Early Islamic Courts Conference Honors Roy Mottahedeh


As a flagship project of the Islamic Legal Studies Program (ILSP), SHARIAsource hosted a conference on Courts and Judicial Procedure in Early Islamic Law (632-1250 AD) on May 6th at Harvard Law School. Convened by Professors Intisar Rabb (Harvard Law School) and Abigail Balbale (Bard Graduate Center) to honor Roy Mottahedeh, who is retiring as the Gurney Professor of History at the University after thirty years of service, the conference gathered some 100 legal scholars, experts, and practitioners from various continents, including Europe, Asia, and North America.

Introductions by Professors Rabb and Balbale contextualized the importance of discussing a topic that is of crucial importance to the formation and function of Islamic law, even if it stands at some remove from modern life. Advancing understandings of how any society is affected by legal systems, and how legal systems affect society, requires the study of judicial procedure. The study of Islamic law is no different, as attendees learned from presenters. Three panels formed the conference: “The Formation of Early Islamic Judicial Procedure,” “Imagining and Enacting Justice in the Abbasid Period and Beyond,” and “Legal Perspectives from the Islamic West.” Each offered insight into procedure from both sides of the bench. Moderated by Professors William Graham (Harvard), Abbas Amanat (Yale), and Abigail Balbale (Bard), respectively, these panels engaged attendees with a wide variety of topics, including witness testimony, property law, translations, heavenly justice, and humorous judges.

Clearly evident in each of the ten presented papers was Roy Mottahedeh’s influence. Besides his colleagues Cemal Kafadar and William Granara’s remarks about his indelible mark as an historian of the Islamic world, the presenters’ papers honored him through the rigor of their ideas and research. In addition to acknowledging the influence of Professor Mottahedeh, the presenters’ engagement with each other’s work attested to their gratitude for the opportunity to honor him.

The conference organizers expect to publish the papers online and in hard copy. In conjunction with SHARIAsource, the conference proceedings and some of the primary resources that were used will also be included in the SHARIAsource database. Designed to ease research for policymakers, academics, and journalists, SHARIAsource is an online portal specifically for the study of Islamic law. This conference will therefore contribute to the study of Islamic law in at least two ways: firstly, by pure research alone, and secondly by increasing scholarly access to a topic that is still little-studied and about which little is known. The public launch of SHARIAsource is expected to be later this year.

This event was organized by the Islamic Legal Studies Program (ILSP), Harvard Law School, and SHARIAsource (with support from the Luce and MacArthur Foundations). Co-Sponsored by Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES), Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Islamic Studies Program, and Department of History.