Fellow Spotlight: Dr. Mohammed Allehbi

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 personal and academic background?

I was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, but spent most of my childhood in the United States. During my teens I returned to Saudi Arabia, where I completed my secondary education and earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing and a minor in finance. Yet, as early as I can remember, I have always had a passion for history. My experiences living in two distinct cultures drew me to humanity’s journey through the ages.

Pursuing this dream of studying history, I applied for graduate studies in history in the United States, which paved the way for my current academic trajectory. I first completed my master’s in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago, and then my Ph.D. in History from Vanderbilt University in 2021. Since the Fall of 2023, I have been a PIL-LC (Program in Islamic Law and Library Congress) research fellow at Harvard Law School.

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

My research examines the formation of criminal justice in late antique and medieval Islamic societies as a case study of how the ideas and structures of a premodern criminal justice system came into being. Building on my dissertation, my first book project, The Making of Islamic Criminal Justice, considers the broader implications of this legal revolution on early Islamic law, governance, and society. The study focuses on the institution of the shurṭa, today the word used for police in the Arab world, which held an overlooked legal legacy.

The shurṭa was the face of criminal justice in the Islamic Near East and the Mediterranean between the eighth and twelfth centuries. At that time imperial rulers gave the shurṭa, their elite military corps, complete control over criminal justice and policing in order to extend their authority over burgeoning cities, namely Baghdad, Cairo, and Cordoba. The shurṭa alone pursued, investigated, and judged crimes and oversaw prisons in metropolises. Tellingly, the rulers favored the shurṭa with this expansive jurisdiction at the expense of their jurists and judges, who held more legal expertise and knowledge. This momentous decision by these rulers created a jurisdictional and normative split in Islamic law, which lasted for centuries in the Islamic Near East and Mediterranean, continuing in various forms until the eighteenth-century Ottoman Empire.

Modern scholarship primarily considers the shurṭa as a mere police force that acted in an extra-judicial capacity, but I argue that the shurṭa’s judicial authority and procedures constituted a branch of Islamic law distinct from the religious-jurisprudential frameworks established by jurists and judges known as sharīʿa (sacred law). I demonstrate that as early as the eighth century, the shurṭa enforced their judgments and actions according to government orders, military approaches, and administrative precedents. These military-administrative structures of criminal justice became legitimized in the tenth century and onward under the rubric of siyāsa (governance) by rulers, government officials, and scribes. This history of Islamic criminal justice challenges the view of Islamic law and society as monolithic. I seek to illuminate a critical heritage of Islamic law that must be considered on its own terms.

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

Interrelated with my research on the history of criminal justice in late Islamic antiquity and the Middle Ages, my current interests focus on developing siyāsa (governance) as the legal framework for justifying legislative power and scope of government authority distinct from jurisprudence. I explore the role of government officials and scribes in formulating siyāsa. They established new literary genres that systematized administrative procedures and reasoning, adapting and integrating Persian and Hellenistic political ideas.

My entry into this field is an unexpected one. During my master’s program at the University of Chicago, a professor of mine, Paul Walker, introduced me to the twelfth-century chronicle al-Muntaẓam fī trīkh al-mulūk wa’l-umam, written by the jurist, preacher, and historian Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201). In this text, Ibn al-Jawzī relates numerous accounts of the head of the shurṭa acting as the magistrate of criminal cases, with the figure of the judge being conspicuously absent. These narratives perplexed me at the time as I had thought the shurṭa were merely a police force; how could they judge criminal cases? To quell my confusion, I went down a never-ending rabbit hole, where I still find myself today.

Why did you apply to become a PIL Research Fellow?

I applied to become a PIL Research fellow because I believed it would be an excellent opportunity to elevate my research and engage with a community of scholars with expertise relevant to my work. As my book project reexamines the history of late antiquity and medieval Islamic Law, I wanted to work with Professor Intisar Rabb, a significant scholar in this field. I also believed the Harvard Law School library resources would help me further develop my research.

What project(s) are you focusing on as a part of your PIL fellowship?

As a PIL fellow, I have mainly been working on writing chapters for book projects. At the same time, my research on early Islamic criminal justice has inspired several projects. I have a journal article under review, and I will submit a chapter for an edited collection along with an article I have been invited to write for a journal. These essays explore the origins of discretionary punishment in Islamic criminal law, the military-administrative genealogy of Islamic criminal justice, and the historiography of premodern Islamic criminal justice.

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

The PIL program has been a rich intellectual experience. Professor Rabb and the staff have been very generous with their time. During the fall semester, Professor Rabb invited me and the other fellow to participate in a workshop with her students. I cannot stress how beneficial the feedback was for my research moving forward. I have also been introduced to a community of excellent scholars in PIL and throughout the campus.

Where do you think your research will take you after the fellowship?

I welcome all possibilities. This fellowship is a critical step on my path to improve as a researcher and teacher of the history of Islamic law.

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

In the first volume of his Venture of Islam, Marshall Hodgson discusses biases inherent in a historian examining premodern Islamic societies. He states that scholars “can learn to profit by the concern and insight they permit while avoiding their pitfalls.” This principle has guided and inspired me as I navigate the tension between modern assumptions and understandings of an Islamic past.

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

As for my non-historical activities, I love jogging, cooking, reading, watching movies, and spending time with friends.

What is a fun fact about you?

I grew up here in Newton for most of my childhood. This is the first time I have been back since my teens. So it feels like a homecoming.

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