Sarah Islam, CAORC Fellow at ACOR, Fall 2016

Sarah Islam is a Ph.D. candidate in the History department at Princeton University and a CAORC Fellow at ACOR in the fall of 2016. Her research project, “The Evolution of Blasphemy as Legal Category in Medieval Islamic History,” examines how interpretations of blasphemy—known as sabb— in Islam have varied based on time period, geography and legal school. Her research is focused on Islamic legal texts from 630 AD until the fall of the Ottoman Empire, and how various legal scholars documented their decisions to sentence blasphemers. She is interested in the evolution of the definition of blasphemy and the decision making behind the verdict of execution as punishment for blasphemy in Islam.  She is interested in the writings of scholars who varied in their views regarding penalizing the act of sabb, including those who disagreed and who wrote against the penalty of direct execution in their own times.

Sarah Islam at the Roman Theater in Amman, 2016, photo courtesy of S. Islam.
Sarah Islam at the Roman Theater in Amman, 2016, photo courtesy of S. Islam.

Blasphemy, the act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about the Prophet, is a highly contentious issue even in our modern age.

There are no explicit teachings in the Quran about sabb.  This left the door open for a variety of interpretations to develop on the definition of sabb and appropriate punishment, leading to the manifestation of numerous differing opinions among medieval jurists on the issue. Due to a dearth of information on this phenomenon however, historians have typically understood sabb in Islamic legal discourse to be a crime for which God mandated direct capital punishment without any recourse, and that Muslim jurists were unanimous in this view. Historical records and medieval primary sources however present a very different picture—a much more complex one in which many jurists in fact opposed this view and argued against it.

She is exploring the varying views that arose with regards to defining the scope of sabb, and focuses especially on juridical views that opposed the use of direct execution as the penalty for sabb.  Through the use of primary sources, she gains insight into how legal scholars have viewed this issue.  Many of these texts have not been fully explored and she is intrigued to see how they can shed light on the viewing of blasphemy. She hopes her work will shed some light on the contemporary interpretations of blasphemy and its sentencing.

Sarah first considered this issue when working in a student internship at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2005. Five year later,  she had the opportunity to observe and monitor sessions at the United Nations where she assisted in researching different recorded resolutions on blasphemy cases across the Islamic world. One such resolution was the legality of U.N. member countries to sentence and punish those accused of the crimes of blasphemy. A common question that would emerge but remain unanswered in these sessions was what the actual medieval Islamic juridical discourse mentioned on this topic. In her research, she found there was a lack of resources available and felt compelled to dig deeper into this topic.

Sarah Islam is currently a Ph.D. candidate in History at Princeton University. She has an M.A. in Modern Middle Eastern Studies (2010) from Princeton and a B.A. in Political Science (2006) from the University of Texas. To read more, please visit her page on the Princeton website.

Written by Sarah Schweyen, a student at St. Olaf College who is studying abroad in the fall 2016 semester in Amman, Jordan with the Amideast program.

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