CnC Spotlight: Mairaj Syed

The Courts & Canons (CnC) Project at SHARIAsource leverages data science tools to explore questions in Islamic law and society historically through mapping the controversies and values reflected in courts (from taʾrīkh, ṭabaqāt) and legal canons (qawāʿid fiqhiyya). We experiment with ways in which the data science tools we are developing at SHARIAsource (CnC Qayyim) can aid in that research.  This spotlight series features interviews with scholars involved in the CnC working group.  Check out Professor Mairaj Syed‘s posts for more on data science tools and legal canons. 


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

My family moved to the United States from India when I was three years old. When I was six, they settled in Dallas, TX and that’s where I grew up. I attended the Richardson mosque regularly and it had a bonified ʿālim from Turkey, trained in the old Ottoman curriculum. We went far beyond your standard Sunday school curriculum, and at a young age I had a sense that the Islamic intellectual tradition was quite vast, rich, and complex. I did my undergraduate work at UT Austin in Business – it was a compromise solution – since I started out as an electrical engineering major. I really wanted to do Middle East/Islamic Studies, but didn’t quite have the nerve to do so and didn’t feel like my parents would be supportive. When I was a sophomore, UT Austin hired its first Islamic Studies professor; that’s when I knew what I wanted to do with my life. It was a light-bulb moment – the idea that I could get paid to teach and do research in a field that I would gladly pay others to learn was too enticing not to pass up. But I still graduated with a business degree. I worked as a data network engineer for three years and decided my heart was still enchanted with Islamic studies. So I applied to UCLA and did master’s coursework there. To the great dismay of my wife, I never finished the thesis requirement to have an official MA from UCLA. Regardless, I transferred to Princeton’s religion department and defended my dissertation in 2011.


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

Right now, with a team of collaborators from different disciplines, I’m exploring the ways in which statistical analysis, data visualization, and computational techniques of organizing Islamic textual material can shed light on old, important, and enduring questions and open up new avenues of inquiry. We’re focusing on ḥadīth literature at the moment, and hope to expand to other disciplines of Islamic thought in the near fture.

I got interested in computational approaches to ḥadīth, because ḥadīth, in many ways, is already a highly structured literary form. Moreover, it is a fairly large corpus. Both of those features make it especially amenable to statistical and computational techniques of analysis. Computational analysis takes unstructured information and structures it in accordance with a researcher’s goal. Once it has been structured in a specific way, it then enables extremely fast analysis of a large corpus.


Have you used digital tools before? If so, what kinds, and what has your experience been like?

I’ve ended up becoming decently competent in Mathematica, Python, and Tableau. I’m by no means an expert, but can use these tools, most times, to reorganize textual data in way that makes them amenable to statistical analysis and neat visualization.


How do you think CnC digital tools can help you? What issues in your field do you feel they can address?

One great strength of digital tools for scholarly analysis is their ability to organize vast amounts of textual data in a way that gives scholars the ability to get a global view of important features in the given textual corpus. A number of CnC’s features allow scholars to do this with texts devoted to the legal canons.


What texts do you plan on analyzing with CnC Qayyim?

I looked at how writers in the genre of qawāʿid monographs identified and justified what they termed the “universal canons,” such as al-Suyūṭī and Ibn Nujaym’s al-Ashbāh wa’ l-naẓāʾir works.


How do those texts relate to your proposed Qayyim research question?

These texts, starting with al-ʿAlāʾī, explicitly identify certain canons as universal or general in scope. I wanted to see how often these universal canons are cited in the qawāʿid genre as a whole.


Is your proposed Qayyim research question related to your previous research? If so, how? If not, why did you pursue this particular question?

Not really. I pursued this question because it allowed me to test Qayyim’s capabilities.


Do you anticipate any results? What would surprise or excite you?

One somewhat interesting result is that the “no harm” principle was cited most often. Another interesting result is that one of the universal canons is only found in Ḥanafī sources: “divine reward depends on intention.”


What would you like to see from CnC digital tools in the long term?

The most pressing issue is adding more texts to Qayyim and developing a way of annotating these large body of digitized texts in ways that will benefit scholarship and public knowledge.


What do you see as the future of digital scholarship in Islamic law?

I think digital scholarship has two benefits. First, it allows scholars to easily view the global picture of Islamic law. It allows them to ask, how does feature X show up in 4000 texts? It can thus give a picture of the Islamic law forest. As different research groups organize this corpus according to geography, time, and the social relationships of authors of texts in the corpus and individuals found in them, the horizon for answering old questions and asking new ones is right around the corner, inshallah.

The second thing it has the capability to do is enable scholars to speed up the more manual aspects of their research. Computers can take certain rote, basic operations and automate them. Something that may take a human individual hours or days to do, a computer can do in seconds. It just needs to be told in the right way and fed the data in a specific format.

Of course, computers can only do so much. It requires historically sensitized and conceptually and philosophically informed interpreters to make sense of the results generated by computational analysis.


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