Governing Islam: Law and Religion in Colonial India

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Governing Islam: Law and Religion in Colonial India

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Title: Governing Islam: Law and Religion in Colonial India
Author: Stephens, Julia Anne
Citation: Stephens, Julia Anne. 2013. Governing Islam: Law and Religion in Colonial India. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: This dissertation charts how the legal regulation of Islam in colonial India fostered a conception of religion that focused on dividing it from secular economy and politics. Colonial law segregated religious law from other branches of law through intersecting binaries that pitted religion against reason and family against the economy. These binaries continue to shape both popular and scholarly approaches to South Asian religion. Unsettling these common assumptions, the dissertation reveals the close relationship between contemporary conceptions of religion and the imperatives of imperial governance. By segregating religious from secular law, the British developed a bifurcated strategy of governance that balanced contradictory commitments to preserving Indian traditions with introducing modernizing reforms. Scholars have traditionally located the origins of the colonial approach to administering Indian religious laws in the early decades of Company rule. The dissertation argues instead that the conceptual framework of religious personal laws emerged between the second and third quarter of the nineteenth century. Changing concepts of sovereignty, an evangelical commitment to spreading Christian civilization, and the integration of colonial production into global markets led colonial officials to look for ways to consolidate the authority of the colonial state. Due to the history of Mughal rule, colonial officials viewed Islamic law as posing a particular threat to colonial suzerainty, placing Islam at the center of these debates. Limiting religious laws to the sphere of domestic relations and ritual performance allowed the colonial state to maintain the rhetoric of respecting Indian religions while consolidating new bodies of criminal, commercial, and procedural law. The boundaries colonial law drew around religion, however, proved unstable. By bringing different definitions of religion into dialogue, legal adjudication in courts unsettled the boundaries between religious and secular authority that colonial legislation and legal texts attempted to solidify. The dissertation looks at legal debates occurring in different levels of the judicial system and in the wider court of public opinion, turning to newspaper coverage of trials and literature on Islamic law. The dissertation uses this broadened archive of legal contest to explore alternative understandings of the relationship between religion, politics, and economy.
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