Islamic Law & Data Science at MESA 2020! (A PIL Guide)

The Program in Islamic Law (PIL) has curated a list of panels from the Middle East Studies Association’s (MESA) 2020 Annual Meeting schedule that are related to Islamic law and history, and data science.* MESA’s fifty-fourth annual meeting will be held between October 5 – 17, 2020. Register here. Is there a session missing that you’d like to see here? Send us a note –

*For a list of all MESA 2020 panels featuring presentations by Harvard-affiliated faculty and students, visit here. For panels featuring Middle Easts Medievalists, visit here

[P5898] Empires of Hadith: Cities, Commerce, and Conquest: (Monday, 10/05/20 11:00 am)This panel brings together a diverse range of scholarly papers–historians and scholars of religion–to showcase how innovative digital tools, understudied manuscript sources, and interdisciplinary methods are changing the field of hadith studies to deliver luminous insights into the social and political worlds of the medieval Middle East, from the early Islamic period to the Mamluk and early Ottoman eras. Scholars of political history, economic history, urban history, religious studies, and ethics will find much of interest in this panel, which moves beyond the narrower forms of analysis that have too long discouraged disciplinary outsiders from finding rewards in the academic study of hadith.

Our first panelist takes a big-data approach to analyzing chains of transmission (isnads) and uncovers, how and when the centers of hadith transmission rose and fell, and how those contours correlate with the political and economic history of the early Middle East. Our panel next explores representations of jihad in early hadith literature, and shows how a close examination of these accounts might press our field to question the dominant historical narratives about the early Islamic conquests. Moving forward in time, our panel turns to the proverbial Spice Trade of the 13th-16th centuries, and explores the elective affinity between the pursuit of profit and prophetic traditions across the Mediterrenean and the Indian Ocean. Indeed, as this paper argues, the spice trade and the tradition of hadith transformed one another, as merchants, scholars, and merchant-scholars alike turned to prophetic traditions to mediate the novel dilemmas sparked by ever-widening flows of people, capital, and ideas. Our panel concludes by examining understudied manuscripts sources–reading licenses (ijazas) in particular–to illuminate how Mamluk-era networks of hadith study fared under the Ottoman conquest. This final contribution marks an important corrective to the current understanding that the study of hadith declined with the fall of the Mamluks, and traces a novel genealogy of Sunnism in the Ottoman Empire.

Far from an obscurantists’ fascination, these four panelists show just how much hadith literature has yet to teach the broader field of Middle East Studies about trade, empire, war, and the formation of social networks in the Islamic world. The panel will close with a roundtable-style conversation with the audience on new approaches and new directions in hadith studies, and how to make the rewards of studying hadith useful to broader and interdisciplinary audiences of the medieval Middle East.

Panelists are Helen Pfeifer (University of Cambridge), Joel Blecher (George Washington University), Syeda Beena Butol (Florida State University), Mairaj Syed (University of California, Davis), Danny Halawi (University of California, Berkeley), Nazmus Saquib (MIT).


[P5905] Late Ottoman Modernity as a Project of Translation: Science, Morality, and the Secular: (Monday, 10/05/20 11:00 am) The systematic redefinition and relocation of religion that were fundamental to nineteenth-century religious reform movements in the Middle East and elsewhere, threatened existing understandings and practices of religion. Any accurate historical account of modernizing reforms must include Islamic Modernism as a serious endeavor by those committed to the genuine re-unification of religion and science, alongside new social and political ideals. Modernist scholars were committed to applying new scientific methods to questions of religious authority. The critical reading of texts and the historicizing scrutiny of Islamic tradition were corollaries to the commitment to empirical, rational modes of scientific inquiry, and necessitated a serious redevelopment of Islamic epistemological methodology. Central to the issue of fashioning ‘modern’ Islam were questions of morality, science, methodology and definitions of ‘religion’ as a category of analysis.

Paper # 1 discusses the emergence of ‘Quest for the Historical Prophet’ narratives in nineteenth-century Islamic Modernist thought. The Prophet Mohammad is recast as the embodiment of modern sensibilities and dispositions. At the same time, the historicization of the Prophet embodies a new modern hermeneutics of the Hadith and Quran, one which reconfigures the concept of precedent centered on the presumption of discerning God’s intentionality.

Paper # 2 Celal Nuri, often hailed as a founding figure of the secular Turkish Republic, was equally a modernist and an Islamist. In his seminal work on the life of the Prophet Mohammad, Nuri proposed Islam as inherently rational and modern. The work demonstrates Nuri’s twin commitments to modern criticism and Islamic precepts.

Paper # 3 approaches the debate surrounding extraterrestrial life that exploded in the 19th century Ottoman Empire as a means of negotiation of Western scientific ideas. The paper argues that ulama from various positions in this debate deployed traditional Islamic epistemology and methodology to translate ideas into the Ottoman discourse, thereby resisting intellectual and cultural imperialism.

Paper # 4 explores the contextual and contested meanings of the terms secular and religious in nineteenth-century Ottoman periodical literature. The paper offers a genealogical mapping of terms, their circulation and contested meanings, as ‘religion’ emerges as a category of analysis.

Paper # 5 looks at the emergence of imagined new spaces of public, secular sociability in late Ottoman novels. The paper argues that the interiorization of religious morality models a performance of ‘secular’ citizenship, expressed in particular modes of sensibilities and dispositions.

Panelists are Monica Ringer (Amherst College), Ercument Asil (Ibn Haldun University), Ayse Polat (Medeniyet University), Yasemin Gencer (Independent Scholar), Owen Green (University of Chicago).


[P5971] Structuring Identity: Juridical Practice and Public Imaginaries in the Middle East: (Monday, 10/05/20 01:30 pm) This panel investigates how practices associated with both colonial and post-colonial institutions shape public discourse as well as local forms and expressions of identity. From French colonial discourses on crime and the environment, to the attempts by early Nahda intellectuals to apply a universal historicist imagination to narratives of the Islamic past, to institutions and sectarianism in post-Saddam Iraq, our panel bridges regional and temporal boundaries to ask related questions central to understanding the MENA region: How did colonial legal institutions and practices interpolate different communities into an expanding imperial regime, and how have they continued to influence identity in the putatively “post” colonial situation? What effects have colonial subjects’ resistance to (post)colonial practice had on metropolitan practices of modern governance and scientific management? How was sectarianism produced, and then weaponized, in both imperial and anti-imperial discourse? In what ways were local forms of knowledge reconfigured to conform to the imperatives of modern identity-building, especially in the interplay between secularity and Islam? In bringing together multiple regions and time periods we hope to show that conversations about these and other important questions can benefit from a pluri-disciplinary approach.

Panelists are Michael Gasper (Occidental College), Brock Cutler (Radford University), Adam Guerin (Eckerd College).


[P5988] Rethinking ‘Contentious Politics’ in the Middle East and North Africa: Analysis of Social Networks Beyond Protests: (Tuesday, 10/06/20 11:00 am) The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ opened new windows of debate for all scholars interested in processes of collective action and socio-political change. Indeed, the literature on contentious politics in the Middle East and North Africa has grown since 2011. Through recent academic work, we know a lot about mobilization processes, but we still know far less about the structure of collective action at times of ‘low mobilization’. This panel discusses the value of exploring collective action beyond the revolutionary movements that started in 2011 and reignited in 2019 in many countries of North Africa and the Middle East. The opportunity to observe and understand specific processes of ordinary life, such as patterns of networking and vectors’ of legitimation, would have been more limited if these studies had taken place during periods of intense mobilization. During periods of time after revolutions or periods of instability, certain power relations involving state and society are traceable only through an analysis of daily socio-political processes. Notably, this panel aims at bridging different theories and methodological approaches to collective action by analyzing the formation and evolution of local social networks in different political settings. Regardless of the disciplinary focus, this panel proposes theoretical and methodological innovations with the potential to be used in the analysis of collective action in the MENA region. Indeed, focusing on four different socio-political contexts, the papers of this panel incorporate new data sources (e.g. social media) and analytical tools to analyze social networks’ dynamics across countries.

