Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture 1772-1947

Mitra Sharafi.

March 2014. Order online through The Cambridge University Press or Amazon. ISBN: 9781107047976.

This book explores the legal culture of the Parsis, or Zoroastrians, an ethnoreligious community unusually invested in the colonial legal system of British India and Burma. Rather than trying to maintain collective autonomy and integrity by avoiding interaction with the state, the Parsis sank deep into the colonial legal system itself. From the late eighteenth century until India’s independence in 1947, they became heavy users of colonial law, acting as lawyers, judges, litigants, lobbyists, and legislators. They de-Anglicized the law that governed them and enshrined in law their own distinctive models of the family and community

by two routes: frequent intragroup litigation often managed by Parsi legal professionals in the areas of marriage, inheritance, religious trusts, and libel, and the creation of legislation that would become Parsi personal law. Other South Asian communities also turned to law, but none seems to have done so earlier or in more pronounced ways than the Parsis.


“Despite its importance, there is relatively little written on Parsi law. Mitra Sharafi’s book undertakes the most detailed and informed study of the main branches of Parsi legal history. In it, Sharafi neatly straddles two readerships, the Parsi specialist and the legal fields. Through this, Sharafi offers a work that is by a long way the best study in its field, carrying the subject a long way forward. This is a superb piece of work.”
– John R. Hinnells, Liverpool Hope University

“Mitra Sharafi’s book brings to light a community that has received little attention in the historiography of South Asia, namely the Parsis. What distinguishes this community is the unique path by which they acculturated themselves into the world of colonial law, both by entering the legal profession and by crafting their own laws of marriage and inheritance. Sharafi moves deftly between Parsi cultural issues and their participation in colonial courts, both as litigants and as practitioners of colonial law. Her command over the local case law concerning Parsis, relevant newspapers, and records of London’s Privy Council are nothing short of breathtaking. This is clearly the work of a dedicated scholar, and this book will make a strong contribution to South Asian history and the study of diaspora and of colonial law more broadly.”
– Chandra Mallampalli, Westmont College

Read reviews for Law and Identity in Colonial South Asia: Parsi Legal Culture 1772-1947: 

In the News:

  • Sharafi discusses the relevance of Parsi legal culture to modern times in this article.
  • Sharafi writes of the changing face of the legal profession in this StarTribune article.

Table of Contents

Part I. Parsi Legal Culture:
1. Using law: colonial Parsis go to court
2. Making law: two patterns
Part II. The Creation of Parsi Personal Law:
3. The limits of English law: the Inheritance Acts
4. Reconfiguring male privilege: the Matrimonial Acts
5. The jury and intra-group control: the Parsi Chief Matrimonial Court
Part III. Beyond Personal Law:
6. Entrusting the faith: religious trusts and the Parsi legal profession
7. Pure Parsi: libel, race, and group membership
Conclusion: law and identity
Appendix: legislation.

About the Author

Mitra Sharafi is an Assistant Professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School, with an affiliation appointment in history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She holds law degrees from the University of Cambridge (BA, 1998) and the University of Oxford (BCL, 1999), and history degrees from McGill University (BA, 1996) and Princeton University (PhD, 2006). She served as a Research Fellow at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, from 2005 to 2007. Sharafi’s research has been supported and recognized by the Institute for Advanced Study (through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation), the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, and Canada’s Social Science and Humanities Research Council. Her book manuscript was the winner of the Mellon-sponsored ‘First Book’ workshop at the University of Wisconsin in 2010–11. In 2007, her dissertation (also on Parsi legal history) was awarded the Canadian South Asia Council’s Dissertation Award Grand Prize.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *