Introduction to Islamic civilisation

The Emām Reżā Shrine, the largest mosque in the world by dimension, in Mashhad, Iran.
The Emām Reżā Shrine, the largest mosque in the world by dimension, in Mashhad, Iran. [Source: Wikipedia]

Despite the fact that Islam is the religion of well over one billion adherents, many in the West still express ignorance or confusion about its basic facts, precepts, and historical developments. Nevertheless, Muslims are growing throughout the world and in places such as Europe and North America. At the same time, a number of countries, including the United States, find themselves increasingly in conflict with Muslim nations and groups. These demographic and political factors are but two reasons why the study and understanding of Islam, the faith and the civilisation, are becoming more and more important in the contemporary world. In this course, we will examine the birth and development of Islamic civilisation, a rich tradition spanning nearly fourteen hundred years that has seen the flourishing of diverse religious, political, cultural, and social currents, and which continues today. With a greater focus on historical developments, this is a companion course to Introduction to Islam, which emphasises religious and cultural trends. By the end of this class, students should have a keen appreciation for the genesis of Islam and early Islamic civilisation, the complex and varied composition of the ‘Islamic world’, and the still-ongoing processes resulting from the exchange of Islam and modernity, including political expression, radical Islam, and gender issues.

Course expectation and student evaluation

Regular attendance of this course’s lectures and thorough reading of the assigned texts are critical to success in this class. The readings consist of a selection from the textbook, supplemented by articles and chapters from other books that illuminate various aspects of the topic. Students are expected to have read the assigned readings in advance of each lecture and to be prepared to talk about them in the discussion sections. Students will be evaluated on the basis of four factors: (1) two essays of five to ten pages (25% each), (3) final exam (35%), and (4) participation (15%). Sporadic ‘pop’ quizzes delivered at the beginning of class will offer students a chance to earn extra credit. At the end of this course, it is hoped that students will have developed a better understanding of the complex and multi-faceted societies and cultures of the Islamic world.

Required texts

Berkey, Jonathan Porter. The Formation of Islam: Religion and society in the Near East, 600–1800. New York City: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Denny, Frederick Mathewson. An Introduction to Islam. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006.

Esposito, John L, ed. The Oxford history of Islam. New York City: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Kennedy, Hugh N. The Prophet and the age of the caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century. A History of the Near East. 2nd ed. Harlow, England: Longman, 2004.

Course outline

I. Historical context

  1. Introduction to Islam and Islamic civilisation

  2. Required reading:
  3. The Life of Muḥammad

  4. Required reading:
  5. Succession to the Prophet

  6. Required reading:
    A miniature depicting Muḥammad’s farewell sermon from a Fourteenth-Century Īlkhānid manuscript.
    A miniature depicting Muḥammad’s farewell sermon from a Fourteenth-Century Īlkhānid manuscript. [Source: Wikipedia]
  7. The Early caliphate and expansion of Islam

  8. Required reading:
    Ruins of the royal palace (Ayvān-e Khosrow) in Madāʾin (Ctesiphon), the Sāsānian capital.
    Ruins of the royal palace (Ayvān-e Khosrow) in Madāʾin (Ctesiphon), the Sāsānian capital. [Source: Wikipedia]
  9. The Civil Wars and the Umayyad Empire

  10. Required reading:
  11. The Early ʿAbbāsid Empire

  12. Required reading:
  13. The Islamic world in the late ʿAbbāsid period

  14. Required reading:
  15. The Rise of the gunpowder empires

  16. Required reading:
  17. Africa and the Far East: The Continued spread of Islam

  18. Required reading:

II. Theology, faith, and ideas

  1. Fundamentals of Islam

  2. Required reading:
  3. The Qurʾān: Its history and interpretation

  4. Required reading:
  5. Islamic law and policy

  6. First essay due.
    Required reading:
  7. The Sunnī/Shīʿī divide and the development of Shīʿī Islam

  8. Required reading:
  9. Mysticism and philosophy

  10. Required reading:
  11. Science, art, and literature: Cultural flourishings

  12. Required reading:

III. The Challenges of modernity

  1. The Arrival of the West and the turbulent Twentieth Century

  2. Required reading:
  3. The Shīʿī world

  4. Required reading:
  5. Modern political trends

  6. Required reading:
  7. The Rise of radical Islam

  8. Required reading:
  9. The Future of political and radical Islam

  10. Required reading:
  11. Women and gender in Islam

  12. Required reading:
  13. The Islamic world: Distant lands and new frontiers

  14. Second essay due.
    Required reading:
  15. The View from inside: Reading modern texts

  16. Required reading:
  17. The Many faces of Islam today

  18. Required reading:
    Final exam at end of term.

Upcoming talks and lectures

Please note that not all of these events are open to the general audience; please check with the organisers to confirm.
  • 08 May 2024, 14.15—‘Category imperative: The Establishment of the Bahāʾī Department in the Israeli Ministry for Religious Affairs’’ (47th annual conference of the Middle East & Islamic Studies Association of Israel): Open University, Raʿanannah, Israel.
  • 15 May 2024, 16.30—‘Shoghi Effendi and the development of Bahāʾī-Israeli relations’’ (Il Condominio Italian Bahāʾī forum): Rome, Italy (Zoom).
  • 06 June 2024, 18.30—‘Crisis of authority and authority during crisis: Shoghi Effendi’s succession and the State of Israel’ (Hebrew University Chair in Bahaʾi Studies Public Lecture): Hebrew University, Jerusalem (Zoom).
  • 13 August 2024, 9.30—‘The Return of Iran: Iranian nationalist rhetoric during the Iran-Iraq War’ (14th biennial conference of the Association for Iranian Studies): Mexico City, Mexico.
  • Past events ► click to expand