Irfan Habib: The Pioneer of History

irfan habib

“Without undue modesty, we can say we know more about India’s past than Marx did” written by Irfan Habib in ‘Problems of Marxist historiography’ A highly prominent ancient and medieval historian of India, he has served as a history professor in the Department of History AMU from 1969-91. And in 2007, he was granted the position of Emeritus Professor by this university. Having worked in this field for many decades now, he stands from the Marxist school.

Early Life and Education

Professor Irfan Habib was born in 1931 in the Vadodara city of the state of Gujarat. He completed his under-graduation and post-graduation from Aligarh Muslim University in the years 1951 and 1953 respectively. He effectively excelled with first position in academics in both the programs. After obtaining his master’s degree, he started as a lecturer in AMU and then became the Reader here. Moreover, later in 1956; he acquired the degree of D. Phil from New College Oxford.

His Notable Works

Professor Habib has widely worked on

  • Indian Feudalism

  • History of technologies from ancient to medieval times in India

  • Researched on Vedas and written meticulously about it and vedic age.

  • Agrarian system of Medieval India.

  • Economic history of Medieval India

  • Marxist historiography

  • About British colonialism in India

  • Indus Civilization

  • Maurya’s Rule in India

  • His one of the famous critique about the book “Orientalism” by Edward Said; in which Said stated that western scholars had only glorified their history and personalities and dishonoured the Asian nation but, Habib, explained that if that so then we would never be acknowledged by Aryabhata, Rumi, , Ashoka and Akbar etc.

Habib’s Political Ideas

Irfan Habib is foremost associated with Marxism; he is often titled as Marxist Historian. This signifies his belief in the existence of classless society which ultimately would nullify the concept of upper and lower class and hence no conflict would take place. His works effectively reflects his Marxist ideology. He strongly opposes communalism and favours the promotion of Secularism; a society capable of putting end to the religious tussles among general population. His ideas has influenced large group of people till date.

Some Awards and Positions

  • He was awarded Padma Bhushan in 2005

  • In 2006, he won Muzaffar Ahmad Memorial Prize

  • In 1981, he became the General President of Indian History Congress

  • In 1986, he became the chairman of Indian Council of Historical Research

  • He was granted the position of Editor of Aligarh Magazine in 1952

  • He was appointed as chairman of Department of History, AMU for two times (1975-77 & 1984-94).

He also enjoyed the position of coordinator of the Centre of Advance Studies, Department of History, AMU, in the years 1975-77 & 1994-1996. He also got the position of Dean of Social Science at AMU.

Prominent Books-

  • The Agrarian System of Mughal India 1556-1707

  • An Atlas of the Mughal Empire

  • The Economic History of Medieval India

  • Medieval India: The story of a Civilization

  • People’s History of India- Part 1

The History Department, AMU

Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, the founder of Aligarh Muslim, was deeply interested in history and archaeology. Therefore, he put great emphasis on this field. The Department of History has been prevalent in AMU since 1875 when AMU was established as Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh. The teachings on this subject were initiated from then on, and since then, the department has made innumerable achievements and succeeded in various aspects. In 1968, the department was included as a Centre under the Centres of Advanced Study Programmes of the University Grants Commission (UGC) led by an Oxonian, Professor Noor-ul-Hasan.

Speedy research was happening in medieval history during his tenure, and a three-storey building was built for the department. Another very distinguished Professor of the History department was Mohd. Habib, Father of Irfan Habib. He became a lecturer at AMU in 1922 and was an Indian Islamic Historian. He actively participated in the Indian National Movement. He focused on history writing and considered that historical writings should be referred to from sources. In 1972, Mohammad Habib Hall was titled after his name. The department is entitled as the hub of medieval history.

The department has a Medieval Archaeology Section that carries out studies and research on the archaeology of medieval times. It also maintains a cartography lab for historical maps and a seminar library for all the events and studies. The department has under-graduation and post-graduation programs. It also admits students for research. Some major Domains focused on are-

  • Sources of History, Persian, Vernacular, Foreign Languages

  • Socio, Economic and Cultural History

  • Art and architecture history

  • Archaeology

  • Islamic History (E.g. Ottoman Empire, history of Persia, etc.)

  • Central Asian Studies

  • Military History

  • Gender History

  • Onomastic

  • European history


History is the discipline which engulfs the essence of all the subjects as every subject holds its history for the people to know the base. Aligarh Muslim University has effectively focused on the history department and its development with the ratification of so many people. Its root was created by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan himself. Hence, today the department has a long history of developments or modifications.

Today, the world knows the department and its professors like Irfan Habib, who exercised his knowledge in this institution and worldwide. The various research and studies are carried out here at a huge level, and hence the department is thriving. We can say history department of AMU is still in the great process of creating a notable history of eminent works of its own.

You can also check out AMU notable alumni.