Hanafi Law and Urbanization in Mughal India

— Naveen Kanalu (EHESS Paris)

Hanafi law, one of the four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, which was widely practiced in the Ottoman Empire, was also the imperial legal system of the Mughal Empire (1526-1857) in South Asia. Hanafi law governed property rights of Muslims and non-Muslims alike in the rural and the urban spheres of the Mughal Empire. Unfortunately, research on Hanafi law in Mughal India, in its theoretical and practical perspectives, remains virtually inexistant in current historiography. In this blogpost, I sketch the salient features of the relation between law and Mughal urban practices. As sites where multiple social and economic actors intersected and interacted, Mughal cities were governed by Hanafi law. However, how Hanafi legal norms and practices moulded South Asian urbanisation has not received scholarly attention so far, especially in the context of a multi-religious and multi-ethnic society. Irrespective of religious identity, Hanafi law was the empire’s legal system on “secular” matters such as fiscality, public administration, judicial procedures and urban planning.

Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in prayer, ca 18th century (public domain)

The study of early modern urbanity and its global nature has been gaining increased scholarly interest in the recent decades.[1] In the Islamicate world stretching from Morocco to Bengal, shared institutional norms of urban culture had emerged since the late medieval period. Often known as “Islamic City,” the study of this paradigm has heavily centered around the place of mosques, religious schools, and public institutions.[2] Studies on South Asian urbanisation, however, have focused primarily on the ancient and the mediaeval periods and only to a limited extent on the early modern world. In Mughal historiography, the dominant approaches to urbanisation have been of two kinds. First, scholars have explored cities as centres of economic and commercial activities. Notably, they housed workshops that produced textile goods for the export market.[3] Second, urban studies tend to be heavily tilted towards capturing the political and symbolic power that capital cities like Delhi possessed as seats of the imperial court.[4]

As I highlighted in my talk at the international conference, “Urbanity: History, Concept, Uses” in November 2022, Hanafi law opens up several possibilities in understanding how urban social relations were shaped.[5] I analysed the nature of adjudicatory rights, notably through the judicial courts where the judges (qadi) safeguarded commercial and financial transactions. Equally, I argued that law functions as the primary discourse that governs property relations. This could be in the distribution of goods and the shares in legal rights that different communities and individuals possessed depending on their status.

In the Mughal Empire, the imperial cities of Delhi, Agra, Lahore, and Aurangabad were planned according to a similar cadastral plan, which allowed for the replication of a centralized model of land-use pattern. The key distinguishing feature of these major cities was that the walled city proper included the imperial properties such as forts as well as public housing leased to the elite military officers (mansabdars). In the different neighbourhoods, the city’s inhabitants had rights to full property ownership (tamlik) to the land and the built environment under Hanafi law. However, a less-known phenomenon is the absence of such full ownership rights in the suburbs. These agglomerations known as pura (pl. purajat) were privileges granted to elite officers to settle and populate them outside the city walls. In the case of the suburbs, occupants had the ownership of the built properties alone whereas the land remained public in nature. Like all the agrarian tracts, these lands too were unownable and belonged to the Mughal State’s public endowment (bayt al-mal).[6]

While “religion” no doubt played a prominent role, Mughal urban property relations should not be read through the religious identity of individuals and communities alone. Rather, Mughal urbanization must be defined according to different legal spheres since fiscal and commercial transactions were central to regulating the ordinary life of the cities’ inhabitants. In this process, judges were only one group among a wide variety of imperial agents who managed the legal organisation of imperial cities and their land-use regulations. This calls for recognising the objective function of legal relations in enabling the distribution of resources and the usage rights among urban dwellers.

MugUrba: ANR Project

The themes that I have delineated above will be extensively studied in a research project funded by the Agence nationale de la recherche (ANR), MugUrba: “The Bureaucratic Rhythms of Imperial Urbanity: Law, Property and Public Life in Mughal South Asia, c. 1650–1750”. This project that was launched in January 2024 will span four years. It will examine the nature of Mughal urbanity from three different angles: (1) Imperial Privileges at the Intersection of Public and Private Property Laws; (2) Legal Landscape of Urban Judicial Organisation; and (3) Provision and Distribution of Public Goods.

The project studies urbanisation over a century of Mughal rule when the empire reached its largest territorial extant (c. 1700) and rapidly disintegrated from the 1730s onwards. It shows the growth of state agents’ functions and how administrative rules and regulations evolved within the Hanafi legal framework. In an urban society of Muslim, Hindu and caste-based neighbourhoods, asymmetrical power relations existed between legal authorities and civilians. Non-Muslims were considered dhimmis or “protected communities” of the Mughal State with autonomy concerning their religious, ritual and kinship relations. On matters of general concern such as private contracts, commercial rights, and public transactions, Muslims and non-Muslims were treated equally aside from specific legal forms of discriminatory practices. Public figures like judges (qadi), censors (muhtasib), agents (wakil), police (kotwal) and military governors (nazim) managed the major urban centres. How did legal authorities maintain Islamic legal conventions and limit their transgression while also permitting ordinary people to carry on their social life? On the one hand, the project demonstrates the protection of entitlements and autonomy of ordinary subjects that middling officials oversaw. On the other hand, it argues that the urban ecological landscape was also regulated to strike a balance between private interests and public welfare of maintaining law and order. For future posts, please follow https://mugurba.hypotheses.org/

Naveen Kanalu is a historian of the legal, political and economic institutions of the Mughal Empire (1526-1857) in early modern South Asia. He is currently working on a monograph that examines imperial centralization and the application of the Hanafi legal system to fiscal mechanisms, the monetary system, and bureaucratic procedures in the second half of the seventeenth century. His articles on Hanafi jurisprudence in Indo-Islamic polities, British colonial interpretations of law, and European representations of Mughal rule have appeared in journals and edited volumes.


[1] See Susanne Rau, “Urbanity (urbanitas, Urbanität, urbanité, urbanità, urbanidad…) — An Essay,” in Religion and Urbanity Online, eds. Jörg Rüpke and Susanne Rau (Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter, 2020). https://www.degruyter.com/database/URBREL/entry/urbrel.11276000/html.

[2] On the Islamic world, see Salma K. Jayyusi et al., eds., The City in the Islamic World (Leiden: Brill, 2008). Brigitte Marino, ed. Études sur les villes du Proche-Orient XVIe-XIXe siècles. Hommage à André Raymond (Damascus: Presses de l’Ifpo, 2001).

[3] Hameeda Khatoon Naqvi, Mughal Hindustan, Cities and Industries, 1556–1803 (Karachi: National Book Foundation, 1974).

[4] Stephen P. Blake, Shahjahanabad: The Sovereign City in Mughal India, 1639–1739 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pZDMcyf8v4&t=3s Accessed on 19 December 2023.

[6] See Naveen Kanalu Ramamurthy, “Mirrors and Masks of Sovereignty: Imperial Governance in the Mughal World of Legal Normativism, c. 1650s–1720s,” PhD diss. (University of California, Los Angeles, 2021), 103-4.



Cite this blog post
urbrel (2024, February 12). Hanafi Law and Urbanization in Mughal India. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved April 21, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vsys

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1 Response

  1. February 27, 2024

    […] urbanity and its global nature has been gaining increased scholarly interest in the recent decades.[1] In the Islamicate world stretching from Morocco to Bengal, shared institutional norms of urban […]

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