Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Anglo-Muhammadan Law in Colonial India

My main academic interest centers on how Islamic law was altered (read: ruptured, dismantled, reified, codified, desiccated, displaced, etc.) by the forces of colonialism in the late 19th and early 20th century.

This semester I wrote a paper on the development of Anglo-Muhammadan Law in colonial India in the 19th century.

It provides a really good example of the distorting effect that colonialism had on Islamic law -- something that is often forgotten.

Basically, Anglo-Muhammadan law was a (by)product of the colonial encounter. It was a fusion of elements of British common law, Islamic law, customary law, etc. that developed -- over a long period of time -- into an entirely new construct.

I think this is what makes Anglo Muhammadan Law so interesting. In other words, the British did not merely displace the legal system as it had existed under the Mughals. Rather, they selectively appropriated and interpreted elements of Islamic law to their own liking, creating something new in the process.

Charles Hamilton (d.1792) published a translation of part of al-Hidāya in 1791, which was originally authored by al-Marghīnānī, a well respected twelfth century Ḥanafī jurist.

Islamic law, as practiced in the pre-colonial period, was characterized by ikhtilāf, or a diversity of opinions.

Since Islamic texts rarely offered definitive answers, translation aimed to simplify their ambiguities. In fact, in order to deal with this diversity of contradictory opinions in al-Hidāya, Hamilton decided to prioritize the students' decisions over the teachers' decisions.

Translators also paraphrased Islamic texts, or cut out parts of them, or simply made unintentional errors. Since Hamilton took such extensive liberties in editing al-Hidāya, he actually created a new text, which assumed a new authority that it never had.

Since translated texts did not cover all issues, the British introduced precedent to the legal system. The decisions of Anglo-Muhammadan courts were recorded and published -- and through this process a literature about precedent accumulated.

One of the last acts of translation was renaming Anglo-Muhammadan law "Muhammadan law," which suggested (among other things) that the process of translation described above had never occurred.

Later, Anglo-Muhammadan became a lens which blurred interpretations of earlier Islamicate history / Islamic law.

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