Naql-i Rejisṫarḋ khaṭ: Letters, postcards, and telegrams as sources of law

By Elizabeth Lhost

In March 1950, Muḥyī-ud-dīn Ṣāḥib sent a request to the dār al-iftāʾ (office for issuing fatwās, judicial opinions) of the Ṣadārat al-ʿĀliya (ecclesiastical department) of the princely state of Hyderabad in which he raised a question about “Zayd’s” use of a registered letter (“regisar kha”) to notify his wife of their irrevocable divorce.[1] (Muḥyī-ud-dīn uses the expression “alāq-i bāʾin.”) In addition to providing the muftī with a cover letter summarizing the situation, he also included a redacted copy of the letter, dated 21 January 1950. (See figure below.)

A copy of a registered letter sent to the dār aliftāʾ of the princely state of Hyderabad in relation to a question about “tīn ṭalāq” (irrevocable divorce). Note the ellipses where the fatwa seeker has redacted certain pieces of personal information.

While countless fatwās (and essays and articles) have been written about the permissibility or impermissibility, revocability or irrevocability of what is referred to in South Asia as “tīn alāq,” triple talaq, or alāq-i bāʾin, that issue is not the subject of my essay today.[2] Instead, I use Muḥyī-ud-dīn’s question about the legal impact of a letter transmitted via registered mail as an opportunity to show how legal sources and ideas traveled across spaces and territories and to suggest that archival sources from the princely state of Hyderabad (and other Indian princely states) often contain untapped stores of otherwise ephemeral material like letters, postcards, and telegrams that offer unique information about social, legal, and political history. In other words, Muḥyī-ud-dīn’s letter is useful for considering the nuances of this legal question and the processes and procedures Indian Muslim jurists followed to tease apart the question’s meanings and implications. It also demonstrates the role of the postal service in ferrying legal statements, questions, clarifications, and decrees across the borders of princely and British India.

Files from the dār al-iftāʾ of the Ṣadārat al-ʿĀliya (the state’s institute for granting fatwās, which operated as a branch of the Ṣadārat, the state’s “ecclesiastical” or “religious affairs” department) are filled with documents like these: letters that make legal-sounding statements with questionable legal status; postcards that provide important details for tracing family trees and deciding who inherits; telegrams that dictate whether the dār al-iftā’s final fatwā will reach the supplicant who requested it.[3]

A bundle of the files from the iftāʾ department of the princely state of Hyderabad, as encountered by the author during a visit to the Andhra Pradesh State Archives in 2013. © 2023 Elizabeth Lhost is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

These materials—in many cases nothing more than scraps of paper with a few scribbles on them—are the stuff of everyday law. They are the traces of legal consciousness that show up in correspondence between husbands and wives. They are evidence of the legal knowledge that lay legal actors deployed in writing and in speech to effect legally meaningful changes in their lives. They are a testament to the limitations of “official,” recorded, and reported legal archives, and they are an indication that ideas about law—and in many cases, the influences of law—did not follow territorial demarcations or borders drawn on official maps but instead traveled with and through mobile populations and ever-expanding communications circuits.

Evidence of these circuits is present in the Ṣadārat al-ʿĀliya’s files, and it is also present in collections of fatāwā from prominent jurists, like Muftī Kifāyat Allāh (ca. 1875–1952) of Dihlī, who received questions from across and beyond the subcontinent.[4] What is more, these circuits suggest that networks of consultation were neither constrained nor hampered by the (porous) borders separating “British India” from the princely states.

Indeed, most of the sources I consider in Everyday Islamic Law and the Making of Modern South Asia, from marriage registers to fatwā files, to court cases, to published majmūʿa-yi fatāwā (fatwā collections), contain evidence of legal border-crossings of one form or another. Qażīs in Meerut married residents from the princely state of Tonk. Muftīs in Hyderabad responded to questions from Muslims in Calcutta. At the Madrasa Amīniya, Muftī Kifāyat Allāh received questions from across British India, the princely states, and overseas territories as well. He published answers to the questions he received in the newspaper al-Jamʿīyat, which expanded his audience and even prompted some readers to send him follow-up questions. These circuits of transmission and exchange were ubiquitous and widely used to carry the stuff of law.[5]

In recent presentations and works-in-progress, I have suggested that long-distance communication created threads of legal belonging and connection and that historians should examine not just vertical exchanges between muftīs and mustaftīs (fatwā-seekers; petitioners) but also horizontal exchanges between muftīs, which often moved from one jurisdiction to another. ʿUlamāʾ (religious leaders) in Afghanistan, for instance, consulted Kifāyat Allāh while working to establish schools for girls in the 1920s.[6] For Muslims in South Africa, answers from Kifāyat Allāh provided an opportunity to be part of an expansive Indian Muslim community, sharing legal, social, and (in the case of supporting Gandhian anti-colonialism) political affinities. For correspondents in Scotland, the long-distance communication with a muftī maintained a connection back home, when life was happening abroad.[7] In other words, threads of legal authority were (and are) also threads of legal belonging.[8]

