Religion and society in the Middle East

Image of mosques, a church, and a synagogue.
Image of mosques, a church, and a synagogue. [Source: unknown]

Critical to understanding the modern Middle East is an appreciation of the rôle that religion has played in the societies of the region since Antiquity. In this course, we will examine the way that religion has functioned in Middle Eastern societies, beginning with ancient Near Eastern cultures, including ancient Israel, the Christian Roman Empire, and the Zoroastrian Sāsānian Empire of Iran. We will study the rise of Islam and its own patchwork of religious traditions, as well as the various Islamic societies that emerged—from the earliest Islamic empires to the Ottoman and Iranian Empires. The class will conclude with a thorough look at religion in the Middle Eastern landscape today, covering topics such as religion in Turkey, Iran, and Israel, minority identities, the challenge of nationalism, the Bahāʾī faith, radical Islam, and collective memory. Throughout the course, we will touch upon several recurring themes, including states’ use and abuse of religion, the nature of religion as a primary marker of identity, and varying patterns of religious expression in the region.

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 the Middle East, 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., Muḥammad, Bābī revolt, Kemalism);
  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 religion and society in the Middle East. In order to receive credit, you must read and submit an article from a newspaper listed below, 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

Berkey, Jonathan P. The Formation of Islam: Religion and society in the Near East, 600–1800. Themes in Islamic history, 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic societies. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

Lee, Robert Dermer. Religion and politics in the Middle East: Identity, ideology, institutions, and attitudes. 2nd ed. Boulder: Westview Press, 2014.

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.

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—I

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

  4. Required reading:
  5. Ancient Near Eastern religions

  6. Required reading:
  7. From ancient Israelite society to Rabbinical Judaism

  8. Map quiz
    Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  9. Hellenism and Eastern Christianity

  10. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
    • * John F Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century: The Transformation of a culture, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1997), 281-323, 355-375.
  11. Zoroastrianism and the Sāsānian Empire

  12. Quiz #1
    Required reading:
    • Berkey, Formation of Islam, 26-38.
    • Zeʾev Rubin, ‘The Sasanid monarchy’, in The Cambridge ancient history, ed. Averil Cameron, Bryan Ward-Perkins, and L Michael Whitby, vol. 14, Late antiquity: Empire and successors, A.D. 425–600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 638-661.
    • Josef Wiesehöfer, Ancient Persia: From 550 BC to 650 AD, transl. Azizeh Azodi (London & New York City: I B Tauris, 2001), 199-216.
    Recommended reading:

II. The Development of Islamic societies

  1. The Birth of Islam

  2. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  3. The Arab-Islamic conquests

  4. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
    • * Ira Marvin Lapidus, ‘The Arab conquests and the formation of Islamic society’, in The Formation of Islamic law, ed. Wael B Hallaq (Aldershot, UK & Burlington: Ashgate/Variorum, 2004), 1-27.
    • * Fred McGraw Donner, Introduction to The Expansion of the early Islamic state, ed. Fred McGraw Donner (Aldershot, UK & Burlington: Ashgate/Variorum, 2008), xiii-xxxi.
    • Fred McGraw Donner, ‘Centralized authority and military autonomy in the early Islamic conquests’, in The Byzantine and early Islamic Near East: Papers of the First Workshop on Late Antiquity and Early Islam, ed. Averil Cameron, vol. 3, States, resources and armies (Princeton: Darwin Press, 1995), 337-360.
    • * Thomas Sizgorich, ‘“Do prophets come with a sword?” Conquest, empire, and historical narrative in the early Islamic world’, American Historical Review 112.4 (October 2007), 993-1015.
  5. The Early Islamic community

  6. Quiz #2
    Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  7. Religion and state in classical Islam

  8. Research paper proposal due
    Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
    • Meir J Kister, ‘Social and religious concepts of authority in Islam’, Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 18 (1994), 84-127.
  9. Shīʿī and Sunnī societies—I

  10. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  11. Shīʿī and Sunnī societies—II

  12. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:

III. From mediæval to modern societies

  1. Minority communities in Islamic societies

  2. Quiz #3
    Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  3. Religion and state in the Ottoman Empire

  4. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  5. Shīʿī Islam and Ṣafavid society

  6. Mid-term paper due
    Required reading:
    Recommended reading:

IV. Challenges of modernity

  1. Change and dissent in Shīʿī Iran: Uṣūlīs and Bābīs

  2. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  3. Political decline and Islamic response—I

  4. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
    • Ann K S Lambton, ‘The Persian ʿulamā and constitutional reform’, in Le Shîʿisme imâmite: Colloque de Strasbourg (6–9 mai 1968), ed. Robert Brunschvig and Toufic Fahd, 1st ed. (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1970), 245-269.
  5. Political decline and Islamic response—II

