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Mahzar-namas in the Mughal and British Empires: The Uses of an Indo-Islamic Legal Form

  • Nandini Chatterjee (a1)


This paper looks at a Persian-language documentary form called the mahzar-nama that was widely used in India between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries to narrate, represent, and record antecedents, entitlements, and injuries with a view to securing legal rights and redressing legal wrongs. Mahzars were a known documentary form in Islamic law and used by qazis (Islamic judges) in many other parts of the world, but in India they took a number of distinctive forms. The specific form of Indian mahzar-namas that I focus on here was, broadly speaking, a legal document of testimony, narrated in the first person, in a form standardized by predominantly non-Muslim scribes, endorsed in writing by the author's fellow community members and/or professional or social contacts, and notarized by a qazi's seal. This specific legal form was part of a much broader genre of declarative texts that were also known as mahzars in India. I examine the legal mahzar-namas together with the other kinds of mahzars, and situate them in relation to Indo-Islamic jurisprudential texts and Persian-language formularies. What emerges is a distinctive Indo-Islamic legal culture in contact with the wider Islamic and Persianate worlds of jurisprudence and documentary culture, but responsive to the unique socio-political formations of early modern India. I also reflect on the meanings of law, including Islamic law, for South Asians and trace the evolution of that understanding across the historical transition to colonialism.

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1 Regarding transliteration, for Persian and Arabic words, I have used a system based on a modification of F. J. Steingass, A Comprehensive Persian-English Dictionary (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1892). I have avoided the use of diacritics except for the ‘ain. I have therefore not indicated the length of vowels, nor used the hamza to indicate consecutive distinctly pronounced vowels. In case of Arabic words commonly in use in Persian and Hindi/Urdu (such as qazi), my transliteration reflects the South Asian pronunciation pattern. I have indicated the possessive izafa with -i and with -yi where it follows a vowel ending. With certain very well-known names, such as Abul Fazl, I have side-stepped accurate transcription in favor of the most widely used orthography in English. When quoting from others' works or reproducing book titles, I have reproduced the transliteration system in the quotes. I use the English plural signifier s to pluralize Arabic, Persian, and Hindi/Urdu words.

2 The Mughals (a Persian mis-appellation of “Mongol”) were a Turko-Mongol dynasty of Central Asian origin that established its rule in north India in 1526. Mughal power declined rapidly after the sixth emperor Aurangzeb's death in 1707, although officially they remained sovereigns of India until 1857. For an introduction, see J. F. Richards, The Mughal Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). For a history of the Marathas, see Stewart Gordon, The Marathas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

3 Persian document no. 2703/62, National Archives of India, Delhi.

4 Given the protagonist's social background, he probably could not write Persian himself. In other documents pertaining to the family, he signed his name in the margin in the Nagri character.

5 While not described as such, a close reading of the catalogue descriptions of the five thousand to six thousand documents in this collection reveals that a large proportion must be from the collections of specific families. The National Archives of India provides no information about their process of acquiring or verifying these documents. But other subsets from the Acquired Documents series, such as the “Cambay documents,” have been used with confidence by other scholars, for example Farhat Hasan, State and Locality in Mughal India: Power Relations in Western India, 1572–1730 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). I have also been able to trace a complementary set of documents pertaining to this family in the Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait. It contains mainly “higher-status” documents such as parwanas, which bear seals of officials and notes on the reverse, which correspond to Mughal chancellery procedure.

6 Hasan, State and Locality. Jos Gommans has made very similar points regarding patterns of Mughal military recruitment, in Mughal Warfare: Indian Frontiers and the Highroads to Empire, 1500–1700 (London: Routledge, 2002).

7 The Function of Documents in Islamic Law: The Chapters on Sales from Ṭaḥāwī's Kitāb al-shurūṭ al-kabīr, Jeanette Wakin, ed. and trans. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1972), 9–29.

