Islamic Law and Legal Education in Modern Egypt


Nakissa, Aria. “Islamic Law and Legal Education in Modern Egypt.” Anthropology and MES, 2012.

Thesis Type:

PhD dissertation


This dissertation examines the transmission of Islamic legal knowledge in modern Egypt. It is based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Cairo among formally trained Islamic scholars. With governmental permission, I was able to attend classes at both al-Azhar’s Faculty of Sharīʿah and Cairo University’s Dār al-ʿUlūm. I also participated in the network of traditional study circles operating in and around al-Azhar mosque. Combining ethnographic data with extensive archival research, I trace the effects of government-led initiatives over the past century and a half to reform traditional religious learning. Such have revolved around increased incorporation of Western educational methods. There are two themes on which I focus. The first centers on ethics and subjectivity. Talal Asad has suggested that for pre-modern Muslim jurists, accurate understanding of sacred texts presupposed an appropriate "habitus". Drawing on Wittgenstein and Bourdieu, I elaborate Asad’s brief remarks along the following lines. Given that how a text is read depends upon the attributes of the reader, religious authorities insisted that proper interpretations could only be generated by proper character. The way in which to produce proper character was to mold it through a suitable program of ethical discipline. I demonstrate that pre-modern Islamic educational techniques were structured with the aim of imparting a particular habitus (modeled on that of the Prophet) by enjoining meticulous and constant imitation of the Prophet’s personal habits (Sunnah). By transforming themselves into living replicas of the Prophet, jurists believed that they acquired the ability to mirror his textual interpretations. I then describe how traditional linkages between knowledge and ethics have been eroded by the importation of Western learning techniques, scrutinizing the effects of these changes on substantive legal doctrine. The second overarching theme of my research examines how changes in pedagogical methods have produced a corresponding shift in "episteme". Using Foucault, I argue that premodern religious learning was dominated by an episteme centered on language and grammar. I proceed to describe how modern educational reforms have succeeded in inaugurating a new episteme modeled on the natural sciences. I assess the impact of this shift on modes of legal reasoning.

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