Below you will find lecture summaries for each topic. Lecture capture is available for this module for registered students and must be accessed through Blackboard. This area is updated regularly.
Lecture 1: introduction. The first lecture aims to do two things. First it introduces the module and the Module Handbook and provides a detailed account of the aims and objectives of the module, assessment format and workload, as well as my various policies regarding attendance, access, assessment submission and feedback. Much of the information for this discussion will be drawn directly from this module website. The second hour is an introductory lecture that introduces some of the principal themes of the module and foreshadows what we can expect to discuss over the coming year. By the end of the lecture students should have a very firm idea about what the module is about, how it will be assessed and what they can expect from me as a teacher. I hope this introductory lecture will help students decide if this module is right for them or if they should explore other potential third-year options.
Lecture 2: the Near East in late antiquity. The aim of this lecture is to introduce students to the broader regional context of what would become the Islamic world. I introduce students to the major imperial polities of this time, namely the Byzantine and Sassanid empires, and discuss the key religious movements that had been (and still were) developing in the region, namely Christianity, Judaism, Hellenism/Paganism and Zoroastrianism. The lecture also puts forth two specific points. First, I argue that the major religions of the period were very much ‘in development’ and were not the evolved traditions we understand today with long legacies of established doctrine. Second, I argue that it was during this period that communities begin attempting to define their identities within religious terms. Thus, even though being ‘Christian’ (as opposed to being Jewish) was still a vague distinction at this point, it was nonetheless becoming an increasingly important signifier of community and identity.
Lecture 3: Mecca and the Jahaliya. The aim of this lecture is to continue outlining the context of the Near East during late antiquity but with an emphasis on Mecca and Arabia rather than the broader region. While Arabia was far removed from the imperial heartland, it would be a mistake to think of it as an isolated backwater. The Arabs of the Arabian peninsula were prolific traders and Mecca was situated on a key trade route connecting China, India and the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea, the Levant and Europe. It was due to this intense trading activity that a number of ideas were passing through Arabia at the time and we will look at how these ideas were having an influence on the Bedouin and settled communities that lived there. In addition, this lecture will examine the economic and political conditions in Mecca and the growing disparities and social conflicts that defined Muhammad’s world.
Lecture 4: Muhammad: exile and victory. The story of Muhammad and the rise of Islam has a long history of being misrepresented in Europe and Christianity. And in the Islamic sources the story is often hagiographic. The aim of today’s lecture is not to reveal the truth about Muhammad, his story and/or his message but to understand the social and political implications of his message and the impact it had on Arabia and (eventually) the world. The lecture is divided into four parts. The first part illustrates how Muhammad was part of a larger regional conversation about the nature, role and scope of religion that was characteristic of the time and place. The remaining three parts focus on what I take to be the three key events that characterise Islam’s rise in Arabia: revelation, the Hijra and the treaty of Hudaybiyah.
Lecture 5: the Quran. The Quran, like many sacred texts, is a work of great beauty and sophistication that has a deep and profound history of interpretation by Muslims and non-Muslims. While it is impossible to distil the meaning of the Quran in a short lecture, I will discuss some of the key themes that run throughout the text based upon the work of modern interpreters. Specifically, I will focus on how the Quran is both a metaphysical and practical text and illustrate the emphasis it puts not just in believing but on acting on the obligations that belief incurs. The lecture examines the significance of translation for understanding key ideas and focuses on a number of key Islamic rituals (prayer, alms, pilgrimage) to illustrate some of the Quran’s central themes such as submission, moderation and duty.
Lecture 6: the caliphate and the tensions of empire. This lecture illustrates the transition in Islam from provincial religious ideology to cosmopolitan imperial project. The formation of the Islamic empire is as significant to Islam as the teachings of Muhammad. Thus, one cannot understand the religion without understanding the sophisticated imperial project in which it developed and evolved. Specifically, the lecture focuses on how Muslims worked to resolve two central questions: who has the right to lead the umma and who has the right to belong to the umma? The analysis examines how these questions were approached, understood, solved and contested in two historical periods: the Rashidun (the period of the ‘rightly guided’ Caliphs) and the Umayyad Caliphate.
Lecture 7: the Abbasid consolidation. The aim of this lecture is to illustrate how the Abbasid Caliphate used a variety of political and cultural mechanisms to engender a cosmopolitan Islamic imperial imagination. While mass conversions to Islam would only take place centuries after the high-point of Abbasid power, it was in the courts of Baghdad where conceptions of Islamic art, literature, poetry, architecture, theology, philosophy and medicine where first devised. The lecture illustrates how the Abbasid Caliphate fostered Islam as a religious, cultural and political tradition that would continue to grow and diffuse throughout the Medieval period. While Islam may have been a new and uncertain religion when the Arabs left Arabia in the mid seventh century, by the close of the Abbasid period, this was no longer be the case.
Lecture 8: trade, commerce and cosmopolitanism. This lecture is the first of four lectures focusing on how a cosmopolitan Islamic imagination was fostered and propagated during the high-Medieval period. Specifically the lecture examines the means by which regional and trans-regional trade flourished during this period. Focusing specifically on the role of the dinar and the production and consumption of cross-cultural hybrid goods (luxury goods produced and marketed for elites with an Islamic imperial outlook), the lecture illustrates how elites in this region associated with an imperial trans-regional identity that was Islamic, rather than a local or provincial identity that was primarily ethnic or cultural.
Lecture 9: knowledge and the House of Wisdom: this lecture examines the prolific expansion of scientific, philosophical and literary knowledge during the period of the high Caliphate. While it discusses the history of Islamic knowledge, the contributions of some of the period’s key thinkers and the establishment of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, the emphasis is on how knowledge was used by the caliphate to support political power and facilitate a regional imperial imagination. This means examining the relationship between power and knowledge more generally as well as the link between knowledge and identity. In line with the previous lecture, the aim is to illustrate how certain forms of ‘official knowledge’ were propagated by the Abbasid court to consolidate a particular conception of the Caliphate and its ruling elite.
Lecture 10: hadith, law and the popular tradition: Islamic law is one of the touchstones around which contemporary culture-wars about multi-cultural Britain currently circulate. As both an idea and institutions, it creates numerous points of tension between Muslims and non-Muslims and within the international Muslim community. The aim of today’s lecture is to examine the rise of Islamic law in the Abbasid period and illustrate how these events created yet another mechanism for conceptualising an Islamic trans-regional identity. In addition, I argue that these events continue to inspire an international Islamic imagination today.
Lecture 11: dissolution, diffusion and the arrival of an Islamic society: the final lecture in this module engages the question of Islamic conversion and diffusion. While the question of why and when people converted to Islam is difficult to measure, there is no doubt a relationship between the break up of the Abbasid state and the spread of Islam during the late Medieval period. As small non-Arab dynastic regimes came to power in the wake of the Abbasid state, they drew upon the language and symbolism of Islam to justify their government. The aim of this lecture is to examine the manner in which provincial dynasties did this and how these actions strengthened Islamic society and helped foster a regional Islamic imagination.