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.
On background/ research
Can you tell us a little bit about your background – where are you from, where did you pursue your education? And why? Rather uniquely, you’re a software engineer that completed doctoral work in Islamic studies. Tell us a little bit about this transition, or merging rather, of these two fields.
I was raised in the Netherlands by Kurdish immigrant parents. Growing up, my parents felt that it would be safer and more productive for me to stay inside than to go outside and become involved with youth. Accordingly, they granted my requests for a game console first and later a personal computer. I would spend hours behind my computer and quickly learned how to troubleshoot and fix computers. Afterwards, I think before or shortly after going to high school, I started to do some programming and designs.
For a long time, I thought of becoming an engineer. However, as cliché as this sounds, at some point (around 18 years or so) I felt a theological calling that only became more exacerbated due to the challenges Muslim communities were facing in the Netherlands after 9/11. Since I felt I had little to learn on the engineering side of things that would warrant a formal education, I chose to pursue religious studies in the hopes of engaging with the discourse on Islam in the Netherlands at the highest level. This desire led me to the Vrije Universiteit where I successfully completed a research master’s degree with a specialization in the philosophy of religion.
After finishing my master’s degree, I took a break from the humanities and went back for a few years to do engineering at a full-service agency. One day, I came across a call for PhD applications at the University of Edinburgh. I applied and got accepted. While I did receive a scholarship, it was not enough to cover my base expenses. Accordingly, I started my own business in consultancy and solution architecture. In other words, I helped companies realize different kinds of online applications as well as helped train their staff. It was a challenge to juggle both a startup and a PhD. However, in the end, with the help of God’s grace and kindness, I was able to do both.
While I personally did foresee possibilities of synthesizing the wonderous world of data science and software engineering with the humanities, it was only after finishing my doctoral degree that I actually saw institutions become more eagerly looking for staff that were able to realize such a synthesis. One of these institutions was Utrecht University, where I worked together with Professor Christian Lange on text mining Islamic Law. There I built an online platform where researchers could track and trace the ways in which jurists engaged with the Qur’an. The platform can be found here.
During my work at UU, I met Professor Intisar Rabb. Professor Rabb had for years cherished strong aspirations for the field of Digital Humanities and the study of Islamic Law. Some of these aspirations were already being actively developed by her and her team at Harvard Law School. Accordingly, Professor Rabb and I started talking about a potential collaboration. One of these collaborations became the Courts and Canons project titled CnC-Qayyim. With Qayyim, Professor Rabb and I worked on creating a platform that allowed researchers to read familiar texts anew in the light of data analytics (e.g., via network analysis) without knowing a single line of complicated programming code.
What was your doctoral dissertation about? And your current book project?
My doctoral dissertation was about Qur’an hermeneutics in contemporary Turkey. In other words, I analyzed the works of three different Turkish authors, respectively Recep Alpyağıl, Dücane Cündioğlu, and Mustafa Özturk. My interest was mainly in how these authors viewed or resolved the interpretative tension between subjectively and objectively reading the Qur’an in the present. My book project, which I am still in the process of working on, builds on my original dissertation.
What are your current research interests? Do they incorporate both hermeneutics (or interpretation) and data science?
As someone with experience in both fields of hermeneutics and data science, there are many potential avenues for research. I could either focus exclusively on hermeneutics or data science problems or pursue a problem that involves both fields. Part of me is still attuned to very classical questions within hermeneutics that pertain to the general and specific problems of understanding. For example, how did classical jurists within Islam conceive of the limits of reason in interpreting God’s laws? However, with time I am starting to transpose classical philosophical and hermeneutical problems. One concrete example pertains to the problem of dialectics within the field of data science. In other words, can I demonstrate in a concrete and quantifiable way, through data science, the Hegelian process of dialectics or the Derridean concept of deconstruction?
On PIL & SHARIAsource Lab
What data science projects will you be focusing on as a Fellow @ PIL through the SHARIAsource Lab?
We have various projects currently at PIL. My chief concern is Qayyim, since it allows you to analyze multiple texts through the lens of data science. However, in building another project, SEARCHstrata, we are also currently working on revolutionizing how researchers engage with bibliographies and library collections.
What about research projects with Prof. Rabb? Separately? With others?
There are multiple research projects that I assist Prof. Rabb with from the angle of data science. For example, Prof. Rabb is currently interested in tracing and quantifying throughout history the various legal canons that were in use in different Islamicate societies. I am also currently working on a particular research problem for a journal to which I was invited to submit an article. The resulting paper will investigate views on human distinctiveness and artificial intelligence from both a philosophical and Islamic perspective.
What PIL resources (material or people/intellectual) are you looking forward to drawing on for your research?
PIL has a great network of highly skilled and reputable scholars. Seeing these scholars engage with some of the tools that we are building, gives us the opportunity to incorporate their conventional experience and expertise in a totally new field.
What do you find most exciting about the work? Least exciting?
The most exciting and sometimes scary part of my work relates to there being no substantial precedents when it comes to the data science study of Islamic sources.
Any overall principle or saying that you draw on for inspiration or drive?
For me God is the source of all beauty. As the Prophet has said: “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” Accordingly, beautiful things and the aesthetic dimensions that surround us are very inspiring and remindful of God. I don’t only want the data science platforms that we are building to function properly, but to also express a certain beauty.
What do you like to do when you aren’t working?
I like to watch movies and listen to music. As my daughter grows of age, we also play music on the guitar and sing together.
What is a fun fact about you?
I am an introverted extrovert.