On a couple of Moghul historians!

Ashok V Desai has some juicy things to day about a couple of Moghul historians — old and new:

Irfan Habib is the doyen of historians of the Mughal age. He published a book on the Mughal agrarian system 45 years ago, when most of the world’s people were not even born. He was soon appointed professor in Aligarh, which has been a formidable vantage point.

These results did not suit Irfan Habib’s Marxist tendencies. In his view, people are always exploited and paid a subsistence wage in all pre-Marxist societies; so real wages in Mughal India could not have been higher. He put a student to work on the subject; she produced an entire PhD thesis. I thought of refuting her. But it would have been an unequal battle. In answer to a brief reply from me, she would have written another book replete with references to some Iranian manuscript of the 16th century and some revenue records lying in some obscure library in a remote UP village. Without a chair in Aligarh, I could not command access to such rare sources; and without a lifetime to devote to it, I could not have acquired knowledge of mediaeval Persian. So I left history behind and turned to current affairs.

Now Shireen Moosvi is herself on the way to becoming a doyen. She has written books and articles. With her scholarship she got invitations to dozens of conferences, for which she produced more papers. She has put these together in a book, People, Taxation and Trade in Mughal India (Oxford, 2008). They show a mind working beyond, sometimes even against, the teachings of Irfan Habib, forgetting doctrinaire Marxism and sometimes even having fun with history.

Indian history is largely devoid of women; they were for the harem and the kitchen. So words are lacking for the description of women in the Mughal age. Instead, Moosvi looks at miniatures, which teem with women, and comes to bold conclusions only historians can reach. Thus she finds a painting of a bearded old man in a balcony pointing a long stick at a boy and a girl sitting in a garden with a kind of cricket bat on which there are some scribbles, and concludes that girls were allowed to be educated. Another muscular woman bends on top of a well; it follows that women fetched water. A third woman is standing before a spinning wheel and pulling a thread from the spindle; so women must have spun. How she span standing, and without turning the spinning wheel, remains a historic mystery.

The entire piece is written in this style; take a look!


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3 Responses to “On a couple of Moghul historians!”

  1. Fëanor Says:

    Hi there. It appears that the old saying that a review is more about the reviewer than the book is true in Desai’s case, eh? What’s his complaint? That he couldn’t be bothered to check out Persian documents to see if his thesis held or not? What kind of researcher relies only on one source of data? I have no idea about Habib or Moosvi’s credentials, but surely the best way to rebut someone’s research is to show compelling evidence of how it is wrong? I see no reason why we should preferhis expertise over Moosvi’s. What do you think?

    The good thing, though, is that Desai is so disgruntled, the writeup is great fun to read!

  2. Guru Says:

    Dear Feanor,

    I agree; I linked to the piece mostly for its fun value (that is why it is also tagged under humour). Otherwise, the history content of the piece is minimal.


  3. Karuna Says:


    I even do not understand what he wants to say. Can someone help what is he trying to proove?

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