On Dar ul Qazas and Indian Secularism’s Ability to Contemplate Religious Plurality: A Review of Jeff Redding’s A Secular Need by Shaunna Rodrigues

(Ed Note: Shaunna Rodrigues’ review is the fourth post in our blog’s round-table book discussion on Prof. Jeff Redding’s A Secular Need: Islamic Law and State Governance in Contemporary India moderated by Prof. Rohit De. The introductory post and links for other responses can be found here).

In recent years, writing on the Khilafat movement has asked what the relevance of this historical moment was. Why do we remember it as an important moment in the 20th century? Today, the predominant answer to this question comes from theorists of global thought who argue that the support for the Ottoman Caliphate, towards the end of World War I, especially from places distant from the centre of the Ottoman Empire, was the articulation of a counter-universal to the world-constituting forces of modern European imperialism. The Khilafat movement, however, is also seen as a ‘failed’ attempt to build a lasting contention to the triumphant and enduring consolidation of English, French, and American variants of secular liberalism at this point in the 20th century. The subsequent dismemberment of the “last Islamic empire” has often been interpreted as the moment of rupture from which a putative ‘Muslim World’ would begin an institutional process of secularization, and a global ideology of liberal constitutionalism would claim legitimacy by subordinating all other claims of universality to constitutionally defined understandings of the secular. 

Over the past three decades, this narrative of a triumphant ‘secular West’ obliterating religious pasts in general, and Islamic pasts in particular, has been questioned by many. In the intellectual world, this line of questioning has been pursued by scholars like Talal Asad who have influentially outlined an ‘Anthropology of Secularism’ to explicate how ‘the secular’ and ‘the religious’ mutually constitute, each other. Jeff Redding’s book, A Secular Need,gives us a different, and powerfully argued entry into this discourse on secularism. It outlines a complex idea of secularism, constructed during the 20th century in India, and articulated as an assemblage of political, legal, historical, and Islamic languages that represent a context where Muslims are a historically significant minority, yet the primary agon to Islamic modes of life is not the secular ‘West’ but the “secular (yet Hindu)” Indian state in general, and its legal institutions and actors in particular. Redding does not hesitate from demonstrating how different juridical actors of the secular Indian state often operate with prejudices against Muslims and Islamic institutions, typically inflected by ideologies of Hindu nationalism. At the same time, he also provides a pertinent critique of secular-liberal theorizing in India, which predominantly otherizes and subordinates non-state Islamic legal actors, despite the “deep similarities” that exist between itself and Islamic legal spaces. Taking a legal ethnography route to make this argument, Redding uses the catch-all term, ‘psycho-affective dependency’ to demonstrate how, despite these ideologically accentuated (as opposed to merely institutional) imbalances in power between the secular state and non-state Islamic legal actors, the former enduringly depends on the latter in both material and ideological ways.

A Secular Need shows that this relationship of dependency operates materially because non-state Islamic legal institutions and actors in India administer an efficient dispute-resolution infrastructure and network called dar ul qazas that are more accessible, competent with regards to family law, alert to gendered power relations within marriages, and innovative with their legal instruments, than the legal system of the secular state. Given this, non-state Islamic legal institutions undertake a greater case-load providing faislahs or judgements less prejudical towards women and Muslims than those of the secular state. The relationship of dependence between the secular state and non-state Islamic legal actors functions ideologically by becoming an important node, as well as one of 20th century India’s most consistent institutions, for negotiating multiple intersecting concerns, including (I)”Indian secularism’s ability to contemplate religious plurality”; (II) undertaking a form of “feminism” which enables divorce especially for women rather than making it a point of contention over their identity; (III) allowing “the patriarchal Indian state to remain a viable player in the global competition for secular liberal prestige” by showing the world that they function effectively in the space carved out (by and) for Islamic networks in a deeply diverse India, and by legally carrying out complex cases of divorce which the secular state is too narrow-minded to settle; and (IV) operating as sites of ‘appeal’ from state courts for both Muslims and non-Muslims. Paradoxically, but not unsurprisingly, this leads to non-state Islamic legal institutions becoming an object of anti-Muslim sentiment in India which manifests “as an effort aiming to ‘otherize’ Muslims but also a simultaneous desire to ‘absorb’ them.” This review will focus in particular on concerns (I) and (III) mentioned above, and how they bear on Redding’s triangulation of the political feelings of ‘absorptive love’ and ‘otherizing hate’ with India’s secular need for dar ul qazas.

In Chapter 1 of the book, “Muslim and Mundane: Historical and Contemporary Aspects of Dar ul Qazas” Redding shows how the dar ul qaza network was conceived in the 1920s by prominent anti-colonial figures like Abul Kalam Azad, Husain Ahmed Madani, and associated organizations like the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind (JUH). While the Islamic justification for the establishment of dar ul qazas came from Madani, Azad provided the detailed institutional schema for this network, with the ulama of each province forming a council to set up dar ul qazas in every district, headed by an amir. At the centre of this network within India would be the Imarat-e-Shariah. This network, based on Azad’s plan, continued to function after independence under the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), with the Imarat-e-Shariah located in present-day Bihar. What Redding does not talk about, but is relevant to his claim of dar ul qazas reflecting Indian secularism’s ability to contemplate religious plurality, is that the network of dar ul qazas were conceptualized by Azad during the Khilafat movement, not just as juridical bodies, but as representing in India what he, and many others at the time, saw as the universal Caliphate.

