day starts early, at 4:45 a.m. Despite the many hours spent studying, each class only introduced limited new information. Instead of jumping to a quick judgement, Sanyal approaches this puzzle thoughtfully and considers the overall pedagogical structure. She suggests that “each student was taking eight different classes in quick succession through the course of the morning, and she had to master the new material presented in each of these classes by the next day. So, it followed that the amount of new material presented in each class would have to be brief, covering perhaps a couple of pages in each class” (p.152). The overall picture that emerges is one of a programme that brings together interlinked practices including peer to peer learning to structure an intensive day of learning and disciplining of students who live and study at the Jami‘a.

Similarly, Sanyal observes a strong emphasis on rote learning or memorisation, but rather than regurgitating arguments about the limitations of this approach, she aims to present a phenomenological explanation. She tells us that while students “studied or ‘learnt’ their lessons in large part through a process of memorisation, this did not mean that they did not understand what they were reading or memorising” (p. 153). A helpful example clarifies this argument: when she asked a student to read from a book of hadith in Arabic the student was able to do this at a speed that belied memorisation. However, when Sanyal asked the student to explain what she had read another student in the audience was able to do so in simple and accessible Urdu. This display of in-depth understanding at the same time as memorisation seems somewhat counterintuitive given dominant representations of rote learning. Drawing on the work of Brinkley Messick, Charles Hirschkind and Dale Eickleman, Sanyal invites us to consider the place of memorisation in developing interpretive dexterity while also allowing learning to become a much more emotionally charged, embodied process. Not all knowledge is amenable to memorisation but having some facts and details at easy mental reach is helpful in making judgements in complex situations.

Critical to Sanyal’s overall argument here is the sensibility that students and teachers bring to their interpretations of religious learning in the madrassa. The madrassa is deeply embedded in its context and Sanyal shows how the differences between ‘modern’ schools and the madrassa in this locality may not be as large as often imagined. What is quite interesting to observe is the investment of many former madrassa students in the wider project of pedagogical religious life. Many former students see teaching not just as the profession they have been prepared for but one that has intrinsic social and intellectual value for them. Many stated that they see it both as a way of contributing back to society and a means to deepening their own understanding.

Part two shifts the focus to Al-Huda and the remaining four chapters lay out the history, organisational norms and implications by building on Sanyal’s experience of enrolling in online courses run by Al-Huda. Al-Huda is a unique d‘awa group that focuses on building women’s capacity to engage directly with religious texts, relying heavily on online technologies and complementing these with in-person events. Appendix 8.1 provides a useful list of the range of courses offered online by Al-Huda in 2013. All focus on different ways of engaging with the Quran and Hadith in Urdu and English and include advanced courses on memorising the Quran, as well as interpretive techniques and pedagogical practices. The aim is to not just to introduce lay persons to a version of Islamic reasoning, but also, and importantly, to expand the ranks of Muslim women scholars by offering more advanced courses that build up in a systematic manner.

There is a different texture to Sanyal’s ethnographic interaction with Al-Huda. It appears less analytical and rounded than the section on the madrassa she studied. This is perhaps in large part due to the somewhat paradoxical organisational structure of Al-Huda. There is a relatively closed central core as well as a sprawling online presence. Neither is easy to make inroads into, the first due to the active management of entry to the core group and the second due to the limits inherent in online class-room settings for building informal relationships. Some more reflection on the challenges and potential of digital ethnography would have strengthened this discussion. There has been much reflection on digital ethnography in recent years that Sanyal could have engaged with here.

Chapter 9 focuses on student narratives and presents some of the more novel insights into the role that Al-Huda has played in the lives of individual women around the world. Many of the women that Sanyal came to know had careers outside the home, but all were in search of a more meaningful life. A few had experienced ‘gendered Islamophobia’ directed specifically against Muslim women in North America and elsewhere, and that had provided an impetus for them to understand their own relationship with Islam better. Sanyal’s descriptions suggest that these women, educated, often with careers and international exposure, bring particular sensibilities to their engagement: they are concerned about questions of gender equity if not equality, and there is an interest in exploring the potential for alternative readings of the Quran and Hadith while also retaining a link to tradition, however it may be defined. It seems, although this is not explicitly discussed in the book, that the questions these women are asking of the Islamic tradition are somewhat different from the questions asked by the madrassa students.

Clearly, the ways in which Muslim women engage with religious ideas, the institutional forms within which they do so, the class-based concerns that each institution speaks to, and the implications of changes within Islamic education are hugely important domains of research. Sanyal is to be congratulated for alerting us to these concerns in this lucid and engaging book, and for providing a solid base for future research.

Ahmed, Sadaf. 2009. Transforming Faith: The Story of Al-Huda and Islamic Revivalism among Urban Pakistani Women, Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Bano, Masooda. 2017. Female Islamic Education Movements: The Re-Democratisation of Islamic Knowledge. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Iqtidar, Humeira. 2013. ‘Post-Islamist Strands in Pakistan: Islamist Spin-Offs and Their Contradictory Trajectories’, in Asef Bayat (ed.), Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam, 257-274.
Mushtaq, Faiza. 2010. New Claimants to Religious Authority: A Movement for Women’s Islamic Education, Moral Reform and Innovative Traditionalism. PhD dissertation, Illinois, USA: Northwestern University.


© Bloomsbury Pakistan 2024


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