Mara Leichtman

  • Associate Professor of Anthropology


310 Baker Hall

Research Interests

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

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. She was a 2020-2021 Luce/ACLS Fellow in Religion, Journalism and International Affairs.

Mara Leichtman is the co-editor (with Rola El-Husseini) of a special journal issue of Die Welt des Islams entitled "The Shi‘a of Lebanon: New Approaches to Modern History, Contemporary Politics, and Religion." This interdisciplinary issue assembles the latest research within history, religious studies, and the social sciences and aims to broaden knowledge about Lebanon. The introduction makes a case for the concept of “Arab Shiʿism,” and, more specifically, “Lebanese Shiʿism.” The special issue is a call for a more inclusive Shiʿi Studies that encompasses a wider range of disciplinary fields, historical periods, and contemporary lived experiences of Shiʿa outside of Iran—and in particular the unique situations of minority religious communities.

She also co-edited (with Dorothea Schulz) 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.

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, serves on the Editorial Board of the “African Religions, Social Realities” book series, Ohio University Press, and served as Book Review Editor for Contemporary Islam. She was a member of the Middle East Studies Association Conference Program Committee (2022), 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 also collaborated 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. She will be on sabbatical in 2024, when she will be an Institute of Advanced Study Fellow at Durham University, England, and a Visiting Researcher at Aarhus University, Denmark.


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).
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  59(3-4), 2019.
Muslim Cosmopolitanism: Movement, Identity, and Contemporary Reconfigurations, Co-editor (with Dorothea Schulz), City and Society 24(1), 2012.
Policy Reports
Will Kuwait and Senegal’s Exceptional Friendship Endure?” Issue Paper, The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, February 23, 2021.
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
“Humanitarian Sovereignty, Exceptional Muslims, and the Transnational Making of Kuwaiti Citizens,” Ethnography, 24(3): 407-431, 2023 (special issue Transnational Giving: Evolving Religious, Ethnic and Political Formations in the Global South).
“NGO-ization as Legitimization: The ‘Engineering’ of a Senegalese Shi‘i Islamic Development Model,” Islamic Africa, 13(2): 182-219, 2022 (special issue Religious Minorities in Muslim Africa).
Da‘wa as Development: Kuwaiti Islamic Charity in East and West Africa,” The Muslim World, 112(1): 100-129, 2022  (special issue Rethinking Development, Humanitarianism, and Care in Muslim Contexts).
“Humanitarian Aid in Yemen Through the Eyes of a Kuwaiti Role Model for Women: Interview with Maali Alasousi, Yemen Country Director, Direct Aid Association,” Journal of Muslim Philanthropy and Civil Society, 4(2): 89-113, 2020.
“Arab Shi‘ism and the Shi‘a of Lebanon: New Approaches to Modern History, Contemporary Politics, and Religion” (with Rola El-Husseini), Die Welt des Islams 59(3-4): 253-281, 2019.
“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
“Secularism, Sectarianism and the Transnational Connectivity of the Lebanese Diaspora in Senegal,” in Dalia Abdelhady and Ramy Aly, eds, Routledge Handbook on Middle Eastern Diasporas, London: Routledge, 2022, pp. 143-155.
“Kuwait’s Foreign Relations with East Africa,” in Robert Mason and Simon Mabon, eds, The Gulf States and the Horn of Africa: Interests, Influences and Instability, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2022, pp. 199-226.
“Transnational Networks and Global Shi‘i Islamic NGOs in Tanzania,” in Holger Weiss, ed., Muslim Faith-Based Organizations and Social Welfare in Africa, Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, pp. 201-245.
“Shi‘a Cosmopolitanisms and Conversions,” in Oliver Scharbrodt and Yafa Shanneik, eds., Shi‘a Minorities in the Contemporary World: Migration, Transnationalism and Multilocality, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020, pp. 257-280.
“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
Featured on “Shii News Chats,” Shii News and Resources, The University of Edinburgh, March 15, 2022.
It’s Time to Prioritize Women’s Rights in Senegal,” Women’s eNews, April 5, 2021.
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.
Video Recordings
Dr. Leichtman conducted two interviews for Muslims of the Midwest: A Digital Archive, a collaborative research project funded by a University of Illinois Humanities Without Walls grant:
Founder of the Islamic Institute of America” (Imam Hassan Qazwini, Dearborn Heights, Michigan).
West African Sufi Leader and Entrepreneur” (Alhousseynou Ba, Ypsilanti, Michigan).
Dept. of Anthropology