Muslim Histories & Cultures

An online collection of course materials


Islam, like Christianity, Judaism and other world religions, varies in its  interpretations, rituals and practices. It is true that Muslims share certain fundamental beliefs, such as those expressed in the shahadah, the profession of faith: there is only one God and that Muhammad is His Prophet to whom was revealed the Qur’an. Yet, as the religion evolved after Muhammad’s death and spread beyond Arabia into many different regions and cultures, ranging from Bosnia and China to Yemen and Zanzibar, it came to be interpreted in diverse ways. This diversity was the result of the core set of religious beliefs interacting in complex ways with the many different contexts in which Muslims lived. Each of these contexts is defined by multiple factors, including its history, cultural traditions, its social, economic, political structures, and its geography and physical location in the world. Recognizing this reality, Abdol Karim Soroush, a contemporary Iranian intellectual, states, “There is no such thing as a “pure” Islam or an a-historical Islam that is outside the process of historical development. The actual lived experience of Islam has always been culturally and historically specific, and bound by the immediate circumstances of its location in time and space. If we were to take a snapshot of Islam as it is lived today, it would reveal a diversity of lived experiences which are all different, yet existing simultaneously.” (As quoted in Farish Noor, New Voices of Islam, 2002, 15-16).

Keeping this historical reality in mind, it is evident that the story of Islam involves peoples of many different races, ethnicities and cultures, many literatures and languages, with many histories, and a myriad of interpretations some of which may in conflict with each other. Not surprisingly, in view of this diversity, the late Edward Said, University Professor of English at Columbia University and a cultural and literary critic, wrote, “The problems facing anyone attempting to say anything intelligible, useful, or accurate about Islam are legion. One should therefore begin by speaking of Islams rather than Islam (as the scholar Aziz al-Azmeh does in his excellent book Islams and Modernities), and then go on to specify which kind, during which particular time, one is speaking about.” He goes on to say that keeping in mind the complexity and variety of concrete human experience, “it is much more sensible to try to talk about different kinds of Islam, at different moments, for different peoples, in different fields…..once one gets a tiny step beyond core beliefs (since even those are very hard to reduce to a simple set of doctrinal rules) and the centrality of the Koran [Qur’an], one has entered an astoundingly complicated world whose enormous – one might even say unthinkable – collective history alone has yet to be written.” (“Impossible Histories: Why the many Islams cannot be simplified,” Harper’s Magazine, July 2002, 69-74).

The Islamic Cultural Studies course is an invitation to explore a small slice of the rich and dazzling diversity that characterizes the worlds of Islam by examining the dynamic interaction between religious beliefs and practices and their political, economic, social, literary, and artistic contexts across time and space. Besides exposure to new content material, the course is also intended to equip you with the tools to analyze and think critically about what it means to study not only Islam, but any other religious tradition in its cultural contexts. In this broader sense, this course is about how to study religion in an academic context. The underlying premise of the course –  knowledge is culturally constructed – is as applicable to the study of the Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu traditions as it is to the study of Islam. To properly understand the role of religions in human societies, the course contends, we must go beyond descriptive summaries of beliefs and practices and look at them as a living and dynamic traditions that are constantly changing according to context and circumstance of their adherents. Ultimately, this course will help provide you with greater literacy about the study of religion in general and better awareness of the complexities involved in such study.

No doubt believers of many faiths who, being comfortable with understanding their religion from a devotional perspective, will have difficulties in coming to terms with the scholarly and analytical approach we have discussed above. Some Muslims, for instance, may insist that there is only one Islam and differences, if they exist, are superficial. But this conception is itself influenced by a certain cultural context. Such Muslims are not alone in this conception for there are non-Muslims who also conceive of Islam as one unified, homogeneous monolith. More recently, particularly after 9/11, a range of historians, political scientists, journalists, public intellectuals have also considered Islam as one mega-civilizational block, stretching across the globe, that is in conflict with the so-called West which they also conceive as a self-contained and unified civilization. The readings selected for Session One from Carl Ernst’s book, Following Muhammad, begin with a critical examination of the manner in which conceptions of Islam, and for that matter notions of “religion,” are culturally and politically constructed by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

The readings from Following Muhammad also examine the Sources of the Islamic tradition, providing a brief overview of the crucial role that Muhammad as Prophet of Islam and the Qur’an, as scripture of Islam, play in defining Muslim religious, social and political consciousness. We will explore each of these sources in greater detail in Sessions Two, Three and Four. The second set of readings, from Historical Atlas of Islam, after a brief summary of foundational beliefs and practices, survey the historical expansion of Arab Muslim imperial rule beyond the Arabian peninsula, covering the period between 600  to 1100 CE.  Maps illustrate how the Islamic faith began in the Arabic world but spread to other areas where local culture, geography, language and ethnicity influenced beliefs and practices. The establishment of Arab rule in the Middle East led to the development of trade routes that were controlled by Muslim merchants, bringing in much wealth to the rapidly growing empires. With political and economic expansion, the Arabic language evolved into an international language of administration, culture, learning and commerce. As Arab power extended over more areas in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region, non Arab traditions, particularly the Persian and the Greco-Roman, were integrated. The result was a cosmopolitan civilization in which Arabic culture played an important part but in which also participated many different ethnic and religious groups.  The historical survey concludes with a brief discussion of the Crusades and the attempts by knights from the Christian kingdoms of the Latin West (including England, Scandinavia, Germany, Italy and France) to wrest political control of the Holy Land from Muslim rulers, damaging the positive relations that had previously existed between Muslims and Eastern Orthodox Christians in the Middle East.

Guiding Questions

As you reflect on the readings in Following Muhammad and the Historical Atlas of Islam, consider the following questions:

  1. Consider Carl Ernst’s statement, “It is safe to say that no religion has such a negative image in Western eyes as Islam.” (p. 11) Why is this so? How have political and economic relationships between the Middle East and Western Europe and the United States impacted perceptions of Islam, in the past and the present? How have they impacted perceptions of the “West” among Muslims?
  2. Carl Ernst writes, “Religion never exists in a vacuum. It is always interwoven with multiple strands of culture and history that link it to particular locations. The rhetoric of religion must be put into a context, so that we know both the objectives and the opponents of particular spokespeople.” (p. 30). Discuss this statement using examples from American history.
  3. How have conceptions of the term “religion” changed over time? How have they impacted perceptions of Islam and its study?
  4. What are the origins of the Islamic faith? Why might Muslims and non-Muslims answer this question differently?
  5. In what ways is it appropriate and/or inappropriate to differentiate between Islamic civilization and Western civilization?


Islam, like Christianity, Judaism and other world religions, varies in its  interpretations, rituals and practices. It is true that Muslims share certain fundamental beliefs, such as those expressed in the shahadah, the profession of faith: there is …

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Muhammad, Prophet of Islam, ranks amongst the most influential figures in human history. For millions of Muslims around the world, the Prophet Muhammad has become the paradigm, or role model, who is worthy of being emulated. As God’s chosen prophet and messenger, he best embodied how to live a life in accordance with God’s will. In this sense, he and the prophets before him, including Abraham, Moses, Joseph, Jacob and Jesus, are  perceived as exemplary muslims, literally, those who have truly submitted [to the will of God]. Not surprisingly, Prophet Muhammad’s customary behavior (sunnah) is an important source, second only to the Qur’an, for determining the legal, societal and pietistic norms for Muslim societies. The hadith, or accounts recording the Prophet’s words and deeds, are an important source of Prophetic sunnah. For many Muslims, Muhammad is not only the guide but the intercessor, the helper in time of difficulty, the mystic, the friend, and even the beloved. For a better understanding of some of the roles in which Muslims have seen their Prophet, we need to focus not only on the historical figure of Muhammad, who lived in the seventh century Arabia (“the Muhammad of history”), but also on Muhammad as he has been interpreted by millions of Muslims over the centuries living in different geographic and cultural locales (“Muhammad through history”).  The readings in Session Two help us explore interpretations of the figure of Muhammad across historical time and geographic space drawing on examples from poetry, folk literature and visual arts. By using literature and the arts as cultural lenses through which to view the figure of the Prophet, we are better able to appreciate the role that literary and artistic contexts play in influencing the interpretation and expression of religious concepts and symbols. Such an approach also allows us access to the personal voices of poets and the artists as expressed in their works, voices that are often drowned out by the voices of formal and official religious authorities and texts.

