by KRISTIAN PETERSEN for NEW BOOKS IN ISLAMIC STUDIES on JUNE 2, 2016: 

Edward Said’s 1978 book, Orientalism, dramatically shifted how people think about the production of knowledge and representations of the Other. His ideas have been championed and critiqued with dozens of books expanding his work on the construction of the East in western imagination. However, very rarely have we investigated the dual move of representing the Other and self-representation from the other perspective. In his new book, Arab Occidentalism: Images of America in the Middle East (I.B.Tauris, 2015), Eid Mohamed, Assistant Professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, has undertaken this task.

With great success he offers a portrait of the shifting attitudes towards America and American Culture in the Arab imagination in the post 9/11 media landscape. He found that Arab cultural producers have a complicated relationship with America, seeing it as problematic while also often representative of their own values. Mohamed delineates how this debate unfolds in literature, cinema, and news media. In our conversation we explored the dynamics of Occidentalism through Arabic novels about Egyptians living abroad in the United States, news depictions of the 2008 shoe throwing event with President George W. Bush in Iraq, the reactions to the election of Barack Obama, the Egyptian film industry, and contemporary Arab-American literary products.

LISTEN TO INTERVIEW WITH MOHAMED

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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

One scholar’s response to Reza Aslan and Hasan Minhaj’s “Open Letter to American Muslims on Same Sex Marriage” 

by ALI A. OLOMI for ISLAMiCommentary on JULY 17, 2015:

"Aqa Mirak" - 16th Safavid watercolor by Aqa Mirak depicting two young princes and lovers. (currently located in the Smithsonian)
“Aqa Mirak” - 16th Safavid watercolor by Aqa Mirak depicting two young princes and lovers. (currently located in the Smithsonian)

Since the legalization of same-sex marriage by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26th 2015, various religious groups have responded to the ruling. Muslim Americans, who themselves are a minority group in the United States, have struggled to find consensus.

Some have openly condemned the ruling. Others have urged a more hesitant acceptance of the court’s decision. Cognizant of the precarious position of minorities in the United States, Imam Suhaib Webb posted an online message where he encouraged a nuanced perspective that respected the ruling and supported it politically, while acknowledging the theological and ethical dilemmas for conservative Muslims. A group of Afghan American thinkers and activists on The Samovar Network took a more accepting stance when they held an online panel (via a Google hangout) and showed support for the ruling and the LGBTQ community as a whole.

Author, Reza Aslan and comedian, Hasan Minhaj wrote an open letter, published in Religion Dispatches, to Muslim Americans encouraging acceptance and tolerance, reminding Muslims that they too are a minority in the United States and should stand for the rights of their fellow minorities.

People were surprised by the letter and some have attributed the position of the authors to Western influence. Popular representations in America and Europe, tend to depict Muslims as staunchly against same-sex marriage. But I would point out that positions like Reza’s and others like him actually highlight a forgotten part of Islamic history. Continue reading

by ELLIOTT BAZZANO for NEW BOOKS IN ISLAMIC STUDIES on MARCH 10, 2015:

Sophia Rose Arjana
Sophia Rose Arjana

In Muslims in the Western Imagination (Oxford University Press, 2015), Sophia Rose Arjana explores a variety of creative productions—including art, literature, film—in order to tell a story not about how Muslims construct their own identities but rather about how Western thinkers have constructed ideas about Muslims and monsters. To what extent are these imaginary constructs real? Is it possible for one’s imagination to create things that are more telling than what is actually real?

61syyE0kiML._SL160_Arjana’s monograph is compelling, in part, because of the plethora of examples she offers—from a range of cultures and time periods—to help us understand just how deeply stereotypes and fears run in the very fabric of Western imaginations. She demonstrates, in fact, that it’s not just Muslims who are portrayed in troubling ways, but also characters that seem foreign to any extent. Dracula, for example, pushes boundaries between Muslim and Jewish — and is also not quite human; in this way, Arjana draws important parallels between the historically contingent categories of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Continue reading

Column » ‘By the Book’ with Joseph Preville

by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE and JULIE POUCHER HARBIN for ISLAMiCommentary/TIRN on OCTOBER 9, 2014: 

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 feminismandreligion.com, cognoscenti.wbur.org, and huffingtonpost.com.

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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