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The Portable Madrasa: Print, publics, and the authority of the Deobandi `ulama*


In the first decades of the twentieth century, classically trained Muslim scholars (`ulama) of the influential Deobandi school of North India issued a number of immensely popular, mass-printed ‘primers’ on Islamic belief and ritual practice. Now ubiquitous in the Islamic bookshops in South Asia and elsewhere, these primers sought to summarize the rudiments of an Islamic education for a nascent lay Muslim reading public. Focusing on three Deobandi `ulama—Ashraf `Ali Thanvi (d. 1943), Mufti Muhammad Kifayatullah (d. 1952), and Muhammad Manzur Nu`mani (d. 1997)—this paper explores how their primers advanced the Deobandi school's well-known critique of popular piety even as they claimed to address Muslims generally, and how their authors negotiated the subtle dynamics of print. Understanding the potentially subversive power of print to open a space for readers to form their own interpretations of minute doctrinal matters and the threat of mass-printed religious texts to their own authority, these `ulama implored readers to refrain from forming their own opinions of the primers’ content and to consult the `ulama throughout the reading process. Thus, even as they took advantage of print's possibilities, they remained deeply suspect of its ramifications.

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I would like to thank J. Barton Scott for his insightful comments on a draft of this paper. I also benefited greatly from conversations with Ebrahim Moosa and Muhammad Qasim Zaman during the initial phases of research and writing.

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This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

Aaron Rock , ‘Amr Khaled: From Da’wa to Political and Religious Leadership’, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 37, 1 (2010), pp. 1537

Armando Salvatore , ‘Social Differentiation, Moral Authority and Public Islam in Egypt: The Path of Mustafa Mahmud’, Anthropology Today 16, 2 (2000), pp. 1215

Jajat Burhanudin , ‘The Fragmentation of Religious Authority: Islamic Print Media in Early 20th Century Indonesia’, Studia Islamika 11, 1 (2004), pp. 2362

Wilfred Cantwell Smith , On Understanding Islam (The Hague: Mouton Publishers, 1981), pp. 4177

Brannon D. Ingram , ‘Sufis, Scholars and Scapegoats: Rashid Ahmad Gangohi (d. 1905) and the Deobandi Critique of Sufism’, The Muslim World 99, 3 (2009), pp. 478501

Francis Robinson , ‘Technology and Religious Change: Islam and the Impact of Print’, Modern Asian Studies 27, 1 (1993), p. 240

Robert Darnton , ‘Book Production in British India, 1850–1900’, Book History 5 (2002), p.  244

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Modern Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0026-749X
  • EISSN: 1469-8099
  • URL: /core/journals/modern-asian-studies
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