Sharia and the Making of the Modern Egyptian: Islamic Law and Custom in the Courts of Ottoman Cairo.

Author:Ergene, Bogac A.
Position:Book review

Sharia and the Making of the Modern Egyptian: Islamic Law and Custom in the Courts of Ottoman Cairo. By Reem A. Meshal. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2014. Pp. xii + 290. $75.

Reem Meshal's book offers the most recent argument for the indigenous modernity of the Ottoman empire before the nineteenth century. Intended to be a critique of the "historicist" and "secular" characterizations of the modernization process, which assume that "political modernity has a peculiarly European genealogy" (p. 28), Meshal claims that after the Ottomans conquered Mamluk Egypt in the early sixteenth century, they instituted a "modern" legal system that contributed to "the rise of mass culture, the individual [who was, according to Meshal, 'independent from the authority of clan, community, and sect' (p. 40)], the bureaucratic state, and codified law" (p. 28). The legal system that the Ottomans instituted in Egypt was, obviously, not secular. But, Meshal insists, the association between secularism and modernity is an expectation based on the European experience; in the Ottoman context, aspects of legal-political modernity were introduced in Egyptian society through Ottoman efforts to impose the imperial formulations of Hanafl Islam on the Islamic legal plurality encountered in Egypt. Hardly a critique of the modernization theory, Meshal's book embraces many of the definitions and assumptions inherent in it. Instead of questioning these, the work takes them as given. If the relationship between secularism and modernity is unessential, as Meshal argues, what makes individualism, bureaucratic rationalism, or codified law vital components of modernity? Meshal does not engage with these issues, however. Along with other seekers of indigenous modernity in various Islamic settings, she is content to say: "Muslims, too, were modem!"

Meshal suggests that her interpretation is based on a creative re-reading of the relevant primary and secondary sources. As such, she takes on many scholars who have previously discussed Egypt's incorporation into the Ottoman empire. One argument, proposed by Nelly Hanna and Michael Winter, is that when the Ottomans arrived in Egypt they faced a well-developed religious establishment, composed of representatives of the four Sunni madhahib who resisted, successfully, Ottoman efforts to impose imperial qanuns on Egypt. Meshal contends that the legal struggle that took place was more complex than the characterization of Ottoman qanun vs. Egyptian...

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