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What Can’t Be Left Out?: The Essentials of Teaching Islam as a Religion

Brannon M. Wheeler

OVER THE PAST TEN YEARS OR SO, I have struggled with issues of how to conceptualize and teach Islam, especially “the introductory course” within the context of the academic study of religion and the larger context of a liberal arts curriculum. My concerns have ranged from having too much material to cover in a single semester or quarter, to not having adequate textbooks or English translations of certain key texts. But my overriding concern has been, and continues to be, how to integrate teaching about Islam into the liberal arts curriculum through the study of religion. My interest in combining Islamic Studies and the study of religion is as a means to further this integration of Islam and the liberal arts.

It is my contention that Islam is taught as a religion only insofar as Islamic materials are used to address issues of theoretical concern within the study of religion. This does not mean, however, that Islam is used to reinforce unyielding and inappropriate theoretical stereotypes. The history of the relationship between Islamic Studies and the study of religion is too often cast in terms of competing methodologies and incompatible subject matter. By “theory” I mean simply “explanation” with the concomitant understanding that to teach Islam as a religion means using explanations developed in the study of religion to contribute to our understanding of Islam. In the long run, the implication is that our understanding of Islam will be influenced by theories developed to explain other things identified as “religious,” and the theories of what is “religious” will be affected by the Islamic materials we are attempting to understand.

In what follows, I provide some examples of how I have tried to integrate Islam and the study of religion in some of my introductory courses. These experiences are drawn from a variety of contexts. I have taught the “Introduction to Islam” course three different ways at four different institutions. This variety is, in part, due to my continuing attempts to experiment with different approaches. It is also due to the different circumstances in which I taught the courses, ranging from a small class of five students to over 100 students, from small liberal arts colleges to large universities, from students with no background in Islam, to large classes where more than 75 percent of the students come from Muslim backgrounds. Because of this, it is important to stress that, although I have tried to choose examples which worked well in my particular circumstances, similar approaches might not work well in other settings. What does remain consistent, though, is my attempt to combine Islamic materials and the study of religion in a way that contributes to the students’ development within the context of a liberal arts education.

The Prophet and Prophethood

One of my main criteria for determining the content of the course is the availability and accessibility of material to undergraduate students. Unfortunately, many useful original texts are untranslated, and those that are translated are often out of print or the translation is poor. This has led me to rely on a combination of photocopies and my own translations. More important, students’ reading assignments should be pertinent to the larger pedagogical goals of the course, not just padded with a lot of information that might be thought necessary background knowledge. This means that, as I have taught the course, I have shortened the length and the number of reading materials, but at the same time, raised my expectations for the amount of time students spend with those assignments. My goal is to have students spend more time on less pages, not memorizing a lot of information but rather thinking through some of the issues raised by the reading, especially as it pertains to what we are doing as a class over the length of the course.

Original and secondary literature on the Prophet Muhammad and prophethood in general is voluminous. There are sound translations of many key texts such as Tabari’s history and Ibn Ishaq’s biography, 1 and a huge number of secondary studies on the history and significance of the Prophet Muhammad are available. Likewise, a number of Sufi texts and studies dealing with prophets and prophethood can be found. Excerpts from the Quran and the Bible are also readily available, although caution is to be exercised with some available translations. Students are usually familiar with the stories of the biblical prophets, especially figures like Moses, Jesus, and Abraham, although sometimes from movies, television, or Sunday School rather than first-hand experience with the Bible or Quran.

From my perspective as teacher, getting students to articulate issues and argue through various explanations, the stories surrounding the Prophet Muhammad, his relation to earlier prophets, and the concept of prophethood present pedagogically useful theoretical problems. For example, given the diversity of accounts about the life of Muhammad, students are easily struck by a question about the historicity of Muhammad. Did Muhammad “really exist” and if he did, was he a prophet or did he do the things he is reported to have done? The discussion of whether Muhammad “really existed” can be unpacked to disclose some different sorts of issues. The reaction of Muslim students, who are often hesitant or defensive about even asking such questions, also serves to stimulate a discussion about the difference between “faith” or “belief” and “history.” Students might discuss this along the lines followed by Wilfred Cantwell Smith2 or consider the difference between an observer and participant as defined in Victor Turner’s work.3

These historiographical and epistemological questions can be particularly fruitful in introducing issues and the sort of comparative thinking pertinent throughout the rest of the course. On the one hand, I might ask students to compare the historicity of and belief in the existence of Muhammad to the existence of Jesus, Moses, or even George Washington. What different sorts of evidence are available in these cases, how do we determine the historical or religious value of such evidence, and to what ends? Current debates over the use of archaeology to “prove” or “disprove” the events described in the Bible can also be a useful point of discussion. On the other hand, we might think about making a distinction separating “history” from the “past” along the lines suggested by Plumb or Collingwood.4 When we talk about “history” are we talking about “what really happened” or someone or some people’s accounts of what happened? In both cases, I encourage students to consider that evidence can be interpreted in different ways, and that the interpretations given to evidence are usually meant to support the agenda of the interpreter. In the past, I have asked students to make short lists of reasons supporting the contention that Muhammad is a prophet, taken from the Quran or the biography of Ibn Ishaq.

