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SHARIAsource Holds Convening Conference, Kicks Off Private Beta Site

Earlier this montSS-convening-conf-group-webh, the Islamic Legal Studies Program (ILSP) at HLS and the Berkman Center announced the private beta launch of SHARIAsource, an online portal of resources and analysis on Islamic law, which draws on the collaborative expertise of scholars of Islamic law and policy in the United States and around the world. On September 18th, ILSP and the Berkman Center co-hosted a convening conference that brought together experts in academia, policy, journalism, communications, technology and library sciences. Martha Minow, Dean of Harvard Law School, and Urs Gasser, Executive Director of the Berkman Center, provided opening words of welcome and support, and Intisar Rabb, Editor-in-Chief of SHARIAsource, presented the timeline for the initiative and invited participants to explore its prospects for far-reaching impact in journalism, policy, and the academic study of Islam.

All participants contributed their varied areas of expertise to assist in better understanding the aims and operations of the portal. For the experts in media, technology, and library sciences, Professor Sherman Jackson, King Faisal Chair in Islamic Thought and Culture from the University of Southern California, provided a primer on the formation and origins of Islamic law. For the experts in Islamic law, policy, and journalism, Sebastian Diaz, the Berkman Center’s Director of Technology, provided a walk-through of the current iteration of the SHARIAsource portal, enabling participants to interact with and offer feedback on the platform’s usability, architecture, and trajectory. Both the content and technology experts contributed a wealth of useful knowledge, ideas, and critiques – all of which will go toward improving and building SHARIAsource 2.0 in preparation for a public launch.

After receiving an introduction and tour of the vast Islamic law collection at Harvard Law School’s Langdell Library by Suzanne Wones, Executive Director of the Harvard Law School Library, and Aslihan Bulut, Foreign and Comparative Law Librarian, conference participants were the first to visit the brand new Executive Education Center – headed by Professor Scott Westfahl – where they hope eventually to hold joint executive education programs designed to explore issues of Islamic law and policy.

To give the idea of SHARIAsource more concrete form, participants reviewed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Abercrombie & Fitch Stores, Inc., a case decided by the Supreme Court this past summer. Referred to as the “Abercrombie Hijab Case,” the Court examined whether the rights of a seventeen-year-old fashionista were violated when the retail store refused to hire her because she donned a hijab (headscarf). In their conversations, conference participants were less concerned with relitigating or revisiting the holding in the case (yes, this was a violation of equal protection laws and Title VII). Instead, they considered whether and how more information about Islamic law on a portal such as SHARIAsource might have better informed their work inasmuch as it intersected with public conversations, employment considerations, and judicial deliberations surrounding the case. Members of the SHARIAsource team and Adnan Zulfiqar, Sharswood Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, facilitated discussion of small groups that used the episode as a practical case study to shed light onto the utility and possibility for SHARIAsource in navigating such legal, political, and academic analysis of Islam and its interface with other legal systems, including that of the United States. The participants also briefly discussed the needs and possibilities for SHARIAsource to gather information and analysis on issues of Islamic law in the Muslim world, both in early Islamic history as well as among contemporary Muslims.

All in all, the conference provided a staging ground: It started a conversation that Berkman and SHARIAsource organizers hope to continue in the course of intelligently building out the portal to better inform academic, policy, and media conversations about Islamic law. The public launch of SHARIAsource is expected to be in 2016.