Breaking out of “Anglo-Muslim” hybrids, or the case for studying the princely states

By Elizabeth Lhost

Sources matter, especially for the study of history. They determine the stories we tell, the perspectives we portray, the experiences we recover. Yet when it comes to telling the story of Islamic legal change in South Asia under British rule, some sources lend themselves more easily and more willingly to narrative history. They do so in part because they were initially written to justify and necessitate colonial interventions. They also do so because we let them do the talking.

In my essays this month, I will highlight a handful of lesser-known sources that complicate the conventional narrative of colonial intervention and codification that pervades histories of Islamic legal change in British India. These sources include diagrams, decrees, letters, and law reports that performed different functions, made different claims to authority, and had different impacts upon the meaning and interpretation of “law” in late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century South Asia. Given that these sources emerged from the Indian princely state of Hyderabad, one of British India’s largest and most populous princely states, located in the heart of the subcontinent, these sources make specific appeals to the Islamic legal authority of Hyderabad’s Muslim-ruled state, but they do so in ways that complicate and challenge received narratives about the history of Anglo-Muslim and Muslim personal law in British India.[1]

Map of the Indian Empire by J. G. Bartholomew from the Imperial Gazetteer of India (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922), available on the Digital South Asia Library,

The princely states (shaded in yellow on the map) were semi-autonomous spaces that punctuated and disrupted clear assertions of (European) imperial hegemony. Sometimes referred to as “native” or “zamīndarī” states, these polities’ rulers (with titles like niẓām, nawāb, mahārājā, etc.) recognized British paramountcy through complex treaties and other administrative arrangements but exercised varying degrees of independence and autonomy. As scholars of global imperial history have shown, semi-sovereign and semi-autonomous spaces, like those of the princely states (of which there were some 300–600 in British India, depending on who was counting), created uneven and layered sovereignties.[2] Thus, through their resistance to British authority and unique approaches to legal administration, these states provide interesting terrain from which to explore questions like what characterizes a modern legal system, what determines effective administration, and what defines Islamic law (as opposed to laws created by Muslims). They complicate the problematic hybrids, dichotomies, and binaries that emerge from the colonial neologisms of “Anglo-Muhammadan” or “Anglo-Indian” law. And they open the door to an expansive world of legal-historical sources that remains vastly understudied and unexplored. I offer these examples not only to demonstrate the value of working with difficult sources but also to provoke further discussion about what it means to study law between, across, and among the multiple genres, arenas, and jurisdictions in/through/by which it traveled.

But first, some background.


Histories of Islamic legal change during the colonial period (which for South Asia I loosely define as 1750–1950) are shaped by source as much as by approach. Narratives that emerge from “colonial sources”—a broad and heterogeneous grouping that includes legislative debates, law reports, case files, petitions, privy council cases, and other records produced, preserved, and maintained by civil servants, colonial administrators, legislators, judges, and other employees of the Raj—chafe against the stories that emerge when we explore non-colonial collections. Language plays an important role distinguishing and dividing these collections, separating official, English-language government records from the diverse, unofficial—and in many cases vernacular-language (Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, etc.)—sources that challenge, contradict, and complicate otherwise simplistic narratives of conquest, codification, and community regulation.[3] But language is not the only factor separating these categories, as translation was always part of the process.[4]

Colonial sources (if we read them along the same lines as they were constructed, archived, and conserved), lend themselves to certain modes of analysis and specific forms of citation.[5] Where vernacular pamphlets, treatises, and tomes demand close reading and critical analysis, colonial sources lend themselves to casual citation. Their probity, accuracy, and factuality are determined by their very presence in the “colonial record.” Their relevance, importance, and authenticity have been indexed in imperial and national libraries, their trustworthiness all but guaranteed by the fact that they have been painstakingly collected and collated as part of the “official” archive.[6]

Different sources naturally call for different methods, but in South Asian historiography, the divide has become especially pronounced and particularly pernicious, producing an increasingly insurmountable gap between those who study colonial or imperial “history” and those who do Islamic or religious “studies” (or South Asian studies, or Hindu studies, or any number of other “studies”). Islamic legal history teeters and totters between these two disciplinary approaches, uncomfortably calling upon colonial sources to understand the evolution of “Anglo-Muhammadan” or “Muslim personal law” and looking to vernacular pamphlets, treatises, periodicals, and other publications to figure out the other side of the story, to trace the effects of colonial rule on Muslim life more broadly, often under the rubric of “revival and reform.”[7] But the gaps between the “colonial” and the “non-colonial” remain challenging to overcome and the resources required to engage substantively with multiple types of sources are considerable. Only when one genre intrudes upon the other, and one type of writing clashes with another, do the two worlds come together neatly (as Julia Stephens’s discussion of the Rangila Rasul case demonstrates).[8]

There is much I could say about why these disciplinary divisions remain and why diving into colonial records produces “history” but engaging with vernacular newspapers leads to “studies” scholarship. Rather than follow that trail, I want to turn instead to a broad category of sources that can open the door to new frameworks for studying and understanding colonial legal history, and Islamic legal history by extension. Legal-historical sources from the Indian princely states, I will underscore in my essays this month, provide a relatively underused pathway forward that allows historians to rethink inherited categories of analysis and to reconsider growing disciplinary divides.[9]


