In South Asia, Muslim reformers have often attempted to ‘rationalize’ and gentrify the everyday behaviour of ordinary Muslims. Yet, despite the existence of discussions of contraceptive techniques in the yūnān-ī tibb curricula of 19th century India and the apparent affinity between rationalism and fertility regulation, contraception was rarely discussed in public debates involving Muslim reformers. In this paper we discuss some of the relationships between élite debates among Muslim leaders and the grassroots behaviour of villagers in rural Bijnor, in western Uttar Pradesh. Villagers' voices are ambiguous, with fears for mother and child health surfacing as often as concerns for religious orthodoxy and one's destiny in the afterlife. In addition, many of the villagers' views of Islam were much more restrictive than those of the locally accepted authoritative voices: although the staff at Daru'l ‘Ulūm, Deoband, saw much modern contraception as an unwelcome sign of modernity, their discussions of the acceptability of family planning circled round notions of majbūrī [compulsion], repentance, and the unfathomable mercy of Allah. We conclude that focusing on local notions of Islam to understand the fertility behaviour of rural Muslims is less fruitful than considering a “political economy of hopelessness” that, increasingly since 1947, affects many Muslims in north India.
Modern Asian Studies (2008) 42 (2) 519-48 [doi:10.1017/S0026749X07003162]