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

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

An Interview with Duke’s new Turkish lecturing fellow, Didem Havlioglu

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary on OCTOBER 30, 2015: 

Didem Havlioglu

Didem Havlioglu, a new Turkish Lecturing Fellow in the Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, did her MA and PhD at the University of Washington, Seattle in Near and Middle East Studies. Her research focuses on Ottoman and Modern Turkish language and literature — in particular, gender and women in literature.

She’s been teaching Modern and Ottoman Turkish language for 15 years, and comes to Duke as a Turkish lecturing fellow, after having taught at Istanbul Sehir University (a new private school in Istanbul) for the past five years. During her tenure at Sehir, she helped start the Turkish language and literature department and the Turkish for International students program.

QUESTION: Which courses are you teaching this semester and next semester?

HAVLIOGLU: I am teaching Elementary and Intermediate Turkish this year at Duke and UNC-Chapel Hill. My students are interested in Turkish because they want to study Middle East history and culture. They usually go to a study abroad program at Bogazici University in Istanbul or through the Duke in Istanbul program. Upon their return, they take second or third year Turkish. They are all very good students who like thinking outside of the box. For this reason, the classes are fast paced and very enjoyable for all of us.

QUESTION: Do you think interest from students is picking up for learning Turkish?

HAVLIOGLU: I am very happy to find that more students are interested in Turkish language and culture every day. The study abroad and Duke in Istanbul programs are the initiators of this growing interest. After living in Turkey briefly, the students come back to Duke with a good understanding of what they want to do next. For instance, they want to continue exploring, if not expand their initial immersion in Turkish language and culture.

QUESTION: Why should students learn Turkish?

HAVLIOGLU: I have always found it odd when I hear people talking about teaching language, teaching culture, and teaching literature as three distinct areas. For me, language is culture, and literary and other texts are tools that offer insights into the target community’s minds and souls. Carefully chosen texts draw the learners in and awaken them to perspectives that they never knew they had, not only of the other, but also of themselves and their own culture. Likewise, language learning consists not only of learning linguistic structures but also of understanding how meaning, mentality, and worldview vary in different communities that use similar words.

Therefore, I believe, learning Turkish, just like any other language and culture can be instrumental in students’ ability to become world citizens where there are more differences than similarities. We live in a time now where the question is, “How will the world be different because I lived in it?” and I believe my students are the people who will change the way we think about borders that make people apart. Continue reading

by SHERALI TAREEN for NEW BOOKS IN ISLAMIC STUDIES on AUGUST 10, 2015: 

Bruce Lawrence

In his lyrical and brilliant new book Who is Allah? (UNC Press, 2015), the legendary scholar of Islam Bruce B. Lawrence, Professor Emeritus of Religion at Duke University, wrestles with the question of Who is Allah? through a dazzling range of textual, aesthetic, and performative registers.

Who is Allah? treats readers to a delectable buffet of the breadth and depth of Muslim spirituality. How do Muslims invoke, remember, define, and debate Allah, while seeking to live a life that accords with His norms and template of piety? That is the central question addressed in this book as Lawrence introduces readers to major facets of Muslim ritual life and intellectual traditions-both past and present. In our conversation, we talked about the idea of “performing Allah,” the intellectual history of the idea of Allah, Allah in the thought of the Muslim mystics Ibn ‘Arabi and Bawa Muhaiyuddin, the mobilization of Allah by Sayyid Qutb and Usama bin Laden, Allah online, and the Indian artist M.F Husain. Who is Allah? is a fascinating page turner that will make a great gift to family, friends, acquaintances and indeed strangers, and that should work splendidly in the context of classroom discussions on Muslim theology, Sufism, ritual practice, performance studies, and the fine arts.

LISTEN TO INTERVIEW WITH LAWRENCE

 
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.