The selections for this Seminar draw on two types of literature depicting the Prophet Muhammad:  poems from South Asia (the Indian subcontinent) and sub-Saharan Africa; and folk stories from the Hui, a Muslim community in China, which illustrate the manner in which the figure of Muhammad is interpreted within the framework of Chinese folkloric traditions.

From South Asia we have examples of poetry from Urdu and Sindhi, both Indo-Aryan languages written in a script based on the Arabic alphabet. In the course of their historical development, both languages have acquired significant vocabulary derived from Arabic and Persian. Spoken by over 150 million people, Urdu is the official language of Pakistan and also one of the national languages of India. Beyond South Asia, Urdu is routinely spoken as a first or second language in immigrant communities of South Asian origin in many parts of the world, including the United States. Urdu poetry includes a distinctive genre called na’t, or composition that glorifies Muhammad.  These na’ts may be written in various poetic meters and forms. The selections of na’ts, included in the readings, illustrate the special relationship that exists between the composers of the poems and Muhammad, their beloved Prophet, a relationship that in some instances has a somewhat romantic tinge to it.  Muhammad is portrayed as a helper and a friend, with poets seeking his intercession for the forgiveness of their sins. Such pleas reveal that Muhammad is conceived as having a mystical and spiritual dimension to his personality made possible by his special relationship to God. Writing na’ts, or poems glorifying Muhammad, was not confined just to Muslim poets; our sample shows examples of such poems written by non-Muslims as well.

Sindhi is spoken predominantly in the region of Sind, southern province of present-day Pakistan, home of the ancient Indus valley civilization. The language is also spoken by scattered groups of Sindhis living in many cities across India. Sindhi Muslims use their native language to express affection and high esteem for the Prophet Muhammad.  Many of the themes in Urdu poetry are also found in Sindhi poetry.  A distinctive feature of Sindhi poetry is the tendency to praise Muhammad and represent him in symbols familiar to the local culture and literature. This is accomplished by poets incorporating folk tales and romances as allegoric references or following certain local literary conventions. A particularly striking convention has male poets adopting the female voice to address the Prophet as a longed for bridegroom or beloved. While appearing strange to contemporary Western audiences, such usage is completely in keeping with the ethos of devotional poetry in many parts of northern India and Pakistan in which the human soul is always imagined to be in the feminine mode in its devotional relationship to the Divine.

The poetry selections from sub-Saharan Africa are composed in Hausa and Swahili, widely spoken in West and East Africa, respectively. Both  belong to the Bantu family of languages. On account of ancient cultural and economic ties with the Arabic speaking world, (Hausa through the trans-Saharan trade connecting West Africa to North Africa; Swahili through the trading networks across the Indian Ocean between the east coast of Africa and Arabia), both languages have absorbed a significant component of Arabic vocabulary. Historically, modified forms of the Arabic alphabet have even been used to write Hausa and Swahili. With the coming of European colonialism, however, the Latin alphabet was adopted as the official script. The spread of Islam among Hausa and Swahili speaking peoples has resulted in both languages becoming important vehicles for the expression of Islamic devotion.

The poem in Hausa is composed by Asma (d. 1865), daughter of the famous eighteenth century reformer of Islam, Usuman dan Fodio (d. 1817) (We will be learning more about Usuman dan Fodio and his reformist ideology in Session Eight.) Renowned for her piety as well as her learning, Asma wrote poetry in three languages, Arabic, Hausa and Fulfulde. She was particularly gifted in her ability to express Islamic concepts into local African idioms, writing as many as sixty works during her lifetime. Aside from her religiosity and literary abilities, Asma’s popularity rested also on her charitable works for the marginalized in her society as well as her contributions to furthering education for women. Her poem, “Ode in Praise of the Messenger,” an example of a type of poetry called madih, Prophetic panegyric, is one of her most famous compositions in the Hausa language.

The Swahili selection is a poetic account of the mi’raj or Prophet Muhammad’s ascension through the heavens. The traditional accounts narrate that one night, the Prophet Muhammad, mounted on a mythical creature called Buraq and with the Angel Gabriel as his guide, first went to Jerusalem, where after leading the other prophets in prayer, he ascended through the various heavens, culminating this journey in a face to face meeting with God. Muslims have differed among themselves as to the interpretation of this event, with the more mystically minded interpreting it as a spiritual allegory for the journey of the human soul, a kind of “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Muhammad’s mi’raj formed for the mystics of Islam the prototype of the ascent of each soul to higher spiritual realms. The mi’raj becomes a popular subject for Muslim poets in many languages, especially as it allows poets to imagine and depict creatively a highly esoteric experience. Incidentally, there is strong evidence to suggest that Muslim poetic accounts of the mi’raj, reaching Europe through the Arab courts in medieval Spain, inspired the Italian writer Dante to compose his famous work, The Divine Comedy.

As evident in the painting selections, the mi’raj has provided inspiration not just to poets but to artists as well. The illustrations included here are from a fifteenth century manuscript called the Mi’raj Nameh “Treatise on the Mi’raj.” It was one of the great masterpieces produced at studios attached to the royal court at Herat (currently in present-day Afghanistan). At these royal studios, calligraphers, illuminators and bookbinders produced lavish manuscripts for the vast and famous library of the ruler Shah Rukh (1396-1477), son of Tamerlane. It is believed that Mir Haydar, the author of the text, translated it into a dialect of Turkish from an Arabic original.  The artwork is very colorful and depicts various scenes during the Prophet Muhammad’s heavenly journey. While the artists and the patron associated with this manuscript tradition were evidently comfortable with a figural representation of the Prophet, depicting even his face, there are Muslims who consider these depictions as constituting idolatry and hence should be forbidden. As such, they would prefer aniconic representations of the Prophet perhaps through other art forms such as poetry and calligraphy.


Guiding Questions

As you read and discuss the selections, consider the following questions:

  1. Each of these poems evokes an intimate relationship with Prophet Muhammad. In reading them, consider the significance of this means of devotion. What are the elements that make this type of poetry an effective means of communicating religious affections and pious devotion? The intimacy expressed in the poems allows a window into the poet’s and the audience’s particular understandings of Muhammad and his mission to humanity. How is Muhammad’s prophetic role appropriated and acculturated in each of these traditions? In other words, how is the mission made personally meaningful to the poet and the audience?
  2. Consider these same questions as you read the selections from Mythology and Folklore of the Hui. To what extent do the myths of the Hui reveal Islamic and/or Chinese identity? How are these identities negotiated in the stories?
  3. What influence do local artistic traditions have on the illustrations of the mi’raj?  What can we tell of the aesthetic norms that have influenced the depictions of figures (the Prophet, the angels), their clothing, natural elements (the sky, clouds etc) and architectural features? How does this artistic tradition handle perspective? How do these illustrations reflect the intended audience (courtly and aristocratic circles)? How do cultural contexts and accepted aesthetic norms influence the representations of Jesus in Christian traditions around the world?
  4. Why do some Muslims feel comfortable depicting the Prophet (especially his face)?  Why would others consider this to be offensive and hence forbidden?  What factors, aside from theological ones, could be involved in determining these attitudes? What is the difference between poetic and figural depictions of the Prophet?


