Fellow Spotlight: Dr. Hedayat Heikal

This interview is part of our Fellow Spotlight series. This series features interviews with current and previous PIL Fellows, highlighting their work with the Program, their path getting here, and the road going forward. For more information on our Fellows, visit our website

Can you tell us a little bit about your background – where are you from, where did you pursue your education?

I am from Cairo, Egypt and I grew up in the middle of the bustling metropolis. I studied at the American University in Cairo back when it was at its historic location in Tahrir Square and then I went to Harvard Law School at the age of 22.

Rather uniquely, you earned your JD from Harvard Law School, practiced at a law firm, then came back to complete an SJD at Harvard. How was that transition? What was your dissertation about? 

I would disagree that transitioning from private practice to a doctoral degree is a unique trajectory.  Perhaps it is uncommon that I chose to pursue the doctoral degree in law, but not unique especially if one, like me, was exposed to and is familiar with academic and legal cultures outside the United States, including continental European cultures, where you often find leading lawyers who have pursued doctorates in law and concurrently hold academic appointments.  In my case, I wanted to specialize in comparative and constitutional law studying legal systems and institutions of public law across time and geographies.  At the time, my aspiration was to study and influence the transformations that the Arab Spring heralded for the Middle East and relate them to the American-led global order in which we appeared to be living in. 

What are your research interests?

I work at the intersection of comparative law and constitutional law with a focus on the rise of courts, judges, and the modern administrative state, in historical perspective.  In doing so, I take a special interest in the region roughly called (or mis-labeled as) the Middle East and how Middle Eastern legal systems and cultures, not just those of Arab countries, are a veritable mosaic of different elements, including Islamic legal and institutional elements, British colonial and common law elements, and elements from French civil law, international law, and most recently constitutional, corporate, and antitrust influences of American provenance to name but a few. But I also do not look to countries of the Middle East as outliers in any sense and studying them, as we know from comparative law writ large, can lead one to develop critical insights about the legal systems and cultures of the United States and the West more broadly.

How did you first get interested in this research?

It was difficult to be at Harvard Law School and in the United States without developing a fascination with American constitutional law. I remember walking from my first-year Torts class to attend Professor Bruce Ackerman’s Holmes Lecture, which he delivered to a standing-room only audience at Ames Hall in front of then-Dean, now Justice, Elena Kagan. It was then that I realized that constitutional law was the future. Constitutional law, especially post-1945, encapsulates in some sense “the genius of American institutions.” And I wanted to study how constitutional law was being exported to the world and the immense potential it had. Of course, by the time I came around to studying the globalization of constitutional law, it transpired that this innovation, however promising, also had its limitations, whether internal limitations or when it encountered entrenched legal systems as in the Middle East.

Why did you apply to become a PIL Research Fellow?

I applied to become a PIL Research Fellow because I thought it would be an unparalleled opportunity to focus on my research and partake in the community of scholars at PIL, while also getting exposed to PIL’s cutting-edge work on digital humanities, which in my view will change the study of Islamic law and potentially other related disciplines as well.

What research project will you be focusing on as a Fellow @ PIL?

I came here to build on two rather discrete projects, or so I hope. The first is historical and aims to apply insights from comparative constitutional law and my dissertation on the path liberal constitutionalism took (or rather failed to take) in the Middle East to the study of U.S. constitutional history and how, to take one example, post-Reconstruction constitutional jurisprudence can be understood as “backsliding” in the way we use it today to describe events unfolding in various parts of the world.  The second project I hope to focus on is to help launch a conversation and a scholarly community interested in questions about equality and race as it relates to Muslim communities, which will result in an upcoming special issue of the Journal of Islamic Law, which I am editing. I am excited to see where these projects will take me and us all in PIL. 

Will you be using any of PIL’s resources for this research project?

I’ll be using Harvard’s immense library and human resources, whether at the library, on the faculty, or at PIL. 

Do you have any background or interest in digital humanities and data science approaches to research on law generally and in the Middle East / Islamic world?

So one fun fact about me is that I studied electronics engineering in college.  It’s amazing to re-discover programming and algorithm design now with PIL.  The team assembled here at PIL is incredibly impressive and the tools being developed hold so much promise for the study of Islamic law, Islamic legal canons, principles, and genres and how they have evolved over time across different historical and contemporary geographies.

What do you like to do when you aren’t working?

Reading with my kids and “lurking” on Twitter.  Sometimes I try to even do both at the same time!

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