Scholars in Context: Haroun Rahimi
Jadaliyya's Scholars in Context series consists of Q&As in which scholars of the Middle East describe their research and the paths they took to arrive at it. The series provides a platform for these scholars to highlight the significance of their work, identify the audiences they seek to reach, and outline their future research trajectories, giving readers an in-depth look at the latest research in a given field.
Jadaliyya (J): What is the main focus of your current research, and how does it connect to or depart from your previous work?
Haroun Rahimi (HR): I have three interrelated areas of research interest. First, I conceptualize laws as institutions and draw on new institutional theory to explore the problem of lawmaking and enforcing laws in the context of developing countries. By doing so, I seek to answer the question of how law can be used to create efficient economic institutions and promote growth. This is the type of work that I did for my dissertation, and I continue to do. Second, I am interested in the history of law in Muslim-majority countries, especially the way Shari’ah is negotiated and incorporated into the state law system. I am also interested in the legal transplantation of European laws into the Arab world through the work of scholars such as the great Arab legal mind, Abdul Razziq Ahmad Al-Sanhuri, and then their dissemination more widely into countries likes Afghanistan. This is the type of research I did during my post-doctorate studies at places like the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies. Finally, I am interested in divergent conceptions of the rule of law in Muslim and western thought. Related to that, I would like to explore different conceptions of legal authorities in Muslim and western legal thought. This is the kind of work that I spend more time doing now since I am trying to make sense of what is going to happen to Afghanistan under the Taliban.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
HR: My work has always been interdisciplinary. I work in the intersection of law and economics, law and development, law and religion, law and history, and law and anthropology. My work on the law as an institution, for example, connects to the literature on formal and informal institutions and their consequences on transaction cost and economic activities, as well as how people navigate belief-based restrictions when trying to maximize profit. My work on legal authority looks at how education and intellectual upbringing influence the way those who can claim religious authority approach the questions of law, religion, and state.
J: What brought you to this work? What was the source of inspiration?
HR: My concerns about Afghanistan and Afghans have animated my intellectual work. I wanted to contribute to making the country better for its people. I was dissatisfied with the way development was handled in Afghanistan. I was disappointed with how the state-building process unfolded in Afghanistan and how the questions of state, society, and religion were mischaracterized. That is why I have dedicated my academic life to making sure we at least understand the problem statements in countries like Afghanistan better. That way maybe we will have a better chance of solving them.
J: What audiences would you like to reach, and what kind of impact would you like your research and writing to have?
HR: For better or worse, Afghanistan and other least developed countries are shaped by policies that are formulated in western capitals. Think about the influence the World Bank, the IMF, the aid and development industry, and the major think tanks and universities have on the lives of ordinary people living in the least developed countries. I have always tried to articulate the view below and connect the voices of people to major policy discussions on the international level. I hope to reach policymakers, practitioners, and researchers in the region and beyond.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
HR: Given the scale of the crisis in Afghanistan and considering that I have spent the last year in transition from one country to another, I have spent a large portion of my time doing advocacy and engaging with the public inside and outside the country. This has been draining and rewarding work at the same time. I hope to continue my public advocacy along with my academic research because the alternative would be to disengage from the current moment, and that is something I do not feel like I can do.