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A system of law founded on interpretation of Islamic texts and practice and applied in the courts of colonial British India, Anglo-Muhammadan law was often referred to simply as “Muhammadan” law. The system’s roots lay in the earliest colonial legal structures established by the British after their conquest of Bengal in the late eighteenth century. Initially, Anglo-Muhammadan law included both criminal and civil law. For civil cases involving Muslims, and for all criminal cases, Muslim religious specialists were attached to British East India Company courts to expound the technicalities of Muslim law for British judges as they rendered their decisions. A welter of government regulations gradually superseded Muslim criminal law in the early nineteenth century, and with the official promulgation in 186o of a comprehensive, Benthamite penal code for British India, “Muhammadan” criminal law disappeared.

More lasting was the application of Anglo-Muhammadan personal law in civil cases (involving marriage, adoption, inheritance, endowments, etc.) in which Muslims and Hindus were each, in theory, subject to their own law. The interpretation of Anglo-Muhammadan law was dependent not just on Muslim specialists who continued to have an advisory role in law courts until 1864, but also on a limited number of English translations of and commentaries on Arabic sources of Muslim law. More important, a growing body of case law provided precedents which dominated AngloMuhammadan law in the nineteenth century, and a large number of digests and commentaries, written by both Indian Muslim and British lawyers and judges, proved increasingly influential by the second half of the century.

The importance of Anglo-Muhammadan law for the history of the Muslim community is considerable. As Gregory Kozlowski has argued, the development of the law rested on several British (and ultimately Indian) assumptions about Muslims in India: that they constituted a single community, that that community was defined by acceptance of a single, systematic set of personal laws, and that the original sources of those laws were, at least in theory, fixed and unchanging. In practice, Anglo-Muhammadan law did not apply equally to all Indian Muslims, as in certain areas and for certain Muslim sects, the British courts were willing to apply distinctive Islamic or “customary” law. At the same time, important groups of reform-minded Indian `ulama’ (religious scholars) disseminated fatwa (formal legal opinions) independently of the British court system, thus maintaining an arena for the operation of shari`ah (divine law) distinct from the British legal system.

Nevertheless, the development of the Anglo-Muhammadan law exerted a profound influence on Muslim ideas about the nature of law, for it brought personal law-and issues of family, inheritance, and the status of women-to the center of Muslim legal identity. It also assumed an important place in the political definition of the Muslim community inIndia, as indicated by the passage in 1937, with considerable Muslim support, of the Muslim Personal Law (Shariat) Application Act, which sought to universalize the application of the Anglo-Muhammadan law for Indian Muslims as a statement of common political identity. The legacies of the Anglo-Muhammadan law have continued to influence strongly not only the legal systems of the postcolonial states of the Indian subcontinent, but also debates about the meaning of the law (and of shari `ah) in contemporary South Asian societies.

[See also Islam, article on Islam inSouth Asia; Law, article on Legal Thought and Jurisprudence.]


Ameer Ali, Syed. Principles of Mohammadan Law. Rev. ed.Allahabad, 1983. The author (1849-1928), a judge of the Calcutta High Court, was among the most important of those Indian Muslims who aided the development of Anglo-Muhammadan law.

Fyzee, Asaf A. A. Outlines of Muhammadan Law. 3d ed.Oxford, 1964. Important summary of the substance of “Muhammadan law” as it developed inBritish India.

Kozlowski, Gregory C. Muslim Endowments and Society inBritish India.Cambridge, 1985. In examining endowments, Kozlowski interprets the context and the political significance of the British development of Anglo-Muhammadan law.

Wilson, Roland Knyvet. An Introduction to the Study of Anglo-Muhammadan Law.London, 1894. Concise history of the nineteenth-century development of Anglo-Muhammadan law from a British barrister who was among the law’s systematizers.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/anglo-muhammadan-law/

  • writerPosted On: October 9, 2012
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