Digitized Canon: Intisar Rabb's Work to Develop SHARIAsource and Other Resources on Islamic Law

September 1, 2021
Intisar Rabb
by Jonathan Colburn

Professor of Law and History Intisar Rabb’s career as a legal scholar began with an enormous obstacle: in the midst of a joint program at Yale Law School for her JD and at Princeton for a PhD, she was interested in comparative issues in Islamic law, or sharī’a. That legal field (much like American law) is a collection of laws, practices, and culturally inflected norms defined by judges and other designated interpreters of law for the past 200 or so years; it is also a field which (unlike American law) spans 1,400 years across many languages and countries, and is believed to originate in divine texts.

On US legal history, Rabb found no shortage of digitized case reports and sources; digital ways of “Shepardizing” (looking up case history) and categorizing court opinions to reveal the current status and weight of legal decisions; and easy means of searching across facets of jurisdiction and subject matter. However, for scholars of Islamic law all of that was simply not available. Instead, such sources were locked away in libraries scattered across the world. Her time at Yale had introduced her to a world in which research on her interests in legal canons of interpretation, legislation, and criminal law was far easier and more illuminating for students of American law. But her interest in tracing the history of legal canons in Islamic law over time and space was almost impossibly difficult.

“[My work to study those same fields in Islamic law] launched several years of traveling to some 10 different countries,” Rabb said. Her journey took her throughout the Middle East, but she found extensive sources in Western countries as well. “It turns out that colonial powers had retained some of the best manuscripts in some areas, so you had to go to Paris and London in addition to Qum and Damascus to do certain types of research in Islamic law and history. I loved it, but it was a painstaking process of requesting manuscripts, sitting in reading rooms, taking pictures one page at a time.” American libraries, of course, had extensive Islamic collections—with Princeton, Yale, and Harvard featuring some of the largest in the world. But those sources remained undigitized, uncategorized, and unavailable to online access or searches.

Globalization in Isolation

Her vision of a world in which scholars like herself could find sources online was just the beginning of what would become SHARIAsource. She once envisioned combining the digitization of texts with data science tools to mine them. Then in 2020, Rabb also benefited from events that no one could have predicted: “It turns out that the [COVID-19] pandemic’s silver lining for Islamic law is that so many people have digitized and keyed in text, because we don’t have access to libraries or bookstores, [that] the amount of Arabic texts online has just exploded.” That has created enormous possibility for creating search engines, text analytics, and data visualization platforms for Islamic law, history, and more.

Screen cap of the Sharia source database
The SHARIAsource database offers direct searches as well as browsing by categories.

Rabb thus can work with scholars to concentrate on the larger challenge that will advance the most promising frontier of legal scholarship: expansive AI and data science tools to gain insights into Islamic law. Rabb is modeling her concept of Islamic law research partially after Westlaw, a legal database available in over 60 countries; partially on communities of expert commentary like SCOTUSblog; and partially after new platforms that far outstrip what was possible on Westlaw. On Westlaw, a law student or professional can search for a case and not only find it online, but also understand how the case has held up over time—as they can on SHARIAsource according to the sources that scholar-editors upload and curate. SCOTUSblog follows and contextualizes US Supreme Court cases for law students and the public at large—as does the ISLAMICLAWblog today alongside the new Journal of Islamic Law. The challenge remains to create a platform that can take on the monumental task of adapting AI and digital tools for searching and making sense of centuries of Islamic law.

This process starts with an essential process of working with libraries that house sources of Islamic law and history all over the world, including the largest academic collection—which just happens to be housed at Harvard. The Harvard Libraries, Rabb said, “has been collecting for some 300 years in this area, so it’s almost like a national treasure that we have this collection here. But almost nothing is online—including accurate titles and authors, indexes of what each book contains, or an accurate way to search for sources. This lack means that researchers cannot get meaningful search results, and we cannot presently even identify the extent of the Islamic collection. This lack also means that if we want to know what some sources cover, we sometimes need to request the last of a 40-volume set of law books from the repository where a title is housed because it’s not requested often enough to be on the shelves. A task that could take nanoseconds with a robust search engine of source metadata or other AI tools that reveal something about the content, has just taken a week. Such is the state of Islamic historical research today.”

