Earlier this month, the Duke Middle East Studies Center, in partnership with the Duke Center for Jewish Studies and the Duke University Program in Arts of the Moving Image,  screened Sajil Ana Arabi (“Write Down, I am an Arab”) — the 2014 documentary film about “one of the most influential writers of the Arab world” Mahmoud Darwish. It’s the ninth film of award-winning Israeli director Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin.

As written in the official description of the film:

“Write Down, I am an Arab” tells the story of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet and one of the most influential writers of the Arab world. His writing shaped Palestinian identity and helped galvanize generations of Palestinians to their cause. Born in the Galilee, Darwish’s family fled during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and returned a few years later to a ruined homeland. These early experiences would provide the foundation for a writing career that would come to define an entire nation. 

Like other Palestinian citizens of Israel at the time, Mahmoud Darwish grew up under military law that prevented freedom of movement. In 1964 his defiant poem, “Write Down, I am an Arab”, lands him in prison and turns him into an icon of the Arab world. At the same time, he meets and falls in love with Tamar Ben-Ami, a young Jewish-Israeli. He sends her intimate love letters in Hebrew which she keeps secret for decades. The affair ends when Tamar joins the army. 

Darwish leaves Israel in the 1970s, moving to Beirut just before the outbreak of the civil war, where he connects with the PLO leadership and becomes speech writer and confidant to Yasir Arafat. He returns to Palestine in 1995 after years of exile and continues to be the biting and powerful voice of the Palestinian people until his death in 2008. 

“Write Down, I am Arab” is a personal and social portrait of the poet and national myth, Mahmoud Darwish. Through his poetry, secret love letters, and exclusive archival materials, we unearth the story behind the man who became the mouthpiece of the Palestinian people.

Following the documentary screening, Shai Ginsburg (an associate professor of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies and Arts of the Moving Image at Duke University who researches Hebrew literature, Israeli Cinema, and critical theory) engaged the audience in a free-flowing discussion about the life of the famed writer and the literature and politics that informed his work, as well as the state of the Israeli film industry today.

ISLAMiCommentary conducted a written Q & A (below) with Ginsburg to elaborate on these themes and also spoke with miriam cooke (Braxton Craven Distinguished Professor of Arab Cultures at Duke University) about Darwish. Iraq-native Abdul Sattar Jawad (professor of comparative literature and Middle East studies at Duke University) traveled in some of the same Arab writer’s circles as Darwish from the ‘70s through to 2003. He got to know the writer personally, and has also added some of his reflections to the Q & A. Continue reading



Emran el-Badawi
Emran el-Badawi

The Qur’an and the Aramaic Gospel Traditions (Routledge, 2013) written by Emran El-Badawi, professor and director of the Arab Studies program at the University of Houston, is a recent addition to the field of research on the Qur’an and Aramaic and Syriac biblical texts. Professor El-Badawi asserts that the Qur’an is a product of an environment steeped in the Aramaic gospel traditions. Not a “borrowing” from the Aramaic gospel tradition, but rather the Qur’an contains a “dogmatic re-articulation” of elements from that tradition for an Arab audience.

He introduces and examines this context in the second chapter, and then proceeds to compare passages of the Qur’an and passages of the Aramaic gospel in the subsequent four chapters. These comparisons are organized according to four primary themes: prophets, clergy, the divine, and the apocalypse. Each chapter contains numerous images constituting the larger theme at work. For example in the chapter “Divine Judgment and the Apocalypse,” images of paradise and hell taken from gospel traditions are compared to the Qur’anic casting of these images. Moreover, Professor El-Badawi includes three indices following his concluding chapter that provide a great deal of raw data and textual parallels between the Qur’an and the wide range of sources he has employed.

The value of his work is evidenced by the fact it was nominated for the 2014 British-Kuwait Friendship Society’s Book Prize in Middle Eastern Studies.


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.


Asma Sayeed

Studies on the subject of women’s participation in religious and intellectual life in Islam have been few. Women and the Transmission of Religious Knowledge in Islam (Cambridge University Press, 2013) by Asma Sayeed, professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at UCLA, is a much needed addition to the fields of early and classical Islamic history, the study of hadith and its transmission, and women’s studies.

Unknown-1Professor Sayeed leads readers through nine centuries, from the seventh to sixteenth century CE, of religious, social, and intellectual history of women’s participation as transmitters of hadith, the words and actions of Muhammad. Women’s participation within this area was not static, but ebbed and flowed throughout history as demonstrated in this book’s four chapters. Women were critical in the dissemination of hadith in the first century of Islam. As the study of hadith became more specialized from the fourth to tenth century, women were marginalized as transmitters which Sayeed validates through biographical dictionaries and chronicles as well as quantitative data from chains of transmissions, isnads, from numerous hadith collections.

By the tenth century, the canonization of hadith was by and large complete. This ushered in a new phase in which women again became important actors in the reception and propagation of hadith. This period would last until the end of the Mamluk period and the rise of Ottomans in the sixteenth century, but this second decline would be for different reasons. Throughout each phase of this history, Professor Sayeed provides case studies on different women to further her argument on the participation of women, even at the least active moments, as propagators of hadith. Professor Sayeed has brought new understanding of women’s intellectual lives in the history of Islam and has opened the door for further inquiry into this subject. Continue 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

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