REL272: Introduction to Islam

Syllabi: Spring 2012 » Spring 2015

This course is a general introduction to Islamic faith, practices, history and culture. Our method of study will make reference to both the normative textual sources of Islam and the lived experience of the Muslim community through centuries. After a brief overview of the approaches to the study of Islam as they have emerged over centuries in the West (and our own method of study this semester), we will explore Islam as a religion, discussing its core beliefs, most important rites, religious texts and various religious and intellectual disciplines such as law (shari‘ah), theology (kalam) philosophy (falsafah) and mysticism (tasawwuf). Our study will also encompass Islamic culture and its various artistic and aesthetic expressions as developed over centuries. The course will close with discussion of early Islamic history and Islamic sects (such as the Shi‘ites) and a brief overview of the present state of the Islamic world and its relationship with the West in modern times.

Possibly, over 1.6 billion human beings identify with “Islam”, as their religion, their way of life, their path to God or/and sometimes as a revolutionary alternative to the western worldview and ways of life. An overview of its origins in history, doctrines, myths and core beliefs, rites and rituals, aesthetic and cultural expressions, lived Muslim experience, and various religious and intellectual, this course examines “Islam” as a “religion”. Our explorations will encompass various introductory texts on “Islam” written by both Western scholars and well-known Muslim intellectuals writing for the Western audience. This textual study will be complemented by a variety of weekly multimedia sources. While careful listening to these various “introductions to Islam” (and nuances that separate those from one another), our study will culminate in your working in groups and developing your own “introduction to Islam”. Your group “introduction to Islam” will then be contested and debated by other competing accounts presented by your classmates. Our study will conclude with theoretical considerations in defining Islam, and discussion about criteria for navigating and choosing or rejecting these varying and often competing interpretations of Islam.
Obviously and inherently polyvalent and subject to various interpretations, our study this semester, hopefully, will also show that the term “Islam” is a potent and highly complex analytical category with serious political and social ramifications, for example, in debates such as “Islam and the West”, “Radical Islam”, “women and gender in Islam”, and in questions posed such as “is Islam compatible with democracy?” or “is Islam a peaceful religion?” In the process it is hoped that the students would appreciate the complicatedness of any serious attempt to “introduce Islam”, and the stakes that underlie it.
This class has been imagined as a book club in which members have chosen to learn about “Islam” over the period of a college semester. Each week a group from among the book club members will set the agenda for the two meeting sessions on Tuesday and Thursday. The role of the instructor is to suggest texts (that’s the Course Outline below!) and be a facilitator in the learning process. How the instructor can facilitate the book club and its goals will depend on how the group in charge of setting the agenda for the week utilizes him.