What can the past tell us about the present? This question, once the bedrock of historical enquiry, faded from the academic imagination after the post-structural turn. As utilitarian and deterministic understandings of the past came under attack for ossifying ‘traditions’, a new periodization took shape–now familiar to anthropologists and historians alike–of a post-colonial present separated from its ‘authentic’ past by the unbridgeable gulf of European imperialism and colonial modernity. The workshop aims to probe the limits of this approach by bringing together anthropologists and historians interested in exploring the manifold relationships various pasts have with the present day world.

The workshop will focus on Muslim societies as the primary context to conceptualize the interplay between historical inquiry and analysis of emergent social forms*. Our interest in Muslims societies is driven by the recent academic work on Muslim empires and networks (see Bibliography section). The emergent scholarship on networks and empires, venture beyond both postcolonial and textual approaches to Islam to highlight the complicated relationship of Muslim societies with the cultural geography of Eurasia, Africa, and the Indian Ocean. However, despite employing anthropological categories of analysis, this scholarship has yet to engage with ethnographic work on present day Muslim societies. To initiate a conversation between these ships passing in the night, we hope to press historians of Muslim empires and networks to speak about the past’s resonances with the discourses, practices, and structures explored in ethnographies. Conversely, we encourage anthropologists working on emerging social networks and political struggles in the broader Muslim world to focus, not only on the conditions of postmodernity, neoliberalism, and globalization, but also on regionally specific histories and memories, no matter how layered, distorted, or uneven. Continue reading

Column » ‘By the Book’ with Joseph Preville


Lives of Muhammad by Kecia Ali The life of Prophet Muhammad has inspired the development of a vast body of literature over the centuries. Kecia Ali takes a look at this diverse literature in her new book, The Lives of Muhammad (Harvard University Press, 2014). She points out that “among Muslims and among non-Muslims, various approaches to the Prophet’s life story coexist.” This is the heart of her fascinating study. “In the twenty-first century,” she argues, “it makes no sense to speak of Muslim views of Muhammad in opposition to Western or Christian views. Instead, the images of Muhammad that contemporary Muslims hold fervently and defend passionately arose in tandem and in tension with western European and North American intellectuals’ accounts of his life.”

For an excerpt from The Lives of Muhammad, focusing on The Prophet’s wife Aisha, see here.

Ali is an Associate Professor of Religion at Boston University who writes on early Islamic law, women, ethics, and biography. In addition to her newest book The Lives of Muhammad (2014), other books include Sexual Ethics and Islam (2006), Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam (2010), and Imam Shafi’i: Scholar and Saint (2011). From time to time she blogs at,, and

Here’s an exclusive Q & A with Ali:

What inspired your interest in how Muhammad has been portrayed over the centuries?

Kecia Ali
Kecia Ali

My first two books (linked above) focused on Islamic law, with a lot of attention to marriage. In doing that research, I came across quite divergent portraits of Muhammad as a husband in early texts compared to modern ones, which started me thinking. Then I wrote a biography of the ninth-century jurist Imam Shafi‘i, which got me interested in biography as a genre: what does it mean to tell the story of someone’s life? It was a natural progression to start looking at biographies of the Prophet. Once I started, I was fascinated with how authors rejected, recycled, and reworked earlier material. A twentieth century Indian author references—without apparent irony—a seventeenth-century English polemicist. An Egyptian author plagiarizes a French biographer, while simultaneously lambasting Orientalists. The way that Muslim and non-Muslim writings about Muhammad have become inextricably intertwined says a great deal about a shared turn to ideals of objectivity, historicity, and fact.

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Duke alumnus returns to lead Islamic Studies Center


The new director of Islamic studies Omid Safi wants Duke faculty to fill in those key elements that are missing in the current public discussion on Islam. Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke University Photography
The new director of Islamic studies Omid Safi wants Duke faculty to fill in those key elements that are missing in the current public discussion on Islam. Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke University Photography

Omid Safi came to Duke two decades ago “a shy, geeky poor immigrant kid from Iran.” He returns now as a senior faculty member determined to repay a debt for allowing him “to dream dreams I didn’t even know I was capable of.”

The new William and Bettye Martin Musham Director for Islamic Studies, Safi takes leadership of a program at both a flourishing and contentious time for the study of Islam.  One public conversation on Islam tends to focus on the acts of armed groups, or self-proclaimed Islamists, but Safi said a larger conversation within Islam is also occurring, one that is both historic and welcome, although often less visible to the larger world.

“The visible public conversation about Islam right now is a crisis-driven one” Safi said. “The discourse jumps from Arab Spring to Libya to ISIS to Gaza and that’s understandable and driven in part by nature of corporate media.

“But that misses something dramatic and profound:  we are living in an age of excitement and ferment within the Muslim-majority context. Virtually every issue of import – gender, the relationship to the state, pluralism, who can interpret scripture, citizenship, resistance and violence – all are being debated in elite and popular circles.