Muhammad, Prophet of Islam, ranks amongst the most influential figures in human history. For millions of Muslims around the world, the Prophet Muhammad has become the paradigm, or role model, who is worthy of being emulated. As God’s …

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The readings selected for Session Three illustrate the role that the Qur’an plays in the lives of Muslims as an oral/aural scripture. While Jews and Christians view their holy books as narratives of divine inspiration that are accessible through the written word, many Muslims interact with and encounter their holy book primarily through the sound of the recited text. The sound permeates every day life in Muslim majority countries as people hear the recited Qur’an in “secular” environments such as markets and shopping malls, over the radio and at a variety of public functions. As such, Muslims are more likely to hear the Qur’an rather than read it. Indeed, it has been said that the majority of the world’s Muslims encounter the Qur’an through the ear rather than the eye. Most Muslims believe that the Qur’an embodies God’s actual speech in Arabic as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad through the Angel Gabriel. Not surprisingly, the oral recited Qur’an is absolutely integral to the believer in incorporating a relationship with the Divine into daily life. Muslims view the beauty and perfection of the Qur’an to be manifest in the sound and imagery that the spoken word emotes in the listener. In fact, believers point to this very perfection of the text as the proof of the prophethood of Muhammad. For many, the notion that the Qur’an is inimitable, that is, no human could possibly have produced anything so perfect, proves that it had to be God who revealed this message to Muhammad.

Guiding Questions


  1. Some scholars claim that the Muslim emphasis on hearing the Divine Word (Qur’an) in its recited form results in a different understanding of communing with God than that of Jews and Christians. As you go through these readings, document examples that highlight this claim of difference. Think about what the practical effect these differences produce within the believer, if any. As you learn more about Islam and Muslim cultures, compare and contrast the ideals represented in the recited scripture versus the way that people behave. Is this substantially different in other religions?
  2. Consider the nature of a religion’s emphasis on the recitation of a holy message. How is this emphasis related to the cultural/literary context in which the Qur’an was revealed? In what ways would this emphasis be uplifting and deeply touching in a personal context? In what ways would it be anti-individual and restricting? What freedom does the individual reciter have in determining the manner and style of his/her recitation? How does looking at religion through a cultural context change what you think about both someone else’s religion and your own system of beliefs which may be religious or not.
  3. How do the three monotheistic religions use scripture differently? How does the way a believer looks at scripture predispose his/her response to his/her own religion? How do you think that these differences substantially reflect culture? How do these differences stand in the way of mutual understanding?
  4. What key information do these readings highlight which you think make a difference in a better/clearer understanding of Islam by non-Muslims?


The readings selected for Session Three illustrate the role that the Qur’an plays in the lives of Muslims as an oral/aural scripture. While Jews and Christians view their holy books as narratives of divine inspiration that are accessible …

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Session Four readings consider the Qur’an as a written literary text, that is, in its physical form as a compiled book. Discussion of the Qur’an’s style, structure and contents, its terminology and world-view and the diverse ways in which Muslim communities interpret it, help the reader understand the “mechanics” of this book that is of central significance to Muslims around the world. To provide a broader frame of reference for the study of the Qur’anic text as well as an understanding of the manner in which the Islamic tradition relates itself to Christianity and Judaism, the session includes an examination of the story of Joseph in a comparative context, that is, its narration in the Bible and the Qur’an. The readings on the Joseph story and its literary and artistic expressions in various cultural contexts invite an exploration of the role that cultural contexts play in creating diverse Muslim interpretations of the same text.

The brief discussion of eight central themes of the Qur’an, in the readings from Kenneth Cragg, lays the foundation for understanding Islamic expectations concerning faith, worship and behavior. The eight themes, as stated by Cragg, are:
• God and His praise
• Man in creation
• Prophethood in human guidance prior to Muhammad
• Muhammad in his Meccan environment
• Muhammad in his Medinan locale
• Religious Law and devotion
• Social Law and society
• The Last Things

Study of the Qur’an is not complete without an understanding of the importance that aesthetics of recitation plays in worship. As we have already discussed in Session Three, memorization and recitation of Qur’anic verse are important Muslim practices. The aural dimension of the Qur’an helps the believer access God’s message through sound. As we shall explore later, calligraphic Arabic writing adds an artistic dimension in revering Allah’s word as well.

Guiding Questions


1. Cragg states that “Muslim conviction sees divine communication and Muhammad’s messengership as the two aspects of a single fact.”(page 18)

  • How is the merging of these two concepts important to Islamic theology?
  • What roles did the conception and recording of the Qur’an play in explaining Cragg’s quote and in establishing this as a holy book?

2. Cragg also discussed the concept of “‘there-and-then’ in concern for ‘here and now.’” (p. 27). Is there a correlation between the role and interpretations of the Qur’an and the life styles of Muslims during different historical time periods? Explain.

3. Discuss the role of the Qur’an in providing direction for an ethical life. Incorporate the inclusion of the eight themes in the discussion.

    Joseph Story:
    The Joseph story is one of the best known and best-loved traditional narratives among Jewish, Christian and Muslim peoples. Jews and Christians know it in its Biblical form as it appears in Genesis 35-50. (Jews also know many embellishments to the story, which are found in Talmudic literature.) Muslims know it its Qur’anic form as told in Surah 12 (Chapter 12). The reading from J. Kaltner, Inquiring of Joseph, ix-xx; 23-43 will be particularly helpful in framing your reading of the Quranic and Genesis accounts of the Joseph story.

    4. In comparing the Biblical and Qur’anic traditions of the Joseph materials, try to assess what the distinctive features of each narrative are: the stylistic aspects of each account, it’s probable role in Jewish, Christian or Muslim religious lives, and its place in the larger historical understanding of each of these traditions. What are the differences in the plots of the two accounts? How does character development differ in the two accounts? What might bethe purpose and/or effect of such differences? What is the narrative standpoint from which each account is told? Which accounts seem more didactic? Where do the emphases upon particular events lie in each account? Are the virtues and vices depicted in each account comparable? How does Joseph himself appear in each account? Finally, can you make some generalizations about the overall character of the Qur’anic narrative as opposed to the Biblical narrative?

    5. After comparing the Biblical and Qur’anic versions of the story of Joseph, read the Malay and Swahili narratives. How do these stories and their portrayals of Joseph compare and contrast with those of the Bible and the Qur’an? Given that the Joseph story is already told in the Muslim scripture, what do you think is achieved by re-telling it in each tradition? In the re-telling of the story, how is it “indigenized” or acculturated?

    6. John Renard writes that because of the “long love affair” that generations of Muslims across the world have had with Joseph, he has become “a comprehensive reminder of the various aspects of the Islamic tradition.” Provide some instances from the readings in support of this statement.

    7. Cragg states that “Creed, code, cult, community and culture are five ‘c’s in necessary inter-relation in every religion.” (page 41). Use these five concepts to compare and contrast the variations of the Joseph story included in the readings. Include how the sources of the Joseph story reflect Christian, Jewish and Islamic ideologies.

    8. After viewing and hearing the multi-media resources, reflect upon the importance of the aural and visual arts in Muslim devotional life.


    Session Four readings consider the Qur’an as a written literary text, that is, in its physical form as a compiled book. Discussion of the Qur’an’s style, structure and contents, its terminology and world-view and the diverse ways in …

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    We can trace much of the diversity in the Muslim world to religious, philosophical, and political tensions that arose in the centuries after the Prophet Muhammad’s death.  Sunni and Shi’a communities, for example, were divided by disagreements on the succession of leadership after Muhammad, while the rise of a Sufi counterculture was in part a reaction to the un-Islamic lifestyles of political leaders.  The early Muslim communities struggled over the authority and legitimacy of community leaders, the relationship between political and religious leadership, and the correct interpretation of the Quran and Muhammad’s life.

