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Indian Hanafis in an Ocean of Hadith: Islamic Legal Authority between South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula, 16th – 20th Centuries


This dissertation examines the history of Islamic legal pluralism and hadith scholarship in the Indian Ocean from the sixteenth century to the early twentieth century. In conceptual terms, it integrates the debates within sociolegal studies on legal pluralism (or the multiplicity of legal orders within a social field) with the intellectual history of the Islamic schools of law (madhhab). In so doing, it systematically reconstructs for the first time a history of madhhab-centered legal pluralism that connected Sunni scholars from different schools of law in the Mughal, Ottoman, and British empires, as well as other Indian Ocean polities. Within this context, it uncovers the historical processes by which Indian members of the Hanafi madhhab from Sindh and Delhi maneuvered across school lines and shifting imperial geographies to pursue hadith scholarship and construct legal authority in the Indian Ocean.

By analyzing a wide array of sources, including fatwas, legal treatises, hadith commentaries, hagiographies, travelogues, and imperial records in Arabic, Urdu, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish, this dissertation breaks from state-centered histories of Islamic law and one-sided models of transregional intellectual diffusion. Instead, it argues that Indian Islamic law was transformed through sustained intellectual exchange with multiple legal schools and scholarly networks in the Indian Ocean. These exchanges catapulted the hadith sciences to the center of Indian Hanafi juristic discourse, fueling immense debate in the eighteenth century on the authority of the Hanafi school in particular and the madhhabs altogether, as mediated by the imperatives of taqlīd (legal conformity), taḥqīq (verification), and ijtihād (independent reasoning). As this hadith-based legal discourse expanded beyond scholarly circles across emerging publics of manuscript and print in the early nineteenth century, it fragmented the authority of the madhhabs to serve as the basis of Sunni legal pluralism in the Indian Ocean, leading to the formation of new Islamic legal institutions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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