by Kate Hoving
The Kraemer Middle East Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence was established with a generous gift from Carole A. and Richard C. Kraemer ’65. It is offered yearly, and provides the opportunity for a scholar specializing in Islamic law and governance to share their expertise with the William & Mary community, hosted by the Reves Center and the Law School’s Program in Comparative Legal Studies and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding.
Mohammad Fadel, Associate Professor Canada Research Chair for the Law and Economics of Islamic Law at the University of Toronto, was the 2018 Kraemer Middle East Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence. Professor Fadel wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on legal process in medieval Islamic law while at the University of Chicago and received his JD from the University Of Virginia School Of Law. He practiced law in New York, where he worked on a wide variety of corporate finance transactions and securities-related regulatory investigations, and served as a law clerk to judges in the U.S. Court of Appeals and U.S. District Court. He has published numerous articles in Islamic legal history and Islam and liberalism.
Fadel delivered two lectures in February at the university: “Islamic Legal Reform between Democracy and Reinterpretation” (Law School); and the next evening in Tucker Hall, he discussed his current research into “The Islamic Theology of Sacrifice.”
Both lectures attracted a large, diverse audience, but one of the most remarkable events during his visit occurred outside the lecture hall, part of the residency as envisioned by the Kraemer family: an informal exchange of ideas and advice between students and scholars.
Teresa Longo, Acting Director of the Reves Center, invited two Arabic language professors, Driss Cherkaoui and John Eisele, and their students, to an informal discussion in the Reves Room with Fadel. Students with a variety of majors and interests accepted the invitation: Amin Nasser ‘18; Christopher Ahrens ‘20; Alex Yung ’19; Jack Fleming ’19; and Emma Russell ‘19 (the student representative on the Reves Center’s International Advisory Committee, who studied abroad in Amman, Jordan).
Fadel set the tone with his low-key, self-deprecatory style, describing his own – not necessarily straight -- path to Toronto. Although his education started in engineering and led ultimately to a career touching on multiple facets of law, one thing has remained constant: “I really loved Arabic. That’s why I did what I did; I just wanted to keep learning. I still love Arabic. I miss reading poetry.”
Discussion ranged from current affairs to differences between the U.S. and Canadian educational systems, but it didn’t take long to realize that whether their interest was politics or Sufi poetry or law, everyone in the room shared Fadel’s passion for the Arabic language. And it was that passion that motivated them to find ways to make it part of their livelihoods as well as their lives.
Some described their admiration for and delight in Arabic grammar – almost like a computer program in its efficiency and elegance, one student noted. Or as Fadel exclaimed: “So many words!”
For Amin, a science major from Palestine, language study has a more emotional connection: “I miss speaking in Arabic. Speaking my mother language here soothes me and helps me escape cultural differences.”
There are more than 200 students of Arabic at William & Mary, and the interest in Arabic spans all disciplines and interests. “If you love Arabic there’s just so much to do in every field,” Fadel suggested.
He made a suggestion: “The vast majority of writings in Islamic Law are not translated. There are countless manuscripts that need to be edited.” Eisele and Cherkaoui concurred, noting that as Arabic was the basic language of world literature for some one thousand years, the untranslated manuscripts are in all fields and areas of study, not just law. They explained there are documents at real risk of decaying in libraries in Paris, Egypt and all across the Arab world.
And there it was. What had started as ostensibly a discussion of Islamic Law, had resulted in an idea for a new project for William & Mary students – combining Arabic studies and translation with the latest archival methods.
Students, professors and visiting scholar left the Reves Center with hopes for future collaborations and transformational research. A perfect ending – and beginning – for the Kraemer family’s gift.