Thinking about Muhammad and his prophethood also encourages students to think in generic terms. For example, I have asked students to read several selections from the Quran or Tabari on earlier prophets such as Moses or Salih, and then asked them to compare this with the stories of Muhammad’s life. The contention made, in many sources, is that Muhammad’s prophethood and that of other prophets are modeled after one another, or that all prophets are thought to do basically the same things. As a class, then, we might consider how the stories of Muhammad make him out to be a “hero” figure. Can the stories of the prophets and of Muhammad be compared with the hero and other mythic archetypes? Drawing on the work of Eliade and Campbell, I might ask the students to identify episodes from the life of Muhammad that correspond to the stages of the hero’s quest.5 We could also discuss, using models developed by Weber and Wach, how the life of Muhammad compares with the sociological position of other “founders” of religions and “holy men.” Students could discuss some of the comparative proposals made by Geo Widengren concerning the ancient Near Eastern model of the “apostle of God” and the “heavenly book.”6 In all these cases, by being presented with this diverse comparative material, students learn how to ask questions and begin to perceive how asking certain questions and looking in certain places for answers affects the sorts of explanations produced.

Canon and Law

Just as with the concept of prophecy, there is a lot of common ground between concepts of canon and law in Islam and theoretical discussions in the study of religion. Biblical Studies has a long tradition of research into questions of canon formation and exegesis. There are numerous specialized subdivisions in Jewish studies, and more particularly Rabbinic studies, which focus on issues of exegesis, the masoretic text, and the derivation of law from a canonical corpus. More recently, scholars from diverse fields, but including many in Hindu and Buddhist studies, have begun to examine the concept of canon and its relationship to “commentary” and exegesis more broadly defined.

Unfortunately, the materials available to students about the Islamic canon and law are few and are often inaccessible, even when available in translation, because of uneven standards in translation or because of mere bulk. For example, several of the best known collections of prophetic hadith, including the Sahih of al-Bukhari and the Sahih of Muslim, have been published in English translation and are even available on the Internet. The translation, however, is not up to academic standards, nor are there any notes or commentary to help the introductory students. Simple terms such as “zakat” or “hajj” are often left untranslated and unexplained. There are also some later legal compendia translated, but in most cases the publisher is obscure and/or the price is prohibitive. The secondary literature also, especially in the fields of hadith criticism and law, is usually far too technical for beginning students. This means that many of the readings come from my own translation of certain texts, and that the bulk of the explanation is done as a class rather than in background reading. It is also important to keep in mind that the acquisition of too much background and technical information might hinder the students’ focus on identifying and thinking through problems.

Looking at canon and its exegesis is appropriate after having dealt with prophethood and issues of interpretation. The Islamic material allows students to focus on the problems associated with deriving “law” through the interpretation of a canonical corpus. Recent scholarship, such as that of Laurie Patton and Paul Griffiths, has shown that this is a general problem affecting any number of traditions in which a relatively fixed canon is interpreted to apply to everyday life.7 One exercise I have used before is to have students write a definition of how to pray using only the Quran, and then the long section in Bukhari on prayer. With the Quran, students find there is not enough information to write a detailed definition, but with Bukhari there is too much information, much of which might appear contradictory. Another assignment involves having the students read a series of verses in the Quran which have traditionally been taken to refer to the limiting or prohibition of wine. In class, we then read some of the conflicting opinions of the classical legal scholars about the prohibition of alcohol, and we discuss the use of concepts and methods such as deductive reasoning [qiyaās], abrogation [naskh], and what might be called “juristic convenience” [istiḥsān]. Students are encouraged to think about these Islamic methods of interpretation as examples of how some scholars in one religious tradition have tried to solve the problems inherent in the exegesis of a canon.

The discussion of exegesis also raises the issue of comparing Islamic exegesis and its conception of canon to what is found in other religious traditions such as Judaism or Buddhism. Having already studied some of the stories of prophets found in common in the Bible and in the Quran, students can think about the criteria that make one set of stories a canon and another just a collection of stories. If the Bible and Quran contain some of the same stories, if both are thought to be revealed by God, then why is only the Quran but not the Bible used by Muslim scholars to derive law? Students can read some of the discussion in hadith and law collections about the so-called stoning verses or the verses in the Quran which refer to the “old” laws followed by the Jews and Christians. Using the life of Muhammad and his Sunnah to interpret the Quran can also be compared to the notion of the “New” and “Old” Testaments in Christianity, the Oral and Written Torah in Judaism, or the “three baskets” in Buddhism. How is it that Islam, both like and unlike these other traditions, maintains its link to an ideal past and a received text but continues to address problems in a changing world? Such an issue might involve the discussion of Edward Shils’ work on tradition or Thomas Kuhn and Stephen Toulmin’s work on changing paradigms.8

Having the students discuss the concept of “canon” itself is also of value in helping to explain the Islamic use of the Quran and the Sunnah in the derivation of law. What is the difference between a “revealed” or “sacred” text and a “canonical” text, and how do Muslims conceptualize these things? On the one hand, we might discuss example of how the term “Quran” can sometimes refer to the recitation of verses but not to the physical presence of the “book” itself. Some of the comparative material from William Graham and W. C. Smith on sacred texts can be introduced to help understand the Islamic case.9 On the other hand, students might consider the use of the “Quran” as a ritual object, the handling of which is prescribed in specific ways such as the prohibition of contact with it by anyone not in a state of ritual purity. This might allow for comparisons with Durkheim’s definition of sacred and profane or W. R. Smith’s use of the term “holy.”10 Working through the Islamic material can facilitate students’ understanding of such key concepts in the general study of religion. More generally, by thinking in comparative terms, students learn how unfamiliar concepts can be understood from theories developed to explain other cases.


