Follow Us

Follow on Twitter    Follow on Facebook    YouTube Channel    Vimeo Channel    Tumblr    SoundCloud Channel    iPhone App    iPhone App

Juridical Humanity: A Colonial History

[Cover of [Cover of "Arab Studies Journal," Spring 2013]

Samera Esmeir, Juridical Humanity: A Colonial History. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012.

[This review was originally published in the most recent issue of Arab Studies Journal. For more information on the issue, or to subscribe to ASJ, click here.]

Today human rights provides a dominant framework for thinking about humanity—one in which humanity often appears as both a universal and an ahistorical category. In this view, the history of humanity is one of the discovery of otherwise hidden or ignored truths about its nature. One can easily understand the apparent political and moral utility in this position, which seeks to put the claims of fundamental equality beyond the realm of debate. But scholars in a number of fields have shown the political and ethical problems that can accompany this claim to ahistorical universality. One such problem is that a limited historical inquiry about humanity risks misapprehending the stakes and politics of struggles over this category. Another is the smuggling in of the particular (particular values, life-worlds, subject positions) in the guise of the universal. Scholarship that has focused on debunking the actual universalism of such supposedly universal categories has illuminated forms of exclusion and domination that can be built into self-defined emancipatory projects. But debunking is not an adequate stopping point for investigations into the life of this category. Samera Esmeir’s book, Juridical Humanity: A Colonial History, is an exemplary instance of scholarship that pushes our understanding of the complicated history of humanity in new directions.

The book provides a compelling investigation of a specific aspect of colonial dynamics in Egypt: the ways in which the production of a juridical category of humanity, and the related insistence that Egyptians were included in that category, were crucial mechanisms in the colonial domination of the country. Rejecting the claim that colonialism oppressed by dehumanizing colonized populations, Esmeir follows Talal Asad in arguing that colonialism was a massive project of transformation—of desires, needs, and subjectivities. The production of a new juridical category of humanity was, she suggests, central to this process. To pursue this investigation she looks at a range of sites and spaces where this category was worked out, including law school curricula, laws against cruelty to animals, the regulation of peasant labor, notions of sovereignty, the imposition of martial law, and the question of exile. This wide-ranging consideration is one of the great strengths of Juridical Humanity.

Chapter two is where Esmeir develops the concept of “juridical humanity,” a term not drawn from her sources, but which she has developed to analyze them. She identifies three key ways that modern positivist law incorporates the human: first, the human is seen as the source of law; second, the human is seen as “the teleological end of law”; and third, the human is a person in law, a legal personality. When a human is conceived as a person in the law, it becomes possible to dehumanize him/her by withdrawing that law; this is part of the power of juridical humanity. Without the law, Esmeir argues, “the human metamorphosed into a dehumanized slave.” Law has the power of incorporation and the concomitant power of withdrawal.

What makes this power colonial? There are at least two parts to the answer to this question. It is colonial in a general sense by crowding out other ways of conceptualizing humanity. As Esmeir puts it: “In Egypt, the law’s power to constitute humanity carried with it the risk of eradicating all other ‘humans’ by imposing its particular vision of humanity.” In its operations, all other, previous ways of thinking about the human become a problem. There is also a specific colonial history of this concept in Egypt, which much of the book is devoted to explicating. In chapter two she offers the work of Qasim Amin to show some of this specificity. In Amin’s arguments about women’s rights, Esmeir identifies a tension between two traditions of thinking about humanity: an Islamic doctrine of human perfection, which posits a continuum of perfection within humanity, and juridical humanity, which deploys an evolutionary view and posits some subjects as potential nonhumans. For Esmeir, the presence of both modes of thinking within Amin’s argument enables us to see the colonial transformation at work. Juridical humanity has the further effect of placing Egypt in a comparative relation with other places and other civilizations, which can then be judged more advanced in their application of this legal framework. Juridical humanity thus not only provides a new configuration of the human, but also participates in a wider process of an emerging teleological, evolutionary way of thinking about civilizations.