My interest in bridging the divide between “history” and “studies,” between histories of “colonial” law and those of “Islamic” law emerges from a recognition that the two approaches were never neatly separated and were, instead, constantly butting heads with one another. In short, there was never one thing called “colonial law” and one called “Islamic law” or “Muslim law.” What we might now classify as “colonial law” was continually affected, informed, and shaped by existing practices and other modes of legal thought. Similarly, what we refer to as Islamic law was also shaped by circumstances, context, and conditions. Yet this opposition and differentiation between the colonial and the non-colonial, between the secular and the religious, between the Christian and the Islamic, between the state and the non-state continues to shape how we understand law and where we look for “legal” sources.

In Everyday Islamic Law and the Making of Modern South Asia, I work to bridge these disciplinary and methodological divisions by connecting the dots between colonial and Islamic records, official and unofficial sources, state and non-state approaches to law.[10] But even with a broader framing—and even with an expansive definition of what counts as “law”—I inevitably leave some questions unanswered: Doesn’t the colonial state ultimately gain control over many areas of law? (Perhaps, but there’s always room to maneuver.) Hasn’t the state determined that “Islamic law” only applies to “Muslim personal law” cases? (Perhaps, though the definition of the “personal” is never that clear, as legal anthropologists like Katherine Lemons show.[11]) Answering these questions not only requires that historians resist the urge to let the state define the terms of the debate (i.e., to define what counts as “law”) but also requires rethinking our approach to the hybridities and dichotomies that spring from the very construction of “Anglo-Muslim” law.

Assumed dichotomies between the secular and the religious; the profane and the sacred; the imperial and the authentic; the corrupted and the original; the foreign and the autochthonous; the modern and the traditional; the state and the non-state; the English and the Islamic not only lead to long-lasting misconceptions about the past, they also construct blinders that cloud subsequent efforts to reframe historical connections. Such moves ignore centuries of change, growth, and evolution within Muslim communities and ignore changes that were happening within these communities during colonial rule. In other words, if “change” defines the colonial, then to remain “Muslim” is to resist change. Yet to credit European imperialists with every change that occurred across nearly two centuries of time between Plassey in 1757 (which precipitated the British East India Company’s rise to dominance on the subcontinent) and Partition in 1947 (when India and Pakistan gained independence) is to limit the agency of judges, jurists, legislators, and social reformers who had varying—and oftentimes contradictory and competing—views. These figures, who sometimes worked at cross purposes to one another, occasionally appear in the “colonial” record, but their more fulsome histories live outside it. Thus, when sources drive the story, historians must learn to pull sources that offer alternative and competing stories into view. Only then will scholarship challenge the dichotomous assumptions we’ve inherited.


As I’ve already hinted, legal-historical sources from the Indian princely states provide an opportunity to rework and rethink these dichotomies and oppositions. They provide new vocabularies, new institutions, new approaches, and new archives for addressing questions about what it means to write a legal code, what it means to inscribe “sharīʿa” into legislation, what it means to govern in the name of Islam, and what it means to administer a polity across several decades of profound global legal change. These sources take many forms—from administrative reports, to registers, to narrative histories, to court cases, to fragments—and often appear in multiple languages. They now reside in dozens of archives and library collections. In some cases, they’ve been transferred and incorporated into state and national archives; in other cases, they remain in private collections. While I do not claim to know about or to be familiar with all possible genres from all princely states, I do have several examples from the princely state of Hyderabad that offer some insights into how scholars might locate and call upon similar sources from other princely states. My series of essays this month will introduce and highlight these sources.

Further Reading:

  1. Milinda Banerjee, “‘State is the Household Vastly Enlarged’: Imagining Sovereignty through the Princely States,” in The Mortal God: Imagining the Sovereign in Colonial India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 108–61,
  2. Lauren Benton, “Landlocked: Colonial enclaves and the problem of quasi-sovereignty,” in A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 222–78.
  3. Lauren Benton, “From International Law to Imperial Constitutions: The Problem of Quasi-Sovereignty, 1870–1900,” Law and History Review 26, no. 3 (2008): 595–619,
  4. Stephen Legg, “An International Anomaly? Sovereignty, the League of Nations and India’s Princely Geographies,” Journal of Historical Geography 43 (January 1, 2014): 96–110,
  5. Mitra Sharafi, “The Marital Patchwork of Colonial South Asia: Forum Shopping from Britain to Baroda,” Law and History Review 28, no. 4 (November 2010): 979–1009,


[1] For more on these inheritances, see Sohaira Siddiqui’s series on Anglo-Muhammadan Law, beginning with “The Birth of Anglo-Muhammadan Law in India,” Islamic Law Blog, July 7, 2020,

[2] Lauren Benton, “Landlocked: Colonial enclaves and the problem of quasi-sovereignty,” in A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400–1900 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 222–78.