Panelists are Francesco Cavatorta (Laval University), Ester Sigillo’ (EUI), Yahia Benyamina (University of Oran 2), Khalid Mouna (University of Meknes), Caitlin Procter (EUI).


[P6043] Harnessing New Technologies for Learning and Research in the Languages and Cultures of the Middle East: (Tuesday, 10/06/20 01:30 pm) Recent advances in technology are re-shaping education and research and pushing the boundaries of what is possible. This panel reports on four research projects pursued by different teams using new technologies to advance language and culture learning and research with a focus on Arabic and Persian.

The first presentation focuses on Optical Character Recognition (OCR), a technology that identifies and extracts textual information from images, allowing machines to read documents at a human level. OCR allows for the digitization and preservation of vast and precious historical documents stored on non-digital media. Non-Latin scripts, such as those based on Arabic, present a technological challenge, as they are cursive, contributing to low accuracy. A team of researchers is creating a new, more accurate image-to-text conversion software capable of creating a large-scale, open source, global language and culture data bank for Pashto, to be extended to languages based on the Arabic script.

The second paper reports on a study that investigates Arabic automatic text summarization, the process of creating a concise and coherent summary of a longer text while preserving the meaning and the important information in the text. L2 learners struggle with reading authentic texts especially in the first stages of learning particularly with languages such as Arabic. This study contributes to research on automatic text summarization for L2 learning and its applicability for microlearning in Arabic.

The third paper reports on the development of an adaptive language learning system that is designed to provide a cost-effective and personalized language learning experience. The system leverages artificial intelligence algorithms that have the ability to recognize patterns in student performance, diagnose deficiencies in learning, and recommend personalized content to meet individual learning needs. The project first investigates the feasibility of the technology to Arabic. It then investigates the scalability of the technology through the use of pre-existing training materials, and explores its efficiency compared to conventional instruction.

The fourth and final paper presents on the design and delivery of a blended course to help students learn an Arabic dialect and prepare for studying and living abroad. It demonstrates how the innovative use of a well-established online learning platform, combined with an interactive content development platform, and authentic materials can facilitate students’ development of essential linguistic and regional expertise. The paper shares insights on applicability to other types of Arabic and other languages and the role that the instructor plays in such a technology-mediated course.

Panelists are Sonia Shiri (University of Arizona), Charles Joukhadar (University of Arizona), Elsayed Issa (University of Arizona), Marek Rychlik (University of Arizona).


[R6037] Promoting Public Scholarship in Middle East History: (Tuesday, 10/06/20 01:30 pm) Over the last decade, even as enrollments in history and art history classes have declined, the public maintains a vibrant and growing interest in history. That interest is evident in the prominence of historically-themed programming in film, television, and gaming, which abounds in historical content of varied quality and scope – the most salient example is the success of HBO’s medieval-themed Game of Thrones, which dominated global television rankings for nearly a decade, eventually making it the most-watched series in television history. As a result, most people are now learning history not in the classroom, but thorough popular media.

This roundtable proposes that scholars must be a part of the conversation shaping the public view of the past, and that in an era of fake news and media disinformation, it is in fact urgent that we actively participate in shaping popular history. Recent appropriations of imagined pasts by ideologically-driven groups – ranging from ISIS to white nationalists (who often look to an imagined Crusader past for justification for modern Islamophobic actions) – underscore the immediacy of the call to shape the public’s perception of the history of the Middle East.

Yet many scholars are not trained to engage with popular history: they have never acquired the skill set necessary to write popular versions of their scholarly work, write for the media, appear on television, or reach out to filmmakers, television producers, or game developers. Many of us are also unaware of the potential of social media platforms like Instagram and Twitter for furthering academic work and connecting directly with the public. And many junior or contingent scholars may have concerns about the repercussions of public-facing history for hiring, tenure and promotion.

This roundtable assembles a group of prominent early and mid-career scholars who have worked in various public-facing realms for an open-ended discussion of how scholars of the Middle East can engage the public more effectively.

