Juridical Humanity: A Colonial History

Juridical Humanity: A Colonial History

Juridical Humanity: A Colonial History

Juridical Humanity: A Colonial History


In colonial Egypt, the state introduced legal reforms that claimed to liberate Egyptians from the inhumanity of pre-colonial rule and elevate them to the status of human beings. These legal reforms intersected with a new historical consciousness that distinguished freedom from force and the human from the pre-human, endowing modern law with the power to accomplish but never truly secure this transition.

Samera Esmeir offers a historical and theoretical account of the colonizing operations of modern law in Egypt. Investigating the law, both on the books and in practice, she underscores the centrality of the "human" to Egyptian legal and colonial history and argues that the production of "juridical humanity" was a constitutive force of colonial rule and subjugation. This original contribution queries long-held assumptions about the entanglement of law, humanity, violence, and nature, and thereby develops a new reading of the history of colonialism.


What is the relationship between modern law and the human, and what was the colonial career of this relationship? How was the concept of the human cemented in the legal processes of colonizing projects? Did this concept signify a person bound by the chains of colonial law, or a subject who lived in the space of modern juridical power assumed to be able to abide by it or rebel against it? These questions guide the inquiry of this book, situated in Egypt under British occupation (1882–1936), when Egyptians were recruited to the production of cotton for British and other world markets, and when the technologies of colonial rule came to rely heavily on the new positive law and the new figure of the human. the “human” here is a concept/figure that stands for a specific species, a certain status, a particular form of life. the significance of these questions stems from the fact that the concept of the human was at the center of a range of knowledge and modes of rule that are becoming all the more evident today.

During the era of colonial rule, Ottoman Egypt suffered a rupture in its legal history. This rupture consisted in the introduction of a new legal system of positive law that replaced the Ottoman-khedival legal order grounded in the tradition of Islamic law—the shan ‘a. This book investigates the thought, institutions, practice, and sensibilities of the modern colonial rule of law. It traces the novel relationship they cemented between the prevailing rule of law and the human, a relationship that engendered its own colonizing operations. This new relationship was part of what Talal Asad describes as colonialism’s “irreversible process of transmutation, in which old desires and ways of life were destroyed and new ones took their place—a story of change without historical precedent in its speed, global scope, and pervasiveness.”

A central tenet of the anticolonial tradition locates the power of colonialism in the exclusion of the colonized from the realm of “universal humanity,” in their “thingification.” Aimé Césaire is one important figure . . .

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