Mara Leichtman

  • Associate Professor of Anthropology


310 Baker Hall

Research Interests

  • Shi‘i and Sunni Islam; Religious Conversion; Migration and Diasporas; Transnationalism; Cosmopolitanism; Globalization and Development; Charity and Humanitarianism; Ethnicity; State/Society Relations; Non-Governmental Organizations; West Africa (Senegal); Middle East and N. Africa; East Africa (Tanzania); Islam in the UK and US

Biographical Info

MARA A. LEICHTMAN joined the anthropology faculty in 2005 and helped to build the Muslim Studies Program. Her research highlights the interconnections among religion, migration, politics, and economic development, through examining Muslim institutions and the communities they serve.

Shi‘i Islam has been expanding in West Africa through Lebanese migration, African conversion, and the spread of the Iranian Revolution in unexpected ways. Dr. Leichtman’s book, “Shi‘i Cosmopolitanisms in Africa: Lebanese Migration and Religious Conversion in Senegal,” investigates the location of Shi‘i Islam in national and international religious networks, the tension between Lebanese and Iranian religious authorities in West Africa, and the making of a vernacular Shi‘i Islam in Senegal. The book provides an account of the everyday lives of the predominantly Shi‘i Lebanese community in Senegal, focusing on changing religious, ethnic, and national identities. These identities are placed in the context of the politics of globalization, post-colonialism in Africa, and conflict in the Middle East. Additionally, over the past few decades, Senegalese have been “converting” from Sunni to Shi‘i Islam. Their Shi‘i identity is linked to an intellectual and textual tradition of reformist Islam. The book illustrates how Lebanese migrants and Senegalese converts strategically mold their cosmopolitanism in ways that uniquely enable each minority community to assert political autochthony.

Dr. Leichtman’s second research project examines Islamic humanitarianism in the Gulf directed to global economic development, in particular in Africa. A key provider of foreign assistance, Kuwait is one of the affluent non-Western nations whose role is understudied. With the lines between “charity” and “development” organizations increasingly blurred, this project explores Islamic ethical frameworks as motivation for giving and how Islamic movements mediate global and regional changes. Dr. Leichtman was a Fulbright Scholar at American University of Kuwait in 2016-2017. Case studies in Senegal and Tanzania were funded by a Council of American Overseas Research Centers Multi-Country Research Fellowship, a West Africa Research Association Post-Doctoral Fellowship, and a Humanities and Arts Research Program Development Grant through MSU.

Mara Leichtman is the co-editor (with Dorothea Schulz) of a special journal issue of City and Society entitled “Muslim Cosmopolitanism: Movement, Identity, and Contemporary Reconfigurations.” This volume investigates the diversity of forms of cosmopolitanism as they are envisaged and practiced by Muslims in Muslim-majority countries, Muslim-minority countries, as well as in diasporic contexts. Current notions and practices of cosmopolitanism are deeply shaped by reconfigurations in the relationship between state and society in the era of neoliberal reforms, along with processes such as the intensification of migration and exchange, the proliferation of multiple forms of decentralized media and the concurrent transformation of national and transnational Muslim publics. By examining the specificities of particular regional and historical situations in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Muslim diaspora in North America, the different contributions to the special issue highlight the dynamic and heterogeneous nature of contemporary identifications.

Dr. Leichtman was a visiting fellow at the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies at George Mason University, Zentrum Moderner Orient in Berlin, Germany, and the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World in Leiden, the Netherlands. She is a member of the International Editorial Advisory Committee for the journal Islamic Africa and served as Book Review Editor for Contemporary Islam. She is a board member of the Society for the Anthropology of Religion (2016-2020) and also served as Secretary of the Middle East Section (2008-2011) of the American Anthropological Association. She participated in a multi-year and multi-country research project entitled “Religion and the Private Sphere: Religious Dynamics, Everyday Experiences and the Individual in West Africa,” funded by the French Agence Nationale de la Recherche. She is also collaborating with colleagues on an oral history project on Muslims in the Midwest and on launching a Trans-Regional Studies initiative at MSU.

Dr. Leichtman teaches courses and seminars on the anthropology of religion, Islam, globalization, transnational migration, Africa, the Middle East, and ethnographic field methods.


Select Publications Include:


Shi‘i Cosmopolitanisms in Africa: Lebanese Migration and Religious Conversion in Senegal, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, Public Cultures of the Middle East and North Africa series, 2015.

Interview on book with ISLAMiCommentary, a Public Scholarship Forum Managed by the Duke Islamic Studies Center.

Interview with Caleb Owen, H-Net Book Channel Podcast Special.

Interview with Pauline Mouhanna Karroum, L’Orient Le Jour (Lebanon).

