In 1979, Bollywood star Dharmendra was in a complex marital situation: he wished to elope with fellow actress Hema Malini, but his first wife, Prakash Kaur, refused to divorce him. He found a novel solution: the Hindu lovers should convert to Islam. As Muslims, the second, polygamous marriage of Dharmendra and Hema (now Dilawar and A’isha, above) was recognized under Indian law. Some thirty years later, a comparable drama erupted around the deputy minister of Haryana, Chandra Mohan, who converted to Islam along with his mistress Arunadha Bali, so that they might marry regardless of Mohan’s existing marriage. At the time, many chastised these shenanigans as “a marriage of convenience,” something that looked all the truer when Mohan (now Chand Muhammad) converted back to Hinduism to reconcile with his first wife, leading to the suicide of the second.

This introduces the contentious phenomenon of what are sometimes referred to as “conversion marriages”: religious conversions enacted by an individual of one religion in conjunction with their marriage to someone of another. Stories of conversion marriages like this made delicious newspaper gossip, but in other cases, due to longstanding, historical anxieties about inter-religious conversion in India, other tales of conversion marriages have incited more sensationalist, inflammatory speculations. Contemporary Hindu nationalist accusations of a so-called “love jihad,” by which Muslim men are rumored to use marriage as an intercommunity weapon to “convert” Hindu women, are just one example.

Alongside both gossip and incendiary rhetoric in India’s public sphere, other comparable matrimonial dramas have in practice often ended up in India’s courts. This has been the case since the formation of India’s judicial system in the colonial period. In many ways, the legal complexities surrounding conversion marriages were a product of India’s particular legal structure. Pledging to respect the religious identities of their subjects, the British civil courts applied separate bodies of family law (covering issues like marriage and divorce) for Hindus, Muslims, and others. This meant that deciding which family laws a court should apply depended upon first establishing the “religious” identity of a case’s litigant(s). And so conversion marriages, which always involved litigants who had exchanged their religious self-designations, perpetually mixed up personal law codes and created spaces of legal inclarity. This is why the courts struggled (and continue to struggle) on family law questions when an individual’s past and present religious identities were different, or when their declared “beliefs” and community origins contradicted each other.

Gauri Viswanathan and several other historians have already examined landmark court cases that revolved around perplexing conversion marriage sagas. But these scholars have mostly considered these cases with a main focus on judicial process, and how the colonial administration handled religious personal laws.1Along with Viswanathan, see Prem Choudhry, Contentious Marriages, Eloping Couples: Gender, Caste and Patriarchy in Northern India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2007); Samita Sen, “Crossing Communities: Religious Conversion, Rights in Marriage and Personal Law,” in Negotiating Spaces: Legal Domains, Gender Concerns and Community Constructs, eds. Flavia Agnes and Shoba Venkatesh Ghosh (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012), 77-109; Nandini Chatterjee, “Muslim or Christian? Family Quarrels and Religious Diagnosis in a Colonial Court,” American Historical Review 117, 4 (2012): 1101-1122. In this speculative essay, I hope to posit instead a few implications that this type of court case may have for our understandings of religious conversion itself. These cases show how court officials, when adjudicating conversion marriages, were also judging the authenticity, or otherwise, of individual conversions, and by inevitable extension, were evaluating the category of “religion” itself. I suggest, in particular, that these conversion marriage cases unravel many of the assumptions that have informed existing analyses of religious conversion. Far from judging the validity of religious conversions according to fixed meanings, they employed flexible, fluid, and often surprising definitions of conversion, which varied according to both context and objective.

Let me draw two key observations. One is that many court cases reveal a real instrumentality within acts of religious conversion. The very particular personal law system, in colonial and postcolonial India alike, created a framework in which conversion could be used as an instrument of legal mobility, allowing an individual to place themselves under alternative legal jurisdictions. Some landmark cases seem to reveal the willful appropriation of another religion for pragmatic reasons. There were multiple instances of male Hindu conversions into Islam to authorize polygamous marriages, as discussed above, but additional marital motivations for exchanging one’s religious status existed. Female conversions to Islam or Christianity appeared in courtrooms, for motives such as marrying outside the strictures of a woman’s “Hindu” caste status, enabling the remarriage of a Hindu widow (formerly forbidden in Anglo-Hindu Law), or accessing Islam’s more generous laws on female inheritance (denied altogether to Hindu women). There were also shifts between Islamic sects in order to access, for instance, different stipulations of inheritance law. Legal scholars often talk of “forum shopping”: the idea that, in contexts of legal pluralism, individuals sometimes make conscious selections between different legal channels in attempts to secure a preferred settlement. But the personal law system seemed to initiate almost a converse process: colonial India was becoming a world of faith-shopping, with litigants exchanging their declared religion to pursue their legal interests.

