Meet Hassaan Shahawy: Rhodes Scholar, Harvard Law Review President, Aspiring Islamic Law Professor

In the name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful. All praise and thanks belong to God, the Lord of the Worlds. May peace and prayers be upon Prophet Muhammad and his family.

By Edward Ahmed Mitchell, Esq.

Hassaan Shahawy never expected to make history as the first Muslim president of the Harvard Law Review. In fact, for most of his young life, he never expected to attend law school.

Up until his junior year of college, Hassaan was intent on attending medical school and becoming a doctor. As a student at Harvard College, he was attending and excelling at pre-med courses as prepared for a career and a lifetime dedicated to healing the sick.

As you may have heard, the story did not end that way. Hassaan Shahawy did not go on to attend medical school (though he did go on to become Dr. Hassaan Shahawy). After shifting his extracurricular activities towards legal work and doubling down on his interest in history and Islamic law, he won a Rhodes Scholarship, earned a PhD in Islamic studies, received admission to Harvard Law School, and—most recently—made history with the Harvard Law Review.

When media outlets reported the news early this summer, most reporters noted that Harvard Law Review presidents have a history of making history. Barack Obama, the first African-American elected to lead the journal, is perhaps its most famous editor in recent history.

In an interview with The Muslim Legal Journal, Dr. Hassaan Shahawy answered our questions about the Obama comparison, his decision to pursue law school, his plans for the Harvard Law Review, his longstanding academic interest in Islamic law and history, and his hope to pursue a career in legal academia. He also shared advice for aspiring law students.

The following eight-part recap of our interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Part 1: A Supportive Family—with High Expectations

We’ll start at the beginning. Hassaan was born in Los Angeles to Egyptian parents who had immigrated to the United States. Like many parents, Hassaan recalls, his mother and father expected him to pursue a clear path towards a stable, successful and productive career. As such, they strongly supported his plans to attend medical school.

Yet they may not have been completely surprised when Hassaan changed course towards the law. The clues were there. He had a longstanding, passionate interest in both history and Islamic law. In fact, his major at Harvard College was history.

“I was taking all the pre-med classes, but at the same time, I was taking some history and Islamic studies classes. I'd always loved history, and I decided to make the switch to law school about halfway through my junior year, after realizing that, while I really love the idea of serving people, which is what I wanted to do with my career…I should try to be of service and to help people doing something that I was also intellectually really interested in, which for me at that point was Islamic history.”

Long before Hassaan officially changed course, he ran the idea by his parents.

“Once I started having…doubts about whether I wanted to go into medicine, I…took a few months to think about it, do some research, see what my alternatives might be, to then go to them with a clear idea of….here's what I'm thinking right now, as opposed to just telling them, ‘I don't want to be a doctor and I don't know what I want to do anymore.’

Hassaan’s parents were supportive.

“You know, law school is also a pretty clear, well defined path, so I got lucky in that way. There are many other more unclear career paths that they could get more worried about. So that wasn't too hard to handle. They were very welcoming, very accepting. As soon as they understood, how the legal world worked, they were very supportive and on board.”

Even with supportive parents, a stellar academic pedigree, and a talent for critical thinking needed at law school, switching gears towards law school in junior year of college is not an easy feat for anyone. Here’s how he did it.

Part 2: From an MD to a JD

As Hassaan’s first step in his new direction, he secured a winter internship with the ACLU during his college’s lengthy holiday break. He also spent the following summer in Jordan working for a start-up that engages in Sharia-compliant small business lending. After his senior year, he interned with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office.

In short, Hassaan was trying to “figure out exactly what I might want to do, the different types of law that I might be interested in practicing, and to see what those areas look like, and what that work and lifestyle lookss like.”

After completing Harvard College, he attended graduate school in the United Kingdom, where he studied Islamic law at Oxford, before entering Harvard Law School. He’s now heading into his third and final year.

“So far, it's been really wonderful, alhamdulillah,” Hassaan said. “I just loved my first year, even though it was really intense. It was very intellectually engaging…I already loved these types of legal questions and legal topics from my academic work in Islamic law. It’s fascinating to see all those same sorts of issues of interpretation and jurisprudence and so on in a different context, the modern American context.”

