Introduction to a Book Discussion on Julia Stephen’s Governing Islam: Law, Empire and Secularism in South Asia

(Over the next few days, the Law and Other Things Blog will run a book discussion on Julia Stephen’s Governing Islam: Law, Empire and Secularism in South AsiaThis is the introductory post by Professor Rohit De.)

Cover for the Book - Governing Islam by Julia Stephens

Julia Stephens is an Assistant Professor of History at Rutgers University and a scholar of law in South Asia and the Indian Ocean World. Her book Governing Islam: Law, Empire and Secularism in South Asia traces the colonial roots of contemporary struggles between Islam and secularism in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The book uncovers the paradoxical workings of colonial laws that promised to separate secular and religious spheres, but instead fostered their vexed entanglement. It shows how religious laws governing families became embroiled with secular laws governing markets, and how calls to protect religious liberties clashed with freedom of the press. By following these interactions, Stephens asks us to reconsider where law is and what it is. Her narrative weaves between state courts, Islamic fatwas on ritual performance, and intimate marital disputes to reveal how deeply law penetrates everyday life. In her hands, law also serves many masters – from British officials to Islamic jurists to aggrieved Muslim wives.  The book moves between official archives of colonial law and wider spheres of public debates, bringing into conversation vernacular pamphlets and newspapers, Urdu fatwas, colonial legal cases, and legislative deliberations. Drawing on these wide-ranging legal archives, Governing Islam explores how colonial law constructed a new religious/secular binary that was deeply influential, and vibrantly contested inside and outside colonial courts.  The resulting study shows how the neglected field of Muslim law in South Asia is essential to understanding current crises in global secularism.  

Assistant Professor Julia Stephens
Assistant Professor Julia Stephens

Professor Stephens completed her PhD in History from Harvard University and has a M.Phil in Oriental Studies from Cambridge. She has published extensively on law and religion in South Asia. Her current research is a project on inheritance and diasporic Indian families, tentatively entitled Worldly Afterlives: Death and Diaspora in the Indian Ocean. The project traces the lives of Indian migrants—sailors, petty moneylenders, female merchants, and even circus performers—by looking at the assets they left behind after their deaths. These estates ranged from mercantile fortunes to a few treasured personal effects, including letters, jewellery, or a pocketful of receipts for small debts owed by fellow travellers. Relatives in India and abroad struggled to navigate complex international bureaucracies in order to track down information about long-lost relatives and the property they left behind. This archive provides a window into the intersecting histories of diasporic families and the formation of state bureaucracies for managing global flows of labour and capital. In the coming years this research will take me to India, South Africa, Zanzibar, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the United Kingdom.

More of Professor Stephens’ work can be found here and here.


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