Travelogues and Islamic Law: Vignettes from an Indian Ḥanafī Hajj Account, 1839

By Sohaib Baig

In the previous two essays, I conducted collection-level analysis of a Turkish union catalog containing more than half a million records to explore the textual landscapes of South Asian-Ottoman intellectual transmission. For my final essay, I shift gears and present a very different perspective on the transregional dimensions of Islamic legal history, one which emerges from travel literature. I reflect on the importance of travel accounts for Islamic legal history and highlight their capacity to shed light not only on the social contexts and lived dimensions of Islamic law, but also on how Islamic law served as a generative force of cross-cultural and transregional connection.

In recent years, a growing number of historians, such as Fahad Bishara, Iza Hussin, and Mahmood Kooria, have written on Islamic legal history from a transregional perspective, exploring the legal grammars, forms of legal pluralism, and commentarial traditions that animated commercial, political, and intellectual history across many regions of the Indian Ocean.[1] In my book project, The Shores of Legal Difference: Indian Hanafis, Hadith Scholarship, and Legal Pluralism across the Indian Ocean, 1500-1924, I build upon these approaches to shed light on how the Islamic legal schools (madhhabs) connected Muslims across multiple empires in the Indian Ocean, provided an overlapping legal framework for interaction and exchange, and propelled scholarship and juristic debate in the early modern and modern periods. For this purpose, I examine travelogues, in addition to other sources of Islamic legal history, such as fatwās, legal treatises, ḥadīth commentaries, imperial records, and biographical dictionaries.

Below, I briefly discuss examples from the 1839 hajj travelogue of Nawāb Muṣṭafā Khān Shefta (d. 1286/1869), a prominent poet in Delhi’s literary circles (a friend of the more famous Mirzā Ghālib (d. 1285/1869), among others) who composed poetry in Persian and Urdu.[2] Shefta wrote a riveting account of his hajj trip, describing among other things, the jarring experience of being shipwrecked off the coast of Yemen and being stranded on an uninhabited island for about 5 weeks.[3]

At the outset, it should be noted that although Shefta did have an education in Arabic, Persian, mathematics, Sufism, and ḥadīth, he was not a muftī or jurist – he was mostly known as a poet who frequented poetry assemblies (mushā‘iras) and even hosted them at his home. To hear his articulation and experiences of legal authority thus gives insights on the social spread of the madhhabs beyond juristic circles. Hence, even brief, one-word references to law and madhhab authority can carry meaningful insights about the nature and working of legal knowledge and authority in the early nineteenth century.

In the first part of his travelogue, Shefta recounted his trip from Delhi south to the port of Bombay, where he and a group of travelers (including his mother and grandmother) boarded a ship for the Hijaz. As he described the scenery of the lands and the various cities they passed, he mentioned a unique situation they faced out on the road:

“Here, in these areas, there was no pure water (pāk pānī) as stipulated by the Ḥanafīs available. Out of necessity (majbūran), the Mālikī opinion was practiced upon because in some of these areas there was so little water that it could not be considered pure even per Shāfi‘ī conditions. We’ve also heard that there is less water available ahead, so it remains to be seen which school we will be compelled to follow.”[4]

Although Shefta did not mention each school’s conditions, this was likely a reference to the Mālikī positions which allowed for reusing water for purification as well as water which mixed with an impurity without changing any of the water’s properties. In conditions of scarcity, this would allow for wider and repeat usage of water as opposed to the Ḥanafī position which held that previously used water could not be used for purification. In addition, a body of water (smaller than 10×10 cubits) would be rendered impure (if an impurity fell upon it) even if its properties did not change.[5]

Shefta’s provided explanation of being “compelled” to switch from the Ḥanafī to Mālikī opinion referenced a particular idea of legal fluidity that stipulated necessity (ḍarūra) as a legal condition (among others) for acting upon a position of another madhhab.[6] This was also held by the famous scholar of Delhi, Shāh ‘Abd al-‘Azīz al-Dihlawī (d. 1239/1824), son of Shāh Walīullāh (d. 1176/1762).[7] Shefta’s action was not fueled by his own individual (and potentially blameworthy) preference for an easier option, nor his examination of the legal arguments put forth by the two schools, as some contemporaneous scholars had begun to do back in Delhi (attracting a fair share of controversy).[8] Shefta, as a non-jurist, remained safely in legal conformity to the madhhab-system.