The roundtable will be loosely structured around the following topics:

Writing popular articles, op-eds and opinion pieces – how to write and pitch to editors
Pitching publicly-accessible readers or monographs to publishers
How scholars might influence the design and development of games
How scholars might influence the production of television and film programs
Using social media to do public-facing history – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram
Integrating public-facing scholarship into the classroom through platforms like Wikipedia
The perils and benefits of public-facing media for academics on the tenure-track and for contingent faculty.

Panelists are Stephennie Mulder (University of Texas at Austin), Christopher S. Rose (St Edward’s University), Christiane J. Gruber (University of Michigan), Najam Haider (Barnard College/Columbia University), Khodadad Rezakhani (Princeton University).


[P5945] Transformations of Islamic law in the Modern Period: From Colonial to Post-Colonial: (Wednesday, 10/07/20 11:00 am) How and why has Islamic law changed over the course of the modern period? This panel, entitled “Transformations of Islamic law in the Modern Period: from Colonial to Post-Colonial,” explores both continuities and ruptures in legal reasoning in the 19th and 20th centuries. Historians and anthropologists of Islam have debated the breadth and depth of this shift: while one side of the debate emphasizes the ways in which new modes of political, social and economic organization transformed Islamic law, the other argues for the continued relevance of a diachronic Islamic ethical tradition that includes but is not limited to legal observance. In parallel, scholars of colonial and post-colonial history have challenged a previous generation of research that emphasized the rupture between these two periods by showing significant continuities in legal reasoning, gender roles and the composition of elites. This panel seeks to bring these two debates together by foregrounding the ways in which Islamic law developed under colonial rule and how its logic and structure persisted in some instances and was transformed in others through the transition to national independence.

To do so, we explore the negotiation of the Islamic tradition from Egypt to Afghanistan to the Netherlands Indies (present day Indonesia). The presenters eschew a singular focus on the Arab world or a tendency for scholarship on Islamic law to silo itself geographically between an Arab “center” and non-Arab “periphery.” The first paper examines the emergence of the Egyptian Shari?a Supreme Court (al-Mahkama al-‘Ulya al-Shar‘iyya), and its role in transforming Islamic judicial practice in the late 19th and early 20th century. The second paper then moves from Egypt to Indonesia, charting the ways in which the Arab Diaspora in the Netherland Indies sought to exert their influence on fellow Muslims by seeking to generalize particular interpretations of Islamic law. The third paper shift northward, analyzing how government ministers in newly independent Afghanistan and legal scholars in British India debated the expansion of female education and longstanding interpretations of Islamic law on this matter. Finally, the last paper returns to the Middle East, tracing how Salafis across region transformed the longstanding boundary between acts of worship (‘Ibada) and Custom (‘Urf) between 1930 and 1990. Collectively, these papers thus cast light on the political shifts, demographic migrations and intellectual transformations that have underlaid changing understandings of Islamic law between colonial and post-colonial periods.

Panelists are Samy Ayoub (The University of Texas at Austin), Aaron Rock-Singer (University of Wisconsin, Madison), Fadzilah Yahaya (National University of Singapore), Elizabeth Lhost (Dartmouth College).


