via JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN CENTER on APRIL 12, 2016: 

Professor Abdul Sattar Jawad recently presented, “The Arabian Nights in America” during his Wednesdays at the Center lecture at the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke University.

The Thousand and One Nights [alf Layla wa Layla] is the most popular world literature in the West. These Oriental Frame Tales captured the imagination of generations of Western readers and prominent writers in presenting fairy tales, romances, fables, legends, parables, anecdotes, erotica, debates, and exotic adventures. Ali Baba, Sindbad, and Aladdin and his Magic Lamp, hooked the attention of young and adults readers all over the world. The Nights, in their rich and exotic imagination, inspired poets, writers, and artists from medieval European Literature to Postmodernism. Professor Abdul Sattar Jawad explored how the Arabian Nights inspired leading American writers like Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain, and Herman Melville as well as folklore artists.

“We have to recognize that there are several shattered political visions that are still with us and there are several unhealed traumas or wounds – the Armenians, Kurds, Palestinians (for example)…we are still dealing with the long-term legacy of these unhealed wounds.” — Cemil Aydin, UNC-Chapel Hill

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary, on APRIL 20, 2016:

i-WD6Jb54-X3It’s been 100 years since the Sykes–Picot Agreement divided the Middle East into spheres of British and French influence that transformed the Middle East. In the aftermath of World War I, the religiously, linguistically and ethnically diverse Ottoman Empire was divided up into a collection of small states, each with its own ruling group under the control of European powers. “Ottomans” became Syrians, Iraqis, Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis and Turks.

“New states created new refugees, new nationalities defined new minorities, and new codes of law demanded new rights,” said UNC-Chapel Hill history professor Sarah Shields, who organized this year’s Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies conference – a forum that sought to bring much-needed historical context to today’s struggles over belonging, identities and the map of the Middle East.

In introductory remarks at the public conference, UNC-Chapel Hill sociologist and co-director of the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East & Muslim Civilizations Charles Kurzman reminded the audience that “those new nations, after generations may seem like they were always here but in fact World War I and its aftermath helped to create them.”

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Shrine of Cheikh Moussa Kamara. (photo by Mbaye Lo)
Shrine of Cheikh Moussa Kamara. (photo by Mbaye Lo)

a Scholar’s Notebook feature 

by MBAYE LO for ISLAMiCommentary on APRIL 19, 2016:

Professor Mbaye Lo (far right) with some acquaintances in Fuuta Toro
Professor Mbaye Lo (far right) with some acquaintances in Fuuta Toro (photo courtesy of Mbaye Lo)

After 15 hours of traveling by buses, taxis and horse-drawn carriages, I finally arrived at a border village on the bank of the river that divides Senegal and Mauritania. The village of Ganguel Soulé is located in Fuuta Toro, a West African region of cultural influence, learning and resilience. This is the land that produced the family of *Cheikh Usman dan Fodio, the 18th century leader of Nigeria’s Islamic revival movement and the founder the Sokoto Caliphate in Northern Nigeria. (henceforth the French spelling of Sheikh – Cheikh – will be used)

From this land also came Abdoul Kader Kane (d.1807), founder of the Almamate dynasty that sought to put an end to the Atlantic slave trade by imposing martial control of European ships passing through their territories. Cheikh el-Hadji Omar Tall, the last leader of the jihad movements against the French West Africa Federation project in 1850s also hailed from here. Fuuta Toro is also likely to be the birthplace of Omar Ibn Said, the Muslim American slave whose Arabic autobiography serves as a valuable sourcebook for antebellum black writing and history.

My visit here had both an academic and personal purpose. My mother’s side of the family is from Fuuta, and it was never clear to us growing-up why my ancestral great-great-grandfather left this region of Fuuta Toro in the early nineteenth century to move to the most western region known as Kajoor. Most aspects of family oral history talk about the devastation caused by Kane’s resistance against the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. However, these issues are considered long-gone memories that people are neither interested nor comfortable remembering. Only a few Senegalese academics, for example Ibrahima Seck, are spending their lives looking at the local and cross-continental intricacies of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.

My host, Cernoo Kamara, wasn’t interested in yesterday’s questions either. He is a marabou (a sufi religious leader) who has become accustomed to silence, and people around him are also used to him speaking only in time of extreme need.

“Welcome home,” he murmured when his personal driver picked me up at the bank of the river. (“Birds also go home when is dark-out there,” were his last few words as we parted later that night.)

“This is a house of service: reading and writing,” he told me early the next day as he walked me through the compound of his esteemed grandfather Cheikh Moussa Kamara. There were books, clusters of old papers, and manuscripts everywhere. Kids from the neighborhood were up at dawn rehearsing the sacred text at the compound’s Quranic school before breakfast and regular schooling. Continue reading

by ALI OLOMI for ISLAMiCommentary on MARCH 30, 2016: 

An image from the "Kitab Al-Aghani" by Al Isfahani, who wrote detailed biographies of the mukhannathum in the Umayyad and Abbasid period.
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

by KRISTIAN PETERSEN for NEW BOOKS IN ISLAMIC STUDIES on MARCH 21, 2016: 

Kenneth Garden
Kenneth Garden

51J4NDLuKML._SL160_Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) is one of the most famous Muslim thinkers in history. His autobiographical account, The Deliverer from Error, tells us of his spiritual crisis and transformative experience of journeying, which lead to his subsequent life as a pious recluse. From this experience al-Ghazali wrote his magnum opus, The Revival of the Religious Sciences, filled with mystical knowledge. At least that is how it has generally been read in the Euro-American tradition.

Kenneth Garden, Associate Professor at Tufts University, reexamines al-Ghazali’s work from an historical hermeneutical in The First Islamic Reviver: Abu Hamid al-Ghazali and his Revival of the Religious Sciences (Oxford University Press, 2014). Garden outlines the social and political contexts al-Ghazali’s life demonstrating he was an active participant in Seljuk empire. A close reading of The Revival of the Religious Sciences reveals al-Ghazali’s promotion of a revivalist vision of the tradition, which he called “Science of the Hereafter.” Garden also presents the strategies al-Ghazali utilized to campaign for The Revival of the Religious Sciences, the tactics of his opponents, and the historical context that may force us to rethink the purpose of his autobiography, The Deliverer from Error. In our conversation we discussed al-Ghazali’s social and political life, his relationship to philosophy and mysticism, the connections between his early and later writings, the content of The Revival of the Religious Sciences, accusations against him and his legal trial, and what lead to the widespread popularity and influence of al-Ghazali’s work. Continue reading