New Partnerships and Platforms

In the effort to index the collection at Harvard, Rabb’s Program has launched a collaborative project, SEARCHstrata, with the Harvard University Library, the Harvard Law Library, and at the Library of Congress. In the overall effort, Rabb found an ally in Martha Whitehead, the University Librarian and Vice President for the Harvard Library, who works with her on the University Library Council convened by Provost Alan Garber, and who has made library-researcher collaboration and expansion of digital tools for researchers a priority. Rabb also works closely with Kevin Garewal, Associate Director of the Harvard Law Library. And she works in partnership with Aslihan Bulut, the Law Librarian of Congress. These efforts combine with a platform called courts&CANONS (CnC)—which is designed to draw on Islamic sources housed in the world’s varied collections and shed light on the related “courts” (the people and institutions formulating the laws) and “canons” (the legal canons and values that represent the laws), historically and today.

As the volume of information and collaborative possibilities grew along with the various platforms—SHARIAsource, SEARCHstrata, courts&CANONS, the ISLAMICLAWblog, the Journal of Islamic Law—Rabb also began to engage with a wider group of collaborators here at Harvard, including IQSS director Gary King, for discussions around data hosting, collaboration, and more. “Gary opened my eyes to some areas of collaboration that I hadn’t thought of, but of course are necessary,” said Rabb. “One of them is, ‘What are you doing with all of that data? Where are you storing it? How are you allowing for other folks who have data to plug it into this centralized repository?’ We also explored contemporary social science applications that might emerge from pairing modern sources with technology, which came in response to a foreign delegation asking for help in digitizing a backlog of court cases and identifying how and where court cases could be best resolved in urban and rural areas.”

Some initial conversations with the Dataverse team at IQSS have opened up promising new directions for such research in Islamic law, as have discussions with IQSS affiliate Melissa Dell, whose work in Asian economic history has led her to start developing new techniques for optical character recognition that can facilitate work with centuries-old texts. Such ideas and insights may help solve a similar challenge that Rabb faces with Arabic texts. According to Rabb, “Current OCR tools for Arabic work with very modern, structured Arabic texts, but not so much with historic, unstructured Arabic texts.” A reliable OCR program could allow for further developments, such as text mining algorithms to help researchers search volumes of law and history in instants. Rabb and her collaborators, scholars from around the world who meet bi-weekly, know of course that each success only leads to more work, which could take a lifetime to get through. And with every step forward, Rabb can see the greater possibilities toward answering some of the questions she started to ask as a PhD student, including understanding the way legal canons [principles of interpretation] have shaped societies over the course of centuries.

“If you think about our current time you can draw parallels from the past. In the 14th century, for example, the Black Plague hit Egypt just as it did in Europe. There are questions about whether and to what extent exogenous events of that type affect matters of law and policy, and the values behind both,” Rabb said. “We have seen this same question today: a burning question of whether economics or public health takes priority, or how to balance the two. You can actually track that calculus of values and public health in Islamic legal history through looking at Islamic legal canons: to determine whether, for example, courts of 14th-century Egypt privileged economic growth or stability, movement or public health.”

Intisar Rabb
Intisar Rabb

As current events mirror historic ones, data science can help researchers study centuries of law and the values behind them in a fraction of the time that it once took—if we develop the digital tools, build meaningful collaborations, and forge ahead with vision. Since the launch of SHARIAsource and related platforms, Rabb has seen her dream grow into a global exchange of scholarship, and in the years to come she hopes that Harvard can increase its support to help bring a fully realized project to life.

“If indeed we think of ourselves as a global institution and a global law school, then certainly a part of that has to be leading the charge in consuming and expanding the study of Islamic law as a part of the laws of the world; after all, this field covers a fifth of the world’s population,” said Rabb. “Combining data science tools plus digital texts, and placing them in comparative context, will strengthen the study of both American and Islamic law in a way that is simply unparalleled. We are excited for what is to come.”

For more information on Intisar Rabb's work, please visit the Program on Islamic Law website.