A second, important observation is that the methods for determining whether a religious conversion was “real” were far from fixed. Strikingly, the decisions applied often belie many of the assumptions made about Christian and Islamic interpretations of conversion. Before, and especially since, the Asadian turn in religious studies, which emphasized the post-Enlightenment Western/Christian foundations of the category of “religion,” scholars have emphasized that Christian perspectives upon conversion cannot be transposed unquestioningly upon other religions.2Talal Asad, “Comments on Conversion,” in Conversion to Modernities: the Globalization of Christianity, ed. Peter van der Veer (New York: Routledge, 1996), pp.263-274, as well as other essays in this volume. “Christian” understandings, by common interpretation, have focused on the renovation of interiorized belief as the defining mark of conversion: “the process . . . by which a self hitherto divided becomes unified . . . in consequence of its firmer hold on religious realities,” as William James famously put it.3William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Longmans Green, 1917), 186. Meanwhile, other traditions (such as Islam, or Indian religions) have often been assumed to emphasize community origins and praxis as the key markers of religion, and hence, to interpret conversion more as a rite of social passage. In one study, for example, the Islamic understanding of conversion is described as enrollment in the “membership of a salvific community,” as expressed through meaningful acts of religious socialization like collective prayer and pilgrimage.4Devin De Weese, Islamization and Native Religion in the Golden Horde, Baba Tukles and Conversion to Islam in Historical and Epic Tradition (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 26. There is plenty of evidence for this understanding of Islamic conversion in pre-colonial South Asia. Mouez Khalfaoui, for example, has demonstrated that Islamic fatwas (edicts) in early-modern India tended to address conversion through issues such as the inductee’s declaration of witness (shahadah), intracommunity marriages, or the penalization of apostates, which focused upon conversion’s embodied aspects, rather than matters of faith or belief.

Yet in these court cases, Christian and Muslim legal practitioners alike shifted between multiple means of identifying an adherent’s religion. For example, the British judges who adjudicated these cases, far from adhering to an archetypal “Christian” definition of conversion, very often departed from accepting declared belief as confirming a litigant’s religious status. Viswanathan narrates some landmark cases in which Hindu-born women converted to Christianity, and thereafter, sought release from Hindu marriages into which they had been betrothed as children in order to remarry Christian husbands. Usually in these cases, colonial judges refused to uphold their claims, claiming that the original, Hindu marriage could not be dissolved according to Hindu law. In other words, in these cases, these women were considered Hindus as legal subjects, essentially on the grounds of their ancestral community origins, while their appeals to personal faith and practice as proof of their genuine Christianity, and their testimony to their conversion itself, fell on deaf ears. Their beliefs, it seems, counted little for these British officials in defining their true religious status.

Even less explored is how these courtroom interventions prompted religious leaders within India’s various communities to reevaluate the definition of conversion. Let us take a single example: Islamic scholars who, comparably with the Christian judges above, refused to adhere to a classic “Islamic” model for defining the signifiers of religious identity. Instead, fears of the impact of conversion marriages upon their community seemed to spur them into rethinking the markers of “true” conversions.

So far, I have mostly discussed marital conversions into Islam, but the same happened in reverse, and often for pragmatic reasons. Because Muslim personal laws as applied in India gave Muslim women few grounds for divorcing a husband except by renouncing her religion, by the 1920s, many Muslim women who desired divorce were instrumentally renouncing Islam and initiating themselves into other religions. To do this, they would take up Christian or Hindu second marriages. In response to these threatening deeds, some Muslim clerics started to reframe how to define an authentic conversion. One scholar writing in the 1930s, Sajjad Rahmatullah of Patna, came up with a novel argument. He distinguished between “real” (haqiqi) conversions, when a woman embraces another religion “in her heart” (dil se); and “customary” or “ritual” (rusmi) conversions, which are enacted out of legal opportunism. The latter, he argued, are outward acts, conducted for courtroom display, that do not reveal a true change in one’s religion; these women may rejoin Islam after achieving their marital dissolution, and either marry other Muslim men or even enroll their new non-Muslim husbands into the Islamic fold.5Abu’l Muhasin Muhammad Sajjad, “Infisaakh Nikah-i-Muslimaat par Tabsarah” (1936) republ. in Abu’l Muhasin Muhammad Sajjad, Qanooni Masoode (Patna: Imarat-i-Shari‘ah, 1999): 12-15. To phrase this another way, Rahmatullah is arguing that one’s “true” religion is not defined by ritual practice or community membership, a definition which in this instance would have favored the adopted religion. Instead, the determining feature of one’s belonging to Islam is an underlying inner conviction, resting “in the heart” beneath the religion’s social signifiers. A conversion, therefore, cannot be assessed on the exclusive basis of community membership.

This brief essay, focused on only a few court cases, can only posit suggestive conclusions. But we can see that these cases muddy any prospect for a uniform identification of conversion. While many litigants exchanged their religious identities in pursuit of particular goals, many courtroom personnel and petitioners likewise showed comparable forms of mobility in justifying the validity, or otherwise, of particular conversions. In doing this, the participants in these cases undermined any central definition of conversion, as much as they did any workable category of “religion” itself.