A Secular Need

Islamic Law and State Governance in Contemporary India

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Jeffrey A. Redding
  • Seattle, WA: 
    University of Washington Press
    , April
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Jeffrey A. Redding’s A Secular Need: Islamic Law and State Governance in Contemporary India approaches the complex relationship between Islam and secularism in modern India. Redding’s work engages with the nuances of colonialism, modern Indian society, and the often tumultuous relationship between Islam and the Hindu majority of India. Redding roots his conversation in the works of Talal Asad, Peter Fitzpatrick, and Hussein Ali Agrama. Additionally, he makes it evident that the author’s perspectives are informed by lived experiences and written and practiced law in India. Finally, Redding’s writings center on the notion of family law and marriage in India as they find the example of family law to be illustrative of India’s complex religious laws while a secular constitution informs the juridical system.

The book is divided into five parts which can function as standalone chapters. The text begins with a chapter titled “Muslim and Mundane,” which focuses its discussion on the Dar ul Qazas or what can be read as “Islamic courts” or “Shari’a courts.” Following is a section titled, “Secularism and ‘Shari’a Courts,’” which focuses on the complications between a secular state, a secular constitution, and their tension with Islamic courts. Redding then shifts his conversation in a chapter titled, “Secular Emotion and the Rule of Law,” in which he focuses on a Muslim identifying woman’s divorce case and her qualms and interests in the Islamic family law structure found in India. Chapter 4, titled “Secular Need and Divorce,” develops on the previous chapter’s interest in divorce and family law but expounds on the notion of legality. Finally, the author closes his work with a chapter titled, “Illegitimacy and Indigeneity.” The flow of Redding’s writing provides the reader with a functional narrative which comments on the overarching themes of secularity, minority-majority dynamics, family law, and colonial remnants.

As mentioned above, Redding grapples with the underlying dynamics of secularity and religious law in India by focusing on individual cases and histories that support his claims. Regarding method, Redding relies on existing legal studies, court cases, anthropological fieldwork, and existing studies of sociology, history, and anthropology. Informed by this plethora of perspectives, Redding creates a cohesive dialogue about secularity and its involvement with religious laws and juridical systems. Redding mentions a list of scholars of various fields throughout the text and in doing so, provides readers with a theoretical groundwork which constantly informs them of how Redding is constructing his conversation.

For example, Redding often mentions the work of Talal Asad and “the other” which Asad so often mentions. Religion and its opposite, which some call secularism, are defined by one another, and Redding illustrates this point by citing M. C. Escher’s “Drawing Hands,” a work in which one hand seems to draw the other in an endless cycle. Redding calls to Asad’s writing as a means of establishing the argument that the secular and the religious have a complex “need” for one another. Asad’s “other” is what delineates the boundaries between religious and secular and Redding is aware of this relationship. Additionally, it is important to note that Redding’s A Secular Need is as much a legal study as it is a work of anthropology and history.

Redding’s writing is deeply informed by his own work as a legal scholar as they note throughout the text. The introduction of the monograph makes it more than evident that Redding is simultaneously incorporating fieldwork with a legal analysis as a means for one to inform the other. Redding successfully provides the reader with a historical analysis of matters such as the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), which acted as a catalyst for Dar ul-Qaza (sharīʿa courts) during and after the Partition. Furthermore, Redding goes on to evaluate how the Dar ul Qazas historical formation, and its involvement with other groups such as the Imarat-e-Shariah, continues to impact India’s relationship with the secular. Redding’s ambitious attempt at providing case studies, discussing the history of jurisprudence, and engaging with fieldwork has led to the creation of a heavily nuanced discussion on India’s tumultuous relationship with Shari’a in a secular state. Finally, Redding’s writing manages to engage with broad audiences without making sacrifices.

A Secular Need is a succinct text which engages with a plethora of difficult topics. Additionally, its time of publication makes it a useful text for contemporary Indian politics and Redding is aware of this timely element. Additionally, the division of subject matter makes it so the text can be divided and distributed accordingly. Redding’s writing is fit for graduate courses dealing with law, South Asia, and secularism. Some chapters, such as chapter 3, the case of Ayesha, is also useful for scholars and students of sociology and anthropology as Redding makes provides a useful case study which is supplemented in the introduction and the conclusion of the text, as well. Redding’s text is a step forward in the conversation on secularism, religious law, and most importantly, India and its relationship with Islam.  

About the Reviewer(s): 

Arpan Bhandari is a PhD student in Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill.

Date of Review: 
July 24, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeffrey A. Redding is senior research fellow at Melbourne Law School and a New Generation Network scholar at the University of Melbourne’s Australia India Institute.


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