Fellow Spotlight: Dr. Mariam Sheibani

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 position and trajectory since graduating?

I received my PhD in Islamic Thought from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations in 2018. After graduating, I spent two years as a Research Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Program in Islamic Law and did some part-time lecturing at Harvard Divinity School. Since Fall of 2020, I have been a Visiting Assistant Professor in History at the Department of Historical and Cultural Studies at The University of Toronto Scarborough. 

In terms of my future trajectory, I recently accepted a tenure-track job as Assistant Professor at Brandeis University starting in September 2023 in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies. This upcoming academic year (AY 2022-2023) I’ll be spending as Associate Academic Director at Cambridge Muslim College in Cambridge, UK.

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 Ottawa, Canada, where I completed my first two degrees at Carleton University in Public Affairs and Policy Management (BA) and Legal Studies (MA). That academic formation got me very interested in legal philosophy and in the human rights discourse in contemporary Islam. At the same time I had been pursuing private studies with Muslim jurists in Islamic law, with a focus on Shāfiʿī law and legal theory (uṣūl al-fiqh). Eventually I brought the two interests together by pursuing my PhD in Islamic legal history at the University of Chicago.

What was your doctoral dissertation about? And your current book project? 

My research explores the ways in which Islamic thought has evolved to reflect changing socio-cultural realities in late antique and medieval Muslim societies. My first book project, based on my dissertation research, Islamic Legal Philosophy: Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām and the Ethical Turn in Medieval Islamic Law, explores this theme through a study of how jurists from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries pioneered a crucial ethical turn in Islamic law in a time of social crisis. The study centers the thought of ʿIzz al-Dīn Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām (1171-1262 CE), the leading jurist of the Shāfiʿī doctrinal school of his generation. Living in a period marked by political fragmentation, the Crusades, and Mongol invasions, Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām’s innovative legal philosophy sought to address these crises by breaking from the dominant formalism of medieval Muslim jurists towards a more ethical and socially responsive legal discourse.

I demonstrate that Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām reconstituted a new theory of maṣlaḥa – the idea of the common good – alongside a hierarchy of legal maxims or legal canons (qawāʿid fiqhiyya) as the two core tenets of his legal philosophy, which he deployed to make the law more responsive to the crises of his day. Rather than being a singular thinker as previous scholarship has assumed, I argue that Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām was an intellectual heir of an analytical and ethically-informed intellectual current that emerged from Khurasan, which sharply contrasted with the more conservative and transmission-based approach of Iraqi thinkers. I also show how Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām influenced Mamluk and Ottoman-era legal philosophy, practice, and pedagogy for the next several centuries, and that his thought continues to be mined by contemporary reformers.

Why did you apply to become a PIL Research Fellow?

A big part of my dissertation project examined the evolution of legal maxims or legal canons (qawāʿid fiqhiyya) in medieval Islam, and I had benefited tremendously from Intisar Rabb’s benchmark study on legal canons, Doubt in Islamic Law. The opportunity to work with her was the main draw for me. The library resources at Harvard Law School were also essential and they enabled me to make major strides in my research during my two years as a PIL Research Fellow.

What project did you focus on as a Fellow @ PIL?

As a PIL Fellow, I largely focused on reworking my dissertation into a book, which I will be submitting for review in a few weeks. At the same time, two journal articles came out of my time at PIL. The first article, “Innovation, Influence, and Borrowing in Mamluk-Era Legal Maxim Collections: The Case of Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām and al-Qarāfī,” was published in Journal of the American Oriental Society. It examines Ibn ʿAbd al-Salām’s impact on his student, Shihāb al-Dīn al-Qarāfī (1228-85 CE), a leading member of the rival Mālikī school, to investigate broader tensions surrounding cultures of education and authority in thirteenth-century Cairo. The second article, “Judicial Crisis in Damascus on the Eve of Baybars’s Reform: The Case of the Minor Orphan Girl (651–55/1253–57),” was recently published in Islamic Law and Society. The article reconstructs a mid-seventh/thirteenth century court case concerning the marriage of a minor orphan girl that sparked a constitutional crisis. Preserved in a unique manuscript I found at the British Library that I edited, I argue that the case reveals the procedural problems and doctrinal ambiguities endemic in Ayyubid courts that precipitated Mamluk Sultan Baybars’ reform of the judiciary in 663/1265, which replaced a single Shāfiʿī chief justice with a quadruple-system representing the four schools. While the reform has long been recognized as a critical turning point, this case illuminates some of the social and institutional dilemmas in the Ayyubid system that prompted the reform.

What PIL resources (material or people/intellectual) did you draw on for your research?

The PIL program at HLS was an ideal intellectual home. I benefited tremendously from engaging with Intisar Rabb and the other PIL fellows. I shared my research and received invaluable feedback at lunch talks, and met many other brilliant scholars and colleagues through PIL programming and workshops across campus. The Harvard community draws in amazing people doing groundbreaking work, and I got a lot out of my time there – even if it was cut short a few months by COVID!

I also had the opportunity to work on the Islamic Law Blog as Lead Blog Editor. Early on we introduced a monthly blogger series, and a bi-annual roundtable, both of which have been really successful. I personally got to work closely with leading and emerging scholars in the field, which has informed and enriched my own work.

As a PIL Fellow, I also benefited from training in Digital Humanities through PIL programming, like the basics of using a relational Database, Gephi,  text scraping, etc. This helped me develop my second project, a digital and second book project tentatively entitled Mapping the Terra Incognita of Early Islamic Law, that I received a two-year grant for from Canada’s Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council ($68,810).

 Can you tell us more about your second project?

The project continues to explore how Islamic legal discourses respond to and integrate varied socio-cultural realities, but turns my analytical lens to the early phase of Islamic law and practice (c. 700-1000). First articulated in Arabia and the conquered territories of Iraq, the Levant, and Egypt, the primary source for studying legal developments in this period are the views of early jurists, transmitted orally and in note form, before being compiled in hadith collections and Quranic exegesis. The historiography of this period has been largely dominated by either an all-encompassing suspicion of foreign borrowings and forgery of hadiths, or a skeptical resignation to the inscrutability of Islamic law’s preliterary beginnings in its first two centuries. I discuss these trends in my coauthored chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Islamic Law, which examines the history and historiography of the origins and early development of Islamic law.

The project contributes to addressing this gap lacuna through a systematic study of the opinions of late antique Muslim jurists to reconstruct the circulation of authorities and the transmission of ideas within and between Umayyad and Abbasid urban centers. By combining methods of close and distant reading and harnessing digital tools like mapping software and network analysis, my project will map the legal cultures and doctrines developed in late antique Islamicate cultural centers and the relative influence of local legal traditions. My findings will be demonstrated through case studies analyzing both the synchronic (transregional) and diachronic (regional over time) development of ritual and dietary laws, marriage and divorce, and relations to other religious communities.

What is a fun fact about you?

I love water: I love to be in it, on it, or to admire it from a far. Whether it’s walking by the river, being on a kayak, or sitting on the beach, I’m in my happy place.

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