LAW Islamic Law and Civil Code: The Law of Property in Egypt, by Richard A. Debs. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. 191 pages. $50.
The recent revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya have added fuel to the ongoing discussion about the appropriate role of the shari'a in the legal regimes of modern Muslim states. Whether and in what form the shari'a might supplement or replace the current law in these states, much of which has been derived from the civil or common law systems, is an important issue. Any analysis of it must consider past patterns of interaction, accommodation, and integration between the shari'a and these legal systems.
Richard Deb's book on Egyptian property law provides a tremendously useful foundation for understanding this dynamic relationship. The book itself is the publication of the author's doctoral dissertation, completed in the late 1950s. Despite its age, the work remains accurate and relevant, and explains how the classical shari'a was integrated, but never fully subsumed, into the European-inspired codification of Egyptian civil law in the 19th and 20th centuries. More than just a study of the development of Egyptian property law, it establishes a historical framework for understanding the current debate over the role of the shari'a in the wider Muslim world.
In a series of short but detailed chapters, Debs first explains the various shari'a classifications of and rights pertaining to real property that were dominant until the modern era. These included private property (mulk lands), which were further classified by the form of taxation to which they were subject ('ushri and kharaji lands); uncultivated waste lands (mawat lands); stateowned land and servitudes, which came to encompass most of the agricultural land outside of the cities and which were governed by state regulations (qanun) rather than by the shari'a; and those lands governed by waqfs, a legal instrument affecting both real and personal property that he analogizes to common law trusts. This concise discussion of the classical Islamic property law is by itself a very useful survey of the subject.
The author then observes how in the 19th century, first under Muhammad Ali and then subsequent rulers, European legal codes inspired reforms of the premodern system. This was a complex process, with a variety of civil, administrative, personal status, foreign, and other courts applying a mixture of Western and Islamic law principles. …