Shrine of Cheikh Moussa Kamara. (photo by Mbaye Lo)

a Scholar’s Notebook feature 

by MBAYE LO for ISLAMiCommentary on APRIL 19, 2016:

Professor Mbaye Lo (far right) with some acquaintances in Fuuta Toro (photo courtesy of Mbaye Lo)

After 15 hours of traveling by buses, taxis and horse-drawn carriages, I finally arrived at a border village on the bank of the river that divides Senegal and Mauritania. The village of Ganguel Soulé is located in Fuuta Toro, a West African region of cultural influence, learning and resilience. This is the land that produced the family of *Cheikh Usman dan Fodio, the 18th century leader of Nigeria’s Islamic revival movement and the founder the Sokoto Caliphate in Northern Nigeria. (henceforth the French spelling of Sheikh – Cheikh – will be used)

From this land also came Abdoul Kader Kane (d.1807), founder of the Almamate dynasty that sought to put an end to the Atlantic slave trade by imposing martial control of European ships passing through their territories. Cheikh el-Hadji Omar Tall, the last leader of the jihad movements against the French West Africa Federation project in 1850s also hailed from here. Fuuta Toro is also likely to be the birthplace of Omar Ibn Said, the Muslim American slave whose Arabic autobiography serves as a valuable sourcebook for antebellum black writing and history.

My visit here had both an academic and personal purpose. My mother’s side of the family is from Fuuta, and it was never clear to us growing-up why my ancestral great-great-grandfather left this region of Fuuta Toro in the early nineteenth century to move to the most western region known as Kajoor. Most aspects of family oral history talk about the devastation caused by Kane’s resistance against the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. However, these issues are considered long-gone memories that people are neither interested nor comfortable remembering. Only a few Senegalese academics, for example Ibrahima Seck, are spending their lives looking at the local and cross-continental intricacies of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

My host, Cernoo Kamara, wasn’t interested in yesterday’s questions either. He is a marabou (a sufi religious leader) who has become accustomed to silence, and people around him are also used to him speaking only in time of extreme need.

“Welcome home,” he murmured when his personal driver picked me up at the bank of the river. (“Birds also go home when is dark-out there,” were his last few words as we parted later that night.)

“This is a house of service: reading and writing,” he told me early the next day as he walked me through the compound of his esteemed grandfather Cheikh Moussa Kamara. There were books, clusters of old papers, and manuscripts everywhere. Kids from the neighborhood were up at dawn rehearsing the sacred text at the compound’s Quranic school before breakfast and regular schooling. Continue reading

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

21-year-old university student and former Afghan refugee, Gulwali Passarlay,speaks to Duke undergrads. photo by Catherine Angst
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

Column » ‘By the Book’ with Joseph Preville

by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE and JULIE POUCHER HARBIN  for ISLAMiCommentary on FEBRUARY 8, 2016: 

Are Muslims embraced as part of the mosaic of Europe?  Or, are they considered and treated as outsiders, foreigners, and invaders?  Political Scientist Peter O’Brien deconstructs this issue in his new book, The Muslim Question in Europe: Political Controversies and Public Philosophies (Temple University Press, 2016).

“There exists,” he writes, “no great, let alone unbridgeable, gulf in outlook or lifestyle forever separating ‘Islamic’ from ‘Western’ civilization.”  He argues that there is not a “clash of civilizations,” but “clashes within Western civilization.”

O’Brien dissects the hotly-debated and contentious topics of headscarves, terrorism, and secularism (mosque-state relations) within the broad historical and political contexts of “intra-European tensions.” He argues that European Muslims should not be viewed “as a distinct group of political actors.” Rather, he states that European Muslims and non-Muslims both inhabit “a normative landscape in Europe dominated by the vying public philosophies of liberalism, nationalism, and postmodernism.”

O’Brien is Professor of Political Science at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.  He was educated at Kalamazoo College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He has served as a Social Science Research Council Fellow at the Free University in Berlin and as a Fulbright Professor at Bogazici University in Istanbul and the Humboldt University in Berlin.  O’Brien is the author of Beyond the Swastika (Routledge, 1996) and European Perceptions of Islam and America from Saladin to George W. Bush (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

Peter O’Brien discusses his new book in this interview. Continue reading

by ROXANNE PANCHASI for NEW BOOKS IN ISLAMIC STUDIES on JANUARY 5, 2016:

Mayanthi Fernando
Mayanthi Fernando

Mayanthi Fernando‘s The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (Duke University Press, 2014) is an important and provocative book. Drawing on years of field work, the book makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the complex interactions between religion and politics in contemporary France. Considering the Islamic revival and public debates provoked initially by the “headscarf crisis” of the late 1980s, the book examines the ethical, social, and political lives of the Muslim French men and women whose religiosity is so often regarded as “incommensurable” with the democratic culture and politics of the nation. Continue reading