This did not mean that dar ul qazas would rigidly adhere to the leadership of the Caliphate. Neither did it mean that the role of these Islamic institutions would be limited to the application of the shari’a as Islamic law. Rather, dar ul qazas were conceived as spaces of public leadership through which they, and what they represent to the secular Indian state – institutional Islam – could be more than just non-state institutions of Islamic law adjudicating conflicts among Muslims of India. This ‘more’ involved a material institutional network from which the multiple historical phenomena that form diverse kinds of Islam in India could be reflected on and formatively shape public discourse, perhaps even a plural public reason, in a country transitioning from imperial forms of rule to that of a post-colonial constitutional democracy. This more-than-legal public political imaginary of the non-state Islamic legal network comes to be rearticulated in the defense (of dar ul qazas) framed by the All India Muslim Personal Law Board as one of the defendants in the Vishwa Lochan Madan versus Union of India and Others case in 2014. That this conception and network of dar ul qazas in India, not only continue into contemporary India but also become a material and ideological need for the secular (yet Hindu) Indian (nation-)state, as Redding argues, demonstrates the enduring importance of ideas which emerged during the Khilafat movement for the post-colonial secular state of India.

The Khilafat movement was not a ‘failed’ historical articulation of a counter-universal to the universalism of modern secularism but actually gave rise to institutions and networks of decolonization via dar ul qazas in India. This continuity of anti-imperial institutions from the early 20th century to contemporary India also demonstrates the relevance of Azad and Madani’s anti-colonial Islamic political thought whose institutional inventions and justifications gained publicity during this moment of alleged rupture, and come to be used repetitively over the 20th century in crucial moments when Islamic political imaginaries and the plural political conception they envisage for India are threatened by the secular Indian state.  Further, these non-state Islamic legal arenas from which intra-religious and inter-religious plurality are imagined in India endure as sites where relationships not merely between the Indian state and Muslim citizens, but between citizens themselves – Muslim and non-Muslim – is consistently ‘contemplated’ on. Redding’s specific work of legal anthropology in A Secular Need, thus, is a trove of ideas and provides the much needed ethnographic work that historians of anti-colonialism/decolonization, political theorists of constitutionalism and public reason, and sociologists of religious communities could draw on to grapple with some of the defining questions in their disciplines today. 

A Secular Need is also a critique of contemporary Transatlantic theorizing on constitutionalism, geo-politics, secularism, state courts, and colonial legal frameworks. It (implicitly) points out how such theorizing and its (derivative) application in public discourse on constitutionalism and geopolitics in India simply excludes, is unaware of, or disengages with the extensively procedural forms of justice present within Islamic law, and its reflexive and anything-but-static practice by non-state Islamic legal institutions in India. This critique does not merely extend to the analytical losses involved in exclusively adopting the former kind of secular-liberal frameworks but also explicates the debilitating impact of adhering to these frameworks alone while contemplating non-state Islamic legal networks (on Muslims and women as Indian citizens, and the state legal system which is constitutionally mandated to uphold religious pluralism).

Such a consolidated critique fulfills a much-needed gap in outlining the problematics behind public discourse on apparent contentions between the secular state and Islamic legal institutions in India, especially given the coverage, narrative, and interpretation of the Viswa Lochan Madan judgement in Indian newspapers in 2014, which incorrectly interpreted the judgement as declaring dar ul qazas to be illegal, and opinion pieces from leading constitutional thinkers which viewed the upholding of individual rights by the secular court as empowering Muslim women more than the consistent (and difficult) work put in by dar ul qazas to enable different forms of divorce available to Muslim women according to Islamic law. Redding’s triangulation of secular need, otherizing hate, and absorptive love also provides a critical framework to understand the spectacular and obsessive public discourse on judgements that followed such as Shayara Bano v. Union of India in 2017, which enabled the Indian public to fantasize about itself as a vigilante that would save the Muslim woman from triple talaq.

Redding’s critique emerges from two major sources – on the one hand, it comes from meticulously described primary sources – dar ul qaza faislahs, court judgments, and interviews with different actors associated with the non-state Islamic legal network. On the other hand, it comes from critical writing on courts and the non-state which are also largely centered in the Transatlantic World. At the start of the book the reader is told that “Contemporary India sits at the crossroads of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, as well as a number of migratory and indigenous ideas, ideologies, and agendas,” but the cross-road between the Middle East and India is little explored, despite the geopolitical being a crucial frame to the secular needs of the Indian state, and the presence of ethnographic details in the book that indicate the existence of migratory ideas between the two regions.  After all, the dar ul qazas were successfully conceived precisely because of the confidence that such a migration in ideas had created during the Khilafat movement. Further, despite the presence of some post-colonial literature in the book, the theoretical sources of critique are mainly theorists of transatlantic legal terrains. The book’s lack of engagement with the rich, widely accessible, and deeply relevant world of theorizing on shari’a or what is Islam itself, is stark not just because the emphasis that this literature places on change, internal debate, and engagement with the secular, would have been useful for the argument of the book, but because in appealing to the Transatlantic world for theory and Indian Islamic legal institutions for ethnographic/archival material alone, the task of providing a theoretical (as opposed to an empirical) critique of secular-liberal theory beyond the Indian context remains unfinished.



Shaunna Rodrigues

Shaunna Rodrigues is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University. She also holds an M.A. and M.Phil. in Political Studies from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is currently writing her Ph.D. dissertation which studies Islamic justifications of constitutionalism in India to understand and critique how a right to justification for minority imaginaries of the political is constructed, defended, attacked and reforged in deeply diverse polities. Shaunna is the ‘South Asia’ Editor at Borderlines.


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