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

Column » ‘By the Book’ with Joseph Preville

by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE and JULIE POUCHER HARBIN  for ISLAMiCommentary on DECEMBER 4, 2015:

Is there a more tragic country in the world today than Syria ?  How did it descend into chaos, conflict, and crisis?

John McHugo offers some answers in Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years (The New Press, 2015).

McHugo is a historian, international lawyer, and Arabic linguist.  Born in Croydon, England, he was educated at Oxford University and The American University in Cairo. McHugo is the author of A Concise History of the Arabs (Saqi Books, 2013; republished by The New Press, 2014) and the forthcoming book “The Forked Scimitar: A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is” (Saqi Books, 2017). He is also an adviser to Tim Farron, the leader of the British Liberal Democrat Party, on peace in the Middle East.

The long story of Syria is marked by centuries of conquest. McHugo states that Syria “has constantly been ruled and occupied (and sometimes partitioned) by strong rulers who came from elsewhere.” In the last hundred years, Syria’s fate was determined by Western powers and the regional turmoil they created.

“It is not an exaggeration,” he writes, “to say that the actions of the great powers in the aftermath of the Great War and over the following decades deprived the people of Syria of any chance of a normal development to nationhood.”

John McHugo reviews Syria’s complex history and offers insight into its future in this timely interview. Continue reading

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary with NAZEEH ABDUL-HAKEEM on NOVEMBER 16, 2015: 

Nazeeh Zul-Kifl Abdul-Hakeem

In 1981, a Durham city planner, Nazeeh Zul-Kifl Abdul-Hakeem, helped found the Durham, North Carolina-based Jamaat Ibad Ar-Rahman Inc. (an Islamic center). He served as its president from 1983 until 1994 and continues to be actively involved through the present day.

This summer he self-published a book — “The Athaan in the Bull City: Building Durham’s Islamic Community” — which Duke Asian & Middle Eastern studies professor Mbaye Bashir Lo has called “a welcome entry into the local stories of Islam in America.”

“Nazeeh Abdul-Hakeem’s personal stories of transformation and ongoing struggle to establish a Muslim community in the Bull City are a must read for anyone who is interested in the local discourse on Americanizing Islam and/or Islamizing America,” wrote Lo in a review.

Nazeeh estimates that about one-quarter to one-third of the more than 5,000 Muslims living in Durham County today are black. (A documentary produced by local WRAL-TV in 2012 estimated that there were around 26,000 total Muslims in North Carolina, or less than 1% of the state’s population.)

From the 1880s to the 1940s Durham was known as the “Black Capital of the South,” and blacks in Durham have been politically active since the Civil Rights Movement. Against this backdrop, Nazeeh writes, the Nation of Islam developed “a very strong presence” in Durham. This was during the time of Elijah Muhammad (the founder of NOI) and of Malcolm X, who came to Durham in 1963 to debate “the future of the Negro” with Floyd B. McKissick Sr. For a long time the Nation of Islam was the very face of Islam in America.

One of the major objectives of the Jamaat Ibad Ar-Rahman community, however, was to provide Islamic education for black Muslims in Durham that Nazeeh and others felt was lacking.

“Having escaped the woefully lacking Islamic understanding of the Nation of Islam and the World Community of Islam in the West, black American Muslims were faced with the onslaught of propagators of foreign Islamic movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Jamaat Islami, Jamaat Tabligh, and Sufism, along with Shee’ah Islam, which had a false standing among some black American Muslims as a result of the Iranian Revolution,” Nazeeh writes in his book. “Many of us found ourselves longing for the time when American Muslims would have their own scholars to help us follow the right way and focus on specific issues that Muslims faced in our country.” Continue reading

by KRISTIAN PETERSEN for NEW BOOKS IN ISLAMIC STUDIES on AUGUST 25, 2015:

Kecia Ali
Kecia Ali

Muhammad is remembered in a multitude of ways, by both Muslims and non-Muslims. And through each retelling we learn a great deal not only about Muhammad but about the social milieu of the authors. In The Lives of Muhammad (Harvard University Press, 2014), Kecia Ali, Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University, explores how several central components of the Muhammad biographical narrative are reframed by various authors within modern accounts.

Lives of MuhammadWe find that biographers’ notions of historicity changed over time, emphasis on the miraculous and supernatural events in Muhammad’s life are interpreted differently, and Muhammad’s network of relationships, including successors, companions, and family members gain wider interest during this period. We also find that from the nineteenth century onwards, Muhammad is often framed within the history of ‘great men,’ alongside figures like Jesus, Buddha, or Plato. Descriptions of Muhammad’s life cross a range of genres, such as hagiographical, polemical, political, or seeking to facilitate inter-religious dialogue. In our conversation we just begin to scratch the service of this rich book, including Ibn Ishaq, sexual ethics, revisionism, Muhammad’s first wife, Khadija, and young wife, Aisha, Orientalist William Muir, polygamy, attempts to counter perceived Western misinterpretations, marital ideals, and contemporary anti-Muslim animus.

LISTEN to interview with ALI

In September 2014 the Duke Islamic Studies Center (which manages the Transcultural Islam Project of which TIRN and ISLAMiCommentary is a part), announced its official institutional affiliation with New Books in Islamic Studies — a bi-weekly audio podcast featuring hour long conversations with authors of exciting new research. For an archive see HERE.

 

One scholar’s response to Reza Aslan and Hasan Minhaj’s “Open Letter to American Muslims on Same Sex Marriage” 

by ALI A. OLOMI for ISLAMiCommentary on JULY 17, 2015:

“Aqa Mirak” – 16th Safavid watercolor by Aqa Mirak depicting two young princes and lovers. (currently located in the Smithsonian)

Since the legalization of same-sex marriage by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26th 2015, various religious groups have responded to the ruling. Muslim Americans, who themselves are a minority group in the United States, have struggled to find consensus.

Some have openly condemned the ruling. Others have urged a more hesitant acceptance of the court’s decision. Cognizant of the precarious position of minorities in the United States, Imam Suhaib Webb posted an online message where he encouraged a nuanced perspective that respected the ruling and supported it politically, while acknowledging the theological and ethical dilemmas for conservative Muslims. A group of Afghan American thinkers and activists on The Samovar Network took a more accepting stance when they held an online panel (via a Google hangout) and showed support for the ruling and the LGBTQ community as a whole.

Author, Reza Aslan and comedian, Hasan Minhaj wrote an open letter, published in Religion Dispatches, to Muslim Americans encouraging acceptance and tolerance, reminding Muslims that they too are a minority in the United States and should stand for the rights of their fellow minorities.

People were surprised by the letter and some have attributed the position of the authors to Western influence. Popular representations in America and Europe, tend to depict Muslims as staunchly against same-sex marriage. But I would point out that positions like Reza’s and others like him actually highlight a forgotten part of Islamic history. Continue reading