Esmeir’s critique of juridical humanity is not just that it imposed itself on other ways of thinking and judged those ways to be inferior, but that it produced new forms of violence precisely through its incorporation of Egyptians into the category of humanity. This is not an argument about colonial hypocrisy—that colonial offcials claimed to be improving the lives of the colonized while really exploiting them—but rather an argument that the concept of juridical humanity created new forms of violence and domination. Her discussions of the control of peasant life and labor (chapters four and five) illustrate this point with great clarity.


Titled “Battles,” chapter four is devoted largely to an investigation of the colonial response to the threat cotton worms posed to cotton and therefore the economy. In responding to this threat, officials were faced with the challenge that peasant laborers were vital to any eradication campaign, but they did not seem up to the task. Evaluating this situation, colonial officials suggested that peasants generally “failed to exhibit the characteristics of fully developed human labor” and therefore proposed in response a new array of agricultural regulations and penalties that “compelled the labor of peasants as a way for them to attain humanness.” At the heart of this approach, Esmeir suggests, was a conviction that to be fully human was to be free from nature—to be able to master it, rather than be subjected to it. Peasants could, therefore, be required to respond “properly” to the cotton worm problem in the name of their humanity.

The laws introduced required specific actions in the fields (the destruction of okra and hemp crops as well as the destruction of infected bolls) and compelled people to labor in this effort. Esmeir states that in 1910, ten thousand cultivators were convicted for failing to destroy cotton worms. These laws and penalties, Esmeir argues, “recruited the peasants for a particular war with nature, one in which being a human laborer meant mastering nature, combating it, fighting against it, and hence exercising freedom against force.” In this way, peasants would be freed both from their own nature and from outside nature. Esmeir identifies this process as a shift from forced labor to criminalized labor. Under the new colonial labor regime, which was made possible by juridical humanity, to refuse to labor in the service of defeating the cotton worm was to commit a crime against the social. It was also to refuse the full “freedom” of humanity. Since the law was meant, above all, to incorporate every person into the category of humanity and to protect this status, any resistance could be—indeed had to be—met with strong punitive measures.

Even as Esmeir is insistent that we should not read the colonial history of humanity as one of exclusion, but rather one of incorporation, she traces some crucial boundary-making operations within the field of juridical humanity. These boundaries included both limits in the reach of colonial legal authority and acts of expulsion from political community. The limits she describes were not about defining who was outside the category of humanity—all were meant to be inside it, to be managed and liberated by its terms—but about designating what aspects of life were not relevant to this category, and therefore what forms of domination were not identified as contrary to human freedom. Chief among these limits were what she calls the “spectral legalities” that limited the state’s interference in private estates and therefore rendered the violence to which peasants were often exposed on such estates both beyond the reach of the law and, to a considerable degree, irrelevant to the law.  

She also explores (in chapter six) the ways that exile, as an expulsion of people from their political community, operated as an instrument of juridical humanity. Having a place, and a voice, in political community has been deemed an essential feature of humanity by many political philosophers—from Aristotle to Arendt to Agamben—but Esmeir suggests that in colonial Egypt exile was heralded as a humane alternative to execution. Precisely by rendering exile as a legal measure, with humaneness a key consideration in the judgment, an action that might otherwise be seen as the ultimate in dehumanizing was instead rendered as evidence of the humanity of the legal order. Esmeir argues that both sorts of limits within juridical humanity were centrally important to its capacity to expand across the political, economic, and social fields and to incorporate Egyptians into its framework.

Juridical Humanity will be of great interest not only to students of Egyptian history, who will recognize its relevance immediately, but to scholars of law, anthropology, political theory, and anyone interested in excavating the complex modern history of humanity as a governing category. As Esmeir notes, it creates an opening for new inquiries into how the Egyptian subjects of juridical humanity lived in relation to this legal order, into alternative configurations of humanity, and into the link between the human, the law, and violence.

If you prefer, email your comments to




Apply for an ASI Internship now!


Political Economy Project

Issues a

Call for Letters of Interest


Jadaliyya Launches its

Political Economy




F O R    T H E    C L A S S R O O M 

Roundtable: Harold Wolpe’s Intellectual Agenda and Writing on Palestine


The 1967 Defeat and the Conditions of the Now: A Roundtable


E N G A G E M E N T