8 The word is a typical Indo-Persian modification, involving a redundant suffix. The Persian suffix “nama” otherwise denotes a wide variety of written prose forms, including history, biography, legal documents, and letters. Moreover, the addition of this redundant suffix is unsystematic: while Purshottam Das's document self-describes itself as naql-i mahzar, similar documents from the same period and the neighboring province of Khandesh are self-described as mahzar-nama. For an example of the latter, see M. Ziauddin Ahmad, ed., Mughal Archives: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Documents Pertaining to the Reign of Shah Jahan (1652–1658), vol. I (Hyderabad: A. P. State Archives 1977), 325–27. Also, several (but again, not all) of the formularies on which these documents were based call the form of such documents mahzar-nama. Thus far, I have been unable to discover a perfectly consistent pattern, but it does appear that declarative documents of the southern and western Indian type (see below) were called mahzars, whereas evidentiary instruments of the kind that Purshottam Das used were most often called mahzar-namas. I have retained “mahzar-nama” to label the legal documentary form this article is concerned with, given its evident association with Indo-Persian chancellery culture, and its grouping in formularies with legal deeds such as bai‘-nama (sale deeds), rahn-nama (pawn/mortgage deeds), and nikah-nama (marriage contracts).

9 Witness clauses were a common feature in Islamic legal deeds, which recorded interpersonal property transactions such as sales and pawning. See Geoffrey Khan, Arabic Legal and Administrative Documents in the Cambridge Genizah Collections (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). There are several such Persian-language legal deeds among the documents of Purshottam Das's family.

10 Within the vast literature on Islamic law, some classics that have inspired this work are: Hallaq, Wael, “Was the Gate of Ijtihad Closed?International Journal of Middle East Studies 16, 1 (1984): 341; From Fatwas to Furu‘: Growth and Change in Islamic Substantive Law,” Islamic Law and Society 1 (Feb. 1994): 1756; and Shari‘a: Theory, Practice, Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Brinkley Messick, The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993); and Judith E. Tucker, In the House of the Law: Gender and Islamic Law in Ottoman Syria and Palestine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

11 In general, scholarly interest in Islamic law in South Asia has been limited to accounts of its experience under colonial rule. Most scholars agree that colonialism rendered shari‘a a fossilized and caricatured version of its former self. Kugle, Scott A., “Framed, Blamed and Renamed: The Recasting of Islamic Jurisprudence in Colonial South Asia,” Modern Asian Studies 35, 2 (2001): 257313; Gregory Kozlowski, Muslim Endowments and Society in British India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Michael Anderson, “Islamic Law and the Colonial Encounter in British India,” in David Arnold and Peter Robb, eds., Institutions and Ideologies: A South Asia Reader (Richmond: Routledge Curzon, 1993), 165–85. Even Wael Hallaq has little to add about Islamic law in South Asia beyond the narrative of colonial distortion; Shari‘a, 371–95. In contrast, scholars have underscored the intellectual richness and effective activism that scholars of Islamic law, both traditional and modern, remained capable of well into the twentieth century. Alan Günther, “Syed Mahmud and the Transformation of Muslim Law in British India,” PhD thesis, McGill University, 2006; De, Rohit, “Mumtaz Bibi's Broken Heart: The Many Lives of the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act,” Indian Economic and Social History Review 46, 1 (2009): 105–30; Barbara Metcalf, Deoband: Islamic Revival in British India, 1860–1900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982); Muhammad Qasim Zaman, The Ulama in Contemporary Islam: Custodians of Change (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002). South Asian historiography on precolonial Islamic law remains curiously reticent. Scholars have instead focused on alternative codes of righteousness that scholars deem to have rendered shari‘a an “ambiguous” entity in India. Katherine Ewing, ed., Sharī‘a and Ambiguity in South Asian Islam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

12 Guha, Sumit, “Speaking Historically: The Changing Voices of Historical Narration in Western India, 1400–1900,” American Historical Review 109, 4 (2004): 1084–103.

13 A. A. Kaderi, “A Mahdar from Hukeri in Karnataka,” Epigraphica Indica: Arabic and Persian Supplement (Delhi: Archaeological Survey, 1972), 51–77, at 56–57.

14 Alam, Muzaffar and Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, “The Making of a Munshi,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 24, 2 (2004): 6172; O'Hanlon, Rosalind and Washbrook, David, eds., Special issue on “Munshis, Pandits and Record-Keepers: Scribal Communities and Historical Change in India,” Indian Economic and Social History Review 47, 4 (2010): 441615.

