Fellow Spotlight: Dr. Sohaib Baig

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

We understand that your current book project builds on your doctoral dissertation. Can you tell us more about both? 

 My dissertation, which forms the basis of my current book project, was on Islamic legal and ḥadīth scholarship in South Asia and the Hijaz from the 16th century to the early 20th century. I wrote about how Indian Ḥanafīs contested and defended the validity of the Ḥanafī madhhab in light of ḥadīth literature, in discussions which ranged from specific matters of Ḥanafī legal doctrine to the fundamental idea of taqlīd or legal conformity to a madhhab. I also contextualize the rise of ḥadīth-based Ḥanafī legal discourse through these centuries within the space of the Indian Ocean, examining Indian Ḥanafī encounters with scholars from other legal schools, as well as with Ottoman and Hijazi Ḥanafīs, amidst larger political and social transformations in the Indian Ocean. I consulted a range of sources, including fatwas, ḥadīth commentaries, legal treatises, as well as travelogues and Ottoman and British imperial records. 

What are your current research interests? How did you first get interested in this research?

As I examined how Indian Ḥanafī actors traveled across the Indian Ocean for over 400 years, I began to develop an appreciation of how the Sunni madhhab system made it possible for them to meaningfully travel and engage in a wide array of transactions across such a politically vast and heterogenous space; and how inter- and intra-madhhab exchanges within these spaces facilitated new intellectual developments and transformations. This stimulated my interest in historicizing Islamic law and scholarship not exclusively in reaction to a set of given political/economic conditions (e.g. a colonial or pre-colonial state) but as something that is also generative of historical change and connection in its own right. My goal is to write a history of early modern and modern Ḥanafī legal authority in South Asia and the Indian Ocean that foregrounds such a perspective while being anchored concretely in particular spaces from one generation to another. 

I am also developing an interest in the history of Qur’ānic scholarship in South Asia: how the Qur’an was taught, recited, interpreted, translated across multiple languages, and invoked in constructing Islamic law in South Asia. I think it forms an appropriate next step after my current work on the history of South Asian ḥadīth and legal scholarship.

Why did you apply to become a PIL Research Fellow? What did you find at PIL?

I applied to become a PIL Research Fellow because PIL is an incredibly rich and well-rounded center for Islamic legal studies. I knew it would help expand my perspectives on Islamic law beyond my own specializations. I was also drawn to PIL’s ambitious and exciting digital humanities projects.

PIL afforded me the wonderful opportunity to deliver a talk based on my book project. This experience helped me distill my lengthy project with all its arguments and actors into a more concise and focused narrative and to reconsider various arguments based on audience feedback.

What do you find most exciting about the work? Least exciting?

I am fascinated by the long arcs of individual Iives, societies, and legal institutions. The most powerful stories for me are those where we have grown old and lived several lifetimes and generations – with all their upheavals and trials – by the time we finish reading them. I am probably least excited by the pains of the writing process.

After the PIL fellowship, you started a new position as librarian for Middle Eastern, North African, South Asian, and Islamic Studies at UCLA. Can you tell us a little about your work and what you envision for it? Has the PIL fellowship and community helped prepare you for this?

As a subject-specialist librarian, my position carries many responsibilities. A key aspect of the work is collection development, which entails selecting new books and resources essential for research about the Middle East and South Asia, especially in consideration of research needs on campus. This involves working with vendors and booksellers overseas, librarians across California and the US, as well as faculty and students at UCLA. This process helps me considerably in developing a more comprehensive and global perspective on new developments in these fields.

Another aspect of the work is to curate and make accessible the collections I oversee in novel ways. UCLA has a very unique and rich collection of Islamic materials, thanks to the work of my predecessors. In this regard, new and upcoming work on the digital humanities is essential. My limited time in PIL’s SEARCHstrata project was very valuable and transformative for me: the experience of being in the same Zoom room with programmers, librarians, and scholars of Islamic law highlighted he power of such collaborations to change how we can search and map the histories of Islamic law through a myriad of times, spaces, and languages. I believe that developing digital tools and resources will be pivotal for research not only at Harvard but libraries and universities around the world.

Any overall principle or saying that you draw on for inspiration or drive?

I sometimes think back to the famous saying by Imam al-Juwaynī, which I first came across as a 17 year-old in George Makdisi’s The Rise of Colleges: “The Requisites of Knowledge: A quick mind, zeal, poverty, foreign land, a professor’s inspiration, and of life a long span.”

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

I was born and raised in Southern California. My parents moved here from Pakistan and, as it happened, founded an online Islamic bookstore in 2001. As a child, I spent many hours reading and working with these books. Much of the selection was from Pakistan, so I was exposed to a range of writings produced by South Asian Muslims. In the years after 9/11 and the US-led war on Iraq, I also read many critiques of US and Western imperialism, which at the time led me to pursue the study of history.

As an undergraduate at UCLA, I decided to focus on South Asian intellectual history. I realized it would be a good way of combining my emerging interests in Arabic, Urdu, and Persian. I wrote my senior thesis under the mentorship of Professor Nile Green – who later became my doctoral supervisor – on a madrasa reform proposal by a 20th century Indian Muslim scholar, Mawlana Manazir Ahsan Gilani. I also studied for a period of time at a local Islamic seminary, which helped improve my Arabic and introduced me to the Dars-i Nizami curriculum.

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

I enjoy spending time with family and friends. I also enjoy long walks on the beach.

What is a fun fact about you?

I like jumping into icy lakes and rivers whenever possible (unfortunately not so prevalent in Southern California).

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