The birth of Jamia Millia Islamia was in itself a landmark in the cultural history of India. Its founders had the vision to create an educational institution that stood for a plural nationalism, that emphasized teaching in India languages, that rejected both sectarianism and indiscriminate westernization as a durable basis for Indian education.
Its founders built the institution on slender resources being Gandhian in their worldview and willing to work for community and nation without thought for personal gain. Yet even in those straitened beginnings, the subject of history was seen as an important one since in a largely undergraduate institution, history was one of the few subjects chosen for post-graduate degrees and courses. From Jamia’s inception, the history department under the leadership of a group of distinguished historians such as Muhammad Mujeeb, Mohibul Hasan, B.R. Grover, Mohammad Azhar Ansari, emphasized the teaching and writing of the social and cultural history of medieval India.
These scholars saw social and cultural history as a way of both understanding and bringing about progressive change in South Asia. Prof. Mujeeb’s book on The Indian Muslims, the work of Prof. Mohibul Hasan and Prof. Azhar Ansari embodies such history and was part of the syllabi not only in Indian universities but worldwide. This tradition of social history was carried on by the next generation of historians in the Department of History and Culture. Along with this emphasis on social history, the Department was careful to embed its study in an understanding of political and economic history. Professor Sudhir Chandra’s work on Munshi Prem Chand and Professor Mushirul Hasan’s interest in the social base of communalism and communal polities are worth citing here.
In keeping with new historiographical developments in social and cultural history, members of the Department ‘s present faculty are engaged in studying socially and economically marginal social groups: tribes, the social bases of the colonial army, the history of small religious sects though oral source materials, and the history of conversion in the subcontinent. The faculty also has a keen interest in urban social history, because towns have been though the medieval and modern periods arenas for economic innovation, social change and cultural exchange. Demography has been another focus of research with a view to mapping social change in the long term and the historical study of gender relations remains an important theme of the faculty’s researches.
One of the great strengths of Jamia’s history faculty is its familiarity with the languages in which historical source materials are found. From its inception, the department has emphasized the knowledge of source languages. Thus, faculty members are familiar with the core classical languages such as Sanskrit and Persian which is the backbone of researches into early medieval and pre-colonial Indian history. The faculty’s linguistic competence is wide ranging and encompasses Rajasthani, Malayalam, Bengali, Urdu, Hindi, and French.