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῾Abd Al‐razzāq Al‐sanhūrī

Emad Eldin Shahin
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World What is This? Provides global coverage of the Muslim experience from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century

῾Abd Al‐razzāq Al‐sanhūrī

(1895–1971), Egyptian jurist, legal scholar, and architect of civil codes in several Arab countries.

The academic and professional life of Sanhūrī is a reflection of the time during which the need for legal reform arose. For some Muslim countries, this meant the codification and modernization of the sharī῾ah, and for others the replacement of imported legislation by national and Islamic laws. Sanhūrī drafted the modern civil codes of various Arab countries and attempted to reinvigorate the sharī῾ah in light of contemporary legal developments and to incorporate it in the study of comparative jurisprudence.

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1895, Sanhūrī received a modern education and graduated from the Khedevial School of Law in Cairo in 1917. He was appointed assistant prosecuting attorney and by 1920 had joined the School of Sharī῾ah Judges as a lecturer. The following year he went to France for postgraduate studies. He wrote two theses, Les restrictions contractuelle à la liberté individuelle de travail dans la jurisprudence anglaise and Le Califat, obtaining dual doctorates in law and political science from the University of Lyon. He was also awarded a diploma from the Institut des Hautes Études Internationales in Paris.

In 1926, Sanhūrī returned to Egypt and began teaching civil law at the Law School, where he became dean a decade later. His involvement in politics led to his dismissal in 1936. He then served as dean of the Law College in Baghdad and began drafting the Iraqi civil code. Sanhūrī went back to Egypt in 1937 and served in various cabinet posts, becoming president of the Council of State in 1949.

He supported the movement of the Free Officers in 1952, and in his capacity as president of the Council he provided the legal advisory opinion that gave a constitutional basis for the Revolutionary Command Council's (RCC) exercise of power. Following a falling‐out among RCC members, Sanhūrī was forcibly ousted from the Council of State in 1954 and was later deprived of his political rights. He devoted the rest of his life to teaching, research, and writing.

Sanhūrī articulated his theoretical approach of legal reform in Le Califat: Son evolution vers une société des nations orientale (Paris, 1926). Unlike ῾Alī ῾Abd al‐Rāziq, who claimed that political authority was not an integral part of Islam, Sanhūrī considered the restoration of the caliphate a necessity, signifying the unity of Muslims and the preservation of the law. To reflect prevailing conditions, he made a distinction between an irregular (temporary) and a regular caliphate. He proposed that the caliphate develop into an Eastern League of Nations, with the caliph presiding over a body exercising only religious authority until a similar body with executive functions could be established. The exercise of executive and legislative authority would be the prerogative of individual governments and heads of state.

The restoration of the regular caliphate, Sanhūrī maintained, must be preceded by an evolution of Islamic law. Despite his genuine belief in the relevance and significance of the sharī῾ah to the judicial and social institutions of the Muslim world, he was more concerned with maintaining the stability of legal practices and relationships. In an effort to make legal reforms acceptable to all citizens, he differentiated the immutable and temporal parts of the sharī῾ah and claimed that only the variable rules of the temporal portion were subject to change. His proposed modernization of Islamic law would pass through two phases. The first would be that of scientific research, during which the sharī῾ah would be thoroughly studied in light of modern comparative law. The second, the legislative phase, would include the gradual revision of existing codes. These new legislative reforms would take into account the historical, social, and legal experience of each country.

Sanhūrī put these ideas into practice in the revisions of the Egyptian and Iraqi codes, enacted in 1949 and 1951 respectively. He selected provisions—Islamic or Western—according to their merit, but he often concluded that the sharī῾ah was more effective. In Egypt, where the existing code was based on foreign laws, he added provisions that made it more Islamic. In Iraq, however, the code was based largely on the Mecelle, and he introduced Western provisions that made it more modern. His final objective was a modern comparative legal system that would gradually come to emphasize Islamic rather than Western values and thus would become the basis for a unified Arab code.

Sanhūrī was responsible for laying the foundation for modern legislation in the Arab world. The codes he drafted for Egypt and Iraq have become models for other countries: they were adopted with minor modifications by Syria, Libya, and Jordan. His voluminous work on civil codes and Islamic law remains the main reference for Islamic scholarship in comparative law and codification to this day.


  • Hill, Enid. Al‐Sanhūrī and Islamic Law. Cairo, 1987. The most thorough study to date in English on al‐Sanhūrī's life and work, with an extensive bibliography of his works.
  • Hill, Enid. Islamic Law as a Source for the Development of a Comparative Jurisprudence, the ‘Modern Science of Codification’: Theory and Practice in the Life and Work of ῾Abd al‐Razzāq Aḥmad al‐Sanhūrī (1895–1971). In Islamic Law: Social and Historical Contexts, edited by Aziz al‐Azmeh, pp. 146–197. London and New York, 1988. Insightful analysis of al‐Sanhūrī's contribution to codification and legal reform.
  • Khadduri, Majid. Political Trends in the Arab World: The Role of Ideas and Ideals in Politics. Baltimore and London, 1970. See pages 239–244.
  • Sanhūrī, ῾Abd al‐Razzāq al‐. Wujūb tanqīḥ al‐qānūn al‐madanī (The Necessity of Revising the Civil Code). Majallat al‐Qānūn wa‐al‐Iqtiṣād 6.1 (January 1936): 3–144.
  • Sanhūrī, ῾Abd al‐Razzāq al‐. ῾Alā ayyi asas yakūnu tanqīḥ al‐qānūn al‐madanī al‐Miṣrī? (On What Basis Will the Egyptian Civil Code Be Revised?). Al‐kitāb al‐dhahabī lil‐maḥākim al‐ahlīyah 2 (1938): 106–143.
  • Sanhūrī, ῾Abd al‐Razzāq al‐. Al‐qānūn al‐madanī al‐῾Arabī (The Arab Civil Code). Majallat al‐Qaḋā' (Baghdad) 20.1–2 (1962): 7–33.
  • Sanhūrī, ῾Abd al‐Razzāq al‐. ῾Abd al‐Razzāq al‐Sanhūrī min khilāl awrāqihi al‐shakhṣīyah (῾Abd al‐Razzāq al‐Sanhūrī through His Journals). Edited by Nādiyah al‐Sanhūrī and Tawfīq al‐Shāwī. Cairo, 1988. Collection of al‐Sanhūrī's personal journals and his views on various issues, arranged chronologically.
  • Ziadeh, Farhat. Lawyers, the Rule of Law, and Liberalism in Modern Egypt. Stanford, Calif., 1968. See pages 137–147.
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