Interpreting the Legal Archive of Visual Transformations: Textual Articulations of Visibility in Evidentiary Procedures and Documentary Formats of Colonial Law

Asif Ali Akhtar

A black and white scan of two pages of a book, with a combination of English and Persian.

This article is concerned with tracing an onto-epistemological break through the archeology of colonial penal law, whereby a historical restructuring of the “visible” and the “articulable” produces modern ways of “seeing” and “knowing.” This epistemic break will be investigated through eighteenth and nineteenth century “Regulation” of Islamic sharīʿa penal law by British administrators of the East India Company in colonial Bengal. The juridico-discursive body, which came to be known as Anglo-Muhammadan law, will be analyzed through court records compiled by Company jurists and their Regulations modifying sharīʿa jurisprudence. Islamic penal law is based on hermeneutical practices of juridical reasoning formed through particular ways of seeing, knowing, and verifying the truth through eye-witness and testimony. In this article I will show that when the British commandeered this system of justice towards their own ends, the regulatory changes they instituted inadvertently brought about visual transformations of the ways in which legal life-worlds of the colony come to be recorded, articulated, and expressed. Under the British administration of colonial Bengal, this dual-process of appropriation and subversion of the law took shape through translation and transliteration of fiqh treatises, to legal amendments and sweeping legislations in substantive law. This process not only provided colonial power access to the bodies of colonial subjects, but also conditioned the relations between criminality, visuality, and juridical veridiction through penal legislation. As this article will show, the East India Company’s regulation of Islamic penal law began incorporating modern forms of evidentiary proofs, indexicality, and documentary formats that restructured the lifeworld of colonial law in 19th century Bengal.

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Asif Ali Akhtar is a Ph.D. Candidate in Media, Culture, and Communications at New York University. He holds an M.A. in Politics from the New School for Social Research. Akhtar’s dissertation research focuses on understanding the politics of mediatic regimes and regulatory frameworks in 21st century Pakistan in terms of the colonial and precolonial antecedents through genealogies of mediation, regulation and politics.

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