PIL Writing Prize Winner: Iman Masmoudi

Congratulations to Iman Masmoudi (JD ‘24), the recipient of the Program in Islamic Law Writing Prize for her paper “The Role of Notaries in the Practice of Islamic Law: ‘Udūl in Late Ottoman Tunisia.” The Dean’s Office, in conjunction with the Program, awards 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 the current academic year. This interview spotlights Iman and her paper, her path to and time at Harvard, and the road going forward.  [The interview has been lightly edited for grammar and style.]

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

I grew up in North Carolina, but my family is from Tunisia, and I have spent every summer there growing up. In undergrad, I studied Social Studies and Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at Harvard, and I received an MPhil in Classical Islamic History and Culture from the University of Cambridge. I have always loved studying both political theory and Islamic history, as I find both of them extremely imaginative and illuminative for answering important ethical questions and for imagining alternative worlds and forms of social organization. 

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

I truly love studying [American] law in comparative perspective with Islamic legal history. Nowadays, I am most focused on understanding the practices and lived experiences of Muslims interacting with various legal institutions throughout history. In that respect, I have studied moral policing in Islamic cities [historically], practices of slave-concubinage, and, now, the everyday work of notaries. I came to Islamic studies mainly through Islamic intellectual history at first, but then I developed a real fascination with learning about the stories of people who lived through or outside of those ideas and theories.

Why did you apply to Harvard Law School? 

I wanted to study law because it combines real world impact and what, to me, seem to be the most important intellectual questions about society. It also, more importantly, gives me a professional degree that I can use in service of vulnerable communities–particularly workers and climate change-vulnerable communities around the world.

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

At HLS, I’ve had the honor of being part of Harvard Defenders, the Harvard Law Review, and the Muslim Law Students Association. I’ve also assisted professors with their own research, including helping in a small way to design a new class on Climate Lawyering, as a teaching fellow for a 1L Contracts class, and as a contributor to the On Labor blog. Outside of law school, I continue to run and grow an ethical clothing cooperative that I started a few years ago in Tunisia, called TŪNIQ, which is an enormous source of beauty and direct impact in my life.

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

My paper is a deep dive into the work of notaries in late Ottoman Tunisia based on the collections of the archival records they created for their local communities. The goals were twofold: first, to show both the promise and perils of using these under-explored notarial ledgers as sources for social history and exploring how the records are created and how reliable they are; and second, to show how notaries more generally were extremely important and prolific practitioners of Islamic law. [It was also to show] that their contributions to the lived practice of Islamic law for everyday communities in Muslim societies were significant.

I do this by, first, exploring the materiality of the ledgers. In part, I explain what makes these ledgers special as collections of a single notary’s entire collected works. [I also describe] how [these ledgers] were constructed and what practices of checking and verification the notaries may have employed. In the second part, I dive into the records to try to recreate the lived process of drafting them. [I do this] by pulling out specific utterances and practices which show that notaries were involved in a huge variety of contractual situations, from loans and land sales, and from marriages and divorces, to inheritance and testimony. I also compare what the records suggest [historically] with practices I witnessed or learned about from attending contemporary notarial sessions in Tunisia today. Finally, in part three, I make the case for addressing the underrecognized importance of notaries. Far from being mere technicians or judge’s assistants, I suggest that they were hugely important to the daily practice of Islamic law, provided important services to a wide variety of people, and likely intervened in the relationships they recorded through mediating disputes and educating the parties about the law. Methodologically, I tried to show all this by drawing out interesting cases from the records, trying my hand at some digital humanities with some distributional graphs of loan and land sale values. [In the process, I am also] engaging with and challenging some existing scholarship.

I hope the paper is of benefit to anyone seeking to use these rich notarial ledgers as a source for future historical work and to those interested in the everyday legal experiences of Muslim communities!

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

Definitely! Late into the work, I was delighted to find some very relevant blog posts on the [Islamic Law] Blog by Marina Rustow and others exploring notarial documents in other contexts. I learned a lot from their work, and also felt like I could contribute some new and helpful information to the state of our understanding of notaries. It was really cool to participate, through this article, in a live scholarly discussion in the field!

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

Most exciting was the everyday beautiful experience of reading real people’s stories through these records: from loans between siblings to couples that divorced and then remarried on the same day. The human aspect was extremely touching. Perhaps least exciting, at first, was deciphering the very difficult script of these records. Not only are they written in Maghribī [North African Arabic-style] script, with some key differences from scripts I am used to such, as [the letter] qaf with one dot [instead of two], but the notaries were also not always very neat in their writing, and their pens and ink tended to skip and blur at times. When I first picked up the ledgers, I couldn’t get through a single line of text without hours of struggle, but now I’ve come a long way in being able to decipher them, and that is very gratifying! 

What are your plans for this summer, next year, and after graduation (if you know)?

This summer I’ll be interning at the Civil Appellate Staff at the Department of Justice and continuing to work on my co-op, as well as potentially writing a student note. [What I’ll do] after graduation is still to be determined, but the long term goal is to become a law professor.

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

For me, everything I do is inspired by my faith, and there are truly too many beautiful sayings to share from the Qur’ān, or the Prophet Muhammad, or the various spiritual giants of the Islamic tradition to pick just one, but I guess the overall principle is living not for one’s own ego or desires, and I hope that at least partially permeates my approach to life, relationships, work, and scholarship.

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

I play soccer, sing, and drum with family and friends, do amateur interior design, and hang out with my husband and my cat.

What is a fun fact about you?

I briefly played polo on the Cambridge polo team, at the club where Prince William plays. That was fun!

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