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


61pOfUOi1FL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_During the early twentieth century, Yemeni Jews operated within a legal structure that defined them as dhimmi, that is, non-Muslims living as a protected population under the sovereignty of an Islamic state. In exchange for the payment of a poll tax, the jizya, and the acknowledged of supremacy of Islam, their lives and property were to be inviolable. Although this framework burdened Jews with some legal disadvantages, for example a Muslim’s witness testimony was worth double that of a Jew’s in court, it allowed for the integration of Jews into Yemen’s complex hierarchical social structure, and not always at the bottom of that structure.

Mark S. Wagner’s book Jews and Islamic Law in Early 20th-Century Yemen (Indiana University Press, 2015) examines how Jews negotiated this Islamic legal system, both in shariah courts and in extralegal settings. Wagner employs numerous Arabic and Hebrew sources, particularly the memoirs of prominent Yemeni Jews such as Salim Said al-Jamal, Salih al-Zahiri, Salim Mansurah, and others, and the primary document collections they have preserved. Through their first-hand accounts, anecdotes, and archives, Wagner interrogates how the Yemeni Jewish elite understood its social and political position in Yemen. These men used their knowledge of Arabic and Islamic law, and their status as intermediaries between the state authorities and the Jewish community, to preserve their own positions and to benefit other members of the Jewish community. Wagner’s work deepens our understanding of Muslim-Jewish relations in Yemen and the place of non-Muslims in Islamic law in general.


In September 2014 the Duke Islamic Studies Center (which manages the Transcultural Islam Project of which TIRN is a part), announced its official institutional affiliation with New Books in Islamic Studies — a bi-weekly audio podcast featuring hour long conversations with authors of exciting new research. For an archive see HERE.

“Often one might ask the question: Do we see the light at the end of the tunnel? I would say we don’t see the entrance of the tunnel because there’s a wall there separating us from the tunnel. We need to bring down this wall. And we need to see the tunnel as is in order to have a rebirth of a people who have been held without real freedom for a long time.”Dr. Mustafa Abu Sway, Dean of the College of Islamic Studies at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, the first holder of the Chair for the Study of Imam Al-Ghazali at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Al-Quds University


PalestineIsrael-smallDespite anger from Democrats, the Obama administration, and even opposition from some Republicans, it appeared this week that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had no plans to cancel his upcoming speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress — scheduled just two weeks before Israel’s election. President Obama says he won’t be meeting with him while he’s here.

Netanyahu, who was invited by House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH 8th district) , is expected to speak before the Congress on March 3 where, according to The Washington Post, “he plans to argue against any accord with Iran that allows the country to retain centrifuges to enrich uranium and hover anywhere near a threshold for building a nuclear weapon.”

On Tuesday Netanyahu tweeted: “I am going to the United States not because I seek a confrontation with the President, but to speak up for the very survival of my country.”

Last month, as the news of the Netanyahu visit first broke,  ISLAMiCommentary had the opportunity to interview prominent Palestinian Scholar Mustafa Abu Sway about Netanyahu’s Iran distraction — i.e. his “avoidance of the real issue at home”  (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) — and the role of the U.S. administration and Congress in helping broker a peaceful resolution to that pressing (forgotten?) conflict.

Dr. Sway is Dean of the College of Islamic Studies at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, the first holder of the Chair for the Study of Imam Al-Ghazali at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Al-Quds University, and is on the list of the 500 most influential Muslims in the world. He was at Duke to deliver a lecture and speak to classes on the 21st century relevance of the teachings of Al-Ghazali (a medieval Muslim theologian who spent a good deal of time in Jerusalem 900 years ago — and on the importance of working toward peace in Jerusalem. Continue reading

by Sümeyye Kocaman for ISLAMiCommentary on JANUARY 7, 2015:

Sümeyye Kocaman
Sümeyye Kocaman

As we hear more and more about the Caliphate, the ummah, Islamic law and the Islamic State, I am surprised by many things: the so-called experts’ lack of information; how the facts are being politically manipulated; how people of faith are letting religion be used in this minefield; and worse, how people of faith believe that religion can be used to legitimize inhumane, political arguments.

When we hear religion as a political argument — e.g. how an ‘Islamic state’ is needed to provide freedom for Muslims who have been victimized for centuries — we must see this as merely a new wave of nationalism backed up by the power of religious discourse. Religious discourse has the highest potential to mobilize crowds. If the discourse is powerful enough some local groups or even the society at large can be mobilized into an emotional mob that cares little for reason. Their voices — pure political ideology.

In the modern world religion and politics continue to be dangerously intertwined. We can regard this crisis of religion as a chance to reverse a vicious cycle. Continue reading