PIL Writing Prize Winner: Shayan Karbassi

Congratulations to Shayan Karbassi (JD ‘22), the recipient of the Program in Islamic Law Writing Prize for his paper “Pursuit of Supranational Authority: Constitutionalism and the Islamic Republic of Iran,” written under the supervision of Professor Vicki C. Jackson. We award this prize annually to the Harvard Law School student who has written the best paper in the field of Islamic legal studies or at the intersection of Islamic law and related fields during that current academic year. This interview spotlights Shayan’s paper, his path to and time at Harvard, and the road going forward.  

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

My family is originally from Iran and I grew up in California’s central valley. I graduated from the University of Chicago in 2014 with a double major in international studies and political science. I was drawn to all things international studies because of the interdisciplinary nature of the major. In particular I appreciated the opportunity to develop well-rounded expertise by combining the study of language, culture and history in evaluating a given topic.

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

My academic and legal research interests are at the intersection of comparative and transnational law. In particular, I am interested both in comparative constitutional law and emerging conflicts of laws issues surrounding the use and regulation of technology. This past year, I have focused my research on the study of the history and operation of Iran’s constitution in an attempt to situate it both within comparative constitutional legal scholarship generally and Islamic constitutionalism in particular.  

Two courses during the fall of my second year played an outsized impact on the development of this project: Professor Vicki Jackson’s Comparative Constitutional Law course and Professor Intisar Rabb and Professor William Alford’s Comparative Law Workshop. The former rigorously evaluated the governing legal instruments of an impressive breadth of countries around the world. We closely considered and studied the structure and design, animating principles, and relationships between government institutions and individual rights and expectations to better understand the implications of various legal designs. Professor Rabb’s workshop served as a wonderful complement as we closely engaged with current scholarship in Islamic and Chinese law. The workshop was eye-opening in many ways and allowed students to engage in rigorous discussion with legal scholars about their cutting edge research and writings. Importantly, the course provided useful insights into effective research and writing methods and processes.

Why did you apply to Harvard Law School?

Harvard Law School faculty and students alike create a community of learning that is unparalleled. I was initially drawn to the law school, in part, because of the quality of its faculty—all of whom are thought leaders in their respective fields—its diverse student body, and its robust curriculum. As I had hoped, these all made for incredibly enriching discussions both inside and outside of the classroom.

What have you done during your time as a student at HLS?

Beyond delving into independent legal research and writing and assisting faculty with their own research projects, I have worked on a diverse array of activities to broaden my perspective. This includes working on the Harvard International Law Journal and the Harvard Business Law Review as well as participating in the Transactional Law Clinics.

What is your prize winning paper about? Can you tell us a little bit about your approaches to this paper?

My paper attempts to use the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran to propose a new typology for comparative constitutional study: a supranational constitution. I define a supranational constitution as a written instrument that (1) is based on a supranational identity; (2) expressly identifies a constituency beyond the state’s borders; and (3) commits state resources to advancing the interests of this external constituency. I suggest that for the state, this external constituency can, at times, play a reinforcing function to justify or legitimate the regime’s policies insofar as its actions are predicated on the needs of the community as a whole rather than those of the country’s nationals in particular.

Iran’s constitution, first promulgated in 1979 and later amended in 1989, declares the “velayat-e faqih” or Guardianship of the Jurist to be the supreme authority both within the state and outside of it. In so doing, the constitution negotiates the relationship between its role as the governing document of a modern nation-state and its aspiration to serve as the rubric from which to unify the ummah or “Islamic Community” outside of its borders.

Importantly, while religion serves as a useful source of supranational identity, it is not necessarily diagnostic. For example, I suggest in my paper that the West German Constitution of 1949 operated in a similar way by envisioning its policies as benefiting the “German people” as a whole rather than the citizens within West Germany in particular.

My research approach was four-fold. First it involved situating Iran’s constitution within comparative constitutional law to ensure that the paper would contribute to the field. Second, it required relating Iran’s constitutional system to other Islamic constitutions to better understand the relationship between the operation of secular and religious directives within these governing instruments. Third, my research focused on understanding the operation and evolution of Iran’s constitution within Shi’a legal jurisprudence itself. Finally, and what I think brought the paper together, was my research into other constitutions that may satisfy the supranational typology proposed.

Did you draw on any PIL resources (blog or people) for your research?

PIL resources, such as the SHARIAsource Portal, were tremendously helpful during my research and writing process. Professor Rabb, too, provided insightful guidance and her scholarship was instrumental in my own approach.

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

As with most research projects, I find the initial research, conceptualization, and idea formation process to be the most exciting part because I enjoy delving deeply into a topic and finding potentially new ways to relate and relay ideas. On the flip side, it is always nerve-racking to be near the end of one’s writing process only to come across scholarship that would have been helpful earlier and which requires further refining and fine-tuning of one’s own project. Of course, in the end, this process is incredibly fulfilling in creating more rigorous and nuanced scholarship. 

Where will you be heading after graduation?

I’m planning on joining Covington & Burling LLP in Washington, D.C. next year.  

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

I am driven by an overwhelming desire to make the most of the opportunities that I have been privileged with and to use these privileges to help others. As an Iranian-American, I am constantly reminded of the barriers that exist for young people of my age in Iran—all of whom are resourceful, resilient and incredibly smart. It is telling that Harvard’s commencement programs reinforced this sentiment and provided ample reminders of the importance of using the education provided by this institution to help give voice to those without it and to help make society more just and equitable.

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

Spending time with my wife, who is also a Harvard Law Student—although we always have to be careful to not accidentally let our free time become completely consumed with discussions of the law.

What is a fun fact about you? 

I once apprenticed in the kitchen of a two-star Michelin restaurant.

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