Interview: Sahar Ahmed

School/Institution:

School of Law, Trinity College Dublin

Areas of Interest/Research:

Freedom of Religion, International Human Rights Law, Islamic jurisprudence

What is it about your field that you love researching?

I love researching things that directly impact who I am. I’ve never believed in ‘academic objectivity’ and that holds true particularly for subjects like Islam, ‘the global south’, and/or all racialised bodies and othered people –  because academic objectivity is only claimed proudly by scholars that fetishise and exoticise us. Therefore what I love researching about my topic and my areas of study is that I place myself in the centre of it; everything I write is informed by me, my life, and the communities I occupy space in. Everything I read and research, in turn, gives context to my lived experience. 

So I’m fascinated by where I find myself as the subject of human rights laws, or as the victim of their violations, and where I find myself in the broader international human rights legal regime. But I find it fascinating to further contextualise that by examining the space I occupy, and where I fit in, with regard to my religion, my Qur’an, my Islam. 

What is one “big idea” in your scholarship?

There is a common assumption that some progressive/fringe ideas of interpreting Islamic jurisprudence don’t have value from a legal perspective, or that they’re only worthwhile for sociological or anthropological interpretations. (I’m talking here about theories like Islamic liberation theology, or certain aspects of Islamic feminism.) My “big idea,” so to speak, is that these seemingly fringe progressive ideas, or modes of interpretation, actually have concrete value in the world. Not only do they have value for jurisprudence and critical legal theory, they can have real-world applications in legal systems across the Muslim world (whatever that is…) These ideas could have considerable effect on legal systems in strictly hidebound Sharia countries (if they deigned to give this kind of legal thought the time of day..!) as well as in any context where Muslim law or a hybrid secular-theological legal system is in place. 

What is your current research about?

One of the common misconceptions about Islamic jurisprudence is that it’s fundamentally incompatible with Western, “secular” legal thought, particularly in the area of human rights. I believe there is a worthwhile synthesis to be found, and that this synthesis might rely on hitherto-overlooked Islamic scholarship to re-evaluate the way we think about international human rights law’s biases, and the gap between Islamic jurisprudence and the Qur’an. In particular I’m focusing on the right to freedom of religion, and how this right manifests in both international human rights law and Islamic jurisprudence. 

Who is one of your academic heroes and why do you admire them?

I have huge admiration for Amina Wadud – certainly as an inspiring scholar, but not just for her research output. I admire the space she occupies within both academia and Islam, as a black woman with radical thoughts about that very space she occupies, and, as a result, where people of all genders and sexual orientations find themselves in Islam. She writes about her lived experience and makes that lived experience into valuable scholarship. The way she informs her practice of reading and understanding the Qur’an was one of the first instances where I learned of the epistemological value of one’s own life, and own self. (which, as I mentioned earlier, has become a core tenet of my own scholarly thinking!)

Wadud’s rejection of the notion of being “too close to the topic” is one of the reasons I see her as an academic hero. However I find it hard to see her as just that, because I can’t divorce how much of myself I see in her in terms of how I want to conduct my scholarship, research and writing. 

What books have been formative for you in your study? Why were they so important? How did they shape you?

There are two in particular worth mentioning:

Qu’ran of the Oppressed” by Shadaab Rahemtullah. I found this book very late in my PhD and I wish I’d found it sooner – it literally blew my mind. This book gives such a fascinating and radical take on so many of the questions I was trying to find an answer for, and in many ways didn’t feel like I had either the right language for, or the confidence to assert. This book is so unapologetically radical in that respect.

International Human Rights and Islamic Law” by Mashood Baderin. This is the text that made me want to do my PhD! Prof. Baderin taught me during my LLM at SOAS and this was the main textbook we were assigned in his course. His class, coupled with his book, were both formative in me wanting to look more into the relationship between the titular subjects. It also made me want to challenge everything he presented! It’s a textbook, but it holds a special place in my life; something  textbooks rarely achieve. 

Do you have any publications we can showcase?

A few different things bear mentioning: 

I was asked recently to write a book review of “Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me” by Jonathan Fox, CUP, for the Political Studies Review (Nov 2020) ( https://doi.org/10.1177/1478929920963763 )

I wrote a piece for Trinity College Dublin’s Covid Crisis blog on worship in the pandemic ( https://www.tcd.ie/trinitylongroomhub/media/news/articles/2020-07-07-SA-Blog.php )

And finally a publication that isn’t related to my research topic but something I am most proud of – I contributed the chapter on Pakistan to the South Asia Collective’s State of Minorities Report, 2018. ( http://sac.defindia.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/pakistan.pdf )

Where can we follow you online?

Twitter @saharisright

If we ran into you at SBL/AAR and you didn’t want to talk about your field what would you want to talk about?

Twitter drama

Pakistani politics

Netflix

Food at conferences and where in town you can sneak out to get some GOOD food

Other than your thesis, what research/writing project are you working on right now that you’re excited about?

It’s not a writing project, but my team and I are excited about our new podcast, called ‘The Hublic Sphere’. The Hublic Sphere is a research podcast series created and produced by early career researchers at the Trinity Long Room Hub, Trinity College Dublin’s Arts & Humanities Research Institute, where I am a Fellow. The title reflects our desire to further the mission of the Trinity Long Room Hub (“the Hub”) in bringing aspects of our Arts and Humanities research in Trinity to the public in this new ‘Hublic’ space and allowing them to cross-pollinate. The world around us has never been more complicated, and we believe the humanities should play a role in understanding it. We bring you interviews with academics, practitioners and activists, and discussions that help uncover new answers to urgent questions. We’re also very excited about the potential podcasting has as a method of scholarship!

The first season, of which I am one of the producers, has ‘Modalities of Power’ as its theme and each contributor has their own distinct point of view and experience –  meaning no two episodes sound alike. Season one will be comprised of six episodes. You can listen to the episodes and find out more about the podcast here https://www.tcd.ie/trinitylongroomhub/hublic-sphere-podcast.php. And follow us on @HublicSphere on twitter to know when the next episodes are out! 

>> Thank you so much, Sahar, for taking the time to share a bit about yourself and your work.


Are you a PhD student or Early Career Researcher working in Religion or Biblical Studies? If so, we’d like to hear from you. This website is dedicated solely to interviewing PhD students and ECRs on who they are, what they love about their work, and what has inspired them. If you’d like to be interviewed, head over to the Contact page and fill out the form. There’s no catch. Don’t be shy. Self-promotion is a virtue.

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