2016 Volume 32 Issue 2 Pages 5-20
Islamic law may be understood through juridical compendia, explications, and commentaries, but fatwa collections and court records reveal how it was applied in everyday life. Even court records may not be a transparent record of social life – one has to ask what is not mentioned. This paper draws on fatwas, juridical texts, and recent legal and social studies to explain the appearance of lawsuits in the Sharia Courts of late nineteenth-century Egypt over a debt owed a deceased person, which were a strategy to establish the legal standing of the plaintiffs as heirs. Heirs took this indirect approach when their rights were contested. For example, a family patriarch or village headman could deprive women and younger men of their rightful shares when dividing an estate out of court. Due to polygyny and easy divorce there also might be conflict between a man’s plural wives and ex-wives and his children by different mothers. These lawsuits resulted from new Sharia Court procedures that required documentation; suits to collect a debt owed the deceased necessarily produced documentation of heirship through marriage or descent. Cases such as these underline the ability of disadvantaged individuals (often women and children) to assert their rights within the legal system, and the way in which legal strategies changed to accommodate new procedural rules.