Hassaan took a particular enjoyment to a complicated area of law that often confounds 1L students.

“I quickly discovered that I really loved property law, which I hadn't been expecting. So much of it is very historical, especially American property law. [It’s] so grounded in English common law, and all of these old medieval terms. So it was just fun to see the parallels between it and medieval property regimes like Islamic law.”

Hassaan has also focused on criminal law, particularly as it relates to mass incarceration, and engaged in clinical work with the MacArthur Justice Center in Washington, DC, which he described as highlights of his experience so far.

Then came the Harvard Law Review.

Part 3: Making History

“It's been a tremendous opportunity, and basically a full-time job, but I've learned an incredible amount. Just to be able to engage with scholarship…and learn how to manage this big publication and big organization takes a lot of work every day. And alhamdulillah, it's been extremely enriching and rewarding.”

Hassaan decided to join the famous journal because of his interest in pursuing a career in academia—specifically, as a law professor specializing in Islamic law.

“Because of that, I figured it would be really great to see scholarship happening on the backend: see how articles get published, and what type of work goes into it, and just be part of that world. If I really wanted to consider it as a career, doing a lot of writing and submitting, it’s nice to know, what the backend of acceptances and editing looks like.”

Hassaan started off as a general editor, working on everything from technical Bluebook corrections to substantive editing memorandums regarding student pieces. He also wrote himself, including a piece about Turkey’s recent decision to once again allow the use of Hagia Sophia as a mosque.

“I was able to get this whole range of academic experiences from different sides of the law, and to see also how the work that we do academically feeds into…debates, whether they're happening online or in policy.”

Suffice it to say, he enjoyed the work. He pursued and won election as President of the Law Review, a position he now holds.

“The presidency is just a really amazing, amazing job. You learn so many different types of skills…one of my jobs is to do the big first substantive edit of every article that we publish, which is usually a 10 to 20 page research memo, with suggestions for how the author could tweak their piece and add different voices and scholarship or how they can better structure it. So it's a really exciting big picture engagement with the author's argument. And it’s an honor to able to engage with all these amazing thinkers and law professors that we're publishing and talk to them about how they can improve their piece.”

Part 4: Inside the Harvard Law Review

The COVID-19 pandemic radically changed Hassaan’s job as president of the Harvard Law Review, as well as the way the journal works.

“Ordinarily, we're able to benefit from doing this together as a community. We have our own office, and we can benefit from each other's energy. [We] put in all this work and [are] able to talk about the exciting things we're working on…in a casual way. Whereas so far, all of my law review work has been remote. I haven't ever been to our office.”

Hassaan wants to ensure that restrictions caused by the pandemic don’t undermine the quality of the journal or overwhelm the journal’s staff.

“One of my goals was really just to make sure that on the community level with all this work that people are doing, we can maintain our standards, but also people's own mental health and well-being. [I want to] make sure that when people are putting in all this hard work, they aren't getting burnt out, aren't overworking themselves and are still taking time for themselves. And that's…a personal goal for me as well. I still take time for my spiritual life and my family life to make sure I'm not just working endlessly.”

As for the substantive work of the Harvard Law Review: “[G]iven my background in Islamic law, I was very interested in trying to see how modern legal debates could benefit from a more historical and international perspective. And American law especially is very domestic and parochial in the way that it looks at things. We very rarely even turn to scholars who are international.”

Hassaan added, “[T]hat was very different from my experience when I was in Oxford, where it felt like a much more international intellectual environment. You had people from all over…we had scholars in Germany coming to conferences with scholars in the UK…so I wanted to try to bring that international and historical perspective to the arguments and the work that comes along.”

Part 5: A Passion for Islamic Law

During our interview, Hassaan explained that his experience studying Islamic law has, in many ways, complemented and illuminated his law school experience.

“[M]y experience studying with traditionally trained [Islamic] scholars was a really beautiful counterpoint to my study in American law because I think, the moral core of Islamic legal intellectual effort, and the constant drive to be focusing on how we can be better Muslims, and how we can really be obedient to God's law, is just a really beautiful and special part of the way Islamic law works that you don't find as much of in American law.

