Khaled Fahmy wins best Social History Society Book Prize for 'In the Quest of Justice'

Mohammed Saad , Monday 22 Jun 2020

SHS says the book 'will be of major importance for specialists in Egyptian history and Islamic culture more widely,' and 'any reader would learn a lot from it'

In Quest of Justice

Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy, professor of Modern Arabic Studies at Cambridge University, has won the Social History Society (SHS) Book Prize for his book ‘In the Quest of Justice: Islamic Law and Forensic Medicine in Modern Egypt,’ which was released by California University Press in 2018.

The announcement took place at the annual conference of the SHS, which was held online due to the measures put in place by the British government to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

In a phone call from London, Fahmy expressed to Ahram Online his delight at winning the award, especially since it is a prize given to books on general social history, and not only books specialised in Arab and Islamic social history.

“This is an important prize because it is given for any book on social history written in English,” he said.

The book is being translated into Arabic, and is expected to be published later this year, according to Fahmy.

In its reasoning for awarding the book, the SHS said "This is a highly original work, based upon extensive and thorough research which sheds new light on the development of the modern Egyptian state in the 19th century and the accompanying cultural and social changes, especially concerning health and the law. It focuses on the place of forensic medicine, and specifically autopsy, in the modernisation of Egypt. Convincingly, it challenges beliefs that the change was due to European influence and British colonialism, rooting it rather in Egyptian culture, in rulers’ desire for independent power within the Ottoman Empire, and in the branch of Islamic law in use in Egypt. The social history content focuses particularly on the ways in which ordinary Egyptians used their rights to these practices to insist on justice, for example in cases of murder, when they believed autopsy would be helpful. The primary source base is extensive and impressive. Engaging case-study vignettes illustrate the myriad ways in which 'non-elite Egyptians' sought to appropriate or resist state impositions."

The SHS concluded that this book "will be of major importance for specialists in Egyptian history and Islamic culture more widely, and accessible to others. The committee agreed that ‘any reader would learn a lot from."

The Social History Society's Book Prize recognises innovative scholarship in the fields of social and cultural history. The prize is awarded by a panel of judges, who look for the best original work of historical research published in the preceding calendar year. The only stipulations are that the book must be written in English by a scholar normally resident in the UK, and must be at least the author’s second history book. This year’s prize recognises books published in 2017.

Fahmy says the idea for the book started with his first book, All the Pasha's Men, which followed the history of the Egyptian Army in the first half of the 19th century.

Fahmy said that "the book touched on political history, but it was intended to be mainly a social history of the army, and the idea was whether it was possible to write a history of the army from the perspective of its soldiers.”

Fahmy said that the official history of the army is known, but what he wanted was to get into the experience of the soldiers when they were conscripted, when they were trained, and also their actual experience on the battlefield.

But the chapter that he liked most in his work was the one that covered events after the battle, which was a chapter that relied heavily on medical sources and aimed to understand not the soldiers’ indoctrinations or ideology, but their actual corporal experience and that of their wives.

"I got interested in this material through these sources and got absorbed in it."

At this point, Fahmy started to believe that "medicine can actually allow us to write a history of Egyptian modernisation in the 19th century, which is a big topic that is usually approached from an intellectual and political point of view. Typically we get the stories of great reformers, with Europe looming very large and educational missions to France and other parts of Europe coming back to spread the word and enlighten the masses, enlighten reformers, rulers and their families."

Although Fahmy says he appreciates all this material, he wanted to understand how these reforms were perceived by people, and believed that “medicine can allow me to do this more than other fields, because medicine is quintessentially a modern science that by its very nature touches people, literally. Daily life changed in Cairo as much as it did in London and Paris, with hygiene reforms, vaccinations against smallpox, census-taking, and new hospitals, which were measures that could not be avoided by the average average people.”

"We have the official narrative, the narrative of the doctors -- most of them European and some Egyptian -- and the patrons who financed these hospitals. We have their accounts of how people perceived these new measures. The people usually come across in these narratives as either ignorant or backwards, mired in their superstitions, or ungrateful recipients of these wonderful medical techniques."

In order to write such a book, Fahmy had to go through very rich archival material, which he was able to find in the National Archives in Cairo during his sabbatical years between Oxford and the US.

He explains that he was very fortunate in his quest, as he stumbled across a rich trove of documents that included medical reports written by army doctors.

He tracked the paper trail and wanted to know what happened to these doctors.

"I was keen to find out the experience of average people and I asked around about where one could find such information. I was given very valuable advice: to seek out police records, which document the process of investigating serious crimes and include forensic medical records, so I searched for them. The archives in Egypt are huge and are not indexed. There are checklists but no indexes, which makes the process more difficult but more fun, as you keep discovering things. It is a constant quest. "

Fahmy said that the narration in police records is fascinating. "There were lengthy police reports from Cairo and the countryside. I found a huge collection, which indicates that the state was getting bigger and the police were getting their act together and keeping records with forensic medical reports. I was stunned by how professional they looked and how accurate they were.

Some of the records were very detailed. For example, the case record for a murder locates the place of the wounds between ribs. I was curious who these doctors were, where they were trained, and how they ended up writing these reports," Fahmy explains.

This led Fahmy to the connection between medicine and law. He started asking questions about the nature of the legal system, “what is this legal system because this isn’t Sharia court records, these are police reports being forwarded to legal bodies, called councils so I wanted to understand that legal system and the relation of it with the Sharia court.

Fahmy's quest to understand the nature of the legal system ended up with him concluding that is not a secular one and it is pretty much still a Sharia law courts but a modern Islamic/legal system.

At this point came the question that he was most interested in, which is how the people understood this system and to his surprise he found that the people utilized these new measure in their benefit.

"Many of these medical investigations and medical examinations were not on behest of the state but upon a request from the people to answer and prove a case that they otherwise couldn’t prove in the absence of witness.

So, Fahmy attempts to answer big questions about Islam and modernity from the street level as opposed to the top-down view of most academics. 

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