This comment, casually interposed between descriptions of these lands, provides a small glimpse of how travelers could draw upon other legal schools to meet their unique circumstances. The awareness of different legal rulings regarding the conditions of the purity of water shows how madhhab authority exerted itself in remote regions even in the absence of the muftīs of those madhhabs (for Shefta did not mention consulting any Mālikīs or muftīs). It could have reflected his own education in Islamic law (and this issue was discussed in oft-studied legal texts such as the Hidāya of al-Marghīnānī, d. 593/1197), or even knowledge that was known to travelers of that region. Here, then, is a small glimpse of how the legal schools animated lived practice and provided Muslims with multiple legal options even in contexts that lacked any corresponding institutional legal infrastructure.

When Shefta arrived at Mecca, he described the sacred city and its inhabitants in colorful detail. He was very much struck by the diversity of the city: “Mecca is a big city. It has a large population and is full of life … People are found here from every city and every land, including Hind, Sindh, Persia, Bukhara, Kabul, Kashmir, Rūm, Ḥabash … the Javanese and Turkish people especially are here in great numbers, and so are the Egyptians…”[9] These were just the inhabitants who lived here, Shefta explained. During hajj season, the amount of pilgrims would swell to the degree that “nobody but God could know their number.” In the face of such bewildering numbers and diversity, Shefta marveled: “It is not possible to count their numbers; every one of them has their own customs, habits, languages, and clothing.”[10]

Yet, Shefta continued to organize this befuddling diversity under one overarching rubric: “Most of Mecca’s inhabitants are Ḥanafī,” he wrote, “followed by the Shāfi‘īs, and then the Mālikīs. There are only 3 Ḥanbalīs[!].”[11] The madhhab-system thus gave him the ability to categorize broad swathes of Muslim society, across immense cultural, linguistic, and ethnic divides. Shefta was not speaking in terms of scholars and jurists, but general society, including the common person. To be sure, such “demographic” accounts of Muslim cities and societies in terms of madhhabs (including the Zaydī madhhab) were also found in other Indian Ocean travelogues and served to place new peoples and societies within the familiar rubric of an overlapping framework.[12]

How exactly would the common person identify with a madhhab, and how did Shefta arrive at his estimates? Shefta’s travelogue does not provide a clear answer. However, Shefta may have gleaned much from the organization of the daily prayers in the courtyard of the Ḥaram at Mecca, which instituted separate congregational prayers for each madhhab. In fact, Shefta continued to describe the number of imāms at Mecca and Medina, grouped by madhhab. He also described the order in which each madhhab’s imām would lead congregational prayers at the Ḥaram in Mecca from their own maqām (prayer stations), in line with the school’s preferred timings. For his part, Shefta did not praise or critique this arrangement: he described it in matter-of-fact terms and continued in the same breadth to praise the heart-stirring Qur’ānic recitation of the imāms and the great eloquence of its preachers.

(Illustration of the Ḥaram courtyard with maqāms for each madhhab listed)
Risāla dar Faḍā’il-i Makka Mukarrama, Punjab University Library, Oriental Manuscripts Collections, MS F34/8326, f. 30.

Even though lacking the juristic discussions of the legality of this prayer arrangement, there is still something to be gleaned from Shefta’s description. Over the centuries, a number of jurists and scholars had debated the need for these prayer arrangements.[13] Other travel accounts also suggest that these were not followed strictly by adherents of the madhhabs; most people prayed freely at the congregations of different madhhabs.[14] Yet, Shefta’s documentation of this numerical and procedural information reflected its importance to his hajj experience and its perceived usefulness for readers back home. He evidently did not question these arrangements, but took it as a given that every Muslim belonged to a madhhab. For him – and clearly others in his context – the madhhabs not only formed a window to worship the Divine, but also to understand and group Muslims from different lands.

