Three young scholars received the DAVO (German Middle East Studies Association) Awards 2020 for the best dissertations in the fields of contemporary studies on the Middle East, North Africa and other parts of the Islamic world. One of them is Maria-Magdalena Pruß, who defended her dissertation at the Department of Religion in September 2019, with Prof. Muhammad Qasim Zaman as adviser
The author’s dissertation is a pioneering study in serveral respects. It is the first comprehensive account of one of the most important Muslim modernist organizations of South Asia, the Anjuman-i Himayat-i Islam (AHI), which has to date been neglected in the historiography. This is a significant contribution to research about modern Islam in the Indian subcontinent. At the same time, the author opens up new avenues beyond the horizon of previous studies that have so far focused on a limited set of movements, personalities and institutions. For the first time, deep insights are provided into a Muslim modernist voluntary association which, for the most part, was not mainly carried by established local Muslim religious and political elites. Despite this fact, or rather precisely because of this, the AHI developed into a central social force in Punjab and beyond. Although the AHI’s leadership was staffed by the members of a rising new middle class, it was primarily volunteers from broader sections of society who served as the main proponents of Islamic modernism and its local adaptations in this context. In their own way, they stood up for the preservation of an Islamic identity and the compatibility of religion and modernity. Such grassroot level dynamics, which are deeply relevant to understanding the practicalities of the historical genesis of Islamic modernism as well as for our understanding of this phenomenon are unearthed in the present study.
The well-structured empirical observations and findings of this dissertation mainly built on materials taken from local archives that have been largely ignored so far, as well as their colonial counterparts and internal publications and records of the AHI. In addition, the dissertation provides an in-depth engagement and critical examination of the secondary literature, and also draws – in individual cases – on interviews with the descendants of those involved. Against this backdrop, it also represents a social history of Islamic modernism and the Punjab province. Not only is this dissertation impressive because of the author’s meticulous study of the historical source material, but above all because of her comprehensive knowledge of the region, which fortunately goes hand in hand with equally profound knowledge of Islam in general and developments in the modern Muslim world, both in South Asia and in the so-called heartlands of Islam.
In addition to the general novel illustration and exposition of social, institutional and cultural aspects of Islamic modernism, some of the study’s findings are particularly noteworthy. One of the most important ones is the complex relationship it traces between the AHI and the Ahmadiyya movement. The weighty role the latter played in the organization over decades, which is vividly and well documented by the author, clearly demonstrates that the Ahmadiyya until the late 1930s was by no means considered outside the Islamic mainstream. Of particular relevance are also observations on the ambivalent attitude the AHI held towards gender, which is reflected on the one hand in its pioneering role in the field of women’s education, and on the other in its emphatic defense of polygamy and gender seclusion, not to mention the considerable contribution of women to the success of the organization and its activities. Thus Dr. Pruß, in an overdue manner, places women and gender discourses at the center of a history and sociology of Islamic modernism in South Asia. Congratulations to Dr. Maria-Magdalena Pruß, and high praise for her innovative and highly commendable dissertation in the field of Islamic Studies!
This text is a translation of the award letter from German, written by Dr. Philipp Bruckmayr, Department of Near Eastern Studies, University of Vienna.