Aria Nakissa

Aria Nakissa

Director of Graduate Studies in Jewish, Islamic, and Middle Eastern Studies
​Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and Anthropology
PhD, Harvard University
JD, Harvard Law School
research interests:
  • Law
  • Anthropology
  • Religion
  • Islamic Legal Theory
  • Human Rights
  • Middle East
  • Southeast Asia

contact info:

mailing address:

  • MSC 1121-107-113
    Washington University
    One Brookings Drive
    St. Louis, MO 63130-4899

Aria Nakissa is a scholar of law and religion in Muslim societies. He holds the position of Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and Anthropology.

Nakissa's research employs anthropological and historical methods. It spans the premodern and modern periods, while giving special attention to the Middle East and Southeast Asia. He has conducted extensive ethnographic fieldwork in Egypt, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Professor Nakissa's writings also draw on textual materials written in the Arabic, Indonesian/Malaysian, English, French, and Dutch languages.

With regards to the premodern period, he has written on Islamic law, Islamic legal theory, Sufism, Islamic theology, and traditional Islamic education. With regards to the modern period, Professor Nakissa has written on colonialism in the Muslim world, Islamic reform movements, human rights law, and counterterrorism.

In addressing the preceding topics, he has sought to consider how various theoretical frameworks might provide new insights for the study of Islam and Muslim societies. Professor Nakissa has been particularly interested in insights from hermeneutics and practice theory. He has also been interested in insights from cognitive science, especially as they pertain to the biological/psychological roots of human religiosity and human morality (including norms/laws).

Professor Nakissa's  research and teaching interests include Islamic law and philosophy, contemporary Muslim societies, and classical Islamic texts (Fiqh, Tafsir, Hadith, Tasawwuf).

Selected Publications


The Anthropology of Islamic Law: Education, Ethics, and Legal Interpretation at Egypt’s al-Azhar.  Oxford University Press, 2019.

Peer-Reviewed Articles

“Rethinking Religious Cognition and Myth: A New Perspective on how Religions Balance Intuitiveness and Interest-provokingness/Memorability.” Journal of Cognition and Culture (in press).
“The Cognitive Science of Religion and Islamic Theology: An Analysis based on the works of al-Ghazālī.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion (in press).
“Cognitive Science of Religion and the Study of Islam: Rethinking Islamic Theology, Law, Education, and Mysticism Using the Works of al-Ghazālī.” Method & Theory in the Study of  Religion (in press).
“Security, Islam, and Indonesia: An Anthropological Analysis of Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency.” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia  (in press).
“Evolving Conceptions of Human Rights as a Bourdieusian Distinction Strategy: A Critical Perspective on Policies Targeting Muslim Populations.” Human Rights Review 21(1):21-42 (2020).
“The Fiqh of Revolution and the Arab Spring: Secondary Segmentation as a Trend in Islamic Legal Doctrine.” Muslim World 105:398-421 (2015).
“An Epistemic Shift in Islamic Law: Educational Reform at al-Azhar and the Dār al-ʿUlūm.” Islamic Law and Society 21:209-251 (2014).
“An Ethical Solution to the Problem of Legal Indeterminacy: Sharīʿa Scholarship at Egypt’s al-Azhar.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 20(1):93-112 (2014).

Book Reviews

Review of Religious Minorities in the Middle East:  Domination, Self-Empowerment, Accommodation , edited by Anh Nga Longgva and Anne Sofie Roald.” Contemporary Islam 9:97-99 (2015)
Review of Islam and Human Rights: Tradition and Politics (Fifth Edition) by Ann Elizabeth Mayer.” Societies without Borders 8(1):173-176 (2013).

Other Academic Publications

“Ibrāhīm b. ʿAlī b. Ḥasan al-Saqqā” in Encyclopedia of Islam (3rd ed.). Leiden: Brill (in press).
“Legal Education” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Law. Oxford Islamic Studies Online (2014).
“Islamist Understandings of Sharīʿa and their implications for the Post-revolutionary Egyptian Constitution.” Crown Center Middle East Brief 68 (2012).

Recent Courses

Religion and Culture in South and Southeast Asia
Islamic Philosophy, Theology, and Mysticism
Fourth-Level Arabic I
The Anthropological and Sociological Study of Muslim Societies
Anthropology of Human Rights
Islam in the Indian Ocean


The Anthropology of Islamic Law: Education, Ethics, and Legal Interpretation at Egypt's Al-Azhar

The Anthropology of Islamic Law: Education, Ethics, and Legal Interpretation at Egypt's Al-Azhar