Shefta’s travelogue contains many other references and discussions of law and madhhabs, including the Zaydīs he encountered in Yemen, as well as the Shāfi‘ī Konkanis in Bombay. What emerges collectively is a glimpse of at least two aspects of Islamic legal history. First, we get a window into the infamous gap between legal theory and practice. Shefta’s account brings to life the discussions on the purity of water and shows how a non-jurist member of a madhhab relied upon the plurality of opinions in moments of need. Second, and as for the main argument of this essay: Shefta’s account shows how he perceived a bewildering diversity of Muslims at Mecca through the madhhab-system, even in non-legal contexts. Powerfully, his travelogue sheds light on the histories of Islamic legal connectivity, or how legal institutions and ideas connected Muslims from different regions.

In conclusion, I have presented several perspectives through my essays this month that touch upon the transregional dimensions of Islamic legal history in the early modern and modern periods. The travelogue discussed above provides a small glimpse of how Islamic legal institutions (such as the madhhab) could connect a great diversity of Muslims (both jurists and non-jurists) and facilitate the long-distance intellectual exchanges of ideas and texts over many centuries (including between Ḥanafīs of South Asia and the Ottoman Empire, as discussed in the previous two essays). Such exchange was far from free-flowing and unbounded; it was of course subject to changes across space and time. Recovering these connections and broader contexts is essential to understand transformations of Islamic legal history; hopefully, these essays have shed light on different approaches for pursuing such histories in the early modern and modern period.

Acknowledgments: I’d like to thank Mohsin Ali for his comments on this essay.


[1] Fahad Ahmad Bishara, A Sea of Debt: Law and Economic Life in the Western Indian Ocean, 1780-1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017); Mahmood Kooria, Islamic law in Circulation: Shāfiʻī texts across the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022); Iza R. Hussin, The Politics of Islamic Law: Local Elites, Colonial Authority, and the Making of the Muslim State (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[2] For a detailed study of his work, see ‘Alī Safdar Ja‘farī, Nawāb Muṣṭafā Khān Shefta kā taḥqīqī awr tanqīdī muṭāla‘a (Lahore and Multan: ‘Azra Publications, 1999).

[3] Shefta published his account in Persian, which I have not yet obtained. I rely on an Urdu translation first published in 1910. There is no English translation available. (A colleague and I have nearly completed a Turkish translation of an abridged version, which we plan to submit for publication.) Nawāb Muṣṭafā Khān Shefta, Safarnāma-yi Ḥijāz (Sirāj-i Munīr), trans. Sayyid Zayn al-‘Ābidīn (Agra: Matba’ Āgra Akhbār, n.d.).

[4] Ibid., 14.

[5] For comparative reference on these issues, see: ‘Abd al-Raḥmān al-Jazīrī, Kitāb al-Fiqh ‘alā al-Madhāhib al-Arba‘a (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 2003), vol. 1, 37–40.

[6] On a wider discussion of Islamic legal eclecticism and pragmatism, see Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim, Pragmatism in Islamic Law: A Social and Intellectual History (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2015).

[7] For a discussion of his fatwā and his legal politics, see Sohaib Baig, “Indian Hanafis in an Ocean of Hadith: Islamic Legal Authority between South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula, 16th – 20th Centuries,” (PhD diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2020), 257–63.

[8] On the early 19th century debates in South Asia, see ibid., chapter 4.

[9] Shefta, Safarnāma-yi Ḥijāz, 48.

[10] Ibid., 49.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Baig, “Indian Hanafis in an Ocean of Hadith,” 198–211.

[13] Ibid., 73–88, 132–37.

[14] Ibid., 209–10.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Sohaib Baig, Travelogues and Islamic Law: Vignettes from an Indian Ḥanafī Hajj Account, 1839, Islamic Law Blog (Aug. 24, 2023),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Sohaib Baig, “Travelogues and Islamic Law: Vignettes from an Indian Ḥanafī Hajj Account, 1839,” Islamic Law Blog, August 24, 2023,

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