Making a Case for a More Inclusive Shi’i Studies

Dr. Mara Leichtman at Gergean Celebration, Kuwait
Dr. Mara Leichtman at a “Gergean” celebration in 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.

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 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. This work has prompted several new avenues for scholarship and collaboration, one of which is Dr. Leichtman’s recent publication.

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 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 Shi’ism 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 Shi’a 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 lesser known historical periods, revisionist historical accounts, and understudied topics. Such understudied topics include Shi’i schools, involvement in the Lebanese Communist Party, ecumenicalism and gender reforms in Shi’i 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 Shi’ism,” and, more specifically, “Lebanese Shi’ism.” 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 “Shi’i 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 Shi’i Studies that encompasses a wider range of disciplinary fields, historical periods, and contemporary lived experiences of Shi’a 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 examining Sunni and Shi’i charities and nongovernmental 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.

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