  6. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  7. The Challenge of Arab nationalism

  8. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
    • * Sylvia G Haim, ‘Islam and the theory of Arab nationalism’, in The Middle East in transition: Studies in contemporary history, ed. Walter Z Laqueur (New York City: Praeger, 1956), 280-307.
    • * Elie Kedourie, ‘Religion and nationalism in the Arab world’, in Islam in the modern world and other studies (London: Mansell Publishing, 1980), 53-66.
    • * Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr and Aomar Boum, A Concise history of the Middle East, 11th ed. (Boulder: Westview Press, 2015), 164-198.
    • Panayiotis J Vatikiotis, ‘Between Arabism and Islam’, Middle Eastern Studies 22.4 (October 1986), 576-586.
    • * Frederick Mathewson Denny, An Introduction to Islam, 4th ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2011), 330-340.
    • R Stephen Humphreys, Between memory and desire: The Middle East in a troubled age, updated ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 60-82.
    • C Ernest Dawn, ‘From Ottomanism to Arabism: The Origin of an ideology’, Review of Politics 23.3 (July 1961), 378-400.
  9. Religion and society in modern Turkey

  10. Quiz #4
    Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  11. Religion and society in Twentieth-Century Iran

  12. Required reading:
    • Lapidus, History, 548-552.
    • Shahrough Akhavi, Religion and politics in contemporary Iran: Clergy-state relations in the Pahlavī period (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1980), 60-90.
    Recommended reading:

V. The Resurgence of religion in Middle Eastern society

  1. Roots of the Islamic Revolution in Iran

  2. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  3. Imagining and instituting the Islamic Republic

  4. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  5. The Future of the Islamic Republic

  6. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  7. Radical Islam

  8. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  9. Zionism and the Jewish revival in the Middle East

  10. Quiz #5
    Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
    • * Jacob Katz, ‘The Forerunners of Zionism’, in Essential papers on Zionism, ed. Jehuda Reinharz and Anita Shapira (New York City: New York University Press, 1996), 33-45.
    • * Shlomo Avineri, The Making of modern Zionism: The Intellectual origins of the Jewish state, (New York City: Basic Books, 1981), 23-35, 112-124, 187-197.
    • Yosef Salmon, ‘Tradition and nationalism’, in Essential papers on Zionism, ed. Jehuda Reinharz and Anita Shapira (New York City: New York University Press, 1996), 94-116.
  11. Religion in the State of Israel

  12. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
  13. Open topic class

  14. Research paper due
    Required reading:
  15. Religion and Middle Eastern society today

  16. Required reading:
    Recommended reading:
    • Lee, Religion and politics, 259-294.
    • Sami A Hanna and George H Gardner, ‘Al-Shuʿūbiyyah up-dated: A Study of the 20th Century revival of an Eighth Century concept’, Middle East Journal 20.3 (Summer 1966), 335-351.

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.
  • 03 November 2017, 18.15—‘Jewish and Christian minorities in the mediæval Islamic world’ (Medieval Fair Lecture Series, Center for Medieval & Renaissance Studies, University of Oklahoma): Norman Public Library West, 300 Norman Center Court, Norman, Oklahoma.
  • 06 November 2017, 10.00—‘“Micro-minorities” in Israel: Druze, Circassian, and Baháʾí communities and the Jewish State’ (International Studies Institute, University of New Mexico): Lobo A & B, Room 3037/3039, Student Union Building, 1 University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
  • 07 November 2017, 12.00—‘What is radical Islam and why is it so “radical”?’ (Institute for International and Immigration Law, Texas Southern University): 3100 Clerbourne St, Room 105/106, Houston, Texas.
  • 07 November 2017, 17.30—‘Minorities and the Jewish state: The Druze, Circassian, and Bahāʾī communities of Israel’ (International Studies Lecture, Texas A&M University): Harrington Education Center 108, 540 Ross St, College Station, Texas.
  • 15 November 2017, 15.00—‘Tajikistan between Iran and Islam: Nationalism and identity in post-Soviet Central Asia’ (Farzaneh Family Center for Iranian and Persian Gulf Studies, University of Oklahoma): Farzaneh Hall 145, Norman, Oklahoma.
  • 21 November 2017, 10.30—‘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.
  • 17 March 2018—‘Armenians, Georgians, and Albanians and the initial Sāsānian response to the Arab-Islamic expansion’ (8th biennial congress of the Association for the Study of Persianate Societies): Ilia State University, Tbilisi, Georgia.
  • Past events ► click to expand