Studies of ritual have often made reference to Islamic practices, although until recently, there were few theoretical works which drew heavily upon Islamic materials. Fortunately, there are many different types of materials available for the study of Islamic rituals, including ethnographic descriptions, translations of classical legal texts, pilgrimage handbooks, and books or movies with pictures of rituals and the sites at which they are performed. In most areas of the United States and Canada today, it is also possible to have the students visit a nearby mosque during Friday prayers or, depending on the timing, during Ramadan or other holidays celebrated locally.

Students, both Muslim and non-Muslim, are often comfortable with the idea of religion as being ritual and are quick to make comparisons among the outward appearances of Islamic and non-Islamic practices. These first impressions of students can be developed, and the students encouraged to analyze practices similar to how they have learned to analyze texts. For example, we might discuss Geo Widengren’s ideas about the evolution of Islamic practices from the social order of the ancient Near East, or I might have students read one or two of Arent Jan Wensinck’s essays on the comparison of seasonal festivals in the religions of the Near East.11 This encourages students to begin to conceptualize a continuity among these different ritual practices, and they can evaluate the efficacy of explaining similarities in terms of a shared historical past or common regional roots. It can be pointed out to students that such explanations are in sharp contrast to ones discussed earlier, from Durkheim or Eliade, where functional, structural, or other nonhistorical ties are postulated. Students may also be struck by the analytical rigor and the sheer number of languages needed to make detailed historical and philological comparisons among these religious traditions and practices. We might discuss that some scholars, like Ugo Bianchi or Kurt Rudolf, argue for the necessity of grounding such explanations in historical and linguistic detail.12

Another of my goals is to expose students to different sorts of Islamic practices, including the variety inherent in the so-called pillars of Islam and the sort of variety found in the practice of any given type of ritual. For example, students might focus on three different examples of pilgrimage in Islam: the pilgrimage to Mecca, visits to saints shrines such as the pilgrimage to the “seven men” of Marrakech, and Islamic pilgrimage in Mamluk Jerusalem. All of these examples can be illustrated both by texts, in which the routes and the significance of the practice is explained, and by pictures of the sites and of people performing the pilgrimage. In the case of the pilgrimage to Mecca, I like to show students video selections from Saudi television on the Hajj or on the nightly services during Ramadan when many perform the ‘Umrah. The comparison of these different practices allows students to identify certain generic aspects of Islamic pilgrimage while also noting cultural, geographical, or historical reasons for differences. By thinking about other examples of pilgrimage with which the students are familiar such as the Canterbury Tales, or discussing “tourism” as pilgrimage, students can induce from the Islamic examples a more general understanding of what is meant by pilgrimage or ritual.

It is also useful that students perceive the link between certain ritual practices and the social structure in which they are performed. For example, we might discuss how prayer, fasting, and the pilgrimage to Mecca all seem to require or create a certain uniformity or equality among those practicing these rituals. Is a distinction made between Muslims who do and do not pray regularly or fast during Ramadan? Students could read selections from Loeffler’s interviews with Muslims in an Iranian village and consider that many Muslims do not pray five times a day yet still think themselves to be Muslims.13 What sort of social authority is bestowed on Muslims who complete the pilgrimage to Mecca, or the religious scholars who are in charge of explaining which rituals are required and how they are to be performed? Students might also consider the case of the “Great Sacrifice” in Morocco, and how the practice of this ritual is said, by scholars such as Combs-Schilling and Abdellah Hammoudi, to represent and reinforce a certain social order.14 These sorts of examples allow students to question how ritual is used to define the social boundaries of Islam, in what ways ritual is utopian in its depiction of the ideal society, and in what ways it is instrumental in shaping the day-to-day lives and identities of Muslims.

Given enough time, it would be possible to dwell longer on the implications of using Islamic examples to theorize about ritual in general. Students could read short theoretical selections from Ronald Grimes or Catherine Bell on ritual and social structure, comparing the more general theories of ritual in these works with Islamic examples.15 With the recent work on Islamic “sacrifice,” students could also use Islamic examples to evaluate other well-known theories of sacrifice such as those associated with Freud, Rene Girard, or Evans-Pritchard’s work on the Nuer.16 The goal of such exercises is to have the students think of theory in terms of its ability to explain a given set of facts or material taken from an Islamic context, and to think of how their understanding of the Islamic materials affects their view of the more general theorists. Closer investigation of the relationship of these theories to some of the Islamic examples allows students to test “ritual” as what has become a privileged category in the study of religion.

