Profile: Intisar A. Rabb

By Narjis Nichole Abdul-Majid

When Muslims welcome the advent of a child in their lives they tend to seek inspiration from the Holy Qur’an to bestow upon the new life a title that the child can aspire to. However you translate it, Intisar (Winning, Success, Victory, Triumphant) reads as an invitation to the limitless successes one can achieve by Allah’s grace and with His mercy. Baltimore-born, Intisar A. Rabb’s story begins as the daughter of parents who had those hopes.


Professor Intisar A. Rabb with Alice Khan binti Ahamad Khan, the acting Solicitor General of Brunei.

From a courageous and studious African American child growing up in Park Heights, Baltimore to the even more bold and confident Director of the Islamic Legal Studies Program at Harvard, Rabb has seen struggle and like her namesake she has earned many victories. It is these victories that are shaping the global discourse on Islamic law.  She has a Bachelors of Science in Government and Arabic from Georgetown University, an M.A. of Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, a J.D. from Yale and a Ph.D. in Islamic Law from Princeton, and the list of accolades goes on, but she has done more and is about more than what is written on paper.

Her efforts as an African American scholar and leader are preparing the kind of legacy that unites the ummah and invites the world to a better understanding of Islam. Rabb is also the inheritor of a legacy. Like many African American Muslims, Rabb’s parents were part of “the First Resurrection,” and their tutelage under the Nation of Islam and later, Imam WD Mohammed, set within Rabb a sense of purpose and a commitment to excellence and good works. Rabb showed leadership early on, as young person she was an active member and leader in many youth groups, including MYNA (Muslim Youth of North America) and later was part of the first delegation of students sent by Imam WD Mohammed to Damascus, Syria to gain further training in the Arabic language and Islamic Studies that they could bring back to communities here at home.  Rabb’s experiences as a legal clerk, professor, researcher (in Egypt, Iran, Syria and other places) and world traveller have given her insights into the global and digital challenges that impact how knowledge is acquired, created and shared.


Professor Intisar A. Rabb presenting about Qadi Justice as part of the 2015-2016 Fellow’s Presentation Series at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study


When talking about history makers and game changers SHARIASource, the digital and Islamic law resource founded and directed by Professor A. Rabb, is the very definition of game changer. The word sharia, which is an integral part of the day-to-day practice and understanding of Islam for most Muslims is misunderstood, misinterpreted and misused by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. SHARIASource hopes to serve as a digital database of primary and secondary content, commentary and related content from over 1400 years of legal traditions from various countries across the globe.

The discussion of Islamic jurisprudence or fiqh is not a matter to be relegated to only the specialized scholars or jurists. The topic has far-reaching implications for understanding Islam and the history of Islamic nations.  In her first book, “Doubt in Islamic Law: A History of Legal Maxims, Interpretations, and Criminal Law” Rabb makes a critical contribution to academic and popular understandings of Sharia while creating a platform for which to discuss Islamic law differently. By focusing on how jurists deal with doubt within the tradition, she reveals complexity as part of the nature of Islamic jurisprudence, countering the idea that Islamic law is static and rigid.  The Harvard Islamic Legal Studies program and Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society consider public access and consumption of the varied and diverse resources on Islamic law a large part of their mission. It is for this reason, that in October of 2015, Rabb was was awarded $425,000 in development funds by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for SHARIASource. This grant is in addition to the $400,000 development grand from the Henry Luce Foundation. The project is expected to have a public launch in 2016.

What is the driving force behind such a lofty project? Making an impact. Society is constantly bombarded with information in a media-saturated environment, but at the end of they day the solution to the problem, or problems, that arise require knowledge for the best response and the best plan of action. Rabb created SHARIASource to be more than a temporary solution to a growing problem. This digital tool is malleable and has unseen potential for what it will become and how it will be used. Even for the simply curious, envision a resource that could show you how legal traditions were understood in Africa before the slave trade. Imagine comparing Arabic risalahs recorded by enslaved Africans in the Americas during slavery to contemporary Islamic rulings. This isn’t simply about engaging legal tradition but history itself.

An oft-quoted ahadith tradition relates that Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) said to seek knowledge even to the ends of the earth and Professor Intisar A. Rabb is aiming to help everyone do this with a few simple keystrokes.

So whether Professor Intisar A. Rabb is addressing a classroom of eager law school students, presenting research findings to her colleagues, serving as a global ambassador, completing research internationally, or climbing to new heights like Mt. Kilimajaro, which she climbed last year, she is proving that with hard work, focus and determination anyone can be triumphant in changing the world for the better.


For more information on SHARIASource read, “Debating Sharia Law, Digitally.”

To observe this Susan S. and Kenneth L. Wallach Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study in practice watch Qādī Justice

Intisar A. Rabb’s Publications:

Doubt in Islamic Law: A History of Legal Maxims, Interpretation, and Islamic Criminal Law (Cambridge University Press 2014).

ed., Law and Tradition in Classical Islamic Thought (with Michael Cook, Asma Sayeed, and Najam Haider, Palgrave Macmillan 2012).

“We the Jurists’: Islamic Constitutionalism in Iraq,” 10 University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law 527 (2008).

Even more on Intisar A. Rabb

Header image courtesy of The Brunei Times. Professor Intisar A. Rabb is pictured presenting a copy of her book “Doubt in Islamic Law: A History of Legal Maxims, Interpretation, and Islamic Criminal Law” to the Sultan of Brunei while she was there to study and consult about their new Islamic criminal law code.

The inset image is courtesy of the Borneo Bulletin.  Professor Intisar A. Rabb is pictured at a session discussing her book in the Attorney General’s chamber in Brunei.

Narjis Nichole Abdul-Majid is a part-time lecturer in the departments of Pan African Studies and Humanities at the University of Louisville. Her research interests focus on the African American and Native American Islamic experiences (Slavery-Melungeons-20th Century Islamic Movements-Present Day) with emphasis on minority voices.

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  • Alhamdulillah!!!

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