“We have a lot of extremely rigorous and intellectual debates about law and policy and equality and equity. But the focus on one's own individual morality and spiritual development…it's not a feature of Western American law the way it is with Islamic law. And so that's something that I really appreciate. And coming into law school, [I] realized that every legal system has its weaknesses. The western legal system, you know, it's an extremely rigorous intellectual exchange. Civil rights and equality are huge strengths.

“But to me, it's important to reflect on what might be missing. And I really appreciate that from Islamic law, I saw how studying law can motivate you to be a better person and to focus on oneself and to focus on how one lives out the values of the law in their own personal life. And that's something that I feel like I got from Islamic law and from my experiences, studying with truly amazing individuals and scholars of Islamic law, in a way that I didn't get in law school.”

Part 6: Life After Law School

What’s next for Hassaan? What does he plan to do after law school?

“I came into law school…wanting to be a legal academic, doing Islamic law and legal history…at the moment, I think that's probably still my strongest option. It's a tough career path. You have to publish and…do a lot of work, especially in the earlier years, to try to get tenure and all that. But I just really love that in all of that effort and hustle, you're able to take the time to think and to write about what you care about most.”

Hassaan remembers an anecdote from one of his professors about the difference between practicing law as an attorney and analyzing the law as a professor.

“I remember one of my wonderful professors said to me, ‘You know, being a practicing lawyer is like leasing your brain.’ As a lawyer, you have clients and your job is to serve your clients, and you ultimately have to craft things and move in the directions that will be in service of them. And ultimately, they're paying you to do that. Whereas as a legal academic, you have the independence to just spend your time trying to tackle what you think are the most important and interesting questions. And to me, I want to be of service to the Muslim community, and I want to be of service to Islam in the modern world more generally, and the deep intellectual issues of Islamic law and Islamic thought in the modern age. “

Hassaan said “it would be really a true privilege to be able to spend my days focused deeply on those questions and any other legal questions that I think are important, and to have the space to evolve and to develop and to ask new questions, and to go along new lines of research as I grow as a person. And so ultimately, I think that might be one of the ways that I can hopefully be of the most service to the Muslim community, along with any public interest practice work I might do. And that's why right now, it's the strongest option.”

Still, Hassaan hasn’t made a final decision about his life after law school. He’s open to various possibilities.

“My only hesitation is that I also really want to be of service in a practical way. And I want to help real people who are struggling with real problems today. And sometimes, as an academic, it's hard to see the impact of your work…but you can practice in clinics, you can take on cases pro bono, you can sort of be involved in the legal and policy worlds in different ways. So, I'm trying to see if that's a balance that might work.”

For now, Hassaan is focused on completing his studies at Harvard, as well as his service to the Harvard Law Review. Next year, he’ll have special company, insha Allah. His wife, who wanted to be a lawyer long before him, has been accepted into Harvard Law and is scheduled to begin this fall.

Part 7: The Obama Comparison

Will Hassaan Shahawy be the next Barack Obama? We had the ask the question. As for such comparisons—and the specific question about Hassaan Shahawy might one day enter politics himself—he’s definitely not planning such a future right now.

“[One of the reasons] I love the idea of being legal academic is that I have the independence and ability to just say and push for what I most deeply believe in and most sincerely believe, at any time. Politics obviously requires a lot of compromise. And it's not even just moral compromise. You have to serve the constituencies you're representing, make sure that you're trying to communicate with them and representing their interests and so on. And I worry that in that process—and obviously, you know, the, the inevitable need to fundraise and campaign and self-promote—I just worry about having to spend almost too much time and not doing the things that I'm most deeply morally convicted in.”

In the alternative, Hassaan said, he could envision working on policy issues in appointed government positions, as many professors who are experts in their field sometimes do.

Part 8: Advice for Potential Law Students

Hassaan had plenty of helpful advice for people thinking about pursuing law school. A key point he wanted to make was this: be careful not to “work to live and live to work.”

As he explained, “[Don’t] forget the reasons that somebody went into law school and the reasons that somebody is passionate about their work in this world, and what they want to do in this world and how they want to be of service. And remember that, especially as Muslims, we're alive in this world to do a lot more than make money.”

Edward Ahmed Mitchell is a civil rights attorney who serves as the vice president of the National Association of Muslim Lawyers and the editor-in-chief of The Muslim Legal Journal. He also serves as the national deputy director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

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