Dr. Mara Leichtman co-edits special journal issue on Lebanese Shi’ism

Dr. Mara Leichtman displaying the Senegalese flag during "Africa Day", Kuwait

Dr. Mara Leichtman is an Associate Professor of Anthropology affiliated with the Muslim Studies Program, African Studies Center and Asian Studies Center. Dr. Leichtman specializes in sociocultural anthropology and the study of religion, migration, transnationalism, humanitarianism, and economic development. She is currently co-facilitating an interdisciplinary Trans-Regional Studies Scholarly Writing Group at MSU for faculty and graduate students as part of the Academic Advancement Network’s 2019–2020 learning communities, which “provide safe and supportive spaces for complicated conversations.” Dr. Leichtman also serves as a board member of the Society for the Anthropology of Religion, a section of the American Anthropological Association.

One of Dr. Leichtman’s research projects, which culminated in her book “Shi‘i Cosmopolitanisms in Africa: Lebanese Migration and Religious Conversion in Senegal,” investigated the location of Shiʿi Islam in national and international religious networks, the tension between Lebanese and Iranian religious authorities in West Africa, and the making of a vernacular Shiʿi Islam in Senegal. This work has prompted several new avenues for scholarship and collaboration, one of which is Dr. Leichtman’s recent publication.

Die Welt Des Islams, International Journal for the Study of Modern Islam

This past September, Dr. Leichtman and co-editor Dr. Rola El-Husseini (Lund University) published a special journal issue entitled “The Shi‘a of Lebanon: New Approaches to Modern History, Contemporary Politics, and Religion” in the established Islamic Studies journal Die Welt des Islams. The idea for this collaboration grew out of the realization that there had not been a recent collection bringing experts of Lebanese Shiʿism into dialogue with one another. This interdisciplinary issue assembles the latest research within history, religious studies, and the social sciences and is inclusive of emerging scholars. Most scholarship begins with the social and political awakening of Lebanese Shiʿa in the 1960s that led to the establishment of the political movement Hizbullah in the early 1980s. This volume spans the early 20th century to the present and aims to broaden knowledge about Lebanon by focusing on less known historical periods, revisionist historical accounts, and understudied topics. Such understudied topics include Shiʿi schools, involvement in the Lebanese Communist Party, ecumenicalism and gender reforms in Shiʿi Islamic political thought, and transnational ties between Hizbullah, Iran and Syria.

Dr. Leichtman and Dr. El-Husseini’s introduction makes a case for the concept of “Arab Shiʿism,” and, more specifically, “Lebanese Shiʿism.” As social scientists, they posit that historical, political, and sociocultural distinctions between Iran and the Arab world have become more pronounced since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Yet Iran tends to be a primary area of emphasis of the growing sub-field of “Shiʿi Studies.” Furthermore, whereas Islamic studies scholars often focus on theological texts, which prioritize the writings of male religious scholars, social scientists are interested in the overlapping of religious, secular, ethnic, gendered and nationalist modes of identification and belonging. Thus the special issue is also 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.

Another development from Dr. Leichtman’s first book is a new research project entitled “Humanitarian Islam in Kuwait: Transnational Religion and Global Economic Development in Africa.” She is particularly interested in the interconnection of Islamic organizations in the Middle East and Africa, where South-South relations are understudied. Dr. Leichtman began this project as a visiting Fulbright Scholar at American University of Kuwait during 2016–2017. Her fieldwork of case studies studying Sunni and Shiʿi charities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Tanzania and Senegal was funded by the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, West Africa Research Association, and MSU’s Humanities and Arts Research Program.