    One of the most decisive problems for early Muslims concerned authority and leadership.  By the end of Muhammad’s life, most of the Arab tribes had formed a united community of believers (ummah), with Muhammad acting as their leader both in religious and political matters.  But Muhammad was the Seal of the Prophets; the authority of his successor, therefore, would not be based on prophethood.  It was up to the early Muslims to determine the nature and function of leadership in their communities.  When Muhammad died in 632, many members of the ummah felt that the Prophet had not designated a successor, and by general consensus Muhammad’s father-in-law Abu Bakr was elected the first successor (calpih).  Others believed that Muhammad had appointed his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Ali Talib as his successor, and believed that Ali, as a member of Muhammad’s immediate family, was best qualified to guide the ummah. Ali’s supporters were known as the Shiat Ali, “the Partisans of Ali”, and agitated for Ali to become the caliph.  In 680, the struggle between supporters of the early caliphs and the Shi’a culminated in the battle of Karbala where Ali’s son Husayn was murdered by the army of Yazid.  The martyrdom of Husayn was considered a grave injustice by all Muslims, but was a profound tragedy for the Shi’a. The commemoration of Husayn’s martyrdom remains central to Shi’a religious identity.

    In addition to the problems of succession and leadership, Muslims also debated how the teachings of the Quran and other scripture should be applied in practice. The Quran provided guidance on many aspects of religious and social life, but some felt that it did not contain clear instruction on all possible religious and legal questions.  To clarify the Quran’s practical teachings, Muslims relied on sunnah, the customs and practices of the Prophet as recorded in Hadith, extra-quranic quotations and eyewitness reports of Muhammad’s behavior.  Scholars traveled throughout the Muslim world collecting Hadith, while carefully scrutinizing their authenticity.  Only those Hadith which were transmitted by an unbroken chain of reliable sources were deemed acceptable. All members of the ummah strove to adopt the message of the Quran and emulate Muhammad, who was celebrated as the uswa al-hasana (the most beautiful model).

    The Quran and sunnah, the most authoritative guides to religious and social life, were the primary sources for shari’ah, the path of right conduct and behavior as revealed by God.  Scholars studied the Quran and hadith in order to clarify shari’ah. Several schools of jurisprudence were formed, each with its own method for arriving at legal rulings.  Although all rulings were based on scripture, the ambiguity of the primary sources on certain issues required the use of systematic reasoning, based on methods sanctioned by each school.  Some jurists, and later theologians and philosophers, developed sophisticated intellectual methods, some drawing from traditions of ancient Greek philosophy; others became uncomfortable with the application of potentially fallible human reason to religious law and theology, and argued for a literal application of the Quran and sunnah.  Four major schools of Sunni jurisprudence were to emerge from these debates.  Each school attracted its own followers, and at times there were bitter rivalries between schools.   Muslims sought the opinions and guidance of religious scholars, the ulama, marking them as authorities on religious matters.  Political leaders also patronized the ulama, establishing endowments for centers of learning.  In areas where political authority was less centralized, the ulama fulfilled a number of leadership roles, and took on a degree of political power as well.

    The Shi’a developed their own approaches to jurisprudence.  While the rulings of Shi’a jurists did not deviate significantly from those of the Sunni schools, their approach to authority was quite unique.  The Shi’a refused to accept the legitimacy of the early caliphs, remaining loyal to the descendants of Ali, whom they called Imams, spiritual leaders.  As a descendant of Muhammad’s immediate family, each Imam was believed to inherit special insight and authority in the practice of scriptural interpretation.  As such, the Imam was considered to be an essential intermediary between God and the Shi’a community.  In addition to hadiths of the Prophet, the Shi’a collected similar traditions from the Imams, extending the sources of shari’ah beyond those accepted by the Sunni jurists.  A dispute over the succession of the seventh Imam led to a further division among Shi’a, creating the Twelver and Ismaili communities.

    With the success and territorial expansion of political dynasties, government officials began to accumulate unprecedented wealth and power, and at times their lifestyles were considered at odds with shari’ah.  Following the model of Muhammad’s simple lifestyle, some Muslims, called Sufis, renounced worldly gains and turned to lives of poverty and ascetic practice.  Sufis explored mystical and symbolic interpretations of Islamic rituals and scriptures to uncover their deeper significance.  Most Sufis had extensive training in Islamic law and its guidelines for ritual and social behavior, but strove to apply shari’ah to their inner lives as well.  They formulated a personal, emotional vision of Islam, internalizing the meaning of the Quran and Muhammad’s life.  The spiritual accomplishments of the Sufis attracted followers and students, and Sufi brotherhoods gradually spread beyond local political loyalties.  A Sufi master’s teachings and conduct could become the source of inspiration for followers.  This spiritual allegiance would continue even after a master’s death, with followers making pilgrimages to his tomb.

    It should be clear that while early Muslims were unified in their belief in the Quran and sunnah, they came to interpret the meaning of Islam in diverse ways.  All Muslims agreed on the authority of the Quran, but they actively debated the authority of political and religious leaders, the limits of human reason, and the compatibility of spiritual and worldly aspirations.

    Guiding Questions


    1. At the heart of many of the sectarian movements among Muhammad’s followers was the problem of establishing legitimate leadership. How did the early Muslims make sense of the shift in the leadership from Muhammad as the Seal of the Prophets to his successors who could not claim the authority of prophethood? What were the Sunni and Shi’a solutions to this problem? How did the qualifications for legitimate rule differ according to these communities with respect to education, family and tribal identity, spirituality, wealth, and politics?
    2. The readings for this session describe different approaches to scriptural, religious, and political authority. What were the important sources of authority for each sectarian movement? In the case where more than one source of authority was accepted, how were these sources reconciled? Think about the role of hierarchical structures of authority. Do you see similarities between authority in Shi’a and Sufi traditions, especially in their concepts of religious leadership?
    3. Ernst distinguishes between philosophical ethics based on reason and religious ethics based on revelation (p. 110). How does this distinction relate to the early schools of Islamic law and theology, especially the Mutazilites, Asharites, and People of Hadith? What was the role of reason and revelation in establishing Shari’ah and practicing philosophy? Why did some jurists argue the necessity of reason to interpret the Quran and Sunnah?
    4. Ernst argues that “the concept of what is called Western civilization should . . . include Islam” on the grounds of Muslim philosophers’ active engagement with ancient Greek thinkers. After centuries of neglect, European philosophers rediscovered Greek philosophy and translated the works of Plato and Aristotle, as well as the original works of Muslim philosophers, from Arabic into Latin. Greek philosophy, widely considered the foundation for Western philosophy, was preserved and developed by Muslims. Still, Muslim philosophers are rarely acknowledged for this work. Ernst calls this “one of the great areas of selective amnesia about the nature of Western civilization.” How is this selective amnesia “an argument for European superiority”? What are the implications of including Islam in the concept of Western civilization?


    We can trace much of the diversity in the Muslim world to religious, philosophical, and political tensions that arose in the centuries after the Prophet Muhammad’s death.  Sunni and Shi’a communities, for example, were divided by disagreements on …

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    The centuries leading up to the Mongol invasions of the 13th century saw a culmination of Muslim spiritual and intellectual traditions, with masterpieces of literature, metaphysics, and theology. Sufi mystics, seeking a personal, subjective experience of God, gradually came to form networks of fraternal orders spanning the Muslim world. The language of their teachings was rich in symbolism and metaphor, inspiring poets like Jalal ud-Din Rumi (d. 1273) to compose literature of supreme beauty and vitality. Thinkers such as Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (d. 1111) drew upon developments in Muslim intellectual traditions, as well as Greek philosophy and Neoplatonism, in their influential writings on mysticism and theology. They organized these ideas into comprehensive systems of faith, integrating objective and subjective forms of knowledge and religious experience.

    Even during the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime some Muslims were moved to express their deep devotion to God with special spiritual disciplines. Citing such hadiths as “poverty is my pride,” they turned away from worldly accomplishments to adopt a simple lifestyle of voluntary poverty. These renunciates strove to realize the spiritual significance the message of the Quran, and the virtues of the lifestyle outlined by the hadith and sunnah. These spiritual practices were firmly grounded in the Quran, with its allusions to the “Night of Power” when the Quran was revealed to Muhammad, as well as the miraj, the Prophet’s miraculous journey from Mecca to Jerusalem and ascension through the seven heavens into the presence of God. Muslims borrowed the language and symbolism of such events in order to express their own spiritual growth and experience of God, seeking the deeper, mystical meaning of the Quran and sunnah.