15 Burns, Kathryn, “Notaries, Truth and Consequences,” American Historical Review 110, 2 (2005): 350–79.

16 Bhavani Raman, Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

17 Burns, “Notaries, Truth and Consequences”; Sartori, Paolo, “Authorized Lies: Colonial Agency and Legal Hybrids in Tashkent, c. 1881–1893,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 55 (2012): 688717. Note that these methodological aims are similar to that expressed by Guha in “Speaking Historically.”

18 Paolo Sartori, “Introduction: On the Social in Central Asian History: Notes in the Margins of Legal Records,” in P. Sartori, ed., Explorations in the Social History of Modern Central Asia (19th–Early 20th Century) (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 1–22 (his emphasis).

19 Singha, A Despotism of Law; Washbrook, David, “Law, State and Agrarian Society in Colonial India,” Modern Asian Studies 15, 3 (1981): 649721.

20 As Ranajit Guha did in “Chandra's Death,” in Ranajit Guha, ed., Subaltern Studies V (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987), 134–65.

21 Shahid Amin, “Approver's Testimony, Judicial Discourse: The Case of Chauri Chaura,” in Ranajit Guha, ed., Subaltern Studies V (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987), 166–202.

22 Benton, Lauren, “Introduction” to “Forum on Law and Empire in Global Perspective,” American Historical Review 117, 4 (2012): 1092–100.

23 Chatterjee, Nandini, “Hindu City and Just Empire: Banaras and India in Ali Ibrahim Khan's Legal Imagination,” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History 15, 1 (2014), (online only).

24 Christoph Werner, An Iranian Town in Transition: A Social and Economic History of the Elites of Tabriz, 1747–1848 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2000); Sartori, “Authorized Lies”; and “Introduction.”

25 This is Messick's formulation from Calligraphic State, 251.

26 This being the view of Joseph Schacht, An Introduction to Islamic Law (Oxford: Clarendon, 1964), 82; see also Wakin, Function of Documents, 4–10.

27 Hallaq, Wael, “Model Shurūṭ Works and the Dialectic of Doctrine and Practice,” Islamic Law and Society 2, 2 (1995): 109–34.

28 On mazhabs, see Christopher Melchert, The Formation of the Sunni Schools of Law, 9th–10th centuries C.E. (Leiden: Brill, 1997).

29 Hallaq, “Model Shurūṭ Works,” 115.

30 Leon Buskens, “Tales According to the Book: Professional Witnesses (`Udul) as Cultural Brokers in Morocco,” in Baudoin Dupret, Barbara Baskens, and Annelies Moors, eds., Narratives of Truth in Islamic Law (London: Tauris, 2008), 143–60.

31 On “pensmen,” see Bellenoit, Hayden, “Between Qanungos and Clerks: The Cultural and Service Worlds of Hindusan's Pensmen, c. 1750–1850,” Modern Asian Studies 48, 4 (2014): 872910.

32 Or mahazir and sijillat in the Arabic pluralized form. The concepts of private and public, which Wakin uses, may not be fully relevant before the formalization of Ottoman archival practices, although there is also debate about the novelty of Ottoman record-keeping. Hallaq, Wael B., “The qāḍī's dīwān (sijill) before the Ottomans,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 61, 3 (1998): 415–36.

33 Wakin, Function of Documents, 10–29.

34 Sheikh Nizam and others, Fatawa-yi ‘Alamgiri, Maulana Saiyid Amir Ali, trans. to Urdu (Lahore: Maktaba Rahmaniya, n.d.), vol. 10, 9–124; the section on shurut runs from 125–298.

35 Ibid., 9–11. On ikhtilaf, see Wakin, Function of Documents, 32–34; Hallaq, “Model Shurūṭ Works,” 129–31.

36 Sheikh Nizam and others, Fatawa-yi ‘Alamgiri, 11.

37 Muzaffar Alam, The Languages of Political Islam: India, 1200–1800 (London: Hurst & Co., 2004).

38 Khaliq Ahmad Nizami, Salatin-i Dihli ke mazhabi rujhanat (Delhi: Idarat-i Adabiyat-i Dilli, 1981), 121–22, 209, 315–16.

