Law, Empire, and Secularism in Modern South Asia
- ISBN: 9781316626283
- Published By: Cambridge University Press
- Published: June 2018
Julia Stephens’ book Governing Islam: Law, Empire, and Secularism in Modern South Asia provides a welcome addition to the canons of Islamic studies, colonial history, and legal studies, as well as gender and secularism in South Asia. Situated amid these overlapping intellectual domains, Stephens complicates the putative binaries that have been fabricated between religion and reason, family and economy, and community and state. Inspired by the work of Talal Asad, Stephens does not just read British colonial commitments to secular governance against the grain, she calls the very concept into question. She argues quite persuasively that British colonial legal sources and their associated archives provide an enriching source to explore how colonial courts mediated religious and secular laws. This becomes particularly helpful in allowing scholars to think against the grain about the legal domains that classified and managed Indian social life in the colonial era.
The book is divided into six chapters, each of which focuses on a different aspect of everyday legal encounters during the colonial period in South Asia. Chapter 1, “Forging Secular Legal Governance,” looks into British legal digests to understand the process of narrowing Muslim law from criminal jurisdiction to strengthen the British civilizing project in India between the 1820s and 1860s. Chapter 2, “Personal Law and the Problem of Marital Property,” entails a deep dive into the mid-19th-century case of a rich but quarreling Muslim couple, Shumsoonnissa and Buzloor Ruheem, to underscore the unstable boundaries between domestic and economic transactions during this period. Chapter 3, “Taming Custom,” looks at how British colonial leadership marshaled the growing role of custom law to complicate the application of religious personal law, with the effects of disinheriting daughters and demonizing lower-class marriage customs. Chapter 4, “Ritual and the Authority of Reason,” details how the colonial judiciary took a hands-off approach during the late 19th century in colonial South Asia, during which new Islamic movements and subsequent ritualized disputes grew in number and practice. Chapter 5, “Pathologizing Muslim Sentiment,” reads emotive interpretations of Hindu-Muslim communalist politics during the early 20th century, focusing specifically on the legal debates of the 1920s Rangila Rasul case, which involved Hindu publisher Mahashay Rajpal’s satirical book about Prophet Muhammad’s marriages and Muslim responses to this publication. Finally, chapter 6, “Islamic Economy: A Forgone Alternative,” concentrates on the proliferation of writing on Islamic economics in South Asia from the 1930s to the 1950s emphasizing norms of social justice, ultimately concluding that these efforts were marginalized by the postcolonial state.
Stephens should be applauded for her assiduous mining of legal sources from the British colonial era. Scholars of colonial legal studies in particular will draw inspiration from the archival genealogies of how she has traced the legal records of Shumsoonnissa’s case in chapter 2, which have moved across London, from the Privy Council’s offices on Downing Street to the National Archives in Kew as well as to the British Library, the Social Sciences Collection, and Lincoln’s Inn Library. She uses this case in particular to underscore a broader point about the artificiality of family and economic boundaries in colonial jurisprudence. It is this artificiality, she argues, that exposes the real costs they have for women, and the critical analytical leverage the law unravels that counters the heretofore marginalization of their perspectives in these archives. Scholars of colonial law in South Asia would be mistaken to recognize these norms for actual practice.
Moreover, Stephens offers a revealing discussion about how an analysis of Islamic economic models offers an entry point into a broader understanding about colonial secular governance and the postcolonial transition. Her metaphor of Pakistan as a religious “laboratory of applied Islam” is helpful in showing just how experimental the new nation was shaping to be and for how ideas that emerged during this period defied stereotypes about the relationship between Islam, democracy, and economic development. Scholars of Islamic economics will find this chapter especially engaging, as it fills an overdue literature gap on the radical possibilities and alternative genealogies of Islamic economies of social justice in South Asia.
Stephens’ work indeed accomplishes its goal of complicating the British colonial legal project. Nevertheless, a few criticisms can be offered. While chapter 4 offers a summary of the emergence of the sectarian divisions of the Deobandis, Ahl-i-Hadith, and the Barelwis in forming “categories of governance” vis-à-vis the colonial courts, the following chapter would have been more robust had it benefited from the same delineation of critical framework. Her description of the grieving around the murder of Hindu publisher Mahashay Rajpal by Ilmuddin as merely a communal incident obscures the broader and more persistent debate about the honor of Prophet Muhammad and the role this played in this event. Readers would have benefitted from a more fulsome on the implications of this case for intra-Muslim debates between the Deobandi and Barelvi sects (as opposed to merely communalist claims between Hindus and Muslims). This is particularly salient for much of the contemporary claims to protecting Prophet Muhammad’s honor that resonate in much of the blasphemy discourse in contemporary Pakistan.
Though a relatively short book, Governing Islam is nonetheless an ambitious text and engages with a surprising number of emerging topics. In doing so, provides a critical perspective for much-needed discussions by emphasizing the importance of including legal sources that explain the contestations of people on the “normative margins” of society, especially colonized peoples, Muslims, and women. While South Asian legal sources do indeed portray the law as a nexus of cultural contestations where indigenous subjects shape legal outcomes, Stephens reveals the law to be “deeply coercive” (4) and allows readers to appreciate what it means to, in philosopher Judith Butler’s words, “work the trap that one is inevitably in” (18) through the legal medium. Governing Islam is an important addition to the disciplines of South Asian legal history, both for its important contributions to legal archival research during the British colonial period as well as for its study of Islamic economics.
Daniel Waqar is a PhD student in history at Tufts University.Daniel WaqarDate Of Review:November 29, 2021