The examination of Islamic ritual practices also provides the opportunity for students to synthesize materials learned from other parts of the course. For example, we could discuss how the pilgrimage to Mecca is linked with the stories of the prophets Adam, Abraham, and Muhammad in the Quran and its exegesis. We could also look at the ideas of Henri Corbin or Arthur Christensen concerning the links between certain rituals and Iranian stories of the “first man” or other mystical figures.17 Reading through these stories and ideas in light of ritual practices encourages students to make connections between disparate pieces of knowledge. Students can begin to think in terms of “Islam” as a concept encompassing these various aspects, pulled together by the students’ own imaginative explanations of different materials. At this stage of the course, it is important that students start to connect parts of the course in larger comparative terms, and that they practice developing the conceptual skills necessary for synthetic thinking.

Society and Culture

Using society and culture as heuristic categories is somewhat unlike the others because they are not necessarily associated only or primarily with the study of religion. Students are sometimes confused by the regular use of both “society” and “culture” as explanations of religion, and the understanding of religion as a subset or type of society or culture. I include this section in my course because it allows students to broaden their view of Islam, while at the same time giving them reason to question simple characterizations of Islam. During the past two decades or so, a large number of ethnographic studies have appeared, focusing on specific Islamic societies or practices in diverse areas. This is supplemented by the rapid growth of Islam in U.S. society and the prominence of Islam in news media and popular culture. Drawing even half a dozen examples, from Java, Yemen, West Africa, North America, Turkey, or Europe is relatively easy given the availability of resources.

It is important that students address these issues not at the beginning but at the end of the course. From the experience of having tried it before, I found that starting the course by confronting students with the diversity of Islam was too difficult. Students are usually not prepared to make the conceptual jump from ignorance to a pluralistic definition of Islam, nor are students expecting this sort of discovery. At a later point in the course, however, students can take advantage of a more open-ended perspective, to consider that there might be competing views of what constitutes “orthodox” Islam, or of historically and culturally different ways of defining what it means to be Muslim. Students are presented with a number of “case-studies” as examples of some of the significant differences in Islam today. Coming later in the course, these issues also allow students to stress the connections between concepts and historical aspects of Islam studied earlier and the kinds of Islam found in “practice” in various places throughout the world. Students can see how various trends or trajectories are continued, incorporated, or modified in diverse contemporary Islamic settings.

One distinct advantage of having the students look at a number of diverse cases of Islam is making students think about Islam for themselves. Students might read Geertz’s observations on Islam in Morocco and Indonesia, or Gilsenan’s descriptions of Islam in Lebanon and North Africa, to see how other observers have tried to identify different expressions of Islam.18 By reading these observations, students learn how certain “symbols” are recognized and interpreted. The comparison of different cases shows students that what are recognized as symbols, and how these things are interpreted, depends on many things. How do the “local” interpretations of these symbols compare to the interpretations of the nonlocal or nonindigenous observer? What role does the outside observer play in determining which symbols are most significant and what these symbols mean? These sorts of questions allow students to get at the heart of the issues centrel to thinking about interpretation, and the process of synthesizing examples taken from different contexts and from different perspectives.

By allowing students to question and think about what Islam might be in different contexts, a case-studies approach also raises a number of important issues concerning the relationship of religion to society and culture. Is it possible to discuss Islam apart from politics or economics? Students might read from Leonardo Villalón, Edward Reeves, or Mark Woodward about the interconnections between Sufism and political authority in different contexts.19 There are a number of recent ethnographic studies, such as those of Messick, Antoun and Gaffney, of how the “text” and varying Islamic understandings of texts are integral to an understanding of authority and social structure.20

Another effective means of getting students to consider Islam from different perspectives is through novels and travelogues. Novels allow students to see Islam through the eyes of someone participating in the local culture, and because students tend to have the impression that the “indigenous Muslim” is a more “authentic” representation of Islam, students are often more receptive of distinctions and criticisms made in novels.21 Travelogues can be used in a variety of ways. The writings of Muslim travelers, such as Ibn Battutah, can give students some of the same insights that can be drawn from novels. Non-Muslim travelers are often more analogous to ethnographers but easier to read and sometimes more observant of small but important details which are outside of more formal ethnographic writing.22

Examining these sorts of cases, students can question whether or not, or how, religion is to be distinguished from other examples of culture. If there is no neat distinction separating religion and culture, then how can Islam be understood “only” as a religion? Such theoretically difficult cases demonstrate to students that explanation is not just about logical consistency nor does it always fit within disciplinary boundaries. The complexity of the issues, how to interpret certain aspects of Islam, and how to generalize from that to a realistic definition of Islam, are instructive of the difficulties involved in identifying and resolving explanatory problems.