New Perspectives on Islam in Senegal: Conversion, Migration, Wealth, Power and Femininity (with Mamadou Diouf), New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Special Journal Issues

The Shi’a of Lebanon: New Approaches to Modern History, Contemporary Politics, and Religion, Co-editor (with Rola Husseini), Die Welt des Islams, 2019.

Muslim Cosmopolitanism: Movement, Identity, and Contemporary Reconfigurations, Co-editor (with Dorothea Schulz), City and Society 24(1), 2012.

Policy Reports

“Kuwaiti Humanitarianism: The History and Expansion of Kuwait’s Foreign Assistance Policies,” Stimson Center: Changing Landscape of Assistance to Conflict-Affected States: Emerging and Traditional Donors and Opportunities for Collaboration Policy Brief #11, August 2017,

“Interview with Yousef Al Merag, Director of Disaster Management and Emergency, Kuwait Red Crescent Society (KRCS), April 19, 2017,” Stimson Center: Changing Landscape of Assistance to Conflict-Affected States: Emerging and Traditional Donors and Opportunities for Collaboration Policy Brief #9, June 2017,

Journal Articles

“Shi‘i Islamic Preaching in the African Periphery: The Dakar Sermons of Lebanese Shaykh al-Zayn” (with Abdullah Alrebh), British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 45(1):58-78, 2018 (special issue De-centring Shi‘i Islam).

“Shi‘i Islamic Cosmopolitanism and the Transformation of Religious Authority in Senegal,” Contemporary Islam 8(3), 2014 (special issue Minorities in Islam/Muslims as Minorities).

“From the Cross (and Crescent) to the Cedar and Back Again: Transnational Religion and Politics among Lebanese Christians in Senegal,” Anthropological Quarterly 86(1):35-74, 2013.

“West Africa, Shi‘i Islam in,” Oxford Islamic Studies Online,, 2012.

“Migration, War, and the Making of a Transnational Lebanese Shi‘i Community in Senegal,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 42(2):269-290, 2010.

“Revolution, Modernity and (Trans)National Shi‘i Islam: Rethinking Religious Conversion in Senegal,” Journal of Religion in Africa 39(3):319-351, 2009.

“The Legacy of Transnational Lives: Beyond the First Generation of Lebanese in Senegal,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 28(4): 663-686, 2005.

Book Chapters

“Building and Performing Shi‘i Islam in Sufi Senegal: A Photo Essay,” in Fahmida Suleman, ed., People of the Prophet’s House: Artistic and Ritual Expressions of Shi‘i Islam, London: Azimuth Editions in association with The Institute of Ismaili Studies and in collaboration with the British Museum’s Department of the Middle East, 2015, pp. 242-251.

“The Africanization of Ashura in Senegal,” in Lloyd Ridgeon, ed., Shi‘ism and Identity: Religion, Politics and Change in the Global Muslim Community, London: I.B. Tauris 2012, pp. 144-169.

“Shi‘a Lebanese Migrants and Senegalese Converts in Dakar,” in Sabrina Mervin, ed., The Shi‘a Worlds and Iran, London: Saqi Books in association with Institut Français du Proche-Orient, 2010, pp. 215-251.

“The Intricacies of Being Senegal’s Lebanese Shi’ite Sheikh,” in Frances Trix, John Walbridge and Linda Walbridge, eds, Muslim Voices and Lives in the Contemporary World, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pp. 85-100.

Media Appearances

“The Exception: Behind Senegal’s History of Stability.” The Conversation, March 15, 2019,

Interviewed on Hala Kuwait about Kuwaiti humanitarianism in Africa. Kuwait City, KTV-2, January 31, 2017.

“The Absence of Sectarianism in Senegal.” Inaugural issue of Maydan, a digital scholarship initiative on the Muslim World, produced by the Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University, October 11, 2016.

Participated in the Africa Debate, BBC World Service, “Is Africa Under Threat From Islamist Extremists?”, Dakar, Senegal, May 31, 2013,

Interviewed on Al Madina FM, Dakar, Senegal, on situation of Muslims in America eleven years after 9/11, September 14, 2012.

Interviewed by Sarah Birke for “Lebanese in West Africa: Far From Home,” The Economist, May 20, 2011,

Scholarship was reviewed in Joseph Croitoru, “Iranische Revolution und afrikanisches Leben,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Natur und Wissenschaft, Seite N4, December 16, 2009.

Featured on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, PBS, for a feature story on “Chrislam” in Nigeria,, aired May 27, 2009.

Featured on Africa Past and Present: The Podcast about African History, Culture, and Politics, Africa Online Digital Library, Michigan State University, Episode 21, February 12, 2009,