“It’s only the circumstance of your birth that distinguishes you from the person in the village from Malawi. Those lessons inform my scholarship in many respects. I’m always trying to look at things from perspectives that are not my own.”
– Adnan Zulfiqar


Adnan Zulfiqar calls himself a third-culture kid.

Adnan Zulfiqar
Adnan Zulfiqar teaches "Criminal Procedure – Investigations."
Photo: Nick Romanenko/Rutgers University

Born in Virginia to Pakistani immigrants, the Rutgers-Camden law professor’s childhood was bookended by years-long stints in Africa – where his father, a World Bank executive, purposefully took transfers to broaden his children’s perspectives.  

Acclimating was easier, said Zulfiqar, if he sought out the similarities between cultures, religions and languages. It is a tactic he still relies on as a scholar of criminal law, laws of war and Islamic law.

“Commonalities are the entry point into a different culture or context. Once you identify points of familiarity then it’s easier to appreciate the differences,” said Zulfiqar, who is proficient in five languages, including Arabic, Urdu and Farsi.  “I approach my scholarship the same way. I start by asking: Does this other culture approach legal problems the way we do? Are they asking similar questions? Then I spend my days exploring why or why not, seeing what transcends geography, time period, culture and what doesn’t.”

An experienced media commentator on global issues, especially relating to the Middle East, Zulfiqar teaches "Criminal Procedure – Investigations." His research dissects and often connects the dots between complex and emotionally charged issues – including over-criminalization, bail reform, abuse of authority and the evolution of Islamic legal concepts – to unearth the roots of present-day conflicts and spark innovations for legal reform in domestic and international contexts.

Zulfiqar, who is a practicing Muslim, currently is exploring questions surrounding jihad and revolution through a legal lens as he completes his Ph.D. dissertation. It is his hope that by unraveling the legal arguments militant groups use to co-opt jihad – the definition of which ranges from internal spiritual struggle to external holy war – communities and governments will be better equipped to stem the tide of militant recruitment globally. 

“The truth of the matter is no one has jihad right. They have shades of it, but they’re talking about different things,” said Zulfiqar. “My work highlights the mutations that have occurred in legal thinking to allow certain groups to construct jihad the way they have.”

Some of Zulfiqar’s earliest memories were formed in Kenya, where his family moved when he was 3. Re-acclimating to life in the States as an elementary school student took getting used to, but Zulfiqar said it was his transition as an eighth grader from the prosperous Beltway to Malawi – one of the poorest countries in the world – that truly tested him. 

“At that age you have friends and social circles and know the comfort of America. Being ripped away from it was incredibly difficult, but change builds character,” said Zulfiqar, who tries to instill a similar philosophy in his children, ages 2, 5 and 7. “I’m tremendously grateful my parents didn’t bow to the pressure of my youthful angst, because it was the most instrumental decision they ever made with regard to my life.”

If his father’s moves to Africa opened his mind, Zulfiqar said his mother’s charitable gestures – such as donating truckfuls of food to needy Malawi villagers or leaving coolers of fresh water outside their home for thirsty travelers – opened his heart.

“She taught me to appreciate what you had and recognize the responsibility that comes with all that opportunity,” said Zulfiqar, who with his sister established a charity in Malawi to honor their mother’s lesson. The organization, Banja Umodzi (“One Family” in Chichewa) focuses its efforts on flood and drought relief, post-disaster reconstruction and supports two orphanages.

“It’s only the circumstance of your birth that distinguishes you from the person in the village from Malawi,” he said. “Those lessons inform my scholarship in many respects. I’m always trying to look at things from perspectives that are not my own.”

As someone who has experienced “otherness” – both in his own country and abroad – Zulfiqar is acutely aware when he notices another struggling with that experience – like the mother in traditional South Asian attire and Muslim head covering who looked anxious while accompanying her son to a university welcome reception this fall. Sometimes, he said, just being a faculty member who is Muslim and person of color sends a powerful unspoken message to those from diverse backgrounds, which is especially important at this time of vulnerability for Muslims.

“I started speaking to her in Urdu, and she was ecstatic.Her entire personality came out. The moment was instructive for me,” he said.  “I was able to convey to her, ‘Listen, I’m here in this position. If I belong here, you belong here. You don’t need to worry about your son. He will be treated like anyone else.’ That is a role I embrace.”

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