Another advantage of this case-studies approach is that is allows students to recognize that Islam is not a monolithic thing. By looking at how Islam is “lived” in a variety of times and places, students are confronted with the fact that “Islam” as a concept is malleable. At this point, it might be useful for students to peruse the table of contents from some of the more widely distributed introductory textbooks on Islam. Students can then compare the more compartmentalized picture of Islam presented there with some of the examples found in our ethnographic accounts, or the diversity we found in looking at ritual or canon. By introducing this variegated material to students, this course helps students to understand that any attempt to reduce Islam to a particular time period, text, school of thought, or the practices of a particular village would be to miss the opportunity to see how “Islam” is variously conceptualized and used by people in different circumstances. The conceptualization of Islam, from these difference perspectives, is important as an example of more general conceptual thinking.

Stressing the malleability of Islam, and the complexity of explanation, is important because, on the one hand, it gives students a fuller and more realistic image of what Islam has been and continues to be. Islam is not a strange religion from a time long ago in a land on the other side of the earth. Instead, Islam means many of the same things to Muslims in Iran or France as certain cultural norms mean to students in the United States. On the other hand, struggling with such concepts equips students to extract and understand from Islamic materials, or from examples taken from the study of other religions or disciplines, what they deem to be significant and to articulate why they deem it to be so. Thinking along these lines compels students to consider the variegated character of their own cultural norms, to reflect on their own daily use of culture, and their perception of how it informs their lives.

Teaching Islam in a Liberal Arts Curriculum

By dividing the material in my course into these and similar “themes” or “issues,” I have been able to introduce students to Islam and the study of religion, one through the other and vice-versa. I am not always satisfied, however, that my attempts strike the right balance between the specific facts of Islam and the general study of religion. This is especially a problem with students who have come to expect a certain “Protestant” approach to the study of religion or Muslim students who expect my course to include certain facts or subjects that are supposed to be “standard” for any course in Islam. This is outside of considerations of interpretation. In my experience, many students, both Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are hesitant to accept explanations of Islamic rituals or beliefs that draw heavily on comparisons with non-Islamic cultures, or are explicitly anthropological and sociological in character, so I can find myself wrangling with students over the approach or the material per se but not the intersection between the two.

This latter reason for hesitation among students deserves more comment because, despite the increasing integration of varied approaches into the study of religion and the rapid development of these approaches, most students, especially those in an introductory course or those for whom the intro to Islam course is the only course in “religion” they plan on taking, are at a relatively extreme disadvantage when studying religion. Although most other college-level subjects are studied by students for years before coming to college, religion, especially as “religion,” is not. This is compounded by the presumption of many students that the study of religion is something like “advanced Sunday school,” that all religion professors are ministers or at least devout adherents to the religions they teach. If this presumption and the fear of teaching “religion” in public schools were not so strong, students might feel more comfortable approaching religion courses with the skills and insights they had gained previously in other history and social studies courses.

My introduction to Islam course is not primarily a matter of teaching students a certain corpus of facts, whether these facts consist of the widespread “standard” definitions of Islam found repeated in most textbooks and classrooms, some updated and modified version of these definitions, or a view influenced by my own particular experiences. To make the content of my course dependent upon my objective in teaching the course is to make the content justified not from a historical or factual but rather from a pedagogical perspective. This means that I want to know first not what I am teaching but why: not what facts I need to impart but what skills I am helping students develop as a part of their liberal arts education. To teach Islam as a religion is to use Islamic materials to illustrate for students the general study of religion, in so far as the study of religion serves to develop those skills valued and most closely associated with a liberal arts education.

From this perspective it would seem that no “fact” is essential, nothing cannot be left out unless it is shown to be crucial in the more general educational development of students. In this respect, I have been influenced by the pedagogical approaches of my own teachers, both as an undergraduate and a graduate student. As an undergraduate, I went to a small liberal arts college, where learning was an activity that the teacher facilitated, but the teacher did not “teach” in the sense of giving us a certain body of knowledge which we were expected to memorize and later regurgitate. As one of my undergraduate advisors put it, a student should be able, when presented with options “A” and “B,” to argue for option “C.” In graduate school, this same attitude prevailed. Even in language courses, I remember being asked to think about the possibilities of what a particular phrase might mean, not reproved for not hitting on the same translation as the instructor.

Most of my experience is well characterized in a short article called “Less Is Better” by Jonathan Z. Smith with whom I studied at the University of Chicago. The point of clarity in the article is the assertion that everything presented to the student is an “e.g.,” an example of something else. The trick is not in picking the examples which someone else has or has not picked, which others might argue are essential knowledge. Rather, the point of an example is that it exemplifies something else. Therefore, the art of picking and using examples, which is basically the primary expertise of the teacher, is the ability to choose things that best “exemplify” for students what it is one is attempting to teach them. The examples themselves are not the point of the class, but are rather a means for students to learn something beyond and more significant than the examples themselves. J. Z. Smith is clear about this in his writing on the task of the historian of religion. He states that the primary expertise of the historian of religion is not knowing a certain body of facts, nor knowing a certain field of theory, but of being able to show how one relates to the other. How can one better understand, and explain to others, the “Hajj” after reading Durkheim or Catherine Bell? Or how does reading about Islamic purity laws affect our view of Durkheim and Freud?

