Political Islam

The Supreme Leader of Iran leading Friday prayers in Tehran, 2009.
The Supreme Leader of Iran leading Friday prayers in Tehran, 2009. [Source: Office of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran]

Religion and politics have intertwined in Islam since the founding of the faith in the early Seventh Century. In this course, we will examine the modern phenomenon of political Islam within the historical context of the concept of political rule in Islam. We will begin by charting the course of the emergence of Islamic civilisation and the development of the caliphate and continue with discussions of mediæval political philosophy, separate Sunnī and Shīʿī elaborations of temporal rule, and religion and state in the pre-modern Islamic world. Thereafter, we will trace the Islamist response to modernity through its many forms—including the radical and the pluralistic ones—across the Islamic world, including South and Central Asia, West and East Africa, Palestine, Iran, and Turkey. We will conclude with a thorough look at technology and other tools used by contemporary Islamists, as well as an analysis of the future of political Islam. Throughout the course, we will observe and consider the dissonance between contemporary Islamist activity and classical political philosophy.

Course expectation and student evaluation

This course represents a combination of a lecture and seminar approaches and individual participation in class dialogues is critical. Most classes include a discussion period for conversation about required reading. Each student will have the opportunity to present a brief review of a text, after which he/she will lead a discussion. At the end of this course, it is hoped that students will have not only a better understanding of political/radical Islam, but have developed better research skills, practiced critical thinking and reading, and gained experience collecting and presenting information clearly.

Course grades will be assigned on the basis of several elements:

  1. in-class quizzes (15% total)—a map quiz and five 5-minute quizzes (lowest grade dropped) on critical terms (e.g., caliph, Ḥasan al-Bannāʾ, ḤaMĀS);
  2. pop reading quizzes (10%)—short, random multiple-choice quizzes on major themes of assigned readings;
  3. mid-term paper (20%)—take-home essay on an assigned topic, using only the class readings as sources (5 pages);
  4. final research paper (30%)—each student will write a research paper (about 15 pages) on a topic of their choice relating to the course and making use of literature (at least 6 sources) not assigned as part of the class reading;
  5. class participation (25%)—contribution to in-class and online discussions and attendance, critical to a successful experience (students with over three absences lose their entire participation grade; each additional two absences result in a letter-grade penalty off of the overall course grade), including also a discussion article presentation, where each student presents at least one required reading, emphasising its core argument and leading a class discussion about it.
This division of factors aims to give all students a fair chance at a good grade by avoiding too much emphasis on one examination method. Nevertheless, since a large share of the grade (25%) derives from participation and the discussion presentation, this means that you must attend and participate in class to get a good grade. The key to good participation is reading the assigned texts, so come prepared!

Each student has the opportunity to submit up to two extra credit response papers to contemporary news articles on political/radical Islam. In order to receive credit, you must read and submit an article from a newspaper (not a web log!), along with your thoughts on the article (one page). Other extra credit opportunities will be announced periodically throughout the semester; students will be allowed a maximum of five total extra credit opportunities during the term. You are also strongly encouraged to follow Middle East news during (and after!) the semester. Some mainstream newspaper sources:

Required texts

Recommended texts for further readings

The following texts are recommended for those interested in doing further reading on the subject. These books are not required for purchase.

Crone, Patricia and Martin Hinds. God’s caliph: Religious authority in the first centuries of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Kepel, Gilles. Jihad: The Trail of political Islam. Transl. Anthony F Roberts. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Course outline

Readings from course textbooks appear in small caps. All other readings include full bibliographical citations and are available electronically on the class Desire2Learn website. It is highly recommended that you prepare in advance by downloading and/or printing all online readings at the beginning of the course, so that you can concentrate on reading them over the semester. While ‘recommended reading’ are not obligatory, they may be useful when preparing research papers (those with an asterisk (*) are highly encouraged). Primary source readings are noted below.

I. Introduction and background

  1. Introduction to the Middle East and Islam—I

  2. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  3. Introduction to the Middle East and Islam—II

  4. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  5. The Birth of Islam

  6. Map quiz
    Required reading:
    Recommended reading:

II. Classical and mediæval Islamic political rule

  1. The Early Islamic community

  2. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  3. The Classical Islamic caliphate

  4. Quiz #1
    Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  5. The Emergence of Islamic law and Sunnī traditionalism

  6. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  7. The Development of Shīʿī Islam

  8. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  9. Turco-Persian rule and political philosophy—I

  10. Quiz #2
    Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  11. Turco-Persian rule and political philosophy—II

  12. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  13. Mediæval Islamic political thinkers

  14. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  15. Religion and state in the Ottoman and Ṣafavid Empires

  16. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:

III. The Emergence of modern Islamism

  1. Islamic response and revival in the Nineteenth Century

  2. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  3. Founders of Islamism

  4. Quiz #3
    Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  5. Salafism and Wahhābism

  6. Mid-term paper due
    Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  7. The Radicalisation of Islamist discourse

  8. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  9. Militant and global jihādism—I

  10. Research paper proposal due
    Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  11. Militant and global jihādism—II

  12. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  13. Islamist movements in the Maghrib, Southeastern Asia, and Europe

  14. Required reading:
  15. Shīʿī radicalism and the Islamic Revolution in Iran

  16. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  17. The Future of the Islamic Republic of Iran

  18. Quiz #4
    Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  19. Secularism and Islamism in Turkey

  20. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  21. Radical Islam and nationalism: ḤaMĀS and Ḥizb-Allāh

  22. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:

V. Contemporary Islamist trends

  1. Women and minorities in Islamist discourse

  2. Quiz #4
    Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  3. Marxist and democratic Islamist thought

  4. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  5. Technology, tools, and trends in Twenty-First Century Islamism

  6. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  7. Islamic history and memory in radical Islam

  8. Research paper due
    Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  9. The Failure of political Islam?

  10. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:

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.
  • 19–21 October 2017—‘Iranian exiles in Istanbul and Ottoman–Qājār relations’ (10th annual conference of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa): Key Bridge Marriott Hotel, Washington, DC.
  • 18–21 November 2017—‘Call-and-response battles in Syria and Iraq: The Literary construction of Islamic collective memory’ (51st annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association): Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, Washington, DC.
  • Past events ► click to expand