    Muslim mystics were called Sufis, perhaps due to the coarse woolen ropes they wore (suf is Arabic for wool), in contrast to the lavish attire of political leaders and officials. Sufis considered the extravagant lifestyles of these officials to be at odds with the teachings of the Quran and shari’ah, and sought to turn away from worldly accomplishments, like wealth and political power, which were considered distractions from their devotions. Details from the lives of early Sufis are recorded in stories which exemplify a deep-seated devotion to the basic teachings of Islam. For example, Sufis strove to replace their own selfish desires with the love of God. This teaching was exemplified by Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya (d. 801) who, with a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other, exclaimed, “I want to dowse the fires of hell and set fire to heaven so that people will love God—not out of their fear of hell or the hope of heaven—but for his own sake.” Likewise, the importance of tawhid, the affirmation of God’s unity, was famously dramatized by Husayn Mansur al-Hallaj (d. 922). In a state of mystical ecstasy, Hallaj extended the implications of tawhid by claiming to be a manifestation of the divine truth. Although Hallaj was executed as a heretic, in Sufi literature his martyrdom became a popular symbol for unwavering sacrifice and mystical union with God.

    From the 11th century, Sufism began to take on a formal organizational structure. Sufis began to write systematic treatises and organize themselves into loose affiliations, on par with the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence. Often Sufi orders were structured around a spiritual master, one who had progressed through a number mystical stages, and, in the process, achieved the qualities of sainthood. These Sufi masters, called sheikhs (spiritual guides), attracted students who congregated at meeting houses to receive instruction. Even after the death of a sheikh, students and devotees visited the tomb of the master to receive his blessing (baraka). These tombs became popular centers of pilgrimage throughout the Muslim world, and the sheikh was thought to function as an intercessor between God and the pilgrims. The concept of intercession in Sufism is not unlike the special status of the Prophet’s family and Imams in Shi’ism.

    Alongside the formation of Sufi orders, schools of theology and philosophy studied the scriptures and sunnah; some even began to consider their faith in light of neighboring intellectual traditions. The writings of Plato, Aristotle and the Neoplatonists were especially influential among Muslim intellectuals who questioned how these systems of logic, cosmology, and metaphysics could enhance Muslims’ understanding of the Quran’s teachings. Mutazilite theologians represented the rationalist position, arguing that the universe was arranged by certain principles that can be discovered by reason alone. Others felt that there were limits to the power of reason, and felt that God and his creation could be known primarily through divine revelation as conveyed in the Quran. A third group of theologians, the Ash’arites, adopted a compromise, accepting the use of reason as a tool in theological debates, but conceding that God ultimately transcends reason. Ash’arite theologians were thoroughly educated in logic and philosophy, and their positions reflect a synthesis of the major intellectual traditions current in the Middle East and surrounding areas.

    Early Muslim philosophers wove ideas from Greek and neo-Platonist philosophy into their metaphysical teachings regarding the relationship between God and the universe. Ibn Sina (d. 1037), also known as Avicenna, wrote important commentaries on Greek philosophy which were to play a central role in the so-called rediscovery of philosophy by Christian scholastics like Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274). But Muslim philosophers like Ibn Sina did not merely preserve earlier traditions; they incorporated these ideas into Islamic intellectual traditions and made original contributions to philosophy and theology.

    The various intellectual traditions outlined above, namely, Sufism, theology, and philosophy, were brought together by Ash’arite theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (d. 1111), whose synthesis would be widely accepted as an integration of Sufi mysticism, shari’ah based religion, and philosophical methods. Al-Ghazzali’s biography is itself an embodiment of this synthesis. An accomplished professor in Islamic jurisprudence, al-Ghazzali gave up a prestigious professorship to devote himself to the search for a deeper faith. This search led to an elegant formulation of Islam, which reconciled the teachings of the Quran and the ritualism of shari’ah, with the personal experience of God found in Sufism. Al-Ghazzali argued for an integration of the objective knowledge of the scholars and the subjective knowledge of the Sufis. This fusion of reason and emotion, of outer and inner religious life, was the culmination of centuries of debates between mystics, theologians, and philosophers; to many, it would prove a satisfying solution to these debates, and a successful integration of shari’ah and mysticism.

    Guiding Questions


    1. At one time Western scholars of Islam felt that Sufism was incompatible with Islam and tried to establish, unconvincingly, that it was the product of Hindu or Christian influence. To this day the artistic expressions of Sufis, such as Jalal ud-Din Rumi, are among the most popular expressions of Islam in the West. Is there a connection between these two phenomena? What about Sufism allows it to transcend the generally negative image of Islam in the West? Are there similarities between Sufi and Western ideals, and if so, do they withstand scrutiny? What does it mean to say that Sufism is the internalization of Islam and Shari’a?
    2. Occasionally one hears that Islam forbids music and representational art; this misconception fails to recognize countless examples of such art forms created by Muslim artists. In Ernst’s discussion of Islamic art, he makes a distinction between Islamic art which is directly connected to religion, and Islamicate art which is non-religious and may be created by both Muslims and non-Muslims. Try to apply this distinction to examples of visual art, architecture, literature, and music. What can you say about the differences between Islamic and Islamicate art, and, for that matter, the general usefulness of this distinction? Think about artistic traditions in your own community, and the role of religions in these traditions. To what degree is the Islamic/Islamicate distinction analogous to the distinction between sacred and secular art?
    3. Both Sells and Ernst describe the relationship between the lives of the early Sufis and the teachings of the Quran and the life of Muhammad. Events from Muhammad’s life became spiritual models for Sufis; for example, the “Night of Power,” when the Quran was revealed to Muhammad, and the miraj, Muhammad’s ascension into the presence of God. How do these events lend themselves to mystical interpretations? How could Sufis model their own spiritual experiences upon these events without claiming the status of prophethood? What is the role of the Quran and sunnah in Sufism? How do the basic values of Sufism such as tawhid (affirmation of God’s unity), tawakkul (trust in God), and rida (contentment with God’s will) relate to the message of the Quran? Why did some Muslims reject Sufi practices and teachings? How do you account for tensions between Sufis and political leaders, as well as between Sufis and religious leaders?
    4. Lapidus states that by the 13th century a “Sunni-scripturalist-Sufi orientation” had emerged as the “normative form of Sunni Islam.” Consider the variety of Muslim intellectual and religious traditions in currency prior to the 13th century. Which traditions played the largest roles in the formation of this normative consensus? Which approaches to jurisprudence, philosophy, theology, and mysticism did this consensus exclude and why? Compare and contrast the roles of intercession and pilgrimage in Shi’ism and Sufism. What was the intellectual and political context of al-Ghazzali’s synthesis of various strands of philosophy, theology, and mysticism? Why was this synthesis so successful?