39 The first historian to name it as such was Vincent Smith. For perhaps the earliest criticism, and the argument that it was essentially a political response to external competition and internal threats, see Buckler, F. W., “A New Interpretation of Akbar's ‘Infallibility’ Decree of 1579,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 4 (1924): 591608.

40 ‘Abd al-Qadir Badauni, Muntakhab ut-tawarikh, W. N. Lees and Ahmad Ali, eds. (Calcutta: Bibliotheca Indica, 1865), 171–72.

41 S.A.A. Rizvi, Religious and Intellectual History of the Muslims in Akbar's Reign, 2d ed. (Delhi: Manohar, 1975), 141–74.

42 Khan, Iqtidar Alam, “The Nobility under Akbar and the Development of His Religious Policy,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland 1/2 (1968): 2936.

43 Kaderi, “A Mahdar from Hukeri” (my emphasis). A very similar collective grant was recorded in a mahzar scribed in 1724 in Ahmedabad; Desai, Z. A., “Mahzar—An Important Source for Administrative History,” Indian Historical Review 25, 1 (1998): 1628. Being based on a sample of the declarative type only, Desai's attempt at a typology was inadequate.

44 Sumit Guha, Beyond Caste: Identity and Power in South Asia, Past and Present (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 66–67.

45 And possibly also Gujarati; see Desai, “Mahzar.

46 V. T. Gune, The Judicial System of the Marathas (Poona: Deccan College, 1953), 141–42.

47 Ibid., 135–36; Gune analyzed 161 mahzars from between 1300–1800, and a further 210 documents from 1650–1800 that include several mahzars.

48 Ibid., 274.

49 Ibid., 76–80.

50 See note 9, above.

51 On the Islamic legal obligation of testifying, except in cases involving fixed punishments (hadd), see Baldwin, James, “Prostitution, Islamic Law and Ottoman Societies,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 55, 1 (2012): 117–52; Rudolph Peters, Crime and Punishment in Islamic Law: Theory and Practice from the Sixteenth to the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 12–19.

52 Francis Robinson, The ‘Ulama of Farangi Mahall and Islamic Culture in South Asia (London: Hurst, 2001). I am grateful to Professor Robinson for providing me with a copy of the Firangi Mahall mahzar-nama. A blurred facsimile and transcription of the text is available in Muhammad Reza Ansari Firangi Mahali, Bani-yi dars-i nizami: Ustad al-Hind Mulla Nizam ud-din Muhammad Firangi Mahali (Lucknow: U.P. Urdu Academy, 1973), 21–34.

53 On the conflict between local landlords and grant-holding scholars, see Muzaffar Alam, The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India: Awadh and the Punjab, 1707–48 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1986), 117–22.

54 Sic. Grammatically it should have been sitam rasidegan.

55 Robinson, ‘Ulama of Farangi Mahall, 106.

56 I am grateful to Paolo Sartori for showing me samples of such documents.

57 Sartori, Paolo, “Colonial Legislation Meets Sharī‘a: Muslims' Land Rights in Russian Turkestan,” Central Asian Survey 29, 1 (2010): 4360, esp. note 29; Reichmuth, Phillip, “‘Lost in the Revolution’: Bukharan Waqf and Testimony Documents from the Early Soviet Period,” Die Welt Des Islams 50 (2010): 362–96.

58 In fact, documents called ishtishhadnamas occur in Indian collections, too, especially those of the nineteenth century; the possibility of a renewed and later stage of mutual influence remains open to further research.

59 “Testimony from Zanjan and Khamsah,” 1893–1894, (last accessed 18 July 2015). I am indebted to Christoph Werner for directing me to this document.

60 An example is in the Hiba-nama or gift-deed made out by Musammat (Madam) Goran, Persian document no. 2738/8, National Archives of India.

61 Sheikh Nizam and others, Fatawa-yi ‘Alamgiri, X, 11.

62 See note 14.

63 An example is the anonymous khulasat al-siyaq, Add. 6588, British Library, London.

64 Riazul Islam, A Calendar of Documents on Indo-Persian Relations (Tehran: Iranian Culture Foundation, 1979–1982), 1–37, 1.

