WATCH ABOVE: A poetry reading and contextualization of the Islamic Mystic Ibn Al-Arabi by Professor Michael Sells, John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature, University of Chicago Divinity School. (Introduction to Sells by Ellen McLarney, Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature and Culture)


An Interview with University of Chicago Islamic History & Literature Professor Michael Sells

by ABDUL LATIF for ISLAMiCommentary on NOVEMBER 3, 2015:

Michael Sells holds a workshop at Duke University on the Qu'ran and it's listeners.
Michael Sells holds a workshop at Duke University on the Qu’ran and it’s listeners.

In early October the University of Chicago’s John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature Michael Sells visited Duke University for two talks; “Translator of Desires” — a poetry reading of the Islamic mystic Abu Bakr ibn al-Arabi; and a workshop on the Qur’an and its listeners.

Sells studies and teaches in the areas of Qur’anic studies, Sufism, Arabic and Islamic love poetry, mystical literature (Greek, Islamic, Christian, and Jewish), and religion and violence.

I had the opportunity to sit down with him on October 2 to talk about his research.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

QUESTION: What brought you to the study of Islam and Arabic poetry?

SELLS: In college, I was a student abroad in Italy and we had vacations. In one vacation I went to Tunis. I walked from the French part of the city into the old city and saw the different textures and intricacies of life, and I thought, “This is a culture and a world I want to be involved in.” I subsequently went back to Tunis, and later went to Cairo for a year. There I became fascinated with the pervasiveness of the Qur’an recitation. And Cairo of course was the center of the explosion of the use of radio and cassettes. The great Egyptian reciters played on television, radio. People were reciting in the streets on different occasions, and I became convinced that this was a central aspect of the Qur’an. Continue reading

An Interview with Duke’s new Turkish lecturing fellow, Didem Havlioglu


Didem Havlioglu
Didem Havlioglu

Didem Havlioglu, a new Turkish Lecturing Fellow in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, did her MA and PhD at the University of Washington, Seattle in Near and Middle East Studies. Her research focuses on Ottoman and Modern Turkish language and literature — in particular, gender and women in literature.

She’s been teaching Modern and Ottoman Turkish language for 15 years, and comes to Duke as a Turkish lecturing fellow, after having taught at Istanbul Sehir University (a new private school in Istanbul) for the past five years. During her tenure at Sehir, she helped start the Turkish language and literature department and the Turkish for International students program.

QUESTION: Which courses are you teaching this semester and next semester?

HAVLIOGLU: I am teaching Elementary and Intermediate Turkish this year at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. My students are interested in Turkish because they want to study Middle East history and culture. They usually go to a study abroad program at Bogazici University in Istanbul or through the Duke in Istanbul program. Upon their return, they take second or third year Turkish. They are all very good students who like thinking outside of the box. For this reason, the classes are fast paced and very enjoyable for all of us.

QUESTION: Do you think interest from students is picking up for learning Turkish?

HAVLIOGLU: I am very happy to find that more students are interested in Turkish language and culture every day. The study abroad and Duke in Istanbul programs are the initiators of this growing interest. After living in Turkey briefly, the students come back to Duke with a good understanding of what they want to do next. For instance, they want to continue exploring, if not expand their initial immersion in Turkish language and culture.

QUESTION: Why should students learn Turkish?

HAVLIOGLU: I have always found it odd when I hear people talking about teaching language, teaching culture, and teaching literature as three distinct areas. For me, language is culture, and literary and other texts are tools that offer insights into the target community’s minds and souls. Carefully chosen texts draw the learners in and awaken them to perspectives that they never knew they had, not only of the other, but also of themselves and their own culture. Likewise, language learning consists not only of learning linguistic structures but also of understanding how meaning, mentality, and worldview vary in different communities that use similar words.

Therefore, I believe, learning Turkish, just like any other language and culture can be instrumental in students’ ability to become world citizens where there are more differences than similarities. We live in a time now where the question is, “How will the world be different because I lived in it?” and I believe my students are the people who will change the way we think about borders that make people apart. Continue reading


Arabic instructor Abdel Razzaq Ben Tarif inside the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies.
Arabic instructor Abdel Razzaq Ben Tarif inside the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies.

Jordan native Abdel Razzaq Ben Tarif shares a favorite quote from the Dalai Lama: “Share your knowledge; it’s a way to achieve immortality.”

This fall, he’s following that command but teaching Arabic at Duke, joining the university’s team of Arabic instructors. He has six years of experience teaching Arabic in a classroom setting, a master’s of arts teaching Arabic for speakers of other language (2009), and a master’s in American studies (2014) from the University of Jordan.

“Ben Tarif was highly recommended by Duke students who studied with him in Jordan through the Kenan refugee program in Amman led by Suzanne Shanahan,” said Mbaye Lo, assistant professor of the practice and Arabic Language Program Coordinator at Duke. “So, he is somewhat familiar with the Duke culture; and with him, we hope to secure a diverse, and yet highly talented Arabic faculty to serve our students.”

Below, Ben Tarif talks with Julie Harbin, communications specialist for the Duke Islamic Studies Center.

QUESTION: You’re an award winning Arabic instructor who’s had a variety of experiences teaching Arabic, teaching UN employees, diplomats, defense department officials and U.S. soldiers and university students. How can you compare these experiences?

BEN TARIF: I think teaching Arabic for different groups is challenging, because

you are dealing with many people from many backgrounds, and each have their own goal to study the language. When we talk about diplomats, soldiers and defense department officials, going back to school again to learn a language can be frustrating to them. You have to create your own curriculum that meets their needs to learn the language, and this is fun.

