Islamic Reform and Female Education: Social Reforms for Muslim Women in Late Colonial India

Muslim reformers in nineteenth century India identified a need for Islamic reform due to a perceived decline of Islam in India. These reformers saw evidence of this decline in the adherence of Indian Muslims to false customs and practices disguised in the name of religion, and the accusations of ‘Muslim backwardness’ by colonial authorities.[1] Muslim writers claimed that the ‘decay’ of Islam, and the ‘backwardness’ of their society was due to the fall of Muslim power in India, as a result of British colonial rule.[2] In any case, a need for reform was identified, and this initially came through a reform (or for the ulama, a ‘revival’) of religion, later society, and eventually a reform of women’s practices and conditions.


Sir Syed Ahmed Khan

The fall of Muslim rule in India saw the fragmentation of Muslim authority, allowing different groups within India’s diverse Muslim communities to vie for religious leadership, and come forward with their own ideas of reform, along with their own interpretations of Islam, particularly in the changing needs of a society under foreign dominance. Among such groups were the ulama of Deoband, who saw a need to educate Indian Muslims on the ‘true’ knowledge of Islam, for the revitalisation and continuity of Islam in India.[3] While the Deobandi movement advocated a more conservative form of Islam, Muslim intellectuals in Aligarh, under the leadership of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, espoused a modern interpretation of Islam, through liberal ideas and an education based on western institutions. This they believed was the key to the progress of Muslims in India.[4] While the Aligarh and Deobandi movements contrasted in their approaches to Islamic doctrine, Islamic reform across the many Muslim reform groups campaigning for change, all agreed on one fundamental aspect in their movements for reform, namely the centrality of education as a means to social progress.

So how does all this relate to social reforms for Muslim women in modern South Asia? In addition to this perceived ‘decay’ of Indian Islam, and ‘Muslim backwardness’, Muslim women were seen as the perpetrators of false customs, and their ‘ignorance’ as a potential cause of downfall for successive generations. To address this ‘ignorance’ would thus help correct the ‘backwardness’ of Muslim society and ensure social progress, as it was perceived that women’s roles as mothers and wives, affected the children and husband within the household, which in turn affected society and the Muslim community at large. [5]

But social reforms for Indian Muslim women were also part of a wider debate on the conditions of women in Indian society. Nineteenth century British writer, James Mill asserted that a society’s treatment of its women was an indicator of its civilization.  Thus, British colonial discourse portrayed Indian society as ‘backward’ due its treatment of Indian women. Women’s practices and the customs affecting them, were presented as ‘barbaric’, and the social ‘evils’ of Indian society. These arguments were used by the British to justify colonial rule in India, as they maintained that India was in no fit state to rule itself, and needed British rule to civilise indigenous society.[6] India thus became part of the British empire’s ‘civilising mission’, within which women featured prominently. This has been referred to by scholars as the ‘woman question’, the question of ‘How can they be modernized?’.[7] It is within this larger context that Indian women in general were targeted for reform, both through legislation by colonial authorities, and indigenous efforts by male reformers with nationalistic ambitions.

indiaswomen00churuoft_0007Among such criticisms of Indian society, was the assertion that Indian women’s conditions and low position was due to the religions of India, an argument repeatedly put forward by Christian missionaries, in the interests of evangelisation. Such criticisms of religious practices and customs, that they claimed ‘degraded’ Indian women, contributed much to the religious character of social reform campaigns in late colonial India.[8] Indigenous reformers saw a need to demonstrate the progress of their society, which in many instances came to acquire communal divisions.

Muslim male reformers saw a need to reform women’s practices for the greater good of the Muslim community at large. This they claimed would be achieved through the promotion of female education, and the creation of a suitable literature for Muslim women. Such an education would help Muslim women as transmitters of culture and traditions, through their roles as mothers and wives, to drop false customs and adopt the ‘true’ Islam, to benefit the future generations of Muslims in India. Among such reformers was Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi, a Deobandi scholar, who wrote and published Bihishti Zewar, in the early twentieth century, as a means to educate Muslim women. Maulana Thanawi encouraged a rather gender egalitarian approach to education, in comparison to many of his contemporaries, quoting the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, ‘it is a duty incumbent on every Muslim man and every Muslim woman to acquire knowledge’.[9] While Maulana Thanawi believed Muslim women should be educated, his advocacy of female education was in the interests of the continuity and revitalisation of Islam in India. On the other hand, some Muslim male reformers believed that Muslim women’s education was in the interests of improving their conditions and securing women’s rights as granted under Islam.

In response to missionary criticisms, Syed Mumtaz Ali, a Muslim reformer from Lahore, claimed that Muslim women had more rights under Islam than women from other religious communities. Mumtaz Ali saw a need of both men and women to be aware of these rights, to affect a transformation in Muslim society, which could only be achieved through education.[10] In 1898 Mumtaz Ali started an Urdu women’s magazine, Tahzib un-Niswan, to further the cause of Muslim female education, and encouraged women to contribute to the pages of the magazine. The magazine covered a range of topics written by Muslim women, including domestic duties, religion, short stories, recommended books for women, educational subjects, and later news items and Muslim women’s own activities, demonstrating a rise in Muslim female education, and a social and public awareness amongst these women.

While the initial aim of Muslim male reformers in social reforms for Muslim women had been for the benefit of the Muslim community at large, increasing literacy and education among Muslim women increased their involvement in their own reform, which helped communicate issues that affected them, as they experienced them. The growth of women’s magazines and women’s organisations provided forums for women to air their personal grievances, rather than those suggested by male reformers. The emergence of women into the public sphere, and their coming together for a common cause, allowed Muslim women to address the major issue of purdah and female seclusion as it affected them, and their access to education, furthering the scope of social reform for Indian Muslim women.


[1] William W. Hunter, Report of the Indian Education Commission (Calcutta, 1883), p. 403.

[2] Muhammad Azizul Huque, History and Problems of Moslem Education in Bengal (Calcutta: Thacker, Spink & Co., 1917), pp. 6-16.

[3] See Barabara Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1982).

[4] See David Lelyveld, Aligarh’s First Generation: Muslim Solidarity in British India (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978).

[5] Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi, Bihishti Zewar (Urdu reprint of the original, Karachi: Dar ul-Ishat, 2002)

[6] See James Mill, The History of British India (London, 1817)

[7] Geraldine Forbes, Women in Modern India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 12-14.

[8] Such criticisms are particularly numerous in the journals of the Church of England Zenana Missionary Society, India’s Women (1880-1950). See also Maina Singh, Gender, Religion and “Heathen Lands”: American Missionary Women in South Asia (1860s-1940s), (New York: Garland Pub., 2000).

[9] Barbara Metcalf, Perfecting Women: Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanawi’s Bihishti Zewar: A Partial Translation with Commentary, (California: University of California Press, 1990), p. 47.

[10] See Gail Minault, Secluded Scholars: Women’s Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998).


2 thoughts on “Islamic Reform and Female Education: Social Reforms for Muslim Women in Late Colonial India

  1. An amazing read. A real insight in to the history which was so fundamental to the Muslim women of india of that era. some fascinating info on the great scholars and reformers who actively helped to change the lives of millions of women and their efforts still echo in the lives of millions of muslim Indian women today. Excellent stuff. Looking forward to more works from Sabera Kara.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you very much. It is a fascinating history, and one which has received scant attention from scholars, though it is starting to pick up in recent years. What is so great is the level of activism among Muslim women themselves, often portrayed as secluded and oppressed, and the work they did both toward the improvement of their own conditions, as well as the nationalist cause. I will be writing some pieces on these topics shortly so do check back later.


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