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Shari‘a and the City – الشريعة والمدينة

This picture depicts the entrance of the ‘Abdin Shari‘a Court, possibly sometime in the early 1920s. It was a few steps away from the ‘Abdin karakol, the police station, which was the subject of our previous post. This shari‘a court occupied one floor in a “narrow building packed with residents” as the picture caption writes. It was not identical with the nearby ‘Abdin Summary Court. It must have been somewhere close to today’s Family Court Building.

The shari‘a courts of Egypt became “shari‘a courts” only gradually. The legal landscape of Egypt was extremely complex. The government under British occupation distributed legal tasks and subjects of jurisdiction between the mixed courts (1875), the civil or national (ahliyya) courts (1883), and the courts where shari‘a rules remained the basis of litigation (including the so-called “guardian” courts, majalis hasbiyya), while earlier, hybrid judicial bodies – such as the merchant courts and the criminal justice courts – dissolved. Will Hanley studied the proceedings of the French and British consular courts in Alexandria in detail in the 1880s-1910s. The system and jurisdiction of shari‘a courts were codified in 1897; with several amendments in the 1900s, in 1920 and later. The system and work of shari‘a courts in the interwar period had not been studied properly as access to the registers is limited in the Egyptian National Archives. Latifa Muhammad Salim, Judith Tucker, Ron Shaham, Hanan Kholoussy, and Kenneth Cuno have highlighted that these court records are crucial to understand social change, especially the changing culture of gender and family. In addition, these courts were equally important concerning property disputes, especially pious foundations. The military government abolished the shari‘a courts in 1955.

Muhammad ‘Abduh, the famous Muslim reformer and Grand Mufti, complained as early as in 1899 that the government does not provide well-designed and maintained buildings and offices for the shari‘a courts. He thought that they cannot reflect properly the “dignity” of government  (‘Abduh, 6-8). It seems that the khedivial and the later royal government under occupation did not find the architectural image of modern shari‘a justice as important as other types of courts in the early twentieth century. Unlike the Court of Cassation (the Supreme Court), the Courts of Appeal, or the old Mixed Courts Building in ‘Ataba (which can be seen also in this page), the shari‘a courts did not receive their own buildings of authority but, like the ‘Abdin one, were parts of larger complexes. A 1912 list of government buildings does not list a single shari’a court building. These spaces and the courts’ work remained largely invisible to the public and to non-Egyptians.



محمد عبده، تقرير في إصلاح المحاكم الشرعية (القاهرة: مطبعة المنار، ١٩٠٠)

Report on the Department on towns and buildings for 1910 (Cairo: Public Printing Press, 1912)

Website Mantiqti (last viewed 24 December 2019)

Cuno, Kenneth. “Reorganization of the Sharia Courts of Egypt: How Legal Modernization Set Back Women’s Rights in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association 2, 1 (2015): 85-99.

Hanley, Will. Identifying with Nationality: Europeans, Ottomans, and Egyptians in Alexandria. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.

Kholoussy, Hanan. For Better, for Worse: The Marriage Crisis That Made Modern Egypt (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2010).

Shaham, Ron. Family and the Courts in Modern Egypt: A Study Based on Decisions by the Shari‘a Courts (Leiden: Brill, 1997).

لطيفة محمد سالم‎, النظام القضائى المصرى الحديث، ٢ج (القاهرة: دار الشروق، ٢٠١٠).

Tucker, Judith E. Women in Nineteenth-Century Egypt (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).


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