Grad Student Research Profile – Sarah Qidwai

Grad student research profile
Welcome to our grad student profile!  We are excited to highlight the research of grad students working in science and technology studies, history of science, and philosophy of science.  Know someone whose work you’d like to support?  Let us know!

Sarah Qidwai is a PhD Candidate at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto. We asked her to tell us about her current research and her path to working in the history of science.

You can follow her on Twitter at @skidwayy or see more of her work on her website:

Sarah Qidwai standing in front of lectern and projector giving a presentation.

I am a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto’s Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology (IHPST). My research interests include the history of science and religion, science and colonialism, and the history of science in South Asia. My thesis situates Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) as a key figure in the history of science in colonial India. Through an interdisciplinary approach, I investigate his scientific views and how he dealt with science’s role in its historical context. I am arguing that he was a science popularizer in India, a lens that has yet to be explored when it comes to his work and legacy. Another key part is trying to uncover others who played a similar part globally and locally. Currently, I am trying to bring together scholars who work on science periodicals published by locals in British India.

The path to my dissertation topic in the history of science involves my personal life

A stack of books about history of science, India, and religion.

experiences to a great extent. I am a Canadian of Pakistani origin. I spent a few years of my childhood in New York. I consider myself of Indian decent as well because my forefathers are from Lucknow. As for my academic background, I completed both my BA and MA at the University of Toronto.

I honestly could not have predicted that I would have ended up in HPS. I began my undergraduate degree in biology, but took a keen interest in history. I actually worked as lab assistant in an evolutionary ecology research lab. I always joke that at that point in my life, I could cook better for drosophila than I could for myself.

Sarah in front of a lectern and projector giving a presentation.In my second year, due to personal circumstances, I had to drop out of university. I was able to return eventually and at that point I declared history as my major. I ended up taking a diverse range of classes to finish off my degree: this included things like the history of evolutionary biology and introduction to global health. I also took two formative digital humanities courses taught by Matt Price. In one of his classes, we developed actual websites as the final project. I also took several courses taught by Prof. Ritu Birla. Her expertise as a historian of modern South Asia has greatly influenced my approach to the history of science. Another really important course was the history of science and religion, taught by Yiftach Fehige. Coincidentally enough my current supervisor, Bernard Lightman, was a guest lecturer in that class. I was also a teaching assistant for the course a few times and have guest lectured several classes on Islam and science. It really came back full circle.

With that foundation in place, I started my MA at the IHPST.  Between my MA and PhD, ITemple in Manipal. was lucky enough to go to Manipal India through the Scientific Objects and Digital Cosmopolitanism Summer school. You can see my post about the experience here:

When I started my PhD in 2015, I proposed a project titled “Darwinism and Muslims in Colonial India.”  I came across Marwa Elshakry’s excellent book Reading Darwin in Arabic (2013) and wanted to investigate the case for Muslims in India. I found out that Sayyid Ahmad wrote an article defending Darwin on a webpage and began the hunt for that primary source.  Soon, I realized how problematic my own approach was because assuming that Darwinism was the starting point meant I was Book "Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950" by Marwa Elshakryrecreating the very Eurocentric bias I had set out to solve. Also, I encountered several issues translating scientific concepts from Urdu to English. This topic was the subject of my recent flashtalk at the HSS 2018 meeting.

Eventually, I took a step back and realized that we as historians of science do not have the historical methodology in place to write an account of a Muslim in India during the nineteenth century who grappled with the origin of humans and reflected on its impact on his faith. This brought me to the field of science and religion. Prof.Lightman invited me to join a symposium, at the ICHST in Rio in 2017, with some of the leading scholars in the Harbour in Rio.field of science and religion. I learned as much as I could from them during this time.

While I’ve been working away on my dissertation, I have also taken the time to appreciate a few things: I’ve taken up snowboarding, bouldering, running and playing on a trampoline dodgeball team. I have also have found an enormous amount of support online (#twitterstorians)! There are so many amazing scholars who are ready to discuss things and when I am working on such an interdisciplinary project, I appreciate people being so accessible to young scholars.

Sarah and three history of science scholars.
Left to right: John Hedley Brooke, Bernard Lightman, Sarah Qidwai, Ron Numbers

Where the topic of cosmopolitanism and the local is concerned, I relate to this on a personal and intellectual level. While my first international academic adventure was the CosmoLocal summer school in India, I have presented my work at conferences in New Zealand, Brazil, Switzerland, and the USA. I have attended another Summer School in Spain as well on Critical Muslim Studies.

My future research plans include expanding from Sayyid Ahmad to both to draw out One of Sarah's dissertation chapters in progress.more Indian scholars and look at the global scale of interactions among others. An important part is to also integrate other groups left out of narratives in the history of science and religion to contribute to pushing scholarship to a historiographical label of global.

I am currently working on two dissertation chapters. One is about a Scientific Society that Sayyid Ahmad Khan founded in Ghazipur in 1864. I am also working on examining the intersection of science, Christianity and Islam in one of Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s publications: The Muhammadan Commentary on the Holy Bible. Outside of this, I am trying to bring together scholars who work on print culture and science periodicals in Asia. I think there is a move towards a more global approach to the field of science and religion and we are just starting to draw some methodological conclusions on the subject.

All in all, it has not been easy putting together a dissertation on a topic that draws on several fields that have not been linked in such a way, but I am really enjoying what I do. I am grateful to my supervisor, Bernard Lightman, and my committee members Yiftach Fehige and Bart Scott for being patient with me. Prof. Lightman and Prof. Fehige are Co-Applicants for the CosmoLocal project.  I am also grateful to everyone who has ever taken time out to talk to me in person or via email. It really does make a big difference!

For publications see:

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