by ALI OLOMI for ISLAMiCommentary on MARCH 30, 2016: 

An image from the “Kitab Al-Aghani” by Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani, who wrote detailed biographies of the mukhannathum in the Umayyad and Abbasid period.

In March 2016 Payam Feili, a young Iranian poet, took refuge in Israel because he faced persecution in his home country for being openly gay. Feili’s situation is not unique for many LGBTQ individuals in the Middle East. Homosexuality is a crime in nearly two dozen Muslim countries carrying severe punishments in ten of those counties.

While it is tempting to ascribe this to Islam, the historical context is more nuanced and complex.

The status of LGBTQ rights in the Muslim world today is perplexing given that Islamic history is characterized by its relative tolerance of sexual diversity and same-sex desire.

Though homosexuality as an identity and category is a predominantly modern construction, gay, lesbian, transgender, and intersex individuals have always been present in history.

From the time of Prophet Muhammad on, intersex individuals known as mukhannathum lived in Islamic society and occupied publicly visible, though sometimes marginalized spaces. Many of these individuals, like Gharid and Al Dalal, were openly gay and had lovers. They enjoyed positions as musicians and intermediaries between men and women in the role of matchmakers. In both Umayyad and Abbasid history, gay individuals were not only present, but quite public. The first time they faced state violence was at the hands of Caliph Sulayman ibn Abd-al Malik. The 10th century historian, Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani writes in his Kitab al-Aghani that Sulayman had all the mukhannathum castrated, not because of their sexual desires, but because their music had distracted one of his lovers while she was attending him. Continue reading

“Opinion leaders and policy-makers unfortunately have a tendency to equate Lebanese Shi‘ism with Hizbullah and to assume all Shi‘a are connected to Iran. My book documents very different dynamics. I do examine the spread of the Arab-Israeli conflict to Senegal, but this plays out differently in the diaspora than it does in Lebanon. I also illustrate the making of an indigenous African Shi‘ism that, while inspired by the Iranian revolution, does not aim to establish an Islamic government and overthrow Senegal’s secular state. It is important that policy-makers better understand the complexities of the dynamic – not static – Shi‘i Muslim world.” —– Mara Leichtman, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary with MARA LEICHTMAN on MARCH 18, 2016: 

Mara Leichtman

This past Fall, Mara Leichtman, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University, published her latest book — Shi‘i Cosmopolitanisms in Africa: Lebanese Migration and Religious Conversion in Senegal (Indiana University Press, 2015). It followed her 2009 edited volume (with Mamadou Diouf) New Perspectives on Islam in Senegal: Conversion, Migration, Wealth, Power, and Femininity (Palgrave Macmillan).

Educated at the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins University, and Brown University, Leichtman has been a visiting fellow at Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World in Leiden, the Netherlands, and the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University.

How did she come to be interested in the topic of Lebanese Shi‘a in Senegal?

Leichtman told ISLAMiCommentary that while earning her master’s degree in international relations from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University a professor gave her an article about the Lebanese community in Ivory Coast — knowing of her interests in both Africa and the Middle East. It piqued her curiosity.

So when she started the doctoral program in sociocultural anthropology at Brown University, she decided to research the Lebanese community in Abidjan.

“This was in 1999, when there was a coup d’état in Ivory Coast, which is what led me to Senegal, as a more stable option,” she said in a written interview with ISLAMiCommentary.

As her research got underway, Lebanese in Senegal regularly asked her why she wanted to study their community. In response she said she drew upon her origins in Michigan — and its significant Lebanese (and particularly Lebanese Shi‘i) community.

“My mother happened to work at the time with a woman of Lebanese origin who was born in a village in Senegal,” she said. “Lebanese in Senegal were delighted to hear of this personal connection.”

While she set out to study the Shi‘i Lebanese community in West Africa, she didn’t know in advance that she would also find Senegalese Shi‘i converts.

Senegal is predominantly Sunni Muslim (94%) following the Maliki school of jurisprudence with Sufi influences. While Shi‘i Muslims make up only a small minority of the population, Leichtman said the number is growing as Senegalese convert. (Christians make up about 5% of the Senegalese population, and an even smaller demographic continues to practice what is referred to as “African traditional religion.”)

It was the first Lebanese shaykh in Senegal, Shaykh Abdul Mun‘am al-Zayn, who initially told Leichtman that Senegalese were converting to Shi‘i Islam. She was able to eventually connect with Senegalese Shi‘i leaders through Walfadjri, a media conglomerate that hosted a weekly radio show featuring Muslims of different denominations and regularly invited various Senegalese Shi‘a to participate.

In this interview, Leichtman introduces us to these communities and the importance of learning more about them. Continue reading

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary on DECEMBER 17, 2015: 

We at the Duke Islamic Studies Center are pleased to announce that the work of the Carnegie Corporation of New York-supported Transcultural Islam Project (ISLAMiCommentary and TIRN) has been highlighted in a new report by the Social Science Research Council — “Religion, Media and the Digital Turn.” The report surveyed 160 digital projects and documents the effects that digital modes of research and publication have on the study of religion.

“While our primary goal is to chronicle emerging forms of intellectual production shaping the study of religion, we hope that a greater awareness of this new work will generate more recognition of the high quality and innovative work that already exists,” report authors Chris Cantwell (University of Missouri) and Hussein Rashid (New York University) write, explaining that “the most innovative digital projects are often those that creatively combine a number of these models or genres.”

ISLAMiCommentary was mentioned at the top of several subsections, for this reason, and a lengthy case study of ISLAMiCommentary and TIRN has been included in the report (in Appendix 1) because, as the report authors told us, they find the project “exemplary.” Other projects highlighted with lengthy case studies (in Appendix 1) include the Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion (MAVCOR) at Yale, the Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project at the University of Loyola; and Mapping Ararat — a project of York University, the University of Toronto and Emerson College.

Appendix 2 lists the 160 projects surveyed.

The report can be downloaded HERE.


by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary on DECEMBER 14, 2015:

Last month, the Duke Middle East Studies Center (DUMESC) had the honor of hosting Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk for a series of events at Duke University. With co-sponsorship from the Department of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies, Duke Global Education/Duke in Turkey, Franklin Humanities Institute, Arts of the Moving Image and Mellon Foundation’s Partnerships in a Global Age grant, Pamuk’s visit included a public conversation at the Nasher Museum of Art auditorium hosted by DUMESC Director Erdağ Göknar, and a faculty forum. He also sat down with Göknar for an interview at Duke Studios.

Göknar, who authored the 2013 book “Orhan Pamuk, Secularism and Blasphemy: The Politics of the Turkish Novel” (Routledge, 2013) and was the English translator for Pamuk’s Nobel Prize- winning “My Name is Red” (Knopf, 2001), said Pamuk’s work – nine novels to date — “embraces the idea of the novelist as archivist and curator.”

“Since winning the Nobel award in 2006, Pamuk’s work has continued to push the boundaries of literary form and content,” said Göknar, adding that it “brings together narrative strains such as Ottoman Turkish history, the confines of identity, double-ness, excavations of the city, conspiracy, Islamic art, Sufism, the power of the Middle Eastern nation state, the (1980) coup, obsession, mystical love, the archive, collecting, lament and the Istanbul melancholy known as khuzun.”

All of this plays out through the city of Istanbul that in Pamuk’s words, is a space that has become “the memory of his fiction.” Continue reading

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.

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