65 Sunil Sharma, Amir Khusraw: The Poet of Sufis and Sultans (Oxford: Oneworld, 2005).

66 Faruqui, S. R., “Stranger in the City: The Poetics of Sabk-i Hindi,” Annual of Urdu Studies 19 (2004): 159.

67 Amir Khusrau Dehlavi, A‘jaz-e Khusravi (Lucknow: Nawal Kishore, n.d.), Risala II, Khat I (no page numbers).

68 Richard M. Eaton, A Social History of the Deccan, 1300–1761: Eight Indian Lives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 59–77.

69 One of the manuscripts of this work is Add. 1739, British Library, London.

70 Mukatabat-i Allami (Insha-yi Abul Fazl): The Letters of the Emperor Akbar in English Translation (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1998).

71 Ishtiaq Ahmad Zilli, The Mughal State and Culture 1556–1598: Selected Letters and Documents from Munshaat-i-Namakin (New Delhi: Manohar, 2007), ch. 7, 331–70.

72 Alam, Muzaffar, “The Pursuit of Persian: Language in Mughal Politics,” Modern Asian Studies 32, 2 (1998): 317–49, at 327.

73 Insha-yi Harkaran, Add. 26,140, British Library, London; translated by Francis Balfour as The Forms of Herkern (Calcutta: n.p., 1781), 184–87.

74 Tarikh-i Shakir Khani, Add. MSS 6585, British Library, London, ff. 122a–155a. The mahzar-nama within this section is reproduced in Ibn Hasan, The Central Structure of the Mughal Empire and Its Practical Working up to the Year 1657 (London: Oxford University Press, 1936), 367.

75 Alam, Crisis of Empire, 175–203; J. S. Grewal, The Sikhs of the Punjab (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 82–98.

76 For some key discussions of this process of appropriation, see Christopher A. Bayly, Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780–1870 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); Robert Travers, Ideology and Empire in Eighteenth-Century India: The British in Bengal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

77 J. S. Grewal, In the By-Lanes of History: Some Persian Documents from a Punjab Town (Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1975), 4–5.

78 Vikram Samvat is one of the two main pre-Islamic Indian eras, the other being Saka.

79 Alam, Crisis of Empire, 169–75.

80 Sujan Rai Bhandari, Khulasatu-t-tawarikh, M. Zafar Hasan, ed. (Delhi: J & Sons Press, 1918).

81 J. S. Grewal, In the By-Lanes of History: Some Persian Documents from a Punjab Town (Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1975), 299–302.

82 Peter Marshall, The Impeachment of Warren Hastings (London: Oxford University Press, 1965). For a fuller discussion of Ali Ibrahim Khan's life and legal ideas, see Chatterjee, “Hindu City.”

83 “Certificate of the Inhabitants of Benares in Support of Ali Ibrahim Khan’,” Add. 29,217(a), British Library, London.

84 Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 67.

85 There is a vast historiography of the 1857 mutiny of soldiers and coincident civil rebellion in northern and central India. The book that records the events of Delhi most closely is William Dalrymple, The Last Mughal: The Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 (London: Bloomsbury, 2006).

86 On this tribunal, see Iqbal Husain, “The Rebel Administration of Delhi,” in Shireen Moosvi, ed., Facets of the Great Revolt, 1857 (Delhi: Tulika 2008), 23–38.

87 Translations of many of these records are in Mahmood Farooqui, Besieged: Voices from Delhi (Delhi: Penguin, 2010).

88 Mahzar-nama of Hafiz Abdur Rahman signed by several citizens of Delhi, Mutiny Papers, National Archives of India, Coll. 103–31.

89 This displays the diglossia, or unstable movement along a spectrum of registers, that characterized the relationship between Urdu and Persian well into the nineteenth century. Javed Majeed, “‘The Jargon of Indostan’: An Exploration of Jargon in Urdu and East India Company English,” in Peter Burke, ed., Languages and Jargons: Contributions to a Social History of Language (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), 182–205.

90 Farooqui, Besieged, 161–62.

Mahzar-namas in the Mughal and British Empires: The Uses of an Indo-Islamic Legal Form

  • Nandini Chatterjee (a1)


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