Bifurcated Partnerships: Debt and the Rise of Families and Corporations in Egypt

By Ibrahim Elhoudaiby
Submitted to Session P4986 (From Commerce to Economics in Islamic Thought and Society, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
Eighteenth century Islamic legal theory does not distinguish kinship from commercial networks. In practice, both networks were intertwined, and housed in bayts (houses), which therefore violated every distinction between altruistic and interested; private and public; and familial and commercial, in a manner that had significant impact on gender relations. One century later, houses were bifurcated and alongside the kinship-based altruistic family emerged the corporation. Legal codes reflected this bifurcation: commercial and family codes emerged as distinct bodies of law. The disciplinary dictates and boundaries of social sciences, as well as the ‘universality’ of these emergent categories, offered ways to remain silent about their genealogy, and hence offered no explanation (except perhaps a teleological one) for this bifurcation of bayts. It takes fore granted the aforementioned binaries, and therefore obscures any questions on the conditions that allowed separating the previously indistinguishable commercial and familial networks. Instead of taking this distinction between family and corporation, or kinship and economy, as the starting point of analysis therefore, this paper takes it to be the uncertain outcome of a complex historical process, at the heart of which was the transformation of credit relations. The intensified presence of European long distance traders and the Ottoman system of capitulations in the mid-nineteenth century led to the legalization of commerce. This in turn transformed (or reduced) debt into a quantifiable financial obligation, giving rise to an apparatus of capture that pumped more labor out of just about everyone. The weakening of Egypt rulers’ apparatuses of capture on the one hand and their indebtedness to European powers on the other necessitated assembling new apparatuses of capture; ones that led to the rise of both the corporation and modern family. While tracing this bifurcation, the paper focuses on debt with its impact on both gender relations with the family, and the structures and genres of Islamic legal theory