Muftīs in Hyderabad were part of similar networks of correspondence and exchange. They corresponded with fatwā-seekers who lived outside of the city and were unable to bring their questions to the office in person. They corresponded with fatwā-seekers from cities such as Calcutta, which were squarely located in British Indian jurisdiction. They used the postal system to send formal, official fatwās to fatwā-seekers in those places, and they relied on telegraph networks to conduct the day-to-day business of running a bureaucratic office with forms, files, documents, and paperwork. While published collections of fatāwā from prominent (and less well-known) jurists provide one pathway for uncovering some of these networks of communication and exchange, bundles, files, and fragments extant in the archival remains of the princely states provide another, rich avenue for uncovering these cross-border exchanges. I offer an introduction to these types of sources and the questions they can answer in chapter five of Everyday Islamic Law, but there is a lot more material to locate, digest, and analyze than I could fit into a single chapter.[9] Scholars with an interest in moving away from colonial legal sources would do well to dig into these archives.

In addition to highlighting these threads of communication as evidence of inter-Muslim connection across wide geographic expanses, these transmissions also challenge ideas about jurisdiction. Muḥyī-ud-dīn’s question, for instance, was less about the nuances of tīn ṭalāq than it was about the legal authority of a registered letter, although the muftī’s reply focused more on the former. The widespread travel and transmission of unofficial legal documents like letters and postcards urges us to consider the role of princely state legal institutions in shaping legal attitudes and understandings not just for residents of those princely states but for residents of British India—and the wider imperial world—as well. Often, sources like these are lost or left out of the official archive but they are of vital importance for understanding how law impacts society and how society impacts the law. And they show us that the labels we apply—colonial, imperial, Islamic—to classify or categorize cases, ideas, and interpretations are more complex, permeable, and interrelated than the colonial archive might lead us to believe.

Further Reading:

  1. Iza Hussin, “Circulations of Law: Cosmopolitan Elites, Global Repertoires, Local Vernaculars,” Law and History Review 32, no. 4 (November 2014): 773–95,
  2. Elizabeth Lhost, “Of Horizontal Exchanges and Inter-Islamic Inquiries,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 41, no. 2 (August 1, 2021): 257–61,
  3. Elizabeth Lhost, Everyday Islamic Law and the Making of Modern South Asia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022).
  4. Renisa Mawani and Iza Hussin, “The Travels of Law: Indian Ocean Itineraries,” Law and History Review 32, no. 4 (November 2014): 733–47,
  5. Sarath Pillai, “Archiving Federally, Writing Regionally: Archival Practices and Princely State Histories in Postcolonial India,” Archives and Records 42, no. 2 (May 4, 2021): 149–66,


[1] I introduced this office in my previous essay. See “Farāmīn-i Niẓāmat: Looking at legal layers in a royal decree,” Islamic Law Blog.

[2] For more on this type of divorce, see Akhila Kolisetty, “Unilateral Talaq and the Indian Supreme Court’s Responsiveness to Perceptions within India’s Muslim Community,” Islamic Law Blog, June 2, 2015,; and “In the news: Triple Ṭalāq criminalized in India,” Islamic Law Blog, December 12, 2018,ṭalaq-criminalized-in-india/.

[3] I discuss these issues in more detail in Elizabeth Lhost, “From Files to Fatwas: Procedural Uniformity and Substantive Flexibility in Alternative Legal Spaces,” in Everyday Islamic Law and the Making of Modern South Asia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022), 136–64.

[4] See chs. 4 and 5 in ibid., 114–64 for a more detailed discussion of these figures and institutions.

[5] See Part 2, “Paperwork” in ibid., 109–93.

[6] Elizabeth Lhost, “Of Horizontal Exchanges and Inter-Islamic Inquiries,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 41, no. 2 (August 1, 2021): 257–61,

[7] Muḥammad Kifāyat Allāh, Kifāyat al-Muftī: Yaʻnī Muft-yi Aʻżam Maulānā Kifāyat Allāh Kī Fatāvā, 9 vols., ed., Ḥafīżurraḥmān Vāṣif, (Dihlī: Kōh-i Nūr Prēs, 1971), 9:018, 9:468, 4:298.

[8] Elizabeth Lhost, “From Rander to Rangoon: Peripatetic Litigants and Muslim Belonging in the Indian Ocean,” Association for Asian Studies Annual Meeting, Honolulu, HI, March 25, 2022; Lhost, “Local Muftis and Long-Distance Inquiries: Fatwas as texts of migration in the Indian Ocean Arena,” Middle East Studies Association Annual Meeting, Montreal, ON (Virtual), December 3, 2021.

[9] See especially ch. 5, “From Files to Fatwas: Procedural Uniformity and Substantive Flexibility in Alternative Legal Spaces,” in Lhost, Everyday Islamic Law, 136–64.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Elizabeth Lhost, Naql-i Rejisṫarḋ khaṭ: Letters, postcards, and telegrams as sources of law, Islamic Law Blog (Mar. 23, 2023),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Elizabeth Lhost, “Naql-i Rejisṫarḋ khaṭ: Letters, postcards, and telegrams as sources of law,” Islamic Law Blog, March 23, 2023,

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