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Adnan Zulfiqar L’08 on Islamic law and his path to legal academia

November 04, 2021

The following post has been adapted from a discussion on Thursday, October 21, 2021 with Dr. Adnan Zulfiqar, Associate Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School.


What happens when you have stakeholders whose authority exists outside of the state, but who can influence what law is and how people behave? How does that dynamic impact legal culture in a particular space?

These were questions that fascinated Adnan Zulfiqar L’08, driving his interest in Islamic law as a JD/PhD student at the University of Pennsylvania. So when University of Pennsylvania Carey Law professor Paul H. Robinson, Colin S. Diver Professor of Law, began working with the United Nations Development Program to create a new criminal code for the Maldives, a Muslim country, and sought law students to join the project, it was an easy decision for Zulfiqar to apply for the opportunity.

Crafting criminal codes

It was also, as it turned out, a good decision. Whereas most of the students selected for the project spent a semester on it, Zulfiqar worked with Robinson formally for a year and informally for another year. He even traveled to the Maldives with Robinson and another student to meet with stakeholders.

“We saw how these types of projects go from the process of just drafting the code to actually trying to figure out how to work with stakeholders, how to lead them to embrace it as their own,” Zulfiqar explained. “We were really working for them, and that in itself was very instructive.”

There had been other, much earlier codification efforts related to criminal law in Muslim countries, but those tended to be piecemeal attempts to refashion colonial remnants to make them more compliant with Sharia. Before the Penn group began its work, the Maldives situation was a case in point: There was a criminal law code on the books loosely based on the Indian penal code. But the country had recently made international legal commitments that were motivating it to construct a new penal code, and it wanted that code to fully comply with Islamic law.

The Law School group started from scratch with the Maldives project, using the Model Penal Code as a base for the new code.

“In some respects,” Zulfiqar said, “it was the first comprehensive criminal codification project in the Muslim world that looked at Sharia, but also at codification in general, as it might be found anywhere in the world. It was cutting-edge work, incorporating codification techniques more advanced than those found in most U.S. states.”

The project has had a lasting influence on Zulfiqar’s academic career. After receiving his JD, he continued with PhD work at Penn in Near East Languages and Civilizations, focusing on Islamic law. And in 2014, the Maldives called to ask him to lead their project to implement the penal code that he had helped to draft, a project that he completed in 2015.

By then, Zulfiqar had become a Sharswood Fellow at the Law School at Penn, and he was asked by Robinson to consult on a similar effort to draft a new Penal Code for Somalia under the auspices of the International Development Law Organization. Since the Maldives and Somalia are both adherents to the Shafi’i school of Islamic law, the groundwork for the Somali code had already been laid with the Maldives project, and Zulfiqar focused on guiding the law students to identifying areas where a different context meant need for another approach.

Occasionally nowadays, Zulfiqar will get a call at 3:00 a.m. from a judge in the Maldives who wants his take on something in the new penal code.

“It’s an interesting process to view,” he said. “They’re generating their own jurisprudence around the code and their own sense of what certain things mean. It’s all instructive as to how law comes to life. You might imagine it one way in theory, but then you put it into place, and it starts living. It has to deal with politics and stakeholders and sentiments – things that as a drafter, you don’t always anticipate.”

International comparative law 

Zulfiqar’s early childhood was largely spent overseas, primarily in Kenya and Malawi. Later, he lived in parts of the Middle East, coming to the Law School immediately after spending more than a year living in Syria and Pakistan.

When he arrived at the Law School, Zulfiqar took advantage of the resources available on main campus, including language classes and lectures that addressed international issues, to broaden his scope. His 1L summer featured both an eight-week internship in Pretoria, South Africa, which allowed him to travel throughout the continent, and a six-week experience with a judge in New Orleans.

In his law classes, then, he found himself constantly drawing on his experiences living and traveling internationally, wondering how legal assumptions might shift in various contexts.

“What you realize as you do that comparative work in your head,” he says, “is that there are many similarities, but also interesting differences, in how people think about the law.”

Islamic law, for example, complicates the relationship of the state and law, which is an assumed relationship in U.S. legal thinking.

This comparative outlook has led him to consider the different paradigms at play globally.

“Here in the United States,” Zulfiqar said, “we are very much a ‘rights based’ paradigm; we think about things from the perspective of rights. Whereas in the Global South, for example, the starting point in many places is duty or obligation – what are the responsibilities of an individual, what are the state’s responsibilities? Both paradigms may arrive at the same legal outcome, but very different questions may be asked on the journey. Those questions are instructive about the type of legal culture involved, something that needs to be borne in mind when attempting reform or social change.”

This failure to understand legal paradigm differences in human rights advocacy have inspired some of Zulfiqar’s most recent scholarly work as Associate Professor of Law at Rutgers Law School.

Those who can, teach

Zulfiqar didn’t set out to be set out to be a law professor. In fact, he says, he had “zero interest” in teaching when he began his legal training. Part of that, he says, is that he had grown up hearing the George Bernard Shaw quote, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” and he assumed that teaching law precluded working in law.

“But what I realized over the course of my law school experience was that the amazing, wonderful thing about legal academia is that you can ‘do’ and you can teach, that there’s a space within legal academia where, if you want to be a lawyer, you can be a lawyer, or if you want to be involved in policy, you can be involved in policy,” Zulfiqar said. “So, I can do what I really enjoy, which is teach students and try to inspire future thinkers, while also spending time with some thinking of my own as well as with projects on the ground.”

Zulfiqar’s success in working across borders is something he attributes in part to a basic curiosity about people, a trait he wants to foster in students.

“One of my favorite quotes,” he said, “is from a Persian poet, Jalaluddin Rumi: ‘Every object, every being, is a jar full of delight. Be a connoisseur.’ There are so many mysteries to discover. So go discover them, be curious about the world and about people. And I think in that curiosity, there’s an authenticity that will come in the way in which you engage other people.”

Zulfiqar’s method must be working: Over the past three years, he has been honored twice as Professor of the Year (2020 and 2021) and once as Grand Marshal (2019) by the graduating classes at Rutgers Law.

Learn more about opportunities to engage internationally at the Law School.