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


Kishwar Rizvi
Kishwar Rizvi

51Nnb3ZnCXL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_In her excellent new book The Transnational Mosque: Architecture and Historical Memory in the Contemporary Middle East (UNC Press, 2015), Kishwar Rizvi, Associate Professor of the History of Art at Yale University, interrogates the interaction of history, memory, and architecture by exploring arguably the most important sacred space in Islam: the mosque.

By combining the study of religion, history, and architecture in the most compelling of ways, Rizvi highlights the material and political significance of the mosque as a transnational symbol. While focused on the contexts of Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, the theoretical insights of this richly textured book extend much beyond the contemporary Middle East. In our conversation, we talked about the concept of the transnational mosque, the historicist desires and assumptions that often undergird projects of mosque construction in Muslim societies, the transnational mosque, religious identity and international politics, and ways in which mobile networks of architects and corporations reorient our understanding of what we mean by the Middle East. Continue reading

Column » ‘By the Book’ with Joseph Preville


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

Professor Mark R. Cohen delivering a lecture to a seminar room full of professors and graduate students at King Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (December 2014) Cohen gave two lectures there: “What is the Geniza and What does it tell us”  and “The Importance of the Geniza for Islamic History”
Professor Mark R. Cohen delivering a lecture to a seminar room full of professors and graduate students at King Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (December 2014)
Cohen gave two lectures there: “What is the Geniza and What Does it Tell Us?” and “The Importance of the Geniza for Islamic History”

Column » ‘By the Book’ with Joseph Preville

by JOSEPH RICHARD PREVILLE for ISLAMiCommentary on JANUARY 13, 2015: 

j8050(Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) History is a witness to the close relationship between Muslims and Jews. That was the message Profesor Mark R. Cohen delivered in two lectures at King Saud University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia last month on the Cairo Geniza and its importance for Islamic and Jewish history. The Geniza is a treasure trove of medieval Jewish documents housed in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, Egypt.

Cohen is Emeritus Professor of Near Eastern Studies and Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East, Emeritus at Princeton University. He was a visiting professor at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus during the Fall 2014 semester.

A professor at Princeton University from 1973-2013, Cohen is the author of Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt (Princeton University Press, 2005), The Voice of the Poor in the Middle Ages: An Anthology of Documents from the Cairo Geniza (Princeton University Press, 2005), and Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages (Princeton University Press, 1994; revised edition, 2008). He was awarded the first Goldziher Prize in 2010 for his scholarship promoting a better understanding between Muslims and Jews.

In this exclusive interview conducted in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Mark R. Cohen discusses his visit to Saudi Arabia, his career at Princeton, and his views on Muslim-Jewish coexistence. While the interview was conducted in December, its publication closely following the attacks in Paris is particularly timely.

Joseph Preville (l) and Mark Cohen (r) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Joseph Preville (l) and Mark Cohen (r) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Welcome to Riyadh. You’ve been writing about Islam and in particular the Jews of the Islamic world for many decades. What is it like to come to Saudi Arabia for the first time?

Here and also in Abu Dhabi, where I’ve been a visiting professor at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus this past semester, it’s been an eye-opening experience. It’s one thing to study Islam and the Arab world from far away, and, while I’ve visited Egypt and Jordan, I’ve never lived in an Arab country before. Here in Riyadh I’m the guest of King Saud University, particularly the Department of History. I was invited by the wing of the department that teaches Islamic history. They’ve welcomed me with open arms. They know my work.

My host is Dr. Torki Fahad Abdullah Al Saud. He finished his Ph.D. in Jewish Studies at Boston University in 2008 and wrote his dissertation on Maimonides and one other Jewish thinker from that time peiod. We’ve been in correspondence over the years, and he sends me his publications in Arabic. He’s an excellent scholar and one of the very few historians in the Arab world writing about the Jews under Islam. Continue reading

In January 2014, Mr Muhammad Alagil of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, endowed a Chair in Arabia-Asia Studies at the Asia Research Institute, NUS. In June 2014, the first Arabia-Asia conference held under the auspices of the Muhammad Alagil Distinguished Chair in Arabia-Asia Studies at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore(NUS), was convened. Engseng Ho, the Muhammad Alagil Distinguished Visiting Professor as of January 2014 (and Professor of Cultural Anthropology and History at Duke University) was the convener.  Mr Alagil and President Tan Chorh Chuan of NUS participating in the opening panel, along with ARI Director Prasenjit Duara and Alagil Chair Engseng Ho.


