Academic research across borders faces hurdles when it comes to Iran, Syria, Sudan, and Cuba

by Tara García Mathewson for EducationDIVE on MAY 26, 2015: 

The United States names only four countries on its State Sponsors of Terrorism List — Iran, Syria, Sudan, and Cuba, though the latter is expected to come off that list in the coming weeks. The government has determined these countries have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” according to the State Department’s website, and has responded with a set of sanctions based on that activity.

While scholarly pursuits generally rise above political disagreements, the nation’s colleges and universities are affected by U.S. sanctions. In February, the University of Massachusetts Amherst made its policy of restricting access by Iranian students to certain science and engineering programs public. Administrators said the policy conflicted with the institution’s values, but they didn’t believe they had a choice in its implementation because of federal sanctions aiming to prevent Iranian students from taking nuclear concepts back to Iran.

After a week of intense criticism, and clarification from the State Department, the university backtracked on its policy. KEEP READING



Michael Birkel

Unknown-1Michael Birkel‘s Qur’an in Conversation (Baylor University Press, 2014) challenges its readers to think deeply about the Qur’an. The book will likely leave the reader with many answers but also many questions. By drawing on academic scholars, imams, lawyers, and activists this edited volume presents a series of compelling, masterfully written, digestible, and personal accounts of the Qur’an.

It addresses tough questions about violence, gender, interfaith relations, and authority, but not in an apologetic manner. The authors make clear that the Qur’an is not merely an old text, but also a living text, teeming with evolving interpretations and debates. Because all of the writers are based in the United States, moreover, the Qur’an in Conversation seamlessly incorporates discussions of the Qur’an with contemporary issues in American culture.

It thus becomes clear that the Qur’an is an American text as well as an Arabic text and a Muslim text. The chapters are arranged thematically, and one could reasonably read them sequentially or not, depending on the purpose. The text, therefore, offers a range of pedagogical functions and is sure to benefit classroom use, especially because of its readable and erudite prose. Birkel has set a high bar for future edited volumes that follow models anything like Qur’an in Conversation.



In September 2014 the Duke Islamic Studies Center (which manages the Transcultural Islam Project of which TIRN 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.


Below is a list of books that I highly recommend to anyone interested in understanding re-interpretations of Islam, alternative readings to the traditionalist ones that are largely patriarchal in nature, or otherwise scholarship that complicate simplified ideas of Islam, women, gender, and sexuality. These books may be a response to western, orientalist images of gender issues in Islam and Muslim societies, or they may be a response to traditionalist, patriarchal Islam’s problematic assumptions and teachings of women, gender, and sexuality — or both, as is often the case.  Either way, the following are breaths of fresh air, I promise.

Needless to say, the list is not comprehensive and not intended to be such.  I invite – and will appreciate – any and all additions.

In addition to the following scholarship, another great resource is the Religion and Feminism blog where Kecia Ali, Laury Silvers, Amina Wadud, and other Muslims write frequently on Islamic feminism and related themes. Please click these links to reach the writings of the respective authors: Kecia Ali | Laury Silvers | Amina Wadud | Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente | Jameelah X. Medina | And let me do some shameless self-promotion or whatevz and link y’all to my article over at the same blog titled Why I am an Islamic Feminist.

Islamic Feminism, Feminist/Progressive/Gender-Egalitarian Interpretations of Islam

Listed in order of author’s last name. KEEP READING FOR THE LIST

Continue reading


A March 24 conversation on contemporary Arabic fiction — between short-story writers Hassan Blasim and Hisham Bustani, editors Jennifer Acker and John Siciliano, scholar Mohamed El Sawi Hassan, and publisher Michel Moushabeck — is now online:

Photos from Amherst College.

Although Bustani loomed over the other conversants on a screen, he was originally meant to participate in the Amherst College-based talk in person. However, because his US visa went in for “additional scrutiny,”  he instead joined the talk, called “Contemporary Arabic Fiction: A Conversation,” via Skype. Continue reading


Jamal Elias (from his academic page)
Jamal Elias (from his academic page)
Aisha's Cushion (via Amazon)
Aisha’s Cushion (via Amazon)

In his remarkable new book Aisha’s Cushion: Religious Art, Practice, and Perception in Islam (Harvard University Press, 2012), Jamal Elias, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, presents a magisterial study of Muslim attitudes towards visual culture, images, and perception.

Through meticulous historical and textual analysis, Elias successfully unravels the stereotype that there is no place for visual images in Islam, or that calligraphy represents the only normative form of art in Islam. He shows that throughout history Muslims have approached the question of images and art in a much more nuanced and complicated fashion, while negotiating important philosophical, theological, and perceptual considerations.

He argues that “Muslim thinkers have developed systematic and advanced theories of representation and signification, and that many of these theories have been internalized by Islamic society at large and continue to inform cultural attitudes toward the visual arts.” Continue reading