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Forms of Law in the Early Modern Persianate World, 17th-19th centuries

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - Lawforms (Forms of Law in the Early Modern Persianate World, 17th-19th centuries)

Reporting period: 2020-05-01 to 2021-10-31

This is a project about the everyday uses of law in a large section of the early modern Islamic world – the part that used Persian language for official documentation.

Once upon a time, Persian or Farsi was the language of high culture, literary production, and administrative and legal record-keeping across a vast section of the world, stretching from present-day Bangladesh in the east to Bosnia in the west. Today, Persian is still spoken by people in a number of countries, but it has official status only in Iran, Tajikistan (under the name: Tajiki) and Afghanistan (under the name: Dari). This project is about that lost world, which Marshall Hodgson called Persianate. Delving into that world, where Persian was the language of cosmopolitan culture and also legal record, we set out to investigate how people – commoners to kings – thought and spoke about law, how their cultural baggage determined their ideas and efforts to secure rights and justice. We decided to do so by looking at Persian-language and bi-lingual legal documents, studying their forms, their favourite formulae and the formularies that provided the models for such legal writing.

As such, this project, while dealing with historical materials, addresses many topical matters, including:
The nature of cosmopolitanism, where people of various ethnicities, religion and spoken languages managed to communicate with each other, and co-exist in civility and civilisation
The specific implications of such a context for people’s understanding of law, and their rights
The role of Islamic law, especially in relation to non-Muslim peoples
The problems and prospects of multi-lingual practice, especially for legal communication and record.

The project intends to study these questions across a number of linguistic zones and across many polities, including nation-states as well as empires. The results will be published in a monograph, two volumes of essays, a project blog and a research data website.
We have made very good progress until the 30-month halfway point.
In the first year, after the constitution of the core research team with the hiring of the post-doctoral associates, graduate research assistant and digital humanities lead, the team members set the agenda for research, relationship-building with key institutions and the dissemination of results.
In years 2 and 3, substantial amounts of research have been undertaken for all zones (1-5: Hindi-, Bengali-, Marathi- and Rajashtani- speaking, Iran, Indian Ocean ) within the project, leading to the creation of a substantial data repository. On a rough estimate, we have 30,000 documents available for research, which forms a tremendous dataset.

Significant advances have also been made in analysing the material, through intensive and collaborative study of samples and short series by project team members, individually and collaboratively, both within the team and in association with external collaborators of the project. The team has begun to identify patterned variations as well as overlaps in the manner of legal writing between the specified zones. The team has also been systematically looking at a range of social actors, as proposed in the action plan – and have built up a significant amount of data with regards to landlords, petty state officials, religious functionaries, merchants and a range of royal actors, across a range of religious and cultural identities. We have made important discoveries, such as the pervasive presence of Persian and Persianate styles and lexicons in the purportedly indigenist Maratha empire in India (zone 3a); connections between legal documentation and registration in the Rajasthani states (zone 3b); pseudo-Sanskritic formulae in otherwise Persianate legal documents from Bengal (zone 1); the role of letters in commercial record-keeping (zone 5) and the use of legal fictions in transactional documents in Qajar Iran (zone 4) Structural and semantic analysis of the texts (which is part of the Digital Humanities aspect of the project) have greatly enhanced the project’s understanding of the material and helped us to formulate systematic provisional conclusions.

Such provisional conclusions have been presented and tested in several workshops and conference presentations, including:
March 2018: Persian manuscript reading workshop at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), Lahore, Pakistan.
July 2018: The first of the major research workshops of the project, on the theme of ‘Transactions and Documentation’ was held in Exeter. 12 key papers were presented over 2 days, which is now proceeding towards publication.
February 2019: A conference on Rajasthani and Persian manuscripts and document forms was held in Bikaner, India, in February 2019, in association with the Rajasthan State Archives, Bikaner.
Lawforms team members have presented papers at several conferences, including Ravenna, June 2018, IAHA, Leiden, July 2019; Madison, USA, October 2019.

Several publications are emerging out of this work, including:
Monograph by PI Nandini Chatterjee : Negotiating Mughal Law: A Family of Landlords across Three Indian Empires (Cambridge University Press, 2020). Gold open access immediately upon publication.
Article by PI Nandini Chatterjee, 'Sharīʿa translated? Persian documents in English courts, in Mahmood Kooriadathodi and Sanne Ravensbergen (eds) Ocean of Law: Islamic Legal Crossings across the Indian Ocean World (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming). Submitted to editors. This will be placed on Gold open access after publication.
Article by PI Nandini Chatterjee, 'Kayasths in Rajput land: Family lore in a dynasty of qānungō-zamindars in early modern Malwa’' in Rosalind O'Hanlon ed. Special Issue of Indian Economic and Social History Review, on 'Service people in motion: culture, power and the politics of mobility in India's long eighteenth century'. Submitted to editors. This will be placed on Green open access after publication and subject to the necessary embargo.

Article by Co I Christoph Werner: “Die ‘Privaturkunde'’im persisch-islamischen Kultur-und Rechtsbereich. Herausforderungen einer komparatistischen Diplomatik,” in Andrea Stieldorf
(ed.) Die Urkunde: Text - Bild - Objekt (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019), pp. 141-60. Pre-print version (Green Open access) on ; subject to University verification and 12-month embargo.

Special issue on ‘Transactions and Documentation in the Persianate World,’ to be submitted to the Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient in 2020 (This includes 10 articles by all team members and 5 other collaborators.)

Project blog at:
Project research data presentation: not yet available to public
The most unconventional approach in this project has been the study of Islamic law in several non-Muslim majority contexts, and using techniques developed in the study of European diplomatics, which have been very infrequently been applied to the study of Islamic material, and never to the study of Indic material. This approach has required the use of quantitative approaches suitable for handling relatively large volumes of data, using Excel spreadsheets, while also undertaking fine-grained qualitative analysis, for which text encoding, using TEI-XML has been most effective.

The process of encoding selected texts alerted team members to significant features of the documents that have the capacity of revealing much that is unknown about chancellery procedures in Indo-Iranian empires, in the indigenous underbelly of colonial rule, about the legal notions of people from across a range of social backgrounds. For the digital output, we are encoding around 50-100 legal deeds in Persian or Persian-associates languages such as Arabic, Hindi, Marathi and Rajasthani, which will then be displayed on a new website ( and linked to as far as the Persian-language materials are concerned. We also intend to collaborate with the International Digital Humanities Network, and have been invited by the Open Islamic Texts Initiative to contribute data that can hugely enhance digital capacities for the OCR of Arabic-script manuscripts.

The PI has also initiated exchanges with computer scientists working on author identification in hand-written documents, across multiple scripts, and looking into the potential for collaboration that can make significant contributions to forensic technologies.

Collaborative reading combing linguistic abilities (for example, where one team member reads Marathi and another reads Hindi), has yielded data otherwise obscured by multi-lingual and multi-scribal material that constitutes a significant portion of the source base. This is an approach for the Humanities, where research is usually highly individuated and isolated. The PI and team members are instead keen to develop approaches that will permit the combining verbal collaboration with the usual reading and writing approaches, and which will help overcome the traditional boundaries between language-based areas of research.

By the end of the project, in addition to a project research database, one monograph, two volumes of essays and one blog, we expect to have made significant contributions to digital humanities work on non-Latin script languages, and potentially initiating collaboration with computer scientists.
A legal document from Rajasthan, India, 1934