“Opinion leaders and policy-makers unfortunately have a tendency to equate Lebanese Shi‘ism with Hizbullah and to assume all Shi‘a are connected to Iran. My book documents very different dynamics. I do examine the spread of the Arab-Israeli conflict to Senegal, but this plays out differently in the diaspora than it does in Lebanon. I also illustrate the making of an indigenous African Shi‘ism that, while inspired by the Iranian revolution, does not aim to establish an Islamic government and overthrow Senegal’s secular state. It is important that policy-makers better understand the complexities of the dynamic – not static – Shi‘i Muslim world.” —- Mara Leichtman, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University



Mara Leichtman
Mara Leichtman

This past Fall, Mara Leichtman, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University, published her latest book — Shi‘i Cosmopolitanisms in Africa: Lebanese Migration and Religious Conversion in Senegal (Indiana University Press, 2015). It followed her 2009 edited volume (with Mamadou Diouf) New Perspectives on Islam in Senegal: Conversion, Migration, Wealth, Power, and Femininity (Palgrave Macmillan).

Educated at the University of Michigan, Johns Hopkins University, and Brown University, Leichtman has been a visiting fellow at Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World in Leiden, the Netherlands, and the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University.

How did she come to be interested in the topic of Lebanese Shi‘a in Senegal?

Leichtman told ISLAMiCommentary that while earning her master’s degree in international relations from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University a professor gave her an article about the Lebanese community in Ivory Coast — knowing of her interests in both Africa and the Middle East. It piqued her curiosity.

So when she started the doctoral program in sociocultural anthropology at Brown University, she decided to research the Lebanese community in Abidjan.

“This was in 1999, when there was a coup d’état in Ivory Coast, which is what led me to Senegal, as a more stable option,” she said in a written interview with ISLAMiCommentary.

As her research got underway, Lebanese in Senegal regularly asked her why she wanted to study their community. In response she said she drew upon her origins in Michigan — and its significant Lebanese (and particularly Lebanese Shi‘i) community.

“My mother happened to work at the time with a woman of Lebanese origin who was born in a village in Senegal,” she said. “Lebanese in Senegal were delighted to hear of this personal connection.”

While she set out to study the Shi‘i Lebanese community in West Africa, she didn’t know in advance that she would also find Senegalese Shi‘i converts.

Senegal is predominantly Sunni Muslim (94%) following the Maliki school of jurisprudence with Sufi influences. While Shi‘i Muslims make up only a small minority of the population, Leichtman said the number is growing as Senegalese convert. (Christians make up about 5% of the Senegalese population, and an even smaller demographic continues to practice what is referred to as “African traditional religion.”)

It was the first Lebanese shaykh in Senegal, Shaykh Abdul Mun‘am al-Zayn, who initially told Leichtman that Senegalese were converting to Shi‘i Islam. She was able to eventually connect with Senegalese Shi‘i leaders through Walfadjri, a media conglomerate that hosted a weekly radio show featuring Muslims of different denominations and regularly invited various Senegalese Shi‘a to participate.

In this interview, Leichtman introduces us to these communities and the importance of learning more about them. Continue reading

WATCH ABOVE: A poetry reading and contextualization of the Islamic Mystic Ibn Al-Arabi by Professor Michael Sells, John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature, University of Chicago Divinity School. (Introduction to Sells by Ellen McLarney, Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature and Culture)


An Interview with University of Chicago Islamic History & Literature Professor Michael Sells

by ABDUL LATIF for ISLAMiCommentary on NOVEMBER 3, 2015:

Michael Sells holds a workshop at Duke University on the Qu'ran and it's listeners.
Michael Sells holds a workshop at Duke University on the Qu’ran and it’s listeners.

In early October the University of Chicago’s John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature Michael Sells visited Duke University for two talks; “Translator of Desires” — a poetry reading of the Islamic mystic Abu Bakr ibn al-Arabi; and a workshop on the Qur’an and its listeners.

Sells studies and teaches in the areas of Qur’anic studies, Sufism, Arabic and Islamic love poetry, mystical literature (Greek, Islamic, Christian, and Jewish), and religion and violence.

I had the opportunity to sit down with him on October 2 to talk about his research.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

QUESTION: What brought you to the study of Islam and Arabic poetry?

SELLS: In college, I was a student abroad in Italy and we had vacations. In one vacation I went to Tunis. I walked from the French part of the city into the old city and saw the different textures and intricacies of life, and I thought, “This is a culture and a world I want to be involved in.” I subsequently went back to Tunis, and later went to Cairo for a year. There I became fascinated with the pervasiveness of the Qur’an recitation. And Cairo of course was the center of the explosion of the use of radio and cassettes. The great Egyptian reciters played on television, radio. People were reciting in the streets on different occasions, and I became convinced that this was a central aspect of the Qur’an. Continue reading


Call for Papers, 12th Annual Duke-UNC Islamic Studies Graduate Student Workshop, 21-22 March 2015, deadline for applications: 20 Dec. 2014.

The Duke-UNC Islamic Studies Graduate Student Organizing Committee is pleased to accept abstracts for our twelfth annual workshop on “Imagining the Beautiful.” We aspire to create a forum to think through theory and method in concert with the Study of Islam broadly defined. We welcome attempts to push the limits of Islamic Studies as traditionally constituted within the academy, as well as pushing the theory of limits/limits of theory that has long ignored the value of Islamicate materials. We are particularly interested in providing a forum for those exploring and developing cutting edge research and innovative approaches to this subject from the perspective of critical theory. Possible themes for papers include but are not limited to: aesthetics & power, art & architecture, stage & screen, social media, music & performance, theology & law. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading


In a well-attended October workshop at Duke on Islamic Institutions of Higher Learning in Africa: Their History, Mission and Role in Regional Development, which drew a number of scholars and administrators from the U.S. and Africa, Dr. Moshood Mahmud Jimba (Kwara State University, Nigeria) presented a paper on ‘The Role of Al-Azhar University in Educating the Nigerian Youth:  Ilorin – Al-Azhar Institute as a Case Study.”

(Al-Azhar University, in Cairo, Egypt, was founded in the tenth century as a centre of Islamic learning is today the chief center of Arabic literature and Islamic learning in the world)

While he was at Duke, I had an opportunity to interview Jimba on the impact of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University on Islamic higher education in Nigeria, as well both the positive contributions of Islamic higher education to society and its limits (within the Nigerian context). Continue reading