From these experiences, I have come to see my approach to the teaching of Islam as analogous to the teaching of any other discipline in the liberal arts or in the sciences. For example, in the teaching of chemistry, certain experiments are used to exemplify certain general principles of chemistry. In an introductory language course, one does not begin by memorizing a dictionary, but rather certain words and phrases are presented so that students can learn the general rules of grammar and usage of that language. Similarly, when I teach Islam, it is as an example of “religion.” Specific facts are presented to students in order that they might be able to conceptualize some more general characteristics of what is generically understood to be “religion.”

This does not mean that I am naive about the great diversity and disagreement within the study of religion over even fundamental questions, such as are generally more settled, or at least appear to be, in fields like linguistics and chemistry. Most students of religion are familiar with debates over issues as basic as whether or not “religion” exists and whether the study of it is to be distinguished from the study of society, culture, and history. The study of religion, despite many interesting attempts, has no table of elements, nor is there general agreement on the usefulness of abstract mathematical formulas to describe things like pilgrimage or canon.

Yet there is a difference between teaching about certain facts of Islam for their own sake and using these same facts to exemplify certain problems, categories, or concepts current in at least some or most studies of religion. To justify the use of certain facts in terms of their usefulness as examples of “religion” does not mean that we should pick “obscure” aspects of Islam only because they fit well into certain categories in the study of religion. The requirement of such a justification does mean that no given aspect of Islam can simply be assumed to be an essential part of any course. Is it necessary to teach about Islamic purity laws because they are supposed to be an obligation every Muslim practices, or are Islamic purity laws useful as a peculiar example of the more general notion of “purification”? The knowledge of such specific, Islamic facts is not presented to students, nor justified in my own mind, as essential to accomplishing my objectives in teaching about Islam. The knowledge of such things is presented to students, explicitly, as a means to learn something more general about religion and the ways in which it might be analyzed and understood.

It is my belief that, despite the quality or range of specific facts I might present to students, without acquiring the skills to distinguish and evaluate these facts (using, although not limited to, approaches developed and used in the study of religion), students cannot conceptualize and think about Islam as a “religion.” Without the development of analytical skills, at best, students can only memorize the definitions of Islam presented to them. For this reason, I am hesitant to justify my own teaching of Islam on the basis of observations such as the growing number of Muslims in the United States or the importance of Islam historically and in contemporary world politics. To say that I am teaching Islam because there is a growing number of Muslims in the United States would imply that if there were less Muslims then it would not be as important to teach about Islam. If my justification, however, is based on the usefulness I can show the Islamic materials to have for the general study of religion, and the justification for the study of religion is based on its contribution to the objectives of a liberal arts education, then my teaching about Islam is an integral part of a liberal arts education.


If Islam is to be taught as an example of religion, and religion is to be a discipline within the liberal arts, then there are no Islamic facts or theories of religion that cannot be left out of an introductory course. What must be included, however, is that which is normally left out of such courses: attention to the skills students should be acquiring and refining in the context of a liberal arts education, including but not limited to the ability to read carefully, think critically, and argue effectively.


1. Abū Ja‘far Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (839–923) wrote one of the largest extant and earliest commentaries on the Quran, and an extensive history beginning with Creation, through the time of the Prophet Muhammad, up until his own death. For a first-rate translation of the history, see the (39 eventually) volumes in the series, The History of al-Ṭabarī, ed. Ehsan Yarshater (Albany: State University of New York Press). Find it in your Library Although not all the volumes have been published, those on the life of the Prophet Muhammad have been. Ibn Ishaq’s biography of the Prophet Muhammad, as extant in the recension of Ibn Hisham, has been available in a scholarly English translation for some time, though it is not always in print. See A. Guillaume, trans., The Life of Muhammad: A Translation of Ibn Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah (1955; reprint, Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1967). Find it in your Library For the earlier, nonextant portion of this biography, covering the prophets leading up to Muhammad, see Gordon Darnell Newby, The Making of the Last Prophet: A Reconstruction of the Earliest Biography of Muhammad (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989). Find it in your Library

2. Although (or perhaps because) I find questionable the theoretical value of some of his positions, Wilfred Cantwell Smith’s distinctions between “belief” and “history” is useful as a means to compare how one’s conviction concerning the existence and meaning of certain historical events relates to the types of evidence or lack thereof for that existence and meaning. I have been most impressed by W. C. Smith, Belief and History(Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977) Find it in your Library and W. C. Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion: A New Approach to the Religious Traditions of Mankind (New York: Macmillan, 1963). Find it in your Library A helpful, but somewhat differently focused Christian analogy can be found in Karl Löwith, Meaning in History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949). Find it in your Library

3. I have found it particularly useful to borrow and adapt Victor Turner’s analogy between the observer/participant in field work and the audience/actor in theatre. Turner argues that the observer, like the audience, has a wider and better overall perspective of the ritual or drama than the participant or actor who is in the midst of the action and may only interact with other participants at selected times throughout the production. This perspective is found in Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New York: Aldine, 1969) Find it in your Library and V. Turner, The Forest of Symbols: Some Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1967). Find it in your Library Some helpful insights into this idea in Turner’s work can be found in Bobby C. Alexander, Victor Turner Revisited: Ritual as Social Change (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1991). Find it in your Library

4. Without moving into more sophisticated treatments of historiography, I challenge students to consider the difference between “what actually happened” (if such a thing even exists) and how what happened is experienced and related to others. This simple distinction is made by J. H. Plumb, The Death of the Past (Boston, 1971) Find it in your Library, but a more extended contemplation of historical experience is found in R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1946). Find it in your Library

5. Most useful in their broad outlines are Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2d ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968) Find it in your Library and Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal return (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1954). Find it in your Library By stressing Campbell’s macrocategories of hero mythology, students can begin to universalize the Muslim notion of Muhammad. Eliade allows for this in more historically defined and ritually specific forms which can be useful to convey to students in basic outline.

