Reem A. Meshal. Sharia and the Making of the Modern Egyptian: Islamic Law and Custom in the Courts of Ottoman Cairo. (The American University in Cairo Press, 2014). 290 p. Hardbound, $75.00.
Sharia and the Making of the Modern Egyptian: Islamic Law and Custom in the Courts of Ottoman Cairo examines the sijill (the complete records of a judge or court) as a historical text where Ottoman state law, local custom, and Islamic legal theory intersect. According to Meshal, legal scholars have neglected the study of these documents and “an unfortunate consequence of this neglect has been the inhibition of research into legal theory and legal praxis and their osmotic influence on one another in a given political setting.”
Before the Ottomans, the concept of “court” was embodied in the person of a judge and held in any number of venues. Under the Ottomans, courts became fixed locations and, for the first time, legal documents became mass-produced and centralized. Judges were required to turn over their sijills to a professional archivist, who linked the documents to the court and the public archive. The rise of bureaucrats like professional archivists, notaries, and court experts meant that the authority of the written document would come to outweigh that of oral testimony.
Civil documents pertaining to things like personal disputes, property disputes, and marriages were given the status of “authoritative legal proof.” This impacted the autonomy of the individual by virtue of the citizens’ access to these records. Documents housed in an archive provided a static record that could be accessed under certain conditions; however, a copy of a document that could be carried or distributed would grant rights to the holder in the public sphere. “More than the archive, therefore, it is the millions of individual documents contained within it that provide the textual footprints of an ‘early-modern individualism,’ or proto-citizenship.”
The author’s focus on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Cairo matters because of the heterogeneous nature of the city’s population during a time when the state sought to harmonize state law with sharia. Meshal’s book discusses custom, state law, and Islamic jurisprudence without falling back on the Western binary of religious-versus-secular. She admits Western influence on the Empire but concludes that important developments were established prior to this influence. The author builds her arguments from sijills and other primary sources, as well from a variety of secondary sources. Chapters are organized by topic, with topic subdivisions including a concise chapter conclusion. This is a well-researched book and I recommend it for academic law libraries, particularly those that serve Sharia or Ottoman scholars.