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Abstract

This dissertation traces the modernization of Islamic legal practice in nineteenth- and twentieth-century South Asia by considering the relationship between colonial bureaucracy and local legal procedure. Focusing on the formalization and professionalization of the offices of the qāẓī (Islamic judge) and muftī (jurisconsult; writer of legal opinions, fatwās), “Between Community and Qānūn” contends that the bureaucratization of legal procedure introduced new modes of legal activity that rendered Islamic law legible and relevant to the modern nation state. Traditionally, scholars have characterized South Asian legal history in terms of increasing Anglicization and codification, drawing attention to the colonial construction of law and the influence of knowledge-production projects like compilation, translation, and legislation. Though these projects had significant influence on the shape of the legal system, such attention to legislative efforts to segregate, systematize, and standardize legal practice has promoted a top-down understanding of law and legal activity throughout this period. By focusing on local practitioners like the qāẓī, this dissertation takes a law and society approach to the study of colonial legal change to highlight the effects of authoring agreements, documenting exchanges, and recording everyday personal and familial affairs on ordinary individuals’ understandings of and interactions with the legal system. Rather than placing indigenous legal practitioners on the sidelines of legal history and foregrounding the narrative of colonial intervention, this dissertation takes an alternative position and demonstrates that despite their supplemental status within the colonial courtroom, qāẓīs and muftīs nonetheless played an important role in the administration of law into the twentieth century and that such developments under British rule continue to shape legal pluralism in South Asia today. Though these individuals held an uncertain position in the eyes of colonial officials, they participated in, responded to, and competed with mainstream discourses on the development of legal administrative procedure throughout the nineteenth century. By changing their modes of practice, adopting new forms of writing and documentary procedure, and working to make their work legible to the state, Islamic legal practitioners not only made their service germane to the burgeoning bureaucracy of the expanding colonial administration but also remained relevant to the communities they served. To demonstrate the ways in which these figures contributed to the changing legal landscape of British India, the dissertation draws upon a variety of archival and published sources, including documents relating to the appointment and administration of qāẓīs, the vernacular (Persian and Urdu) registers and writings they produced, civil court proceedings that sit at the crossroads between Islamic and British modes of legal action, and published and unpublished fatwā collections and other forms of legal discourse. In this regard, the dissertation also contributes to a growing body of literature on the development of the legal profession and the important role legal intermediaries played in the establishment and extension of imperial authority.

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