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    The religion that the Prophet Muhammad preached provided his followers an ethical and moral vision for leading a life of righteousness. By the time of his death in 632, loyalty to Muhammad and Islam also provided an important means for forging solidarity among various Arab tribes who had previously been engaged in petty rivalries and wars against each other. In the eighth and ninth centuries, this social and political solidarity, unifying Arabs, became the backbone of a new Arab empire that stretched from Spain in the west to Central Asia and northwestern India in the east. Initially in the new empire, Islam was the religion of the Arab ruling class, a badge of solidarity and superiority. Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians, who were subjects of new Arab rulers, could maintain their religious practices provided they paid jizya, a tax in tribute in lieu of military service. If non-Arabs converted to Islam, they became mawali, or clients of Arab tribes, thus acknowledging Arab superiority. Over the course of time, however, the discriminatory attitude to non-Arab converts was challenged as the religion was interpreted in much richer and inclusive ways, often tinged with strong mystical hues. Notwithstanding the Arabocentric tendencies in its early history, Arab Islamic civilization came to draw upon the institutions and cultures that already existed in the Middle East, including the rich heritage of the Byzantine-Christian and Persian Sassanian civilizations. Many nomadic Bedouin Arabs were integrated into urban communities inhabiting new cities and towns established by Arab rulers. The Arabic language was transformed into a cosmopolitan language which was used far beyond the geographic borders of Arabia as a language of administration, religion, literature and science. Professor Maria Rosa Menocal writes, “The virtue of this Arab-Islamic civilization (in this as in other things not so unlike the Roman) lay precisely in its being able to assimilate and even revive the rich gifts of earlier and indigenous cultures, some crumbling, others crumbled, even as it was itself being crafted. The range of cultural yearning and osmosis of the Islamic empire in this expansive moment was as great as its territorial ambitions: from the Roman spolia that would appear as the distinctive capitals on the columns of countless mosques to the Persian stories that would be known as The Thousand and One (or Arabian) Nights, from the corpus of translated Greek philosophical texts to the spices and silks of the farthest East. Out of this acquisitive confrontation with a universe of languages, cultures, and people, the Umayyad [Arabs], who had come pristine out of the Arabian desert, defined their version of Islam as one that loved its dialogues with other traditions.” (The Ornament of the World, pp. 21-22)

    The pluralistic nature of early Islamic civilization was well reflected in the various cultures and traditions represented in the great cities that were built by Muslim rulers and dynasties. Muslim cities such as Cairo, Timbuktu, and Fatehpur Sikri were characterized by plurality which was evident not just in their religious landscapes but also in the arts and the sciences they sponsored. The readings in this Session examine Arab Islamic civilization as it developed in two urban contexts: Baghdad and Cordoba. Founded in 762 by Abu Jafar al-Mansur as the capital of the Abbasid empire, the city of Baghdad was originally called Madinat as-Salaam, the City of Peace. The city reached the apex of its power and reputation in the ninth century when, under the rule of the caliphs al-Mahdi and Harun al-Rashid, it became one of most important economic, political and cultural capitals of the world. One of the highpoints in Baghdad’s intellectual life was the Bait al-Hikmah, “The House of Wisdom,” founded by the Caliph Maimun in 830. This institution housed hundreds of manuscripts in Greek, Persian, Sanskrit and Syriac many of which translated into Arabic. In some instances, the original texts of important classical works such as Galen’s Anatomical Procedures have since been lost and only the Arabic translation survives. Arab scholars, Muslim and non-Muslim, affiliated to this institution did not merely translate works of Western classical antiquity but provided significantly new and original ideas of their own. When the scholarly treatises of these Arab scholars were translated into Latin in the twelfth century they became the basis of a renaissance in Europe, specifically in Arab Spain or al-Andalus.

    The city of Cordoba, known as the “bride of al-Andalus,” was first made into the administrative, political, military and cultural capital of Arab Spain by the Umayyad ruler Abd al-Rahman I in 756. By the first half of the tenth century, in the reign of Abd al-Rahman III (d.956), its inhabitants numbered half a million including Muslims, Christians and a considerable number of Jews. Although the vast majority of its population was of Spanish origin, a number of Berbers from North Africa lived there as well. In comparison to other European cities of the time, Cordoba was remarkably clean. Its streets well-paved and lighted with its residents well-supplied with water. News of the grandeur of its buildings, its markets and its vibrant cultural life spread far and wide, reaching even Hrotsvitha of Gandersheim, a cloistered nun in Saxony, who called the city “the world’s ornament.” Cordoba was, above all, an intellectual center symbolized by its many libraries. As a result of the patronage of the Caliphs and the city’s economic elite, the city was home to a large group of scholars, both Muslim and non-Muslim, representing different fields of learning such as medicine, philosophy, geography, astronomy and mathematics. The Caliphal library, containing over 400,000 volumes, was constantly growing out of space as new books were added, so that its premises had to be moved five times. Witnesses recount that on one of these moves, it took five days to transport the books on poetry alone! Cordoba’s Caliphal library was ranked alongside the libraries of Abbasids in Baghdad and the Fatimids in Cairo as one of the three great libraries in the Muslim world.

    The flowering of Cordoba and al-Andalus was made possible by the commingling of languages, religions, foods, clothing, music, songs, styles of architecture within multi-religious and multi-ethnic environment in which many people were bilingual in Arabic, Hebrew, and local Hispano-Latin dialects. Although there were periods in Cordoba’s history when religious disputes broke out between communities and non-Muslim populations, particularly Christians, suffered discrimination, yet these instances were exceptional for, overall, Cordoba’s rulers tended to tolerate religious and cultural diversity. Certainly in comparison to their European counterparts, they were exemplary in their treatment of religious minorities. Under these favorable circumstances, it is hardly surprisingly that Cordoba became the center of a brilliant Jewish renaissance promoted by the numerous Jewish intellectuals, poets and philosophers, many of whom had accepted Arabic as their language of thought and culture. Miguel Cruz Hernandez observes that “Cultural coexistence of this kind was made possible by religious and legal principles that were far-reaching in their implications even though they were often transgressed in practice. The Andalusian experience was an exceptional moment in history, probably unique in its own time and rarely matched in any other. It’s most worthy, notable and creative nature was that co-habitation and coexistence were based on religious and legal principles. Our own era, which prides itself on the liberalism and universality of its ideas, offers few examples to match it.” (Unesco Courier, December 1991)

    Guiding Questions


    1. What conditions in Baghdad encouraged such a vast array of discoveries and inventions? What information do the readings provide about the social and cultural life of Baghdad during its heyday as the capital city of the Abbasid empire?
    2. In your opinion, what have been the five most important scientific developments that took place under the auspices of Arab Islamic civilization? How have they impacted our world today?
    3. At a Medieval Islamic Scholars seminar held at SMU in May 2005, this question was posed: Why was there such an abundance of inventions and discoveries attributed to Muslims in Medieval times but not today? How would you answer this question?
    4. Discuss the role and influence of the Lady Zubaidah on the political and social life of her time and the power she exerted in Baghdad and beyond. In what ways does religious culture impact her status and role in society?
    5. Describe the cooperative mixing of cultures in Cordoba. What cultural, economic and political characteristics about Spain during this time period encouraged the different cultures to thrive and collaborate?
    6. How did the intellectual and cultural experiences of Muslim Spain help bring about the Renaissance?
    7. Could the Cordoba experience happen in the world today? What conditions would be necessary? Explain.


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    During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, European economies began to expand as the need for raw materials increased. Political and economic competition forced the establishment of worldwide territorial empires. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the European powers, including Russia (and China) had completed their conquest of almost all Muslim societies. Colonialism drastically changed all aspects of the political, economic, cultural dimensions of the colonized regions. Muslim and European societies were distinctly different in their philosophies toward elites, institutions, and cultures. One of the effects of the new colonial rule was the suspension of the local legal systems and the imposition of the law of the conqueror. The establishment of the new law, however, did not impact all aspects of life in the society. Local customs still prevailed in many aspects of family life and education. Often this resulted in a more strict interpretation of Islamic law, taking away rights previously available to Muslim women.

    Muslim elites generated two principal responses to European pressures. Those Muslim professionals and intellectuals who received their training in Western or Western-style educational institutions generally favored Islamic modernist or secular nationalist concepts for the future of Muslim societies, interpreting Islam in ways that were consistent with European forms of state and economy. (We will be discussing some of these intellectuals in Session Nine.) On the other hand, tribal leaders, merchants and commercial farmers, led by ulama and Sufi shaykhs, wanted a reorganization of Muslim communities and the reform of individual behavior in terms of fundamental religious principles and practices.

