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

Posted in Americas, Arts & Culture, Europe, History, Islamic Law, Middle East & North Africa, Muslim Life, Religion, Security & Civil Liberties, Sexuality.
21-year-old university student and former Afghan refugee, Gulwali Passarlay,speaks to Duke undergrads. photo by Catherine Angst

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary on FEBRUARY 29, 2016: 

“Before I died, I contemplated how drowning would feel. It was clear to me now; this was how I would go: away from my mother’s warmth, my father’s strength, and my family’s love. The white waves were going to devour me, swallow me whole in their terrifying jaws, and cast my young body aside to drift down into the cold black depths,” Gulwali Passarlay wrote in the prologue to “The Lightless Sky: A Twelve-Year-Old Refugee’s Harrowing Escape from Afghanistan and His Extraordinary Journey Across Half the World.” (HarperOne, 2016)

At the age of 12 Gulwali was sent away from his rural Afghanistan home by his mother who paid a smuggling agent at $8,000, in installments, to get him safely to Italy. “However bad it gets,” the mother told her son. “Don’t come back.” Ten months into his journey, he nearly drowned (described above) in an overcrowded boat on his way to Greece. He’s now a man in his third year at the University of Manchester in the UK — alive to tell the tale of his year-long 12,500-mile perilous journey, which he likened to “a game of Chutes and Ladders” through Pakistan; Iran (twice); Turkey (twice); Bulgaria; Greece; Italy; France (twice); Belgium, Germany, and finally the UK.

While the trip took place back in 2006-2007, his book, written with Nadene Ghouri, is an instructive lens through which to view the current refugee crisis and the complicated human smuggling and trafficking networks that have refugees and migrants using air, rail, cars, trucks, boats, and their own tired feet, across rivers and seas and over mountains — to get them to a better life.

Last month Gulwali spoke via Skype for nearly an hour with more than a dozen Duke University undergraduate students enrolled in the Refugee Lives: Violence, Culture and Identity class, co-taught by professors miriam cooke, Maha Houssami, and Nancy Kalow.

The 21-year-old politics and philosophy major answered questions and shared stories with his contemporaries about his experiences in safe-houses, prisons/detention centers and refugee camps; the dozens of unscrupulous (and a few kind) agents, smugglers, and guides he encountered; and the friends and enemies he made along the way. Continue reading

Posted in Asia, Books, Citizenship, Europe, Human Rights, International Studies, Middle East & North Africa, Muslim Life, Race and Ethnicity, Security & Civil Liberties.

Column » ‘By the Book’ with Joseph Preville

by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE and JULIE POUCHER HARBIN  for ISLAMiCommentary on JANUARY 7, 2016: 

Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) was a colossus among Muslim scholars.  Stephen Frederic Dale gives us a portrait of this extraordinary man in his new intellectual biography, The Orange Trees of Marrakesh: Ibn Khaldun and the Science of Man (Harvard University Press, 2015).  “Ibn Khaldun,” he writes, “created the world’s first known example of historical sociology, a philosophically inspired discipline commonly thought to have originated in Western Europe.”

Dale’s book stands out in the large library of books and studies about Ibn Khaldun for its sharp focus on the philosophical foundations of his work.  Philosophy is at the heart of Ibn Khaldun’s method, according to Dale.  He states that Ibn Khaldun “forcefully and repeatedly indicates he has adopted Greco-Islamic philosophical ideas and methodology to revolutionize historical research, which he then employs to produce a comprehensive study of North African Muslims in his era.” Continue reading

Posted in Books, Europe, History, Middle East & North Africa, MyTIRN, Philosophy, Political Science, Science & Technology.

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN for DUKE TODAY on SEPTEMBER 30, 2015:

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

Posted in Americas, Education, Middle East & North Africa, Muslim Life, MyTIRN.