6. Although it is not well known and not readily accessible, Geo Widengren’s six-volume “King and Savior Series” is an excellent source of historical insights stimulating many comparative analyses. For the last volume of the series that focuses most directly on the prophet Muhammad, see Geo Widengren, Muhammad, the Apostle of God, and His Ascension (Uppsala: Uppsala Universitets Årsskrift, 1955:1). Find it in your Library

7. See the rich theoretical sophistication found in Paul J. Griffiths, Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999). Find it in your Library Laurie Patton has collected a number of essays dealing with the issue of canon and its interpretation in her edited volume Authority, Anxiety, and Canon: Essays in Vedic Interpretation (Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications, 1995). Find it in your Library Another collection to be consulted is Jeffrey Timm, ed., Text in Context: Traditional Hermeneutics in South Asia (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991). Find it in your Library

8. The general idea of “paradigms,” including how traditions are established and maintained, can be a useful model for characterizing the tension between the precedent of a received text and the novelty of changing circumstances. Paradigm changes are stressed in Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2d ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970). Find it in your Library Somewhat more apt for the issue of canon and law are attempts to explain continuity such as Edward Shils, Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) Find it in your Library and Stephen Toulmin, Human Understanding, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972). Find it in your Library

9. The comparative and insightful treatment of Islamic examples in W. C. Smith, What Is Scripture? (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) Find it in your Library shows the broad range of possibilities in the categorizing and understanding of “canon” both within and outside of the category of text. The more focused but broadly comparative studies of William Graham allow for a range of examples with which to emphasize the oral aspect of the Quran. See William Graham, Beyond the Written Word: Oral Aspects of Scripture in the History of Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) Find it in your Library and his more narrowly defined “Qur’an as Spoken Word: An Islamic Contribution to the Understanding of Scripture,” in Approaches to Islam in Religious Studies, ed. Richard C. Martin (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985), 23–40. Find it in your Library

10. In some cases (given smaller class size or more upper-division students), I have had students read and comment on selections from Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life and William Robertson Smith’s “Holy Places in their Relation to Man,” in his Lectures on the Religion of the Semites. The relationship of Islamic examples to these theories is particularly fruitful, and as such, this exercise can help to show how Islamic materials can be used to modify and generate more generic theoretical concepts in the study of religion.

11. Geo Widengren’s ideas about the morphology of rituals can be seen most clearly in his Religionsphänomenologie (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1969) Find it in your Library, though similar theoretical concepts underly his account in the “King and Savior Series.” Among Arent Jan Wensinck’s more accessible works are his “Arabic New-Year and the Feast of Tabernacles,” Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen te Amsterdam. Afdeeling Letterkunde, n.r. 25.2 (1924) Find it in your Library and his “The Ideas of the Western Semites Concerning the Navel of the Earth,” Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen te Amsterdam. Afdeeling Letterkunde, n.r. 17.1 (1916). Find it in your Library Somewhat longer but also illustrative of Wensinck’s approach is his “Some Semitic Rites of Mourning and Religion: Studies on the Origin and Mutual Relation,” Verhandelingen der Koninklijke Akademie van Wetenschappen te Amsterdam. Afdeeling Letterkunde, n.r. 18.1 (1917). Find it in your Library

12. The most systematic statement of Ugo Bianchi’s position can be found in his The History of Religions(Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975). Find it in your Library Bianchi’s preference for a philologically and historically based phenomenology comes out most clearly in the conclusion (pp. 201–220). Kurt Rudolf more directly champions a philological approach in his Historical Fundamentals and the Study of Religions(New York: Macmillan, 1985) Find it in your Library and his “The Foundations of the History of Religions and its Future Task,” in The History of Religions: Retrospect and Prospect, ed. Joseph Kitagawa (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 53–72. Find it in your Library

13. See Reinhold Loeffler, Islam in Practice: Religious Beliefs in a Persian Village (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988). Find it in your Library The bulk of this book consists of translations of interviews, representing the various voices of Muslims, how individuals interact differently with more widely recognized religious norms and legal precepts.