    There was great deal of diversity of form and style among the reformist/revivalist movements that developed in the eighteenth century, depending on context and circumstance. While some movements were in response to external factors, such as the encounter with the Europeans, others arose in reaction to developments internal to their societies, particularly the decline of political institutions and what was perceived to be growing moral laxity and religious/spiritual malaise among Muslims. John Voll, who has studied these movements extensively, points out that some of these, though conceived of as “renewal” movements, were, in fact, part of the ongoing processes of Islamization of societies. Such movements of renewal and reform sometimes resulted in political conflict and the creation of new states, especially in regions beyond the central Muslim lands of the Middle East. In this session we examine the careers and thought of three prominent Muslim revivalists/reformists of the eighteenth century: Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92) in Arabia; Usuman dan Fodio (1755-1817) in the area of the modern state of Nigeria in West Africa; and Shah Waliullah (1703-1762) in Mughal India.

    Guiding Questions


    1. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-92) was trained in law, theology, and Sufism at Mecca and Medina, where he was drawn to the Hanbali school, the strictest of the Sunni law schools. He believed the political weakness of the community and its moral decline were due to a deviation from the straight path of Islam. What was his answer to this problem? What was his conception of the “correct” Islam that people should follow?
    2. How did the jihad revivalist movements in West Africa redefine African Sufism? Notwithstanding his involvement with a militant jihad movement, Usuman dan Fodio is considered to be theologically conservative in his understanding of Islam. Why is this so?
    3. Shah Wali Allah wanted to restore the declining power of the Mughal Empire. Why did he think that reforming the practice of Islam among Muslims in India could lead to this restoration? What were his solutions to reforming Muslim society and the Sufi tradition?
    4. What similarities do you see in the ideas of Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, Usuman dan Fodio and Shah Waliullah? Notwithstanding these similarities, each had his own distinctive vision of what constituted “correct” Islam. Can you discern the differences in their visions? What impact do you think the specific context in which each lived may have played in developing differences in their conceptions of Islam?


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    The onset of European imperialism created a crisis of monumental proportions in the Muslim world. For Muslim intellectuals and religious scholars, it became abundantly clear that the nations of Europe had been able to conquer and subdue Muslim societies due to superior weaponry and machinery. The crisis, however, was not simply political or technological. It was also economic, social and cultural, as the structures and institutions introduced by the colonial powers brought with them a range of challenges to traditional Muslim world-views and perspectives on a wide range of issues. For instance, with European colonialism came the idea of secularism and the notion that sovereignty, the ability to make laws, and to determine right from wrong, rested neither with God nor with religious institutions claiming to interpret God’s will, but with the consensus of the people as expressed in the institutions of the state. Colonialism also brought it with Christian missionaries who were anxious to take advantage of the opportunities to spread their religion under the benevolent protection of the colonial state. These missionaries, along with early western scholars who studied Islam under colonial patronage, promoted the view that Islamic doctrines, practices and concepts, such as jihad, polygamy, the veil, and the shari’a, were evidence that Islam was a “backward” religion, incompatible with progress and development. Hence, it was their duty to embark on a mission that was to simultaneously “Christianize” and to civilize colonial subjects and show them the way to progress. In the civilizing mission of European imperialism, Muslim communities were confronted with a force that was powerful enough to transform them into its own image, using brute military might, if necessary.

    For many Muslims, the political, cultural and religious denigration they experienced under colonial rule resulted in a crisis of faith as religious ideals chafed against historical realities. Viewed particularly from the perspective of Sunni Islam, to which the majority of world’s Muslims adhere, the history of their faith, until the eighteenth century, had been on the whole, with a few exceptions (such as the Crusades and Mongol invasions), a history of political triumph characterized by the steady expansion of Islam as a global religion. This political triumph, lasting many centuries, had been interpreted in theological terms: it was a sign that God was on the side of the Muslims, rewarding them with triumph in the world for faithfully following His commands. The new dominance and the visible strength of the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries created an uneasy feeling among many Muslims that something had gone wrong in history, triggering anxious questions. Was not the loss of hegemony in world affairs a sign that God had abandoned them because they were no longer practicing their faith correctly? How were Muslims to respond to challenges to Muslim identity and faith in this new context? What were the reasons for the political and economic decline? Secularists blamed outmoded interpretations of Islam, its institutions and role that they played in public life for the ills facing Muslim societies. They felt that secularism, that is, separation of religion and politics and establishment of nation-states based on models derived from the West, would open the path towards modernization. By imitating the nations of Europe, they were convinced that Muslim societies would once again regain their lost dignity and their rightful place on the world stage. In contrast, conservative religious leaders (the ‘ulama) argued that imitating the West was not a cure; on the contrary the West was a deadly poison for Muslim societies. For them, Muslims were in a situation of powerlessness because they had deviated from the correct practice of religion as interpreted by the great Sunni scholars of the ninth and tenth centuries, the founders of the four main schools of Sunni religious jurisprudence. If Muslims were to follow carefully the teachings of the learned teachers of the past, they would surely return to the sirat al-mustaqim, the “right path” and then, perhaps, God would be on their side once again.

    Islamic modernism emerged as a compromise between secularly based advocacy of Western ideals and religiously motivated rejection of these ideals. It was an attempt by Muslim intellectuals, many of whom were not part of the traditional religious elite, to reconcile fundamentals of the Islamic faith with modern concepts such as nationalism, constitutionalism, rationality, scientific inquiry, modern western style education, women’s rights and so on. Its leaders struggled to redefine Islam in terms of dominant Western values and to demonstrate its ability to adapt to the new world that Muslims encountered as their societies modernized. Integral to Islamic modernism was a process of internal self-criticism in which Muslim intellectuals struggled to come to terms with causes of decline while at the same time developing interpretations of Islam that accommodated modernity. For Islamic modernists, the ulama, through their old-fashioned and outdated modes of interpreting Islam and its religious texts, constituted a major part of obstacle in the path of reinvigorating Islam in the new context. For instance, a leading modernist, Jamal ad-Din Al-Afghani (1838-1897), felt that the ‘ulama, by stifling independent and rational thought, had been responsible for the decline of Islamic civilization. Claiming that they were the true enemies of Islam, he likened them to “a very narrow wick on top which is a very small flame that neither lights its surroundings nor gives light to others.” (as quoted in Reza Aslan, There is no god but God, p. 230) The modernists challenged the status of the ‘ulama as sole authoritative interpreters of the faith by declaring that the doors to ijtihad, individual interpretation, had never been closed. According to the modernists, the notion of taqlid, following or adhering to the interpretations of the learned, had been clearly promoted by the ‘ulama to bolster their authority and suppress alternative viewpoints and interpretations. Viewed from this perspective, Islamic modernism was “nothing short of an outright rebellion against the Islamic orthodoxy, [and] displayed an astonishing compatibility with the nineteenth century Enlightenment.” (M. Moaddel and K. Talattof, Modernist and Fundamentalist Debates in Islam, p.1) Not surprisingly the ‘ulama did not take too kindly to Modernist attacks on their authority and used their traditional control over the masses to fight against the Modernist vision by declaring its proponents to be kafirs, or infidels. and apostates.

    The readings for this Session cover the period between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when a group of prominent Muslim thinkers promoted the Modernist vision in the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. They critically examined traditional conceptions of various aspects of Islamic thought, including legal systems, and called for new ways of interpreting the Quran and the other sources of Islamic jurisprudence. The most prominent of the modernists was Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97) around whom developed a circle of influential disciples. Al-Afghani promoted the view that Islam, correctly interpreted, was a socio-political ideology and civilization whose values were superior to Western civilization and could be used to unite politically Muslims of different nationalities and ethnicities against European colonialism. In this regard, he is often perceived as the father of pan-Islamism. He was also a strong advocate for the adoption of modern science which he considered central to the survival of Muslim civilization against European cultural onslaught. Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), an Egyptian scholar, was one of the most prominent disciples of al-Afghani. Together they founded a short-lived journal called Al-Urwah al-wuthqa which vehemently opposed European imperialism and demanded Islamic reform and unity. Based on his familiarity and training in traditional Islamic education, Abduh called for a fresh interpretation of the Qur’an and the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad so that it was more appropriate to a modern context. Indeed, for him, interpretation of divinely revealed texts was a dynamic process in which reason and revelation were to be harmonious. In his eyes, anyone who denied scientific truths or the importance of rationality was committing a grievous sin. On account of his teaching position at Al-Azhar, a premier institution of learning in the Sunni world, he was able to influence students who came from as far as Indonesia and Malaysia. Abduh espoused his ideas in al-Manar “The Beacon” a journal widely read in parts of the Muslim world. Abduh edited this journal with his disciple and biographer Muhammad Rashid al-Rida (1865-1935). While Rida, like al-Afghani and Abduh, called for a reinterpretation of the Qur’an as well as the compatibility of Islam with science, reason and modernity, over time he became religiously more conservative and critical of the increasing secularization of society. He advocated that Muslims follow the example of the early Muslim community, the salaf, laying the foundation for the more strident Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood that was to evolve later. Qasim Amin (1863-1908) was another important figure in the circle of disciples associated with al-Afghani and Abduh. He was a prominent among the Modernists for his advocacy of equal rights for women, an end to their seclusion and, through access to education, equal participation in public life.

