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

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

by SHERALI TAREEN for NEW BOOKS IN ISLAMIC STUDIES on FEBRUARY 8, 2016: 

Kishwar Rizvi
Kishwar Rizvi

51Nnb3ZnCXL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_In her excellent new book The Transnational Mosque: Architecture and Historical Memory in the Contemporary Middle East (UNC Press, 2015), Kishwar Rizvi, Associate Professor of the History of Art at Yale University, interrogates the interaction of history, memory, and architecture by exploring arguably the most important sacred space in Islam: the mosque.

By combining the study of religion, history, and architecture in the most compelling of ways, Rizvi highlights the material and political significance of the mosque as a transnational symbol. While focused on the contexts of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, the theoretical insights of this richly textured book extend much beyond the contemporary Middle East. In our conversation, we talked about the concept of the transnational mosque, the historicist desires and assumptions that often undergird projects of mosque construction in Muslim societies, the transnational mosque, religious identity and international politics, and ways in which mobile networks of architects and corporations reorient our understanding of what we mean by the Middle East. Continue reading

by SHERALI TAREEN for NEW BOOKS IN ISLAMIC STUDIES on DECEMBER 30, 2015: 

Afsaneh Najmabadi
Afsaneh Najmabadi

41ZmP2xEtnL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In her fascinating new book Professing Selves: Transsexuality and Same-Sex Desire in Contemporary Iran (Duke University Press, 2015), Afsaneh Najmabadi, Professor of History and of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University, explores shifting meanings of transsexuality in contemporary Iran. By brilliantly combining historical and ethnographic inquiry, Najmabadi highlights the complex ways in which biomedical, psychiatric, and Islamic jurisprudential discourses and institutions conjoin to generate particular notions of acceptable and unacceptable sexuality. Moreover, she also shows some of the paradoxical ways in which state regulation enables certain possibilities and spaces for nonheteronormative sexuality in Iran. Continue reading