Best of 2022-2023 & Roundtables in Review: Islamic Law, Data Science, and AI

In September, we look back at some of our most read essays published in the past year as well as the roundtables we convened in the past that attracted a lot of interest.  Each week, we focus on essays and posts that touch on a similar topic relating to Islamic law.  This week, we focus on Islamic law, data science, and AI.


Many of our essays published in the past year as well as previous years have touched upon the relationship between the study of Islamic law on the one hand and the increasing scholarly interest in AI and data science-supported tools of research on the other. Most recently, Sohaib Baig‘s essay from August 2023 titled “Islamic Law Collections across 14 North American Libraries” – and some his other essays from the same month – conducted collection-level analysis to map out the Islamic law holdings in various libraries around the world.  Ending on an optimistic note regarding the utility of data science to Islamic law research, he noted that “there is an exciting and newfound abundance of resources that can enable scholars to pursue new avenues of research in the years to come.”

Robert Gleave and Kumail Rajani made similar use of data science in their contributions on the Twelver Uṣūl Bibliography or TUB for short – a digital database comprising Twelver Shīʿī legal theory writings.  In an introductory essay titled “Resources for the History of Twelver Shīʿī legal Theory: The Twelver Uṣūl Bibliography,” commenting on the efficiency of data science, Robert Gleave wrote: “Discovering such facts would not be impossible without TUB, but discovering each piece of data would take many hours of research.”

In similar vein, Lev Weitz‘s essay titled “Tax Receipts and Rent for a Mill: The Multiple Normative Orders of Medieval Islamic Societies,” which explored a number of Medieval notarial documents in detail, relied heavily on primary source documents that were digitized and made available to researchers by the Austrian National Library.

In her introduction to a previous Roundtable we hosted on “Islamic Legal History & Historiography” titled “Islamic Legal Canons as Memes,” our Editor-in-Chief Intisar Rabb advocated for more use of data science to map out the universe of Islamic legal canons. “[C]anons are memes perfectly well-suited to quantitative analysis, supplemented by qualitative-historical analysis, and can offer means of gaining special insight into the social history of Islamic law,” she wrote.

As part of the same Roundtable, Hiroyuki Yanagihashi‘s essay titled “A Note on the Quantitative Analysis of Hadith” explored the potential and promise of quantitative methods on ḥadīth texts. Petra Sijpesteijn‘s “The continuum approach: Multiple legal solutions to run a diverse empire” similarly emphasized the emergence and utility of digital tools to Islamic law research. She wrote: “Our field has been benefiting from the development of multiple online tools,” mentioning by way of example the Arabic Papyrology Database (APD). Irene Kirchner‘s “Measuring interpretive authority: a methodological reflection” relied heavily on search engines to map out the possible universe of Islamic interpretive authority, covering a wide variety of resources including YouTube videos and online fatwās. Drawing attention to the importance of intertwining quantitative and qualitative approaches to research, she noted that quantitative methods “often just complement[] a qualitative approach that relies on expertise and experience.”

Other Resources

Among the most prominent resources and databases we have featured or otherwise highlighted in the past that implicate the rising interest in data science and AI-oriented approaches to Islamic law research include the following:

  • Courts and Canons, which, as Intisar Rabb noted, provides a data entry tool to capture and code the key features of canons, and at later stages will deploy AI tools to automatically search for and capture canons according to those very features.
  • Open Islamicate Texts Initiative (OpenITI), which “is a multi-institutional effort led by researchers at the Aga Khan University’s Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations in London, Roshan Institute for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Universität Hamburg that aims to develop the digital infrastructure for the study of Islamicate cultures.” An essay by Mairaj Syed titled “An Experiment in Natural Language Processing, Machine Learning, and Islamic Law :: Part 1” experimented with OpenITI and Google for data mining purposes.
  • Over the years, we have highlighted various resources and databases relating to Islamic law under our weekly Field Guide Roundups. Some of the prominent databases we have featured there include, but are not limited to, the Kitab Project, Comparing Arabic Legal Documents (CALD), and Harvard’s Islamic Heritage Project.
  • We continue to regularly update SHARIAsource, our companion website that aims to provide comprehensive content and context on Islamic law in a way that is accessible and useful. It is a Portal into the digital world of Islamic legal studies and related tools from data science and AI. Working with a global team of advisors, senior scholars, and editors, our mission is to organize the world’s information on Islamic law.

Upcoming Events

We continue to feature upcoming events and opportunities related to Islamic law research, including those with an AI and/or data science angle. To that end, our weekly roundups feature a specific “Upcoming Events and Opportunities” section. We have recently curated a list of all events and panels in the American Society for Legal History‘s (ASLH) upcoming 2023 Annual Meeting that relate to Islamic law, including Islamic law & data science.

An upcoming panel at the Middle East Studies Association‘s (MESA) 2023 Annual Meeting will also feature presentations related to Islamic law and data science. Of particular interest is a roundtable titled “Digital Humanities: Creating Big Data Sets and Ensuring Their Reuse into the FutureNovember 3 @ 8:30 a.m: Organized by Dr. Mathew Barber. The roundtable will focus on “a series of large data sets including: a large corpus of Arabic texts, metadata about those texts, text reuse data documenting the connections between them; and other, smaller data sets, for example, relating to citation practices.” Our Editor-in-Chief Intisar Rabb will present, among other presenters.

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