“It would be unthinkable 25 years ago that large numbers of women, in bold fashion and all over the political spectrum are speaking out not just as subjects of religious discussions but as their articulators.  This is getting missed by the rest of the world, and I would like to shine a light on these debates and developments.”

Safi comes to the Duke Islamic Studies Center (DISC) expecting DISC faculty be a prominent part of the public discourse around Islam.

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via SOUNDCLOUD/Forum Transregionale Studien, SUMMER 2014:

The lecture of Ella Shohat »The Question of Judeo-Arabic(s): Itineraries of Belonging« was held on 27 June 2014 and was part of the workshop »The Possibilities of Arab-Jewish Thought« (25—27 June 2014, Forum Transregionale Studien). It was recently made available.

Ella Habiba Shohat is Professor of Cultural Studies at New York University, and has lectured and written extensively on issues having to do with Eurocentrism, Orientalism, Postcolonialism, transnationalism, and diasporic cultures. More specifically, since the 1980s she has developed critical approaches to the study of Arab-Jews/Sephardim/Mizrahim.

compiled by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, TIRN (with listings from Sociology of Islam Listserv), SEPTEMBER 2014:

41kmqMkK9sL._SL160_by Kristian Petersen on September 2, 2014: 

Divine Love: Islamic Literature and the Path to God

by William Chittick

Yale University Press, 2013

Where does love come from and where will it lead us? Throughout the years various answers have been given to these questions. In Divine Love: Islamic Literature and the Path to God (Yale University Press, 2013), William Chittick, professor at Stony Brook University, responds to these queries from the perspective of the rich literary traditions of Islam. He reveals how some Muslims explained the origins, life, and goal of love through a detailed investigation of authors writing in Persian and Arabic mainly from the eleventh to twelfth centuries. For these authors, love is manifest through the relationship between God and creation in all of its various iterations.

9781780768885via Houman Sarshar (Director of publications at the Center for Iranian Jewish Oral History in Los Angeles, and consulting editor of Judeo-Persian Studies for the Encyclopaedia Iranica) through Sociology of Islam Listserv. 

The Jews of Iran: The History, Religion and Culture of a Community in the Islamic World

by Houman Sarshar 

I.B.Tauris,  Aug 2014

Book Synopsis:

Living continuously in Iran for over 2700 years, Jews have played an integral role in the history of the country. Frequently understood as a passive minority group, and often marginalized by the Zoroastrian and succeeding Muslim hegemony, the Jews of Iran are instead portrayed in this book as having had an active role in the development of Iranian history, society, and culture. Examining ancient texts, objects, and art from a wide range of times and places throughout Iranian history, as well as the medieval trade routes along which these would have travelled, The Jews of Iran offers in-depth analysis of the material and visual culture of this community. Additionally, an exploration of more modern accounts of Jewish women’s experiences sheds light on the social history and transformations of the Jews of Iran from the rule of Cyrus the Great (c. 600–530 BCE) to the Iranian Revolution of 1978/9.  This long view of the Jewish cultural influence on Iran’s social, economic, and political development makes this book a unique contribution to the field of Judeo-Iranian studies and to the study of Iranian history.


9780415743532via Jasmin Zine (Associate Professor, Department of Sociology & Muslim Studies Option,Cultural Analysis & Social Theory, Wilfrid Laurier University. Waterloo, ON) through Sociology of Islam Listserv. 

“Muslim Women, Transnational Feminism and the Ethics of Pedagogy: Contested Imaginaries in Post 9/11 Cultural Practice”

Co-edited by Jasmin Zine and Lisa K. Taylor

Routledge Press (2014) 

This book combines scholarly analyses with artist interviews and speaks to undergrad & grad courses in sociology, education, women’s studies, cultural studies, literary and cinema studies and religious or Middle Eastern Studies.

Book Synopsis:

The decade since 9/11 has seen an accelerated circulation and enthusiastic reception of representations of Muslim women’s lives. Marketed as a vehicle of intercultural understanding within the context of the “war on terror”, these representations are neither random nor innocent but rather reflect and participate in a long Orientalist and imperialist history. Contributors to this volume examine the hegemonic and contested global production and reception of narrative and visual representations of Muslim and Arab women’s lives in literature, poetry, cinema, television, visual art, and popular culture as well as college classrooms.

This edited collection provides a timely exploration of transnational and anticolonial feminist analyses that can work against sensationalized and stereotypical representations of Muslim women. It addresses the gap in contemporary conversations on the teaching of literary and cultural texts by and about Muslim and Arab women, bringing scholars from the fields of education, literary and cultural studies, and Muslim women’s studies to examine the politics and ethics of transnational anti-colonial reading practices and pedagogy.

The book is unique in bringing scholarship in conversation with interviews with Muslim and Arab women artists and cultural producers reflecting on the transformative role of the arts as a form of critical public pedagogy and the larger context shaping/addressed by their practice. Continue reading