[C6244] Big Data and Mega Corpora in the Middle East Studies: (Thursday, 10/08/20 01:30 pm) Massive collections of digital texts and data offer mind-boggling new opportunities for scholars throughout the humanities and social sciences. It is now possible to download and search through corpora of thousands of texts, collect and analyze millions of online comments, and collect and display innumerable digital materials that will form archives of our era for future generations. This session offers striking examples of these new capabilities and their emerging use in Middle East studies. In addition to substantive research findings, each presentation will briefly discuss the software tools used in the project. The session is geared both toward scholars who are already working in this area and scholars who would like to learn more about the possibilities. This session is part of an initiative to create a community of Middle East studies scholars who are interested in developing and sharing computational tools and resources, bringing together scholars in the digital humanities and computational social science. The presenters at this initial thematic conversation illustrate the use of these new digital tools in multiple fields within Middle East studies: pre-modern history, 20th century history, contemporary cultural studies, and contemporary political analysis: A historian will present preliminary findings from an initiative that is digitizing thousands of Islamicate texts of the premodern period. Among these findings are patterns of re-use of phrases and sentences from text to text, which illustrate the flow of ideas in Muslim societies and may help to reconstruct lost texts. A literary scholar will present preliminary findings from a team of historians, computational linguists, and other scholars who are digitizing and analyzing Arab periodicals of the early 20th century. Among these findings are long-term trends in the use of terms such as dignity (karama), bread (aish), and freedom (hurriya). A media scholar will present data visualizations from a digital archive of material from the Egyptian uprising of 2011. This approach combines cultural studies and creative art as complementary critical practices. A political scientist will present findings from a project that automated the analysis of thousands of video and audio messages produced by the Islamic State, as well as millions of Twitter messages by Islamic State sympathizers, to examine the effect of Islamic State propaganda on subsequent online behavior. This thematic conversation is intended to last three years. We also hope to hold workshops in upcoming years for hands-on training in the collection and analysis of big data and mega corpora, both for current practitioners and beginners.

Panelists are Akram F. Khater (North Carolina State University), Charles Kurzman (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), Maxim Romanov (University of Vienna), VJ Um Amel (UC Santa Barbara), Richard Nielsen (MIT), Alexandra Siegel (University of Colorado Boulder).


[R6027] Read Ekrem Kocu’s Istanbul Ansiklopedisi and its Archive: (Wednesday, 10/14/20 11:00 am) This roundtable starts a discussion around an encyclopaedia on Istanbul that was serialized between 1958-1973 by Resad Ekrem Koçu (1905-75). Currently owned by the Kadir Has University, the archive of the encyclopaedia is being digitized by SALT Research, Istanbul in collaboration as a joint project. This roundtable intends to discuss the project and its approaches for the digitization of this comprehensive archive as well as its prospective utilization within long-term research projects in digital humanities or relative fields. Each participant will address a particular aspect of the project including the ways of disassembling and re-assembling its diverse content through digital medium.

The eleven-volume Istanbul Ansiklopedisi, the lifelong, never-completed dream-project of Turkish historian and novelist Read Ekrem Koçu, was arguably the most ambitious and comprehensive publishing venture ever undertaken by a single person. The encyclopaedia presents a curious blend of academic learning and subjective recollection, giving everyday topics equal standing with historically significant ones. It contained information about ‘all architectural buildings’ in the city, from mosques and hammams to palaces and coffeehouses; ‘all famous men’, from scholars and poets to dentists and gamblers, who have lived there; all its ‘natural beauties and geography’; all calamities that have befallen it, from epidemics and earthquakes to fires and revolutions; the customs and traditions of its people in all ages; its slang; its well-known visitors; books and poems written about it. However, it was not only about the city’s past but also about its present. Koçu was being both journalist and historian, made his encyclopaedia a historical record of the past and a journalistic report on the present. Throughout 1960s and 1970s, Istanbul Ansiklopedisi kept up with the undergoing changes in the city.

The Istanbul Ansiklopedisi Archive comprises all that remains of Resad Ekrem Koçu’s files. Besides material related to eleven published volumes that reach to letter G, the Archive also consists of a considerable amount of textual and visual material related to the prospective volumes. A laboratory for close observation of Resad Ekrem Koçu’s working methods, the Archive offers researchers drafts of a good number of entries, with corrections in Koçu’s handwriting on them. This archive and the content of the published Istanbul Ansiklopedisi will be made publicly available through a customized interface at the end of 2021 through a joint project of Kadir Has University and SALT Research (Istanbul). The roundtable will introduce the project and open the ground for further discussion.

Panelists are Selim Kuru (University of Washington, Seattle), Firuzan Melike Sumertas (Kadir Has University), Cansu Yapici (SALT Research), Gurbey Hiz (Kadir Has University).


