Islamic Law and Civil Code: The Law of Property in Egypt

By Powell, Russell | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, April-June 2012 | Go to article overview
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Islamic Law and Civil Code: The Law of Property in Egypt


Powell, Russell, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Islamic Law and Civil Code: The Law of Property in Egypt. By RICHARD A. DEBS. New York: COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2010. Pp. xix + 191. $50.

Islamic. Law and Civil Code explores the transition from traditional Islamic jurisprudence to codes rooted in French civil law, looking at Egyptian property law as an illustrative example. The author is a well-respected banker, trained as a lawyer and academic, with extensive experience in international and Middle Eastern affairs. The book is rather unusual to review, because it is almost entirely based on Debs's work in London and Cairo with fellowships from Princeton and Harvard in the late 1950s. There are a handful of journal articles and a few New York Times references from 1962, but there are no later sources cited. Although this results in some inherent limitations, the book is an extremely careful study of the transition to civil codes in a predominantly Muslim jurisdiction that will be helpful to international, comparative, property, and Islamic law scholars for its descriptive legal history and its insights for comparative law.

The book has four major sections, beginning with classical Islamic property law. The second section describes the innovations made within this system in nineteenth-century Egypt, particularly under Muhammad 'Ali. The third section analyzes the transition to civil codes, and the final section considers property law in the Civil Code of 1949 and subsequent reforms in light of the transition from classical Islamic jurisprudence.

The first section clearly and concisely reviews the classical Sunni fiqh tradition of property law. Though not as thorough as John Makdisi's Islamic Property Law (2005), it is a very good summary. However, reliance on sources available prior to 1960 fails to include primary sources that have become available in the last fifty years as well as helpful secondary sources. That said, the classical treatises cited by Debs certainly reflect the rules of the Sunni schools of legal thought.

The second section explains modifications to this system of legal rules in nineteenth-century Egypt, presumably as a response to French occupation and ongoing European influence. The description of these changes is helpful and accurate. However, these legal reforms might be better understood in a more local and Ottoman context.

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