Two years ago, Faiz Ahmed was in Kabul, Afghanistan, completing archival work for his doctoral dissertation on Afghan legal history. During a CNN interview one morning, a reporter asked him to describe his research, adding, “Does Afghanistan even have a legal history?” Ahmed responded, “It’s precisely because of statements like that that I do the work I do.”
Although he is joining the Department of History this year as a social and legal historian of the Middle East, Ahmed was not planning to become an academic when he graduated from college. After spending a year in Cairo on a Fulbright scholarship, he hoped to work in international development at the United Nations. “I wanted to be a force for good, in the most idealistic of senses,” he said. So he enrolled in the University of California’s Hastings College of Law in San Francisco to study international law and human rights, graduating with a J.D. in 2006.
During law school, Ahmed interned at the Kabul office of the New York-based International Legal Foundation, an organization that trains public defenders to work in post-conflict settings. “I respected the mostly American and European lawyers at the foundation and learned so much from them, but I found they did not understand Afghan legal, social, and cultural history. They couldn’t be blamed for this, but there was a void,” he said.
Ahmed wanted to address this void, and his law professors encouraged him to pursue his passion in academia. In May 2013, he completed his Ph.D. in the history of the Middle East with a focus on the “socio-legal” history of the Ottoman Empire, Iran, and Afghanistan, at the University of California–Berkeley, where he had also done his undergraduate work.
There are few, if any, books on modern Afghan legal history, so Ahmed delved into regional archives about the drafting of the Afghan constitution of 1923 and its associated legal reforms. His book project, tentatively titled The Paper Triangle: Istanbul, Kabul, Greater Delhi, and the Making of Afghanistan’s First Constitution, 1857-1923, reconstructs the intellectual milieu of late 19th- and early 20th-century Kabul, a cosmopolitan hub where Muslim politicians, religious leaders, and scholars from across the region gathered for discussion and debate.
“My project challenges notions of Afghanistan as a wild, lawless frontier and puts it back into the conversation about modern law in the region, alongside better studied Egypt, Iran, and Turkey,” Ahmed said. “I also try to historicize the transnational role of Muslim scholars, or ulema, who are not so much marginalized as they are caricatured, stereotyped, or simply misunderstood in the West.”
Proficient in Arabic, Persian, Ottoman Turkish, and Urdu, Ahmed is also translating a 1925 book of sermons delivered by the Afghan monarch Shah Amanullah Khan (1892-1960), a compendium he stumbled upon while doing research at the Library of Congress. His working title for the project is Preaching the Rule of Law in Afghanistan.
“We hired Faiz, who is already emerging as a world authority on Afghani law and society, to further strengthen our program in Middle East history,” said Cynthia Brokaw, department chair of history. Last year the department brought senior scholar Beshara Doumani to Brown as the Joukowsky Family Professor of Modern Middle East History and director of the Middle East Studies Program.
During his campus visit to Brown, Ahmed said he was impressed by his interactions with faculty and students working on Middle East studies in history and other departments, adding, “The energy, enthusiasm, and respect for the field are palpable here.”
This fall he is teaching a course on the history of Afghanistan and an advanced seminar on constitutional history in the Middle East. “I have never met more excited and motivated undergraduates than at Brown. They have a sincere passion for learning, curiosity, and an unusual openness to different perspectives,” he said.
When he is not working, Ahmed enjoys spending time in the great outdoors with his wife, Saman Khalid, a marriage and family counselor in Providence. Born and raised in California, Ahmed admits to being an L.A. Lakers fan since childhood, despite knowing this is “sensitive information in Celtics territory.” More recently, he has acquired a love for poetry in a variety of languages and traditions. His favorites, he says, are Rumi and Ralph Waldo Emerson.