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FYZEE, ASAF ALI ASGHAR (1899-1981), Indian educator, public official, and internationally known writer on Islamic law. Fyzee was born at Matheran near Bombay on 10 April 1899 into a Sulaimani Bohora family. The Bohoras are mainly concentrated in western India and are descendants of Hindu converts and Yemeni Arabs. They supported al-Musta’li’s (r. 1094-1101) claim to succeed his father al-Mustansir as the Fatimid caliph.

Fyzee was educated at St. Xavier’s College, Bombay (B.A. and LL.B.) and St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he received a double first in Oriental languages (1925) and was subsequently called to the bar. He married the writer Sultana Asaf Fyzee, daughter of Kazi Kabiruddin and an active supporter of the Muslim Ladies Club.

For nearly a decade from 1938 Fyzee was the principal of Government College, Bombay, and Perry Professor of Jurisprudence. From 1947 to 1949 he served as a member of the Bombay Public Service Commission and in 1949 was appointed as Indian ambassador to Egypt and minister plenipotentiary to Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. From 1952 to 1957 he served as a member of the Union Public Service Commission. Subsequently he held visiting professorships at McGill University and the University of California at Los Angeles. He also served as the vicechancellor of Jammu and Kashmir University.

Fyzee received honors both at home and abroad. He was made an honorary member of the Arabic Academy in both Cairo and Damascus. He served as president of Anjuman Taraqqi-i Urdu and as honorary secretary of the Islamic Research Association. In 1962 he received the award of Padma Bhushan from the Indian government.

Fyzee’s fame rests primarily on his numerous writings on Islamic law. His most famous work, Outlines of Muhammadan Law, is characterized by a modernistic and radical approach to the subject but is also sensitive to Muslim sentiments, a balance that others who tried to emulate him found difficult to maintain. He argued that in order to understand the system of Islamic jurisprudence, one ought to be familiar with the historical and cultural background of the law. By the time the second edition of his book was published, Joseph Schacht’s Origins of Muhammadan jurisprudence (Oxford, 195o) had already appeared. Fyzee was impressed by Schacht’s thesis and, in a revised introduction to the Outlines, suggested that the views of Goldziher, Bergstraser, and Schacht seemed to have superseded earlier positions such as those of Abdul Rahim, a judge of the Madras High Court, who in 1907 gave the Tagore Lectures at Calcutta University which were later published as The Principles of Mohammedan jurisprudence (London, 1911). Islamic law, Fyzee suggested, is the result of a continuous process of development over fourteen centuries and should not be seen as a systematic code. Fyzee agreed in part with Schacht’s thesis that pre-Islamic customs and elements of Roman law influenced the development of Islamic jurisprudence, but he accepted Schacht’s arguments only with some reservations. Fyzee was aware of the inappropriateness of the term “Muhammadan” law and apologized for using it, arguing that for him it denoted those aspects of Islamic law that were applicable in Indian courts.

Like the famous poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, Fyzee called for a reinterpretation of law (ijtihad) that would bring the law into conformity with the perceived needs and realities of modern existence. Given such apparent similarity of views, it is important to remember that whereas Iqbal’s call for reinterpretation was based essentially within a traditional Islamic paradigm, Fyzee’s desire was in part a concession to modern demands. Impressed by the Turkish Revolution and the experiments at codification of law in various Middle Eastern countries, Fyzee veered dangerously close to suggesting a uniform civil code for India. Only his caution as a public figure and as a scholar sensitive to his subject kept him from openly advocating it.

Fyzee is an outstanding example of that generation of Indian Muslim scholars who on one hand were struggling to distance themselves from an earlier apologetic trend of writing and on the other felt a powerful pull toward the Western tradition of critical scholarship-to the extent that, ironically, they often adopted the conclusions of these modern researchers uncritically.

As a brief systematic textbook, the Outlines of Muhammadan Law is a valuable introduction to Islamic personal law as practiced in India, and it continues to have much utility. However, despite the author’s sincere understanding of the subject, some of its assumptions about Islamic jurisprudence are questionable and its perspective at times too reliant on the Western scholarship of Fyzee’s contemporaries.

Works by Fyzee

Introduction to Muhammadan Law. Oxford, 1931. Ismaili Law of Wills. Oxford, 1933

Islamic Culture. Bombay, 1944.

Outlines of Muhammadan Law. Oxford, 1949 A Modern Approach to Islam. Bombay, 1963. Mohammadan Law in India. N.p., 1963.

Cases in the Muhammadan Law of India and Pakistan. Oxford, 1965.


The Importance of Mohammadan Law in the Modern World. N.p., 1965. Improvement of Mohammadan Law in the Modern World. Ahmadabad, 1965.

Introducing the Middle East. Mysore, c.1967. Compendium of Fatimid Law. Simla, 1969. The Reform of Muslim Personal Law in India. Bombay, C.1971. The Middle East. Patna, 1985.

Other Sources

Muslims in India: A Biographical Dictionary, vol. i. Lahore, 1985. FARHAN AHMAD NIZAMI


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/fyzee-asaf-ali-asghar/

  • writerPosted On: March 10, 2013
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