Raftār-i Taraqqī-yi ʿAdālat: Rethinking “progress” in the history of Hyderabad’s Āṣafī Courts

By Elizabeth Lhost

Like a good social scientist, I begin with a diagram. Mir Basit Ali Khan’s Urdu-language Tārīkh-i ʿAdālat-i Āafī (History of the Asafi Courts) (1937) opens with a grand illustration celebrating judicial progress in the princely state of Hyderabad between 1911, when the last independent ruler, Niẓām Mir Osman Ali Khan (r. 1911–1948) ascended to the throne, and 1936, when Hyderabad celebrated the ruler’s silver jubilee (see figure below).[1]

Diagram of Judicial Progress by Mir Basit Ali Khan, in Tārīkh-i ʻadālat-i Aṣafī, np.

As he explains, Basit Ali Khan designed his scales of justice illustration to entice readers to take an interest in the recent accomplishments of the Āṣaf Jāhī courts. With text in English and Urdu, the diagram places the state’s “judicial committee” atop these elaborate scales of justice and demonstrates the courts’ recent progress (raftār-i taraqqī-yi ʿadālat) by comparing statistics from 1911 on the right to those from 1936, the year of the silver jubilee on the left. In 1911, for example, seven individuals sat on the high court (one chief justice, five puisne—or, ordinary—judges, and one muftī). Twenty-five years later, the total had grown to eleven employees: one chief justice (mīr-i majlis), eight puisne judges (arākīn; pillars), one inspecting officer (tanqī kunanda), and still one muftī. The lower courts—the divisional courts (ʿadālat-hā-yi ūba), the district courts (ʿadālat-hā-yi ażlāʿ), and the munif’s courts (ʿadālat-hā-yi munafīn; village courts)—reveal similar progress. Under each beam, Basit Ali Khan counts the number of individuals employed at each level and demonstrates the courts’ strength relative to their judicial powers (ikhtīyārāt). Around the edges of the diagram, he provides additional metrics related to the number of institutions established, cases disposed, and their relative duration on the civil (dīwānī) and criminal (faujdārī) sides, showing with thermometer-like graphics how these statistics compared between 1911 and 1936.

Basit Ali Khan’s diagram is a visual introduction to Hyderabad state’s legal system in the first decades of the twentieth century. It provides viewers with a useful summary of its progress over the past twenty-five years and gives them a seductive introduction to its quirks and idiosyncrasies. Indeed, the illustration is a concise statement about and a provocation to consider the idea of judicial progress (taraqqī), which it sketches against the backdrop of Hyderabad’s early twentieth-century history.[2] In the short span of two pages, the diagram thus signifies the spirit of progress, reform, and modernization that characterized the actions and activities of the state’s legal professionals (including the author, a sessions judge) and challenges onlookers to think more carefully about what progress looks like: If progress is a march toward secularism, as much of the literature on colonial and postcolonial personal law suggests, then what is the muftī doing in the apex court?[3] If progress is the pursuit of justice, then why are the scales balanced before and after reforms? If progress is marked by professionalization and depersonalization, then why is the niẓām’s (princely ruler’s) silver jubilee the ostensible motivation for this work? And relatedly where does the niẓām fit into the story?


In my introductiory essay, I suggested that incorporating sources from Indian princely states like Hyderabad into histories of colonial law and legal change provides historians with an opportunity to challenge, rethink, and untangle the dichotomies and binaries we’ve inherited through our focus on terms like “Anglo-Muslim” and “Anglo-Indian.” Here I extend that argument by framing Basit Ali Khan’s illustration of judicial progress under the Āṣaf Jāhī niẓāms as an opportunity to rethink one of the binaries that clouds discussions of Islamic legal change, that of progress and tradition.

There are many possible arguments one could make about Basit Ali Khan’s approach to progress. There are arguments one could make about progress as an onward and upward march; progress as the outcome of reform; progress as the product of enlightened rulers; progress that results from employing trained legal professionals; progress that emanates from the construction of judicial buildings; progress that puts Hyderabad’s courts on the same plane as those in British India; progress that makes Hyderabad worthy of emulation elsewhere; progress that discards the past; progress that embraces the past; progress that insists on uniformity; progress that embraces diversity; progress that is inevitable; progress that is deliberate.

