Elizabeth Lhost

What’s Law Got to Do with It?: Mufti Kifayatullah’s Readers, Religious Knowledge, and the Urdu Public Sphere

The expansion of lithographic printing in the second-half of the nineteenth century led to the rapid growth of printing and publishing in South Asia’s vernacular languages—especially in Persian and Urdu. While scholars generally agree that the spread of vernacular printing changed the manner in which religious knowledge was produced and transmitted, few have probed the mechanisms of those changes, traced how texts circulated, or shown how they were read by lay and scholarly audiences. Using evidence of reader reception and engagement found in one genre of vernacular religious legal writing—the fatwā (Islamic legal opinion)—this talk considers the implications of accessible printing on the production and interpretation of religious knowledge in late-19th and 20th-century India. In particular, it surveys Mufti Kifayatullah’s extensive collection of fatwās, which were written and published in a variety of venues during his extensive career (c. 1898–1952) and were later compiled and re-published after his death. Using ancillary information embedded within the questions Mufti Kifayatullah received, this talk traces the reception of Islamic legal writings as they were published, circulated, and read in late-colonial India. In addition to identifying the geographic distribution of the fatwā-seekers who called upon Mufti Kifayatullah for legal and religious advice, the talk also examines the ways in which fatwā-seekers used the fatwā as a forum to vet their own and others’ interpretations of different religious texts and provided additional evidence of their reading behavior accordingly. Such evidence provides insight into the way readers read these newly available vernacular texts and sought answers on their proper interpretation. In so doing, it contributes to our understanding of ways in which print technology affected the circulation and interpretation of religious legal knowledge.


Elizabeth Lhost is a historian of law and religion in South Asia. She recently completed her Ph.D. in the Departments of South Asian Languages and Civilizations and History (with distinction) at the University of Chicago and is currently a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her current project, Islam Inscribed: Faith and Bureaucracy in Modern South Asia (1800–1950), examines the influence of colonial bureaucracy on the practice, interpretation, and everyday use of Islamic law in British India. Prior to earning her PhD, Elizabeth received a B.A. in English literature and cognitive science from Northwestern University and an M.A. in Languages and Cultures of Asia from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her work has been supported by the Fulbright program, the Social Science Research Council, the American Institute for Pakistan Studies, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Mellon Foundation. At UW–Madison Elizabeth is also affiliated with and will be teaching courses in the undergraduate Legal Studies Program.