“Law and Other Things,” a blog about India’s laws and legal system, has been hosting a book discussion on Julia Stephen’s Governing Islam: Law, Empire and Secularism in South Asia (2018). The book explores the colonial underpinnings of contemporary struggles between Islam and secularism in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Here is an excerpt of Professor Jhuma Sen‘s response:
Governing Islam: Law, Empire, and Secularism by Julia Stephens masterfully weaves together a tale of a complex relationship between law, empire and Islam in South Asia and complicates the established history of secularism in the subcontinent. A growing body of work has indicated that the religion-secular distinction is historically volatile, and that the meanings of ‘religion’ or ‘secular’, far from being unproblematically self-evident, are critical sites where meanings are generated, negotiated and altered as products of historical contestations. Governing Islam though inhabiting that intellectual space offers so much more. In the introductory chapter, Stephens explains the purported goal of her project, that is to show, how ‘Indian’s engagements with and subversions of law co-existed in dynamic tension with a profoundly transformative, and deeply coercive, colonial legal project.’ Stephens explains this complex story by telling a ‘braided narrative’ of how colonial secular governance operated through a series of binaries where religion was pitted against reason, community against the state, family against economy and how this dominant logic of colonial secular governance was continuously disrupted and subverted by secularism’s ‘other’, the subjects who occupied the margins, ‘the colonized, Muslims, and women’ in the everyday legal encounters which made the religious/secular distinction an ambiguous one.