by SHERALI TAREEN for NEW BOOKS IN ISLAMIC STUDIES on MAY 16, 2016: 

Dana Sajdi
Dana Sajdi

41mqa7HhOdL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_In her stunning new book The Barber of Damascus: Nouveau Literacy in the Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Levant (Stanford University Press, 2012), Dana Sajdi, Associate Professor of History at Boston College, presents a riveting narrative of the intersection of literature, religion, and history in early modern Muslim societies. She does so by focusing on the chronicle of a common Barber in 18th-century Damascus Shihab al-Din Ahmad Ibn Budayr. Through a close reading of the intellectual and political conditions that gave rise to such forms of nouveau literature and by carefully interrogating the themes, tensions, and reception of this text, Sajdi’s analysis provides a fascinating window into the complexity and diversity of knowledge traditions in the early modern context. Most importantly, this book serves the immensely important task of bringing into central view non-Ulama archives and imaginaries of history and history writing. In our conversation we discussed the key themes of this book such as the concept of nouveau literacy, the literary and political disorders in 18th century Damascus, Ibn Budayr’s biography and intellectual milieu, the emergence of non-‘ulama’ chronicle writers, and the later reception and reworking of Ibn Budayr’s chronicle. This nicely paced book should work very well in undergraduate and graduate courses on Muslim intellectual history, historiography, early modern Islam, and in surveys of Middle Eastern history. 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

Column » ‘By the Book’ with Joseph Preville

syriaby JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE and JULIE POUCHER HARBIN  for ISLAMiCommentary on DECEMBER 4, 2015:

Is there a more tragic country in the world today than Syria ?  How did it descend into chaos, conflict, and crisis?

John McHugo offers some answers in Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years (The New Press, 2015).

McHugo is a historian, international lawyer, and Arabic linguist.  Born in Croydon, England, he was educated at Oxford University and The American University in Cairo. McHugo is the author of A Concise History of the Arabs (Saqi Books, 2013; republished by The New Press, 2014) and the forthcoming book “The Forked Scimitar: A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is” (Saqi Books, 2017). He is also an adviser to Tim Farron, the leader of the British Liberal Democrat Party, on peace in the Middle East.

The long story of Syria is marked by centuries of conquest. McHugo states that Syria “has constantly been ruled and occupied (and sometimes partitioned) by strong rulers who came from elsewhere.” In the last hundred years, Syria’s fate was determined by Western powers and the regional turmoil they created.

“It is not an exaggeration,” he writes, “to say that the actions of the great powers in the aftermath of the Great War and over the following decades deprived the people of Syria of any chance of a normal development to nationhood.”

John McHugo reviews Syria’s complex history and offers insight into its future in this timely interview. Continue reading

by MATTHEW LONG for NEW BOOKS IN ISLAMIC STUDIES on SEPTEMBER 6, 2013: 

Nancy Khalek
Nancy Khalek

A top five finalist for the Best First Book in the History of Religion Award, Damascus after the Muslim Conquest (Oxford University Press, 2011) by Nancy Khalek, professor of Religious Studies at Brown University, is a study of the city of Damascus, the seat of power for the Umayyad dynasty.

More specifically, this book explores the interaction between the recently arrived Muslim Arab rulers and the Byzantine-Christian peoples who made up the majority of the population in Syria. Khalek employs both traditional historical texts, such as Ibn ‘Asākir’s Tārīkh Dimashq, along with art and architecture from the region. Continue reading

by BRUCE LAWRENCE (This essay will appear in the journal “Critical Muslim 2: The Idea of Islam” (Volume 2) to be published on September 25, 2012):

Muslim cosmopolitanism seemed to me the most natural of dinner table topics. But my family and friends    around the dinner table had other ideas. Many had never heard of Muslim cosmopolitanism, and so when I asked for initial responses to what it might mean, I received some unexpected responses.

My daughter thought it sounded like an oxymoron. Isn’t ‘cosmopolitan’ the opposite of religious identity? No one talks about Christian or Jewish cosmopolitans. How can there be Muslim cosmopolitans? My brother-in-law exclaimed, ‘I think it’s too elitist. After all, cosmopolitans are jet setters. Perhaps some wealthy Gulf Arabs might qualify. But the Arab spring is moving towards summer: no folks from Cairo or Tunis or Tripoli are eager to be called cosmopolitan, and so the term is meaningless for them, and for most Muslims.’