Administration of Islamic Law in India: Problems and Potentials

For almost 150 years, the administration of Islamic law in India has proved to be a source of intense agitation for both India's state and society. From the uproar instigated by the colonial state's stripping of legal powers from Muslim qazis in the mid-19th century, to early 20th-century disputes over legal authority within Shia communities, to more-recent legal controversies concerning Muslim women, the question of how (and whether) to administer Islamic law has vexed Indian governments, communities, and individuals for several generations now.

Events of the past few years have demonstrated that these issues will continue to trouble the Indian polity for the foreseeable future. For example, recent vitriol surrounding fatwas issued by different Muslim religious figures in India, concerning the legal implications for married Muslim women who have been raped by their father-in-laws, promises to only deepen the crisis that both the Indian state and Muslim citizens have inherited from their legal predecessors. And indeed, in response to these controversial fatwas, a provocative lawsuit has just recently been filed in the Indian Supreme Court, asking the Court to forbid Muslim religious figures from issuing fatwas in the future, or from otherwise involving themselves in the "decision" of legal disputes between Muslims. Clearly, very fundamental issues concerning secularism, pluralism, equality, and religion are again center-stage in India, with far-reaching implications elsewhere as well.

In light of the likely trajectory of this latest controversy concerning Muslim women, and the ways in which its "resolution" is likely to replicate - and extend - many missteps of the past, in this Article I aim to suggest an alternative, better path forward. Recent discussions concerning the reform of Islamic legal administration in India have tended to obscure more than they reveal. Thus, in this Article, I intend to not only better diagnose what is - historically, religiously, and materially - at stake in this latest dispute over Islamic legal administration in India but also, using this diagnosis, argue for new and different approaches to what has been an intractable struggle for control over Islamic law in India.

In arguing for these new approaches, I will argue that overly-simplistic understandings of what constitutes "justice" in India's secular system of law have often, in response to state pressure, unproductively replicated themselves within Indian Islamic systems of law. Thus, I will argue that while it may appear that the adoption of certain secular norms of justice by Islamic systems in India is an unequivocally good thing that, in fact, these secular norms often do not function in the Islamic legal systems in the way that they are intended to in the secular legal system. Moreover, to the extent that certain norms do function similarly in both systems, I will argue that such norms (and their functioning) tend, perversely, to be the secular system's more-troublesome ones. In other words, then, I will be arguing that the transference of secular norms of justice to India's Islamic systems of law has generally been either ineffective or worrisome (or both).