[3] Here I aim to follow Charu Singh and others who are charting the way for vernacular histories of science. Singh, “Science in the vernacular? Translation, terminology and lexicography in the Hindi Scientific Glossary (1906),” South Asian History and Culture 13, no. 1 (2022): 63-86,

[4] See Iza Hussin’s series of essays on translation and law: Hussin, “Introduction: How to do things with translation,” Islamic Law Blog, December 15, 2022,; Hussin, “How to do things with translation: ‘Law’ in the Malay World,” Islamic Law Blog, December 20, 2022,; Hussin, “How to do things with translation: ‘Religion’,” Islamic Law Blog, December 22, 2022,; and Hussin, “How to do things with translation: ‘Personal Law’,” Islamic Law Blog, December 27, 2022,

[5] For further consideration of the relationship between the tools of imperial oppression and the methods of historical inquiry, consider Anjali Arondekar, For the Record: On Sexuality and the Colonial Archive in India (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009); Hazel Carby, Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands (London: Verso, 2019); Priya Satia, Time’s Monster: How History Makes History (Cambridge, M.A.: Belknap Press, 2020); Ann Laura Stoler, Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009); and Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).

[6] South Asian studies has been particularly attuned to questions about what is present in or absent from the colonial record. Resulting discussions of the gaps, absences, and silences in the archive, however, tend to focus on problems inherent to reading the “official record.” Such discussions deal less with how to fit the unofficial, the incongruous, the irreverent into broader historical narratives, which—especially for legal history—requires more work across archives, languages, and genres.

[7] These compendia include works like Roland Knyvet Wilson, A Digest of Anglo-Muhammadan Law, Setting Forth in the Form of a Code, with Full References to Modern and Ancient Authorities, the Special Rules Now Applicable to Muhammadans as Such by the Civil Courts of British India, 1st ed. (London: W. Thacker, 1895); and Faiz Badrudin Tyabji, Muslim Law; the Personal Law of Muslims in India and Pakistan, 4th ed. (Bombay: N. M. Tripathi, 1968). Scholarship tracing the evolution of Anglo-Muslim law includes Muhammad Zubair Abbasi, “Islamic Law and Social Change: An Insight into the Making of Anglo-Muhammadan Law,” Journal of Islamic Studies 25, no. 3 (2014): 325–49; Michael R. Anderson, “Islamic Law and the Colonial Encounter in British India,” in Institutions and Ideologies: A SOAS South Asia Reader, eds. David Arnold and Peter Robb (London: Curzon Press Ltd., 1993), 165–85; Shahnaz Huda, “Anglo-Muhammedan and Anglo-Hindu Law—Revisiting Colonial Codification,” Bangladesh Journal of Law 7, nos. 1 & 2 (2003): 1–22; and Scott Alan Kugle, “Framed, Blamed and Renamed: The Recasting of Islamic Jurisprudence in Colonial South Asia,” Modern Asian Studies 35, no. 2 (2001): 257–313. Discussions of women’s rights, gender equity, and postcolonial secularism dominate much of the literature on personal law in South Asia, with a focus on Hindu and Muslim personal law. See, for example, Eleanor Newbigin, “The Codification of Personal Law and Secular Citizenship: Revisiting the History of Law Reform in Late Colonial India,” The Indian Economic & Social History Review 46, no. 1 (2009): 83–104,; Chandra Mallampalli, “Escaping the Grip of Personal Law in Colonial India: Proving Custom, Negotiating Hindu-Ness,” Law and History Review 28, no. 4 (2010): 1043–65; Eleanor Newbigin, The Hindu Family and the Emergence of Modern India: Law, Citizenship and Community, Cambridge Studies in Indian History and Society (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), among others. On the Islamic studies side, scholarship that engages with different strands of Muslim thought includes Barbara Daly Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860–1900 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982); Muhammad Qasim Zaman, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002); Brannon Ingram, Revival from Below: The Deoband movement and Global Islam (Oakland: University of California Press, 2018); and SherAli K. Tareen, Defending Muḥammad in Modernity (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020).

[8] Julia Stephens, “Pathologizing Muslim Sentiment,” in Governing Islam: Law, Empire, and Secularism in South Asia (Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 132–54.

[9] Already, exciting new scholarship that engages with materials from the princely states to reconsider questions of “modern” statecraft is in process and is finding its way into print. See, for example, Elizabeth M. Thelen, “A New Language of Rule: Alwar’s Administrative Experiment, c. 1838–58,” Law and History Review (February 14, 2023): 1–20,

[10] Elizabeth Lhost, Everyday Islamic Law and the Making of Modern South Asia. Islamic Civilization and Muslim Networks. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022).

[11] Katherine Lemons, Divorcing Traditions: Islamic Marriage Law and the Making of Indian Secularism (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2019).

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Elizabeth Lhost, Breaking out of “Anglo-Muslim” hybrids, or the case for studying the princely states, Islamic Law Blog (Mar. 2, 2023),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Elizabeth Lhost, “Breaking out of “Anglo-Muslim” hybrids, or the case for studying the princely states,” Islamic Law Blog, March 2, 2023,

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