14. See M. E. Combs-Schilling, Sacred Performances: Islam, Sexuality, and Sacrifice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989) Find it in your Library and Abdellah Hammoudi, The Victim and Its Masks: An Essay on Sacrifice and Masquerade in the Maghreb, trans. Paula Wissing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). Find it in your Library With smaller classes, I have had students read and compare both of these books in an attempt to contrast Combs-Schilling’s larger Moroccan-wide context of the celebration of the Prophet’s Birthday and the Wedding Ceremony with Hammoudi’s more limited focus on the performance of the Masquerade in juxtaposition to the Sacrifice among the Ait Mizane. For larger classes, discussion of all four of these rituals and their connection with the perpetuation of certain social structures allows for an effective presentation of a “functionalist” or “structuralist” perspective on ritual.

15. Of the many publications of Ronald Grimes, I find his Ritual Criticism: Case Studies in its Practice, Essays on Its Theory (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990) Find it in your Library to provide instructive examples for raising comparative issues. Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992) Find it in your Library, especially part III “Ritual and Power,” provides a useful synthesis of recent theories of ritual and action, though students sometimes find it rough going without a solid grounding in the original theorists Bell cites.

16. Succeeding generations of students seem to be less and less familiar with Freud’s description of the “Totem Meal” and its relation to the origins of religion. With more advanced students, I have found it useful to assign parts 4–7 of Freud’s “The Return of Totemism in Childhood” (from Robertson Smith to the end of the book) in his Totem and Taboo, trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1950), 132–161. Find it in your Library Rene Girard, Violence and the Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977) Find it in your Library is a thickly theoretical work which has found wide application in a number of different disciplines, though the close connection between “Islam” and “violence” in many students’ minds makes for lively discussion and consideration of a quasi-catharsis view of Islamic rituals. Examples of Islamic definitions of “pure/impure” and “sacred/profane” (taken from Bukhari or a standard fiqh manual on ritual purity) can be used by students to refute effectively some of Girard’s theoretical assumptions. E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s Nuer Religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956) Find it in your Library is a model of how one can interpret almost any ritual or cult within an “Old Testament” framework. Such a critique of Evans-Pritchard can be found in Luc de Heusch, Sacrifice in Africa: A Structuralist Approach, trans. Linda O’Brien and Alice Morton (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), especially 1–25. Find it in your Library

17. See Arthur Christensen, Les types du premier homme et du premier roi dans l’histoire légendaire des Iraniens (Archives d’Études Orientales 14. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1943) Find it in your Library which can be expanded even further afield with Georges Dumézil, The Destiny of a King, trans. Alf Hiltebeitel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973). Find it in your Library Of Henri Corbin’s many publications, I find his The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, trans. Nancy Pearson (London, 1978) Find it in your Library most helpful.

18. See Clifford Geertz, Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968). Find it in your Library Although this work is severely outdated (especially for Indonesia) and has raised a number of serious theoretical objections among scholars of religion and Islam, I find his model focusing on the recognition and application of a limited range of “Islamic” symbols (esp. as laid out in chapter 4) to provide students with an analytically effective approach to the diversity of Islamic identities. Michael Gilsenan, Recognizing Islam: Religion and Society in the Modern Arab World (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982) Find it in your Library remains one of my top recommendations for a one-book introduction to Islam, with the caveat that his focus remains that of the modern Middle East. Some of the same issues are dealt with in a broader geographical setting in Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori, Muslim Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996). Find it in your Library

19. Leonardo A. Villalón, Islamic Society and State Power in Senegal: Disciples and Citizens in Fatick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) Find it in your Library gives a sound overview of Sufism and political authority in West Africa. Edward B. Reeves, The Hidden Government: Ritual, Clientelism and Legitimation in Northern Egypt (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990) Find it in your Library is a theoretically rich analysis of the important but often ignored annual Sufi rituals in Tanta. Mark R. Woodward, Islam in Java: Normative Piety and Mysticism in the Sultanate of Yogyakarta (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989) Find it in your Library contains much useful information on Islam in Java, but particularly helpful as an example is his suggestive analysis of the Yogyakarta Kraton (palace) as a symbol of the mystical path of Sufism.

20. Brinkley Messick, The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993) Find it in your Library is a book I have used in many different classes. For the introductory course, I have found his description of the “text” in the “Shariah Society” to exemplify for students a certain “traditional” model of an Islamic society, one in which students can recognize some of the classical patterns and statuses and see how these are adopted and adapted to contemporary and changing circumstances. Richard T. Antoun, Muslim Preacher in the Modern World: A Jordanian Case Study in Comparative Perspective (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989) Find it in your Library and Patrick Gaffney, The Prophet’s Pulpit: Islamic Preaching in Contemporary Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994) Find it in your Library both provide fascinating examples of how certain “core” or “canonical” texts and ideas are modified and transmitted on a popular level. Antoun works effectively with the notion of the “Culture Broker” which seems to fit well with students’ understanding of the more general approaches of Geertz and Gilsenan.

21. In the past, I have used a number of novels. Generally, in large classes, I order four different novels, divide the students into four groups, and have each group read one novel. I try to ensure that each of the student study groups (formed at the beginning of the class) have representatives for each of the four novels. Among those I have used are Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North, Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Childrenand his Shame, Fatima Mernissi, Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, Naguib Mahfouz, Palace Walk and (although not strictly a novel) Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, Guests of the Sheik: An Ethnography of an Iraqi Village.

22. In the past I