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? And why?
I am originally from Syria. My life in Syria splits between the two major Syrian cities: Aleppo and Damascus, eighteen years in each. In Aleppo, I graduated from al-Khusruwiyya, a traditional school that was built in the sixteenth century, where I got to know and study with some prominent scholars of our modern time such as Shaykh Nūr al-Dīn ʿItr and Shaykh ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ Abū Ghudda. I used to have a heavy schedule of traditional classes outside of school that helped me get to know the scholars of Aleppo and their ways of teachings. In Damascus, I studied at Kulliyyat al-Sharīʿa (the Sharīʿa College), where I also got my MA and PhD in the field of Ḥadīth Criticism. When I was a child (fifth grade), I fell in love with the Islamic sciences, history, and texts. Since that early period in my life, I can say that there was no gap or hesitation in studying these topics. But many things have changed in terms of my perspectives, motivations, and aspirations.
What was your doctoral dissertation about? And your current book project?
The title of my dissertation is “Manhaj qabūl al-akbār ʿinda al-muḥadithīn” (the Criteria of Ḥadīth Authentication Among Ḥadīth Scholars). The work discusses the criteria used among ḥadīth scholars throughout the history of Islam, attempts to systematize their standards, and compares them with other legal and theological Islamic schools – Ḥanafīs and Mu’tazilīs in particular. I am still working on ḥadīth criticism and the authority of ḥadīth throughout [Islamic] history. My current project is a book on the standards of ḥadīth justification used in the formative Islamic period among three major schools: Ḥanafī (ahl al-raʾy), ḥadīth [transmitters] (ahl al-ḥadīth), and Mu’tazilī (of the mutakallimūn).
What are your current research interests? How did you first get interested in this research?
In recent years, I have two additional interests: first, the Qur’ān in late antiquity and the semantic development of Qur’ānic concepts, and second, the relationship between legal canons and interpreting ḥadīth. I first became interested in the first nine years ago, in the house of the German scholar Angelika Neuwirth, where we met weekly to discuss chapters in the Qur’ān from various angles and Semitic languages. When I moved to the University of Chicago 2013, I began auditing some courses on Biblical Hebrew, Syriac, and other Semitic languages. The second interest arose during my fellowship with the Program in Islamic Law, where I discovered an important aspect in my original field (ḥadīth). I began to observe the usage of ḥadīth in legal texts, the authority of legal canons as a means to shape or construct our interpretation of ḥadīth, and the power of canonical ḥadīth works against some legal canons.
Why did you apply to become a joint fellow at PIL and the MESA Global Scholars program?
Actually, I had applied to the MESA Global Scholars program. One of the many goals of the fellowship is to connect their fellows with various programs at American universities based on similar academic interests. During the first year, they connected me with several universities including Harvard Law School, the University of Chicago, and Columbia University. My joint fellowship at the Program in Islamic Law continued for two years and has been the most fruitful result of my MESA Global fellowship. It really allowed me to crystalize and polish my research interests.
What project(s) did you focus on as a part of your joint fellowship with MESA and PIL?
I focused on various topics as part of my joint fellowship with MESA and PIL. Through MESA, I presented multiple topics related to ḥadīth, epistemology of testimony, ḥadīth and modernity, ḥadīth legal canons, and Ḥanafī and Mu’tazilī approaches [to ḥadīth] at several universities, including Harvard University, the University of Chicago, Syracuse University, Columbia University, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Through PIL, I focused on the developments of legal canons and the authority of ḥadīth. I presented twice in the PIL Islamic Law Speaker Series. The first presentation was on “Early Ḥanafī Approaches to Islamic Legal Interpretation, 3rd/9th – 4th/10th Century” and the second was on “Pre-Canonical Islamic Legal Canons: An Analysis of Early Ḥanafī Literature.” I also participated in the Harvard PIL Roundtable on Islamic Legal Genres, which concluded a monthly lecture series on Islamic Legal Genres.
Additionally, I was a guest editor on the Islamic Law Blog in November 2021, where I wrote four blog posts on Ḥanafī criteria for using ḥadīth in the ‘courts and canons’ of early Islamic law: “Lived or Non-Lived Ḥadīth? Content vs. Narrator Criteria in Early Ḥanafī Law,” “Early Ḥanafī Jurists, Court Practice, and the Authority of General Afflictions (ʿUmūm al-Balwā),” “Canons: Specific and General aṣl,” and “Tools for Interpreting Ḥadīth in Shaybānī’s Ḥujja.”
What were some of your approaches to this project?
With legal canons and ḥadīth authority, I attempted to analyze the materials diachronically. I traced the early usage of legal canons during the formative period in the writings of Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan al-Shaybānī, then moved to the post-formative period in the writing of both al-Jaṣṣāṣ and al-Ṭaḥāwī. I did the same for ḥadīth and traced the ḥadīth in the pre-canonical collections, then in the canonical and post-canonical collections.
What PIL resources (material or people/intellectual) did you draw on for your research?
PIL resources tremendously helped with my research. Among a number of useful things, I will highlight the digital Islamic law tool CnC-Qayyim, which allows me to conduct text analytics on Islamic sources. The training session I did with PIL Data Science Fellow Yusuf Celik helped me understand the tool and use it to navigate my project. The SHARIAsource Portal and Islamic Law Blog have also been great resources for my research. I benefited a lot from the work of Intisar Rabb on legal canons and their development. Her book Doubt in Islamic Law: A History of Legal Maxims, Interpretation, and Islamic Criminal Law and essay “Islamic Legal Canons as Memes” definitely inspire any researcher in the legal field and open up unlimited vistas for ideas.
Where did your research take you after your fellowship?
The work I did on the trajectory of legal canons with PIL motivated me to work on tracing the concept of aṣl in the Ḥanafī School and how this concept has been used as an umbrella to give a coherent, systematic, and consistent hermeneutics of ḥadīth texts.
Any overall principle or saying that you draw on for inspiration or drive?
Personally, I learned from PIL, its director, and the team the actual meaning of one of the most important advices of learning, “no rest in knowledge.” Scholars used to say “āfat al-ʿilm al-nisyān” (the affliction of learning is forgetting). In his book, Taʿlīm al-mutaʿallim tarīq al-taʿallum, the Ḥanafī jurist Burhān al-Islām al-Zarnūjī raised the bar and said “āfat al-ʿilm al-fatra” (the affliction of learning is inactiveness). Activeness is one of many motivating and inspiring things I drew on throughout my fellowship with PIL.
What do you like to do when you aren’t working?
When I’m not working, I like to do gardening, play soccer and chess, and go on walks and hikes.
What is a fun fact about you?
My kids always say that I am funny but I don’t why and I don’t know if they are being sarcastic.