    In the Indian subcontinent, the Modernist movement arose in the aftermath of the Indian rebellion of 1857-8 when Hindu and Muslim sepoys (soldiers) began a movement to overthrow the power of the British. The British suppressed the rebellion with brutal force, with many Indians losing their lives and/or their property. In this traumatic context arose a Modernist leader, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), who was firmly convinced that to make progress in the context of colonial India, the best path for the Muslims to follow was that of absolute and unwavering loyalty to the British. Furthermore, he felt that Muslims should participate fully in the Western-style educational system being established by the British so that they would not become a social and economic underclass. Western thought, he believed, was not in fundamental conflict with Islam, nor was the studying the natural sciences, for there could not be a conflict between the Qur’an – the Word of God – and Nature – the Work of God. In this regard, he advocated a rational and contextual approach to Qur’an interpretation since Islam, according to him, accommodates historical change. To promote his ideas and provide young Muslims with Western-style higher education, he fought for and eventually founded the Anglo-Muhammadan Oriental College, which later became Aligarh Muslim University. Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s approach enjoyed the support of several important personalities in Indo-Muslim society and formed the basis of the so-called Aligarh Movement. Among its members were several important literati who wrote Urdu prose and poetry to disseminate their ideas. Most prominent were Altaf Husayn Hali (d. 1914) who wrote the famous poem Madd va gazr-i Islam, “The Ebb and Flow of Islam,” in which he contrasts the past glories and achievements of Islamic civilization with the miserable status of Muslims of his time; Nazir Ahmad (d. 1912) a novelist whose writings, such as Mirat al- Arus “The Bride’s Mirror,” emphasized the need for female education; and Mumtaz Ali whose major work, Huquq al-niswan, “The Rights of Women,” advocates complete equality between men and women. Perhaps the most radical of Sir Sayyid’s collaborators was Chiragh Ali (d. 1895) who not only dismissed traditional Islamic jurisprudence, but more controversially considered the genre of hadith, accounts of the Prophet’s deeds and statements, to be entirely fabricated. A significant intellectual and financial supporter of Aligarh Muslim University was Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III (1877-1957), Imam, or spiritual leader, of the Ismaili branch of the Shia Muslims. Sultan Muhammad Shah utilized his religious authority to institute a social, economic, and educational revolution among his followers that had far reaching consequences, including dramatically improving the status of Ismaili women. For instance, he declared the seclusion of women to be crime, and abolished the practice of veiling among his followers. During his lifetime, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah held several leadership positions within India’s Muslim community organizations representing their interests before the British. In an international context he represented India at the League of Nations, the predecessor to the present-day United Nations, being elected to its presidency in 1937.

    As you read about Islamic Modernism, it is worth keeping in mind that it is a complex movement, far from being monolithic for it is comprised of several strands some which were in deep disagreement and contradiction with each other. Such tensions inherent in the movement would explain why Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was quite critical of the ideas and outlook of a fellow Modernist, Sayyid Ahmad Khan whom he considered to be a puppet of the British colonialists.

    Guiding Questions


    1. List at least five specific challenges that modernity posed to Muslim societies.
    2. What is Islamic Modernism? As you read the selections, what are the various definitions of Islamic Modernism?
    3. What is the difference in Islamic Modernism and the reformist/revivalist movements we explored in Session Eight?
    4. Identify some of the challenges faced by Islamic Modernists as they sought to articulate their vision.
    5. Aside from calling for a reinterpretation of Islam, what were other areas of reform that were part of the modernist agenda?
    6. As you read the writings of the men who were part of this movement, think about common themes. What kinds of subjects do they bring up repeatedly? How do those themes give us insight into the criticism that Islamic Modernists may have faced?


    The onset of European imperialism created a crisis of monumental proportions in the Muslim world. For Muslim intellectuals and religious scholars, it became abundantly clear that the nations of Europe had been able to conquer and subdue Muslim …

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    The second half of the twentieth century witnessed the end of European imperial rule over many parts of the world. In the aftermath of World War II, the network of institutions that had enabled European control over Asian and African societies became increasingly weak and unstable. As a result, movements for political independence blossomed in the colonies, many of which eventually declared themselves to be sovereign, independent nations. Notwithstanding the ending of formal European political rule, these “new” nations continue, however, to be impacted by the legacy of colonialism. This impact can be discerned in the political, economic and legal institutions they inherited, including even the conception of the nation state which historically originated in Europe. Indeed, as Vali Nasr writes, in the general reading assigned for this session, “the legacy of colonialism is key in explaining both the diversity and unity of different experiments with state formation in the Muslim World.” (p. 551)

    Muslim societies in the post colonial period have witnessed a search for satisfying and legitimate interpretations of Islam in relation to a range of issues including globalization, industrialization, uneven economic development, rapid social change, religious and ethnic pluralism. In this search all sorts of interpretations have been put forward, ranging from progressive to reactionary ones. At a political level, the failure of ideologies such as capitalism, communism, and socialism to deliver social and economic justice have prompted crucial questions concerning the role of Islam in the nation-state. As a result, Islam has sometimes come to be interpreted not simply as a system of religious beliefs, practices, morals and ethics, but as a political ideology underpinning the nation state; an ideology that will solve all the problems facing contemporary Muslim societies. As Reza Aslan aptly points out in his book, No god but God, “Islam has been invoked to legitimize and to overturn governments, to promote republicanism and defend authoritarianism, to justify monarchies, autocracies, oligarchies and theocracies.” He points out that the proponents of each form of government have considered theirs to be the only “authentically Islamic” formulation, usually legitimizing their formulation by invoking their particular understanding of the state established by the Prophet Muhammad in Medina.  As a consequence, he points out, “….the Islamic state is by no means a monolithic concept. Indeed, there are many countries in the world that could be termed as Islamic states, none of which have much in common with each other….And yet not only do all these countries view themselves as the realization of the Medinan ideal they view each other as contemptible desecrations of that ideal.” (p.257)

    The emergence of political Islam is a recent phenomenon in the intellectual history of Muslim societies and, as such, is clearly rooted in their colonial and post-colonial experience. Islamists, that is, those Muslims who seek to interpret Islam as a political ideology, espouse an exclusivist world-view that denies room for pluralism or diversity of interpretations. They are revisionist or ahistorical in their reading of history (they imagine an ideal past in which Muslims practiced a “pure” Islam) as well as the exegesis of religious texts such as the Qur’an and hadith. Frequently, they identify themselves through “declarative” external symbols such as dress and physical appearance. They tend to function well in contexts marked by political, economic and social inequities as well as general religious illiteracy where most people rely on the interpretations of those who have laid claim to some form of religio-political authority.

    The readings in Session Ten explore, through the case study method, some of the diverse political, economic and social contexts in which Muslims live today and the different roles that Islam plays in particular nation states.

    The second half of the twentieth century witnessed the end of European imperial rule over many parts of the world. In the aftermath of World War II, the network of institutions that had enabled European control over Asian and African …