QUESTION: Why is it so important for people to learn Arabic? What should people know about learning Arabic?

BEN TARIF: Arabic is the fifth most commonly spoken native language in the world and the official language in in more than 20 countries. There are more than 300 million native speakers of the language. The Arab-speaking world has a rich cultural heritage with its own unique art, music, literature, cuisine, and way of life. Also there are financial incentives for learning Arabic. The US government has designated Arabic as a language of strategic importance. Continue reading

This article below, “How Muslim Students’ Knowledge of Christianity Is Related to Their Attitudes to Mainstream Australia and Australians: A National Survey” originally appeared in Social Sciences (ISSN 2076-0760), an international, open access journal with rapid peer-review, which publishes works from a wide range of fields, including anthropology, economics, law, linguistics, education, geography, history, political science, psychology and sociology. Social Sciences is published quarterly online by MDPI.


Abstract: Outlined below are selected results of a 5-year long national survey which investigated the knowledge, values and attitudes of 430 Year 11 and 12 Muslim students in eight Muslim High schools towards the mainstream Australia and Australians society. The findings reflect a wide spectrum of responses with a strong implication that much work is needed to bring about an appropriate degree of adjustment. Providing awareness sessions to students and parents—both non-Muslims and Muslims—which address critical social, religious and cultural issues including stereotyping and inclusivity, is key.

Social media are abuzz with daily articles asking the same questions: Do Muslims find it harder than other migrants to integrate, or is the bigotry of some that perpetuates it? Is Islamophobia the flipside of inherent racism that some Australians lashed in stages against Aboriginals, Greeks, Italians, Chinese, Africans and Middle Easterners? Or perhaps it is the cultural and historical (and religious!) differences between the Christian and Muslim communities worldwide that are too wide to make a complete reconciliation? Why do religious minorities in Muslim countries have fewer rights than Muslims do in Western societies? Do Muslims need reform and reflection similar to those of Catholic Priests? Are Muslim and Australian identities compatible or are they mutually exclusive? And lastly, are the schools doing enough in fostering goodwill and inter-communal relationship!

I will not pretend to have set theories or clinical remedies to these questions. I will, however, address the government’s key question. What kinds of programs and initiatives are needed to identify, and eventually modify falsehoods and incorrect information that precipitates attitudes to mainstream Australia?

Continue reading

“The communities I write about in the book — South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh immigrants — are “othered” and scapegoated today in our country. But at the same time, they are finding the strength, courage and purpose to reshape America by telling their own narratives, building community power, and changing policy.” — Deepa Iyer 

Column » ‘By the Book’ with Joseph Preville

41j8PRILBzL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE and JULIE POUCHER HARBIN  for ISLAMiCommentary on SEPTEMBER 29, 2015:

A vibrant multiracial America is emerging right before our eyes.  According to a new report by the Pew Research Center, “Multiracial Americans are at the cutting edge of social and demographic change in the U.S.—young, proud, tolerant and growing at a rate three times as fast as the population as a whole.” (“Multiracial in America,” June 11, 2015).

Deepa Iyer takes a looks at the struggles behind this momentous change in the United States and the challenges ahead in We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future (The New Press, November 2015).  She writes that America “has yet to fully confront the scope and effects of racial anxiety, Islamophobia, and xenophobia that have permeated our national narratives and policies in the years since 9/11.  We must change this legal, cultural, and political climate of hostility and suspicion, especially as communities perceived as ‘others’ change American cities, schools, and neighborhoods due to population increases and migration patterns.”

A native of Kerala, India, Deepa Iyer immigrated to the United States at the age of 12 with her parents and brother to Louisville, Kentucky.  In a 2014 interview, she reflected on her early experiences as an immigrant to America: “It did not take long to find out I was on the margins, that I was not mainstream. In the mid-80s in Kentucky, people were used to a black or white racial paradigm.  People like me fit neither.  I definitely had my share of experiencing some bullying and harassment at school, which shaped my sense of being different.”

Iyer, currently a Senior Fellow at Center for Social Inclusion, is a graduate of Vanderbilt University and University of Notre Dame Law School.  An activist, writer and lawyer, she has served as a Trial Attorney for the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice and as Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). 

Her work on immigrant and civil rights issues began at the Asian American Justice Center in the late 1990s. While at SAALT for nearly a decade, she shaped the formation of the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations (NCSO), a network of local South Asian groups, and served as Chair of the National Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA). Iyer’s essays on immigration, the post 9/11 backlash, and racism have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, USA Today, Al-Jazeera and the Nation.

With contentious national debates on race, religion, and immigration making the news every day, We Too Sing America is a fresh voice in the conversation.

Deepa Iyer discusses her new book in this exclusive interview.

Deepa Iyer (credit: Les Talusan Photography)
Deepa Iyer (credit: Les Talusan Photography)

Why did you choose to take the title of your book from a Langston Hughes poem?  Does the poem have special meaning for you as an activist for social justice?

Almost ninety years ago, Langston Hughes wrote a poem about how Black people, though they were marginalized and rejected in all aspects of American society, grew stronger and wiser. He wrote that they too “sing America.” The communities I write about in the book — South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh immigrants — are “othered” and scapegoated today in our country. But at the same time, they are finding the strength, courage and purpose to reshape America by telling their own narratives, building community power, and changing policy. That is why the poem resonated with me. Continue reading