World Regional Islam

Module Description

The religion of Islam confuses many non-Muslims in Europe and North America. While it no doubt suffers from a long history of misapprehension and racism, since the closing of the colonial period it has mostly been ignored by contemporary British culture or treated with a distant suspicion. This all changed in 1989 when Iran’s chief cleric Ayatollah Khomenei issued a fatwa condemning the British author Salman Rushdie to death for a book that ostensibly insulted the prophet Muhammad. Book burnings in Bradford and angry mobs prompted an intense debate in British society about the possibilities and promise of a multi-cultural Britain. Twelve years later the September 11th attacks killed over 3000 civilians in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania and in 2005 four British-born Muslims killed 52 people in London all in the name of Islam.

Islam is now a well-known – though no less confusing – aspect of our public discourse. On the one hand we hear Islamicists inciting violence against the West and on the other we hear progressive Muslim clerics saying Muslims are closer to the Islamic ideal in European countries than in Islamic ones. How do we reconcile these differences? This module begins with the suggestion that, to a large extent, we cannot. Islam, like any religion, is a diverse and evolving conversation with many contributors. Islam (like Christianity and Judaism) can be cosmopolitan and parochial, egalitarianism and intolerant, conservative and progressive, open-minded and doctrinaire. While there are prescribed core-beliefs, it is precisely the personal and variable nature of belief that encourages us to look outside such explanations to understand Islam as a global force.

The emphasis of this module is on exploring Islam’s historical geography. By examining the history of Islam as an imperial civilizational project, we come to not only better understand Islam but understand the role of geography plays in anchoring Islamic identity and facilitating its proliferation.  Without an established church, an international priesthood or an ecclesiastical tradition, Islam’s historical diffusion and its contemporary global reach is predicated upon its capacity to be flexible, accommodating and diverse to a wide range of cultures, communities and spiritual traditions. But this diversity is rooted in (and takes inspiration from) a particular place.

While the content of this module focuses on Islamic history, religion and culture, its broader aim is to understand the role geography plays in marking identity. Specifically it examines how diverse beliefs, evolving symbolic forms and esoteric theological ideas can be given a sense of continuity and holism by being associated with specific material sites and the events that occurred there. By the end of this module, students should have insight into the history, culture and belief systems of one of the most interesting global forces currently shaping our world, but they should also understand how this force is anchored in the historical formation of a specific geography: an imperial civilizational project whose long erased boundaries continue to orient a diverse multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual community.

The module is divided into two parts. Part 1 covers the history of Islam and Islamic civilisation. Here the aim is to give students a basic grounding in the key events of Islamic history and core ideas in the Quran. Part 2 is dedicated to broader conceptual ideas concerning the role of geography in the constitution of a culture region. Here we will look at some of the mechanisms used by rulers, merchants and various religious leaders to facilitate a sense of social, cultural and political belonging within the Islamic imperial sphere. While the focus in part 1 is on historical understanding, part 2 develops a deeper and more critical engagement with the events in order to examine their implications on the development of the Islamic world and Islamic identity.

Module Aims

To introduce students to the diverse and varied nature of Islam. As a religion predicated on a sacred text, Islam has a long tradition of interpretation, explanation and commentary which has allowed it to be flexible and relevant to various communities at different times and places. My aim is to introduce Islam as a tradition with an origin and as a tradition that developed beyond this origin as it evolved into a global religion.

To  illustrate the geographical nature of Islamic diversity. From as early as 750 AD we begin to see the emergence of different schools of Islamic jurisprudence developing in specific realms of the Islamic empire. This is to say that interpretation has always had a very local and geographic character. Thus, we may explore Islamic mysticism in Egypt, Islamic governance in Iran, Islamic interpretations of gender relations in Africa and Islamic justice in Indonesia.

To explore the role of geography in anchoring Islamic identity as well as facilitating its diversification. This module will explore theories that help us understand geography’s role in the constitution of identity.

Learning Outcomes

  1. Describe with comprehension, the basic tenets and beliefs of Islam as well as the development of Islamic history and civilization.
  2. Demonstrate some breadth and depth of awareness of the importance of geography in the development of Islamic cultures and civilization.
  3. A capacity to understand and explain the global diversity of Islamic practice
  4. An ability to apply theoretical concepts in geography to an analysis of the historical formation of Islamic civilisation

Learning Format

Lectures: Lectures constitute the primary source of contact between teacher and student. Generally, I use the time to explain central ideas and concepts, clarify themes and point students to particular readings. While lectures are a useful learning tool, they work best in tandem with the reading. Only attending lecture, without doing the reading will lead to an abbreviated understanding of the subject matter that will be of limited use for the assessment.

Reading: The lectures represent the formats that I provide to help facilitate the learning associated with this module. However, they will be for naught if students do not seriously engage with the reading. I estimate that about 50 of your 170 allocated independent learning hours will be spent on reading. This translates into 5 hours per week.

Fieldtrip: The aim of the fieldtrip is for students to engage first-hand with Muslim communities here in the UK. It is provided for you to experience some of the themes from lecture first-hand and to illustrate how within the small Islamic community in the UK (compared to Muslim communities world-wide), there remains an immense amount of variation. The fieldtrips is local and is scheduled during term (see the Key Information Sheet below).