[P5857] The Difference of Digital Humanities: (Wednesday, 10/14/20 11:00 am) This panel aims to showcase some of the the ways that digital scholarship is transforming our understanding of the social and cultural history of the Middle East (from the pre-modern to contemporary period) by changing both the sources we use and the ways that we use those sources. The panelists will present four different research projects, each of which benefits from the combination of mass digitization efforts in the Middle East–some of which date back twenty years–and increasing collaborations between historians and computer scientists. These projects demonstrate not only how the scale of the data has increased, but also how the methods used by historians have diversified and artificial intelligence approaches such as machine learning are opening new ways to do our research. Debates in digital humanities that begin with the value of digital methods often return to the nature of knowledge itself. Do digital methods, in fact, tell us what we intuitively already know? If so, how can we be so sure that we actually know it? Or, if in fact we don’t know it, do digital methods only point us in the direction of what could really be discovered through more traditional humanistic modes of analysis? The presenters explore a range of views through their case studies to clarify the difference in digital humanities. Digital methods allow us to say different things with different sources, and they are both revelatory and limited in ways that we will discuss.

Panelists are Sarah Bowen Savant (Aga Khan University-ISMC), Maxim Romanov (University of Vienna), David Joseph Wrisley (NYU Abu Dhabi), Thomas Carlson (Oklahoma State University).


[P5889] Continuity & Change: Early Islam in Late Antiquity: (Thursday, 10/15/20 11:00 am) The periodization of Early Islam has been dominated by shifts in political and geographical power. This type of periodization projects the idea that the economy and society are defined by moments of political rupture or revolution. However, societal, cultural, and economic transformations rarely map directly onto political history. The papers in this panel adopt a variety of approaches to challenge political reductive frameworks and, rather, examine the early Islamic period within a Late Antique context which is focused on changes and continuity and their respective impact on our understanding of the early Islamic period.

The first paper, “Persistent Pathways–the Rise of Maritime Connectivity in the Early Islamic Red Sea,” reevaluates archaeological and textual evidence in order to argue that both state and private actors contributed to the development of new economic phenomenon that led to the creation of persistent maritime pathways much earlier than scholars have previously acknowledged. This directly impacts both our understanding of the role of merchants, elites, and the Umayyad state in economic networks as well as their influential effect on later trade patterns in the “commercial crescent” of the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Persian Gulf.

Attention to economic networks shifts to social networks with the second and third papers. “Why did Hajjaj ibn Yusuf appoint Abu Hadir al-Usayyidi over Istakhr?” highlights the role of pre-Islamic social networks between Arabia and Persia for the administrative appointments of the Umayyad caliphate. This case study draws attention to the importance of tribal and family relations for interpreting Umayyad polity and society. The third paper, “What’s religious about bureaucracy: Religious Identity and Social Reproduction in the Umayyad Bureaucracy,” argues that terms like Islamization place too much emphasis on the religious identity of bureaucrats. Rather, the paper stresses the changing socio-economic backgrounds of bureaucrats and attempts to understand these appointments within the wider Umayyad political-economy and historiography of social reproduction.

The final paper, “Mahr in early Islam: Trends in personal and economic exchange,” adopts a literary perspective to the idea of mahr (dower) in Arabic literature from the first three Islamic centuries. Previous scholarship has primarily relied on works of fiqh for our understanding of mahr, and thus reduced the understanding primarily to an economic exchange. However, by incorporating a broader pool of literature (narrative, poetry, etc.), the final paper makes the case that mahr was as much a social exchange as it was an economic one.

Panelists are Fred M. Donner (University of Chicago), Antoine Borrut (University of Maryland), Kyle Longworth (University of Chicago), Ameena Yovan (University of Chicago), Yaara Perlman (Princeton University), Veronica Morriss (University of Chicago).


[C5935] Digital Forays: First Directions of Digital Components to Research: (Thursday, 10/15/20 01:30 pm) This conversation will extend (and expand on) ongoing sets of conversations in the profession: How do we take account of quickly changing digital practices (technologies, methods, and tools) as we move forward in our scholarship in/of the Middle East? What is “data” today? What is data coming from/created about the Middle East? How do we access, sift, sort, sample it, make sense of it? How can I explore new directions from my material in a digital framework?