Engseng Ho
Engseng Ho

Prof Tan stressed the importance of Arabia-Asia relations, noting the existence of a new generation of scholars working in the field, and among them welcomed home NUS alumni who had continued their work in leading universities abroad. In doing so, he also alerted them to the founding of a new PhD programme in comparative and connective Asian studies at NUS.

Prof Duara emphasised the thematic and strategic importance of Asian connections to ARI and to Singapore, and welcomed the addition of Arabia-Asia to this nexus.

Mr Alagil observed that while relations between the Middle East and the West have been full of conflicts and wars, relations between Arabia and Asia were much more peaceful and historically deep; and they were resurgent today. Yet the former has been widely studied, while the latter neglected. Mr Alagil explained that the naming of the chair—Arabia-Asia— was meant to make clear this contrast. Here was a historic opportunity for scholars to study Arabia-Asia, as has been done for relations between the Middle East and the West.

Indeed, Arabia-Asia relations cover a broad canvas, encompassing trade, diplomacy, labour, religion, language, literature, kinship and culture. This breadth of engagement was represented in the audience, who filled the ARI seminar room to capacity, and included prominent leaders in diplomacy, government, finance and the Singapore Arab community. The theme of the conference, that Arabia-Asia relations were like Slender But Supple Threads, not always thick or visible, but nevertheless strong and enduring, resonated with the audience. At the opening panel, a number of them were moved to recount their family histories, with ancestors coming from elsewhere, intermarrying with various ethnic groups, and cultivating businesses and friendships with one another. While relations between Arabia and Asia have existed continuously for centuries, modern scholarship has been divided by countries and regions, rendering those relations opaque. The conference was designed to overcome these divides by bringing together scholars working along a number of Arabia-Asia axes: to compare notes, complement each other, make mutual discoveries, and identify common areas of interest and ignorance. In that respect, the meeting was stimulating, and sparked lively discussions that we hope will bear fruit in developing research agendas.

Panelists came from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Korea and the USA.

Panels were focused on topics such as Arabia-Asia trading ports, Arabians in Asian cities, intellectual and organisational journeys, publishing, pilgrimage, and diaspora-state relations. It was striking that in many of these arenas of Arabia-Asia interaction, contemporary developments resonated strongly with historical precedents. The opening paper by Ho Wai-Yip introduced a maximal spatial and temporal stage, linking two cities at the limits of Arabia-Asia—Aden and Canton—in the thirteenth century and the present.

Arabian trading diasporas, which had been active in Rasulid and Sung times, were again active in Canton today, even as China has been rebuilding roads and ports in Yemen. While Aden’s traffic slowed during the socialist period, Dubai took up its role in Indian Ocean trade, developing primacy in global logistics, as did its counterpart Singapore, as discussed by Engseng Ho, while profiting from and benefiting nearer regions such as Kerala in India, in an intertwined traffic of gold and labour, as demonstrated by Nisha Mathew.



Engseng Ho is Muhammad Alagil Distinguished Visiting Professor, ARI, NUS and Professor of Anthropology and History, Duke University, and core faculty with the Duke Islamic Studies Center. His research covers a range of issues, including long-distance and long-term cross-Asian mobility, maritime connections, Islam in Asia and ethnic diasporas. His research cross-cuts traditional regional studies and deals with large topics in current social science. Originally from Malaysia, Ho delved into interdisciplinary scholarship when he went in search of a more comprehensive narrative of Muslim societies to better understand his own.