Evidence from the Tārīkh could support any number of arguments like these and Basit Ali Khan’s use of the term “progress” (taraqqī) touches upon all these aspects. In the diagram of judicial progress, however, taraqqī lies most firmly in the numbers that have been tallied: the number of courts in the land, the number of judges on each bench, the number of cases they have heard, and the extent and strength of their powers (measured by the value of the case or the severity of the punishment). In this context, judicial “progress” becomes nearly synonymous with efficient “administration.” Courts demonstrate progress not in how they interpret or apply the law but in how they function, how they operate, how they are administered. In other words, progress lies in organized administration, which, in turn, emanates from the structures and procedures that define their activities, the qualities and characteristics of their personnel, and above all the numbers of courts, judges, and cases they manage, the administrative tallies, facts, and figures that emerge from and exemplify their responsible organization.[4]

This story of progress (which finds echoes throughout the rest of the three-hundred-page Tārīkh) focuses on the expansion of a professional(ized) administrative state. It is one that resides in law libraries, documents, paperwork, record rooms, trained legal professionals (who wear professional attire), and other trappings of a modern (“maujūda,” he writes) legal system.

But progress is no doubt more than that as well and is tied to Basit Ali Khan’s own professional biography and training. It is also a story expressed by an author who was a barrister and sessions judge in the Madras High Court, who studied law at Trinity College in Dublin, and who nonetheless still chose Urdu as the language for his history. It is a story motivated and shaped by the author’s background and his commitment to the principles and ideals of justice. Beyond this, it is also a story that highlights the niẓāms’ influence, underscores the importance of Islamic law (Islāmī qānūn), outlines Hyderabad’s special (khāṣṣ) courts,[5] discusses different aspects of judicial procedure (e.g., how to implement summons and decisions), dedicates an entire chapter to professional training and exams, and gives biographies not just of judges but also of nobles (paigāhs, samasthāns, and jagīrdārs).[6]

Yet even though he employs the tactics and techniques of a colonial bureaucrat, counting and tallying courts and cases, Basit Ali Khan never disappears into his Tārīkh the way an unnamed junior officer might disappear into a colonial report. Instead, his history is tied to his place in Hyderabad, Hyderabad’s status in India, and India’s role in the empire. Narrative, narration, and narrator are all connected.

I have taken this opportunity to ruminate on the implications of Basit Ali Khan’s diagram of judicial progress not simply to raise historians’ hackles about using loaded words like “progress” and “reform” in their work (most historians already exercise caution with such terms) but rather to draw attention to how even seemingly simple, straightforward historical accounts from the princely states add new layers of complexity to our existing ideas about reform, progress, and legal change. Numbers, facts, and figures may be the easiest “data” to include in works of legal history. (Dwindling numbers point to decline; increasing numbers signal progress, success. More cases mean the courts are doing a good job; faster processing means they are being more efficient, etc.) But such figures also urge us to question who was counting and how, for what purposes, and by which methods.[7] While it may be easy for historians to point fingers at colonial administrators for their obsession with numbers and enumeration, it is less easy to dismiss the joy, interest, and apparent belief that individuals like Basit Ali Khan placed in the numbers they cited. His diagram thus invites viewers not only to gaze upon the wonder that was Hyderabad’s complex, layered, and evolving judicial system but also to look beyond the numbers to answer more probing questions about what “progress” meant, what “reform” looked like, and who was driving legal change.


Framed another way, Basit Ali Khan’s diagram prompts historians to reconsider a range of questions about historical actors, historical accounts, and historical narratives: What kinds of histories emerge if we look beyond the oversimplified binaries of “colonized” and “colonizer” and begin to treat elite Indians, or elite Muslims, as key drivers of legal reform?[8] What ideas about secularism and the state begin to take shape if histories like the Tārīkh-i ʿAdālat-i Āafī acknowledge Islam as the basis for law but then remove it almost entirely from the history of legal change? What notions of authority and influence emerge if legal training, stature, and experience dominate the biographies of legal reformers who move within and without empire, gathering, shaping, and transforming ideas about law as they move? What do these narratives look like when the person touting the state’s legal reforms is not a nameless, faceless bureaucrat but is instead someone like Basit Ali Khan?

These are some of the questions that the diagram of judicial progress prompts historians to consider—and they are the ones that drive us to consider the more intractable entanglements of (Islamic) law and (colonial) history that sources from the princely states give us reason to reconsider.

Further reading:

  1. Eric Lewis Beverley, Hyderabad, British India, and the World: Muslim Networks and Minor Sovereignty, c. 1850-1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
  2. Karen Leonard, “Reassessing Indirect Rule in Hyderabad: Rule, Ruler, or Sons-in-Law of the State?,” Modern Asian Studies 37, no. 2 (May 2003): 363–79, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0026749X0300204X.
  3. Karen Leonard, “The Hyderabad Political System and Its Participants,” The Journal of Asian Studies 30, no. 3 (May 1971): 569–82, https://doi.org/10.2307/2052461.


