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Hania Shamat

Center for African Studies


Areas of specialization: Islamic economics, Islamic commercial Law and courts, Islamic education, Institutional change and transplant; political and economic development, Economic history of the Arab Middle East, with a particular focus on Egypt, Syria and Lebanon.

Hania Abou al-Shamat is a researcher affiliated with the Center for African Studies. She received her Ph.D. in Political Economy and Public Policy from the University of Southern California. Shamat has been a fellow at the American Research Center in Cairo (2011-2012) and a Fulbright scholar in Turkey (2013-2014).

Shamat’s research interests are interdisciplinary spanning the areas of politics, economics, law, and history, with a particular focus on Islamic institutions (courts, law, schools, among others.) Her research takes historical flavor as she studies the dynamics of institutional change that require analyzing performance over long periods. She has lived and carried research in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon. She is a native Arabic speaker.

Selected Publications

Hania Shamat, 2009. “Educational Divide across Religious Groups in Nineteenth-Century Lebanon: Institutional Effects on the Demand for Curricular Modernization,” Journal of Islamic Studies 20:3, pp. 317-351.

Hania Shamat, 2015. “The Effect of Legal Reform on Muslims’ Commercial and Financial Performance in Egypt, 1883-1949,” Islamic Law and Society (Accepted with revision)


Islamic versus ‘modern’ education in the Arab world

The educational divide across religious groups in early 20th century Middle East has been usually attributed to a difference in the supply of schools: missionaries and local Christians establishing new schools, on the one hand, and Muslim ulema’s resistance to change, on the other. This project adopts an institutional historical approach and studies such educational divide by shifting focus to demand, parents’ and pupils’ incentives. Approaching education as an economic and social investment, it studies the interplay between educational needs and the job market different religious communities faced in Lebanon. It finds that, among boys, a number of factors maintained the demand for traditional schools by providing job opportunities for their graduates. Such jobs were both economically and socially rewarding that an immediate shift to ‘modern’ education was unnecessary. Among girls, Christians developed an earlier demand for ‘modern’ education because of the changes they faced in the marriage institution and the job market. It was the social and economic changes, not the mere establishment of schools, that ignited the need for education. This project highlights the importance of indigenous demand for a successful transfer of institutions.

Islamic Commercial Law and the Impact of Legal Transplants on Economic Performance at the Eve of Legal Modernization

The role of business-friendly legal system in effective economic performance is well established. It has been argued that certain aspects in the Islamic law hindered Muslims’ economic development. This project studies the response of Muslim merchants to legal modernization (including the switch from shari’a courts to ‘secular’ courts and the replacement of Islamic commercial law by the French code) in the late 19th and early 20th century in both Egypt and Syria. It analyzes archival material never studied before to unearth merchants’ utilization of the new legal system and the scales and types of partnerships and businesses they formed. These archives are the National court records of Cairo and the Commercial Court registers of Damascus. The two cases provide interesting results and conclusions on the role complementary institutions play in the impact of legal transplants.

Merchants and the Islamic Courts

This project tracks merchants in the Islamic courts registers throughout the 17th century and early 19th century Damascus to study their interaction with the Islamic legal system, the types and scales of partnerships they formed, and the reasons for resorting to Islamic courts. The purpose of covering such a long period is to capture a representative sample of court cases to quantitatively identify established patterns. The findings challenge long-held assumptions about the interaction of merchants

with Islamic courts. The project revisits conclusions based on these assumptions and opens the field for new research questions.

Building an open-source database of Islamic Court Records

Islamic courts registers are a major source for the social, economic, religious, personal, and administrative aspects of daily human interactions in the Arab world during the Ottoman period. Accessing the registers does not only require travel to hosting archives, but also language mastery, in addition to hard-to-get research permits and, in some cases, security clearances. This project aims to make court registers from select Arab cities accessible in English and Arabic to researchers in the field. The first step in this project is to focus on the court registers from 17th century Damascus (already acquired and being processed). The long-term plan is to enlarge the collection both across time and other Arab provinces.