This series of Thematic Conversation, Digital Forays, includes threads from the Digital Humanities (DH), but also from an array of other bloated buzzwords: “Digital Scholarship,” “Public Humanities,” “Digital Publishing,” “Big Data.” At stake in addressing changing methodologies in Middle Eastern Studies is a range of interconnected issues, which amount to seismic shifts in how we deepen, develop, and disseminate our research. How are engagements with our students in/out of the classroom morphing given new technologies, what type of Digital Forays are Junior Scholars/Phd Candidates struggling to imagine and produce?; & how are the process and product of scholarly work evolving in our digital landscape? This conversation hopes to bring scholars in/of the Middle East doing unorthodox digital work together to discuss the perils/promise of such work as part of a multi-year conversation.

The implications are paramount:
to better account for the pedagogical realities we are facing,
to grasp the changing landscapes in which our research questions unfold, and
to better activate within the quickly changing world in which we live and work.

Many times we lack the ability/skills to think about arms of our research digitally – often because we lack an ability to imagine how digital tools and methods could even enter/overlay/intersect our work. As such, these conversations will nurture a series of imaginations & directions for scholarship, engaging those who are feeling frustrated, lost, and confused in today’s landscape. We hope to consolidate and embolden scholars who feel digital aspects of their research are an important avenue that run alongside traditional publication.

Digital Forays: First Directions of Digital Components to Research is the first “Digital Forays” Thematic Conversation for Fall 2020. Five faculty members will introduce how they first decided/stumbled/realized that a digital project was an active part of their research project/book/dissertation. The subsequent projects/platforms/databases/websites that emerged became integral parts of their arguments and process – not leftovers of research.

Panelists are Dima Ayoub (Middlebury College), David Joseph Wrisley (NYU Abu Dhabi), Jared McCormick (New York University), Rustin Zarkar (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), Fabiola Hanna (The New School).


[P5885] Crossing Boundaries and Transplanting Ideas in Islamic Law: (Friday, 10/16/20 11:00 am) The study of Islamic Law means oscillating between spatial contexts. On the one hand is the local, where solutions to legal questions are developed within unique ideological, sociological, political, and even linguistic circumstances. On the other is the transnational, where the ideas and principles elucidated within the Islamic legal system are meant to seamlessly work across these circumstances, applicable for every time and place. The latter is often much more difficult to conceptualize, as the movement of legal ideas requires careful negotiation with the dynamics of the new context. These transplants happen not only geographically or historically, but also across legal systems. In each situation, decisions must be made by legal actors whether to maintain a connection with the previous understanding or diverge into something new.

This panel explores what happens when legal concepts cross these invisible boundaries. It provides examples of these transplants from different methodological perspectives, and from interaction both within and outside juristic circles. One paper focuses on the late Ottoman Period and how the borders of the Hanafi School were expanded to incorporate differences in developments between Anatolia and the Arab provinces, paving the way for the transition to modern commercial transactions and institutions. Another analyzes the role of colonialism in the development of Islamic law and how colonial influence was responded to by Muslim actors across regional contexts. The third paper looks at how digital solutions can help observers trace changes in Islamic Law as it was applied in the courts and the problems faced when attempting to synchronize classical Islamic concepts with their contemporary legal counterparts.

Panelists are Mohammad Serag (American University in Cairo), Brian Wright (Zayed University), Wafya Hamouda (American University in Cairo), Omar Qureshi (University of Southern California).


[P5830] Show Me the Money: New Histories of Capitalism in the Ottoman World: (Friday, 10/16/20 11:00 am) The relative decline of political economy approaches in Ottoman historiography since the cultural turn of the 1980s has ceded the territory to older, Marxist-inflected scholarship and, more recently, the New Institutional Economists. Both groups tended to favour quantitative approaches to their sources, whether they were working with tax registers, fiscal documents, or commercial statistics. Whether focusing on the sixteenth or the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their studies have contributed a great deal to the study of Ottoman economic history, even if they assume an institutional equilibrium within the empire. What their often sweeping arguments about Ottoman institutional stasis fail to capture, however, are the new infrastructures of exchange and finance that appeared from the late-seventeenth century to the last quarter of the nineteenth century as a direct byproduct of Ottoman governance.

