Alumni Interview

Abdullah Qureshi ('20)

A Zaytuna education “affects everything.”
A BA Graduate’s Experience in Law School

September 2021

by Maryam Awwal

“It affects everything,” he says. “I can’t approach a single thing in law school without comparing it and analyzing it in my head in relation to what I’ve studied in the Western tradition, specifically philosophy, and also comparing it to the Islamic tradition, particularly the usuli tradition.”

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Abdullah Qureshi (’20), an alumnus of the BA program, recently completed his first year at Georgetown Law in Washington, DC. He tells us that the grounding he acquired in the Islamic and Western traditions at Zaytuna has enabled him to access his current areas of study—law and philosophy—more deeply. “It affects everything,” he says. “I can’t approach a single thing in law school without comparing it and analyzing it in my head in relation to what I’ve studied in the Western tradition, specifically philosophy, and also comparing it to the Islamic tradition, particularly the usuli tradition.”

Abdullah sat down with Faisal Hamid, our director of admissions, to reflect on his experience at Zaytuna and how it prepared him for his studies at Georgetown Law. Their conversation, edited for clarity and length, is transcribed below.

Faisal Hamid: How did Zaytuna prepare you for law school?

Abdullah Qureshi: Before I started law school, people recommended different books for me to read, because the first year of law school is generally considered to be the most difficult year. I read accounts in these books of students staying up all night working on their coursework. That is what I was expecting when I first started at Georgetown.

But from the very first day, I never found that to be true. I think most people find law school very difficult because, in their undergraduate programs, they don’t do critical reading of any length. I am reading 250 to 300 pages a week right now, and we were doing something similar at Zaytuna. We were doing really close, in-depth reading. When it came to primary texts, we were examining grammar and how to extract the meaning from what we were reading. I don’t think other people have had that experience going into law school, and it’s far more difficult if that experience isn’t there.

Faisal: How does your training in the liberal arts, and specifically the trivium, impact your experience in law school?

Abdullah: That’s an interesting question because there are different methodologies in law. One is a textualist methodology, which emphasizes grammar, linguistic meaning, and logic. So if you are approaching law from that vantage point, which happens to be a conservative methodology, your engagement with the law falls exactly in line with part of the trivium. You can basically import the concepts of how grammar indicates meaning wholesale into textualism.

However, the other methodology, which is called purposivism, doesn’t focus as much on the text. It focuses more on understanding the purpose of the law when we interpret it and come to some sort of opinion about the case before us. What’s the purpose of the law, and how do we use that purpose to come to a conclusion? So, this methodology cares a lot less about the grammar of a text and puts more emphasis on rhetoric aspects and, to some degree, logic.

Now, I believe the trivium and the Islamic sciences can be a middle ground between these two extremes. On the basis of what I was taught at Zaytuna, I would say that rhetoric, for example, has more profound implications for what a text means than what a textualist would say. In addition, I’m more comfortable than most first-year law students with identifying grammatical and logical errors in argumentation; they’re more interested in only arguing against the conclusion, which is in line with the generally legal realist methodology I’ve encountered at law school, without really looking at the premises and principles behind the argument.

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Faisal: Do you find that your instructors appreciate your taking a more logical and textual approach to your analysis?

Abdullah: I have often spoken privately with professors—both my own professors and those visiting from other colleges—and they seem to really appreciate the questions I ask. My questions often come from an Islamic vantage point, and my presumptions often come from Islamic law or Islamic philosophy. For many professors, this is a very foreign way of approaching law, and they often show great interest in my perspective.

Faisal: That relates to my next question: How has studying both the Islamic and Western traditions impacted your approach at law school?

Abdullah: This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, especially this past semester. It’s a difficult question to answer, simply because the Zaytuna education affects everything. I can’t approach a single thing in law school without comparing it and analyzing it in my head in relation to what I’ve studied in the Western tradition, specifically philosophy, and also comparing it to the Islamic tradition, particularly the usuli tradition.

For example, in usul we study this concept of ‘illah, or the rationale behind a law. And we discuss the hikmah, or the wisdom that God places behind each of His laws or each of His rulings; we say that the ‘illah comprises that wisdom. So, if the ‘illah exists, then the hukm exists; then the ruling exists. And once you apply that ruling in real life, then the hikmah shows itself.

This contrasts to approaches in American law. The textualist would simply say, “The text says X, so we’re going to apply that rule.” The purposivists are going to say, “We find this purpose in the legislative history, and therefore we’re going to apply the purpose.” And both of their rationales are “We’re doing what the legislature would have wanted.” How do they know that? They use different tools. The textualists focus on the text; the purposivists go and look at documents from the legislature and say, “Look. This is what they wanted.” A background in Islamic law gave me the language and framework to compare, contrast, and understand these nuances, to understand how these different approaches to why a ruling applies changes the result.

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Faisal: How does your education in philosophy at Zaytuna help you study American law?

Abdullah: In order to apply Western law, you need to understand the philosophy behind it. For example, you can’t look at the Fourth Amendment, which deals with criminal procedure, the right to reasonable searches and seizures and warrants, et cetera, without understanding English history and English philosophy. All of the things we study—such as torts, contracts, or constitutional law—stem from a philosophy.

Suppose we ask, “What is the purpose of the Fifth Amendment, what rights was it meant to protect?” You have to look beyond what the text says and what the founders said and also ask, “How was this understood at that time?” This requires you to look at the philosophy. The philosophy says that a person’s person and their liberty and their property—or their “pursuit of happiness”—are natural, inalienable rights. Right? That’s not something you can get from just looking at the text. And when you put all that together, you’re able to develop, I think, a more robust framework than what currently exists within the mainstream American legal methodologies.

Faisal: Did your senior thesis at Zaytuna College have a positive impact on your experience in law school?

Abdullah: Initially, my thesis was on this idea of talfiq, which is the concept of mixing between schools of jurisprudence. But while I was investigating it, my topic expanded, so I actually spent most of my thesis just building up to talfiq. For example, there’s a long section on ijtihad: Is every ijtihad correct or is only one ijtihad correct? Is there only one ruling for every situation or are there multiple rulings?

Looking back on it now, I see that it was important to explore this idea of having multiple valid solutions to the same legal issue. I think that helped me appreciate multiple methodologies for approaching law. Law school professors emphasize this all the time, and they find that this concept regularly troubles students who expect, “The law says X” and that’s the end of the issue. And that’s just never the case. I mean, the entire point of the case books we read is to show that the law is ambiguous and it’s not simple. You have to dig in there, figure out all these ambiguities, and realize there are multiple ways of solving these ambiguities. My training from Zaytuna allows me to view the various methodologies in a mutually valid light rather than a mutually exclusive light.