[1] The name “Āṣafī” refers to the family name of the Āṣaf Jāhī dynasty, which ruled Hyderabad from the middle of the eighteenth to the middle of the twentieth century. Mīr Bās̲iṭ ʻAlī Khān, Tārīkh-i ʻadālat-i Aafī, Yaʻnī Salanat-i Āafiyya kī ʻadālato ke Qiyām va Irtiqā kī dō sad sāla tārīkh aur ażrat Bandgān-i ʻālī Āafjāh-i sābiʻ ke ʻahd-i Humāyūnī ke ʻadālatī iāt va taraqqiyāt kā tafīlī tadhkīra (Hyderabad, India: Shams al-Islām Press, 1937).

[2] There are, of course, other ways to translate the term “taraqqī,” but Basit Ali Khan’s translation as “progress” fits with comparable uses at the time.

[3] The literature on secularism in British India and postcolonial South Asia is vast. For a careful discussion of secularism in relation to Muslim personal law in British India, see Julia Stephens, Governing Islam: Law, Empire, and Secularism in South Asia (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018), along with C.S. Adcock, The Limits of Tolerance: Indian Secularism and the Politics of Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Nandini Chatterjee, The Making of Indian Secularism: Empire, Law and Christianity, 1830-1960 (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). Scholarship on Islamic legal practice in contemporary India challenges the assumption that muftīs are not part of India’s secular status. See Katherine Lemons, Divorcing Traditions: Islamic Marriage Law and the Making of Indian Secularism (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2019); and Jeffrey A. Redding, A Secular Need: Islamic Law and State Governance in Contemporary India (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020). In recent decades, scholars have also questioned the uses and limits of Indian secularism. See, e.g., Anuradha Dingwaney Needham and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, eds., The Crisis of Secularism in India (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007); and Rajeev Bhargava, “We (In India) Have Always Been Post-Secular,” in Global Secularisms in a Post-Secular Age, Studies in Religion, Nonreligion, and Secularity, eds. Michael Rectenwald, Rochelle Almeida, and George Levine (Boston: De Gruyter, 2015), 109–35, among others.

[4] When discussing the judicial offices in Hyderabad, such as the munṣif’s court, Basit Ali Khan focuses on the number of appointed officers, the appointees’ qualifications, the scope of their roles, and their salaries. Khan, Tārīkh, 94–109.

[5] These “special” courts included the court of the British Residency, the special magistrate for thuggee and dacoity (banditry and highway robbery), the special magistrate for Americans and Europeans, the special magistrate at Yellandu (a town with an English mining company), the special magistrate for ābkārī (drugs and intoxicating liquors), the court for taʿalluqdārs (a type of landholder), and the court for the nāẓim (administrator) of Tappa and other districts.

[6] On the history of the samasthāns, see Benjamin B. Cohen, Kingship and Colonialism in India’s Deccan, 1850–1948 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

[7] I recommend Cathy O’Neill and Jerry Muller for introductions to these questions in broad terms. Cathy O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy (New York: Broadway Books, 2017), especially chapter 5, “Civilian Casualties: Justice in the Age of Big Data”; and Jerry Z. Muller, The Tyranny of Metrics: How the obsession with quantifying human performance threatens our schools, medical care, businesses, and government (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2018). The literature on colonial enumeration is considerable. I recommend starting with Arjun Appadurai, “Number in the Colonial Imagination,” in Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia, eds. Carol Appadurai Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer, South Asia Seminar Series (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), 314–39.

[8] See Iza R. Hussin, The Politics of Islamic Law: Local Elites, Colonial Authority, and the Making of the Muslim State (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016) for one possible answer to this question.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Elizabeth Lhost, Raftār-i Taraqqī-yi ʿAdālat: Rethinking “progress” in the history of Hyderabad’s Āṣafī Courts, Islamic Law Blog (Mar. 9, 2023), https://islamiclaw.blog/2023/03/09/raftar-i-taraqqi-yi-%ca%bfadalat-rethinking-progress-in-the-history-of-hyderabads-a%e1%b9%a3afi-courts/)

(Suggested Chicago citation: Elizabeth Lhost, “Raftār-i Taraqqī-yi ʿAdālat: Rethinking “progress” in the history of Hyderabad’s Āṣafī Courts,” Islamic Law Blog, March 9, 2023, https://islamiclaw.blog/2023/03/09/raftar-i-taraqqi-yi-%ca%bfadalat-rethinking-progress-in-the-history-of-hyderabads-a%e1%b9%a3afi-courts/)

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