This panel responds to both historiographies by introducing new, empirical materials that illuminate the institutions that modulated a host of economic activities in the Ottoman empire from 1690 to 1881. The papers examine the work of smugglers who sought to evade the new salt monopoly in the 1860s and 1870s; communications infrastructure in the Ottoman empire that encouraged the growth of medium-distance regional trade; and the relationship between evkaf and the formal banking sector. Inspired by the New History of Capitalism, these papers combine both quantitative and qualitative approaches, adopt a comparative perspective, and utilize a diverse range of sources to demonstrate how the infrastructures of Ottoman exchange were inflected by common actors. What they reveal is a hitherto overlooked history of institutional development carried out by local actors and only obliquely captured in state-centric narratives. By reclaiming economic history from an exclusive focus on numerical data and by bringing the ‘social’ back into the economic sphere, these papers ask what new histories of capitalism in the Ottoman Empire and broader Islamic world would look like.

Panelists are Fahad Bishara (University of Virginia), Aaron G. Jakes (The New School), Daniel Stolz (University of Wisconsin, Madison), Michael O’Sullivan (Harvard University), Choon Hwee Koh (Yale University).


[P6229] Slavery, Islam, and Empire Across Time and Space: (Saturday, 10/17/20 11:00 am)

Panelists are Bilal Kotil (Marmara University), Denise Spellberg (University of Texas at Austin), Koby Yosef (Bar Ilan University).


[P6028] A Carceral Society: Penal Justice in premodern Islam, c. 661-1500 CE: (Saturday, 10/17/20 01:30 pm) Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish illuminated the evolution of the European prison and shaped the study of carceral institutions, state power, and criminal justice in the West. And in recent decades, in the humanities and social sciences, there has been an advancement in the study of the prison as a manifestation of power relations. But carceral studies of the premodern Islamic Near East remain in their infancy. This panel investigates distinctions between Western European and Near Eastern penal developments and interrogates the applicability of the Foucauldian model to our understanding of prisons in the premodern Islamic world. We emphasize the practice (as opposed to theory) of penal justice in the context of state administration of prisons, forms of carceral punishment, the use of various spaces as sites of incarceration, and its wider impact on political and legal discourses.

Prisons varied substantially from Umayyad Syria to Mamluk Cairo, and the role of the prison changed as state authorities in premodern Muslim societies established strategies to better monitor and regulate public affairs. The ever-changing coercive nature of prison mirrored the debates and discussions on the legitimacy of its usage in literary, legal, and administrative genres. Organized chronologically and thematically, this panel will illustrate the evolution of carceral institutions and its accompanying discourses where punishment, torture, and rehabilitation each played a role in the treatment of the offender.

This panel denotes one of the first serious attempts to engage with the practice of imprisonment in the premodern Islamic Near East. By seeking to bring this developing field of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies into conversation with global research on incarceration, the panel intervenes on broader issues of prisoner rights, urban geographies of coercive spaces, and the politics of penal reform. It looks beyond the theoretical aspect of the penitentiary to the more practical, on-the ground developments, where carceral justice was dynamic, contingent on local circumstances and responsive to demands from below.

Panelists are Mohammed Allehbi (Vanderbilt University), Holly Robins (University of California, Los Angeles), Brendan Goldman (Princeton University), Taryn Marashi (Vanderbilt University).


The Ḥawza and the Sharia (Thursday, 10/22/20 04:00 pm): A discussion of the Sharia and the formation of jurists in the venerable ‘seminary’ institution of the Shi’ite tradition, with comparisons to the Sunni madrasa.

Panelists are Seyed Masoud Nori (NYU Law School), Aun H. Ali (University of Colorado), Aria Nakissa (Washington University, St. Louis), Ali Moughania (PhD student, Columbia University).

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