First Advisor

Laura Robson

Date of Publication

Summer 8-5-2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (M.A.) in History






Ulama -- Egypt -- History -- 19th century, Ulama -- Egypt -- History -- 20th century, Islamic law -- Egypt -- Interpretation and construction, Religion and politics, Domestic relations (Islamic law) -- Egypt



Physical Description

1 online resource (v, 156 pages)


Scholarship on the modern history of the Middle East has undergone profound revision in the previous three decades or so. Many earlier perceptions, largely based on modernization theory, have been either contested or modified. However, the perception of the Egyptian ulama (the traditionally-educated, religious Muslim scholars) in academic scholarship remains largely affected by the legacy of hypotheses of the modernization theory. Old assumptions that the Egyptian ulama were submissive to political power and passive players incapable of accommodating, let alone of fathoming, conditions of the modern world, and who chose or were forced to retreat from this world, losing much, if not all, of their relevance and significance, still infuse the scholarly literature.

Making use of materials obtained from the Egyptian National Archives, this study offers an examination of modern legal reform in Egypt from the nineteenth century through the first part of the twentieth century with the ulama and their legal institutions in mind. As the findings of this study effectively illustrate, the Egyptian ulama were by no means submissive. Rather, they were patient. Far from being passive agents of the past, the Egyptian ulama were active participants who played a critical role in the building of modern Egypt. The ulama had at their disposal sustained social and moral influence, a long-standing position as community leaders, a reputation as defenders and representatives of Islam, the power to validate or invalidate the political establishment by means of public and doctrinal legitimization, and the final authority over laws of family and personal status. Through these strengths, the ulama were able to influence the direction of change and to impact its scope and nature during transitional period that witnessed the making and remaking of modern Egypt.

Considering the nature of changes that they allowed to be introduced to the shari-based justice system and the ones they resisted, as well as their stance regarding social matters, the Egyptian ulama comprehended and recognized modernity as useful. Advanced techniques had to be embraced to strengthen state institutions. However, the ulama thwarted massive and sudden adoption of modernity's cultural elements, so that Egypt would not become a chaotic country and go astray. On the weight of their position as the ultimate authority over family law, the Egyptian ulama blocked rapid social change imposed from the top. Alterations to family law and the social structure were undertaken gradually and with a great deal of delicacy. Therefore, the long-standing social order was not suddenly destroyed and replaced with a new one. Instead, changes to the long-standing social structure were allowed to evolve slowly, while the core was largely preserved.

The ulama's far-reaching plan, which was realized in the long run, was to maintain Islam's position in modern Egypt as a guide and as the main source of legitimacy. As will be shown in this study, the history of the Egyptian ulama reveals not passivity, detachment, or submission but careful, and deliberate action.


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