Introduction: How to do things with translation

By Iza Hussin

This series of guest blog posts explores avenues for considering translation as a problematic through which to engage Islamic law in global circulation. This Introduction,[1] and the four posts that follow, sketch out related but distinct ways in which translation matters for the circulation of sharī’a concepts and institutions. The first relates to law in language, and is perhaps most closely related to long-standing scholarly approaches to Islamic law as texts whose meanings endure, but also shift, across time and place. It considers two texts from the Malay world and the universe of words they use for, and about, ‘law,’ to illustrate one such semantic shift. The next two entries consider how other modes of translation aided shifts of this kind and others across a broad geographic and temporal sphere: the second post explores the work of legal actors to translate between idioms and institutions of law, in which the effort to produce legibility in the courts, this time in British colonial India, also produced ‘religion’ as a durable category for adjudicating the Anglican, the Muslim, and the Hindu in equal measure. The third in this series takes this insight from one colonial enterprise to consider inter-imperial translations that gave rise to globalized categories of law, such as ‘personal status.’ Fourth and finally, I raise questions that these translative histories generated for me, and invite discussion about the implications of these translative dynamics for teaching, writing and publishing across languages and contexts in contemporary Islamic legal studies, with the prevalence of forced and voluntary migration in mind.

The invitation to guest blog provided me with an opportunity to gather a number of projects on which I’ve been working over the past few years, tracing the travels of legal texts, agents and ideas. Rather than a concern for fidelity between origins and destinations, unidirectional transmission or transplant from core to periphery, these projects focussed on the work involved in circulations of law. In doing so, they focussed on agents and networks of circulation, on repetition and citation, on institutional transmutations between ‘local’ and ‘universal’. [2] With Mona Oraby and a group of ten colleagues at The Immanent Frame, this work broadened to translational dynamics within the study of religion and the public sphere. There, we explored the translation of critical concepts and contexts, troubled the status of authors, originals, and commentaries, and considered the politics of translation across power differentials, past and present.

Here, I’d like to explore in a different direction, to consider how the ubiquity of translation in Islamic legal circulations might push the study of Islamic law in a range of analytic directions. These directions may also facilitate closer and productive engagement between scholars interested in locating Islam and Muslim politics within comparative political theory, world history, comparative law and politics. The questions these conversations may raise include: how might the long history of Islamic legal critiques of the category of ‘law’ inform its analysis in comparative political theory and law? In what ways do the variegated and layered legacies of empire matter for our understandings of categories such as ‘personal’, ‘family’, and ‘public’ law, together with their overlaps and exclusions? And how might closer attention to the often-divergent histories of legal theorization and institutionalization, and their material bases, lead us to think differently about how legal doctrine, practices of adjudication, and legal institutions, travel?

Kitab Undang-Undang Qanun Yang Dipakai Dalam Negeri Johor, 1837

These are the opening pages of KPG7514.M35 1837, a Malay text recently rediscovered at the Library of Congress.[3] The pencilled title on the facing page is in English and underlined: Malay Code of Laws, followed by “Copied by Abdullah ben Abdulkadir, at Singapore, 1837,” and the note, “Johore.” The illuminated gold title is in Jawi script: Bahawa Ini Kitab Undang-Undang Qanun Yang Dipakai Dalam Negeri Johor. Seeing these facing pages in their original form presents an opportunity to consider the work done to draw equivalences between ‘Malay Code of Laws’ and Ini Kitab Undang-Undang Qanun Yang Dipakai Dalam Negeri Johor.

The next blog post suggests a range of approaches to help us understand what this translative effort consisted of, how the material history of the text itself matters for its substantive analysis, and who was involved in its production.[4] It complicates the idea of a single approach to Islamic law and its sources in the Malay world, and points to a moment in which the very meaning of law was in flux.


[1] J.L. Austin, How To Do Things With Words: The William James Lectures delivered at Harvard University in 1955 (Oxford, 1975; online edn, Oxford Academic, October 3, 2011),

[2] “Making Legibility Between Colony and Empire: Translation, Conflation, and the Making of the Muslim State,” in The Many Hands of the State, eds. Ann Orloff and Kimberly Morgan (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017); “Law, Networks, Mobility: Nineteenth Century Provocations,” in Routledge Handbook of Asian Law, ed. Christoph Antons (London: Routledge, 2016); “Circulations of Law: Cosmopolitan Elites, Global Repertoires, Local Vernaculars,” Law and History Review 32, no. 4 (2014): 773-95; “Misreading and Mobility in Constitutional Texts: A Nineteenth Century Case,” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 21, no. 1 (2014): 145-58; “Textual Trajectories: Re-reading the Majalah and Constitution in 1890s Johor,” Indonesia and the Malay World 41, no. 120 (2013): 1-19.

[3] Joshua Kueh, “Malay and Bugis Manuscripts and Early Printed Books at the Library of Congress: An Update,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 93, no. 2 (2020): 45-63.

[4] See also Annabel Gallop, “Malay legal texts,” British Library Asian and African Studies Blog, February 20, 2015,

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Iza Hussin, Introduction: How to do things with translation, Islamic Law Blog (Dec. 15, 2022),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Iza Hussin, “Introduction: How to do things with translation,” Islamic Law Blog, December 15, 2022,

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