Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Modernizing Marriage: Family, Ideology, and Law in Nineteent-Hand Early Twentieth-Century Egypt

Academic journal article Arab Studies Journal

Modernizing Marriage: Family, Ideology, and Law in Nineteent-Hand Early Twentieth-Century Egypt

Article excerpt

MODERNIZING MARRIAGE: FAMILY, IDEOLOGY, AND LAW IN NINETEENTHAND EARLY TWENTIETH-CENTURY EGYPT Kenneth M. Cuno Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2015 (320 pages, 7 black-and-white illustrations, notes, bibliography, index) $39.95 (cloth)

The aging Egyptian politician Fathallah Barakat remembered his wedding in 1877 as "one of the blackest days" of his life. Dictating his memoir from his deathbed, Barakat recalled how, after the wedding procession and ceremony had concluded, he refused to leave for his marital home, to the horror of the celebrants. Even grown men were seen to have tears flowing from their eyes as the groom balked at the daunting task of "entering" the bridal chamber. As if the shame of this spectacle were not enough, when the groom finally did proceed, his bride and first cousin compounded the night's calamity by knocking over a lamp, which set fire to the matted reed rug of the couple's new home. Barakat, the son of a village headman, and a member of Egypt's emerging middle class, belonged to the first generation in his family to practice monogamy. Although Barakat himself does not appear in the book under review, he typifies the generation and the class of people that are its subject, and his life story offers a counterpoint to the insights of Modernizing Marriage.

How and why marriage (and especially monogamy) became so central to the thought of men like Barakat is the topic of Kenneth Cuno's masterful and meticulous Modernizing Marriage, which charts the changing practices and representations of marriage among Egyptians-including the shift to conjugal marriage-in the nineteenth century. In his first chapter, Cuno argues that elite Egyptians adopted conjugal marriage in imitation of the ruling family, whose turn to monogamy was prompted by the family's purchase of the right to primogeniture (and the title of khedive) from the Ottoman sultan in 1866/7. Monogamy was thus inaugurated by the ruling family's bid to obtain dynastic autonomy from Istanbul. This shift also brought about the turn toward endogamy: the newly minted princes and princesses of Egypt ceased the Ottoman practice of marrying men and women of slave origin, and instead married more suitable partners-their own cousins. Cousin marriage made it unseemly for men to take second, third, or fourth wives, or concubines. In his presentation of these changing mores, Cuno is in line with a broader trend in the field, notably in Adam Mestyan's Arab Patriotism (Princeton, 2017) and James Whidden's Monarchs and Modernity (I. B. Tauris, 2013), which seeks to recenter the ruling family in cultural and intellectual histories of the period.

Moving from the monarchy to its Islamic modernists, Cuno examines the attitudes toward marriage of juridically engaged thinkers like Qasim Amin, Muhammad 'Abduh, and Rifa'a al-Tahtawi. He argues that this cohort appropriated thirteenth-century poetry and sixteenth-century marriage manuals to respond to the challenges of the present. In one striking example, Cuno examines an eighteenth-century interpretation by Ibn 'Umar al-Nawawi of a hadith presenting the family as the center of sovereign order. Languishing unpublished for years, the manual exploded in popularity upon publication in 1878.

Cuno thus implies that these intellectuals married older traditions with "Western" Enlightenment ideals. Yet his evidence can support an even more provocative claim, one that decenters the enduring link between the Enlightenment and the West. After all, the manual of al-Nawawi was originally composed in the eighteenth century. Might not the manual's initial composition and subsequent popularity have resulted from the fact that Europe and Ottoman Egypt had been undergoing similar structural transformations? Cuno forecloses this possibility by framing the issue in terms of genealogies of intellectual miscegenation between a stable Enlightenment tradition and a primordial Muslim one. His own evidence, however, suggests that the modernists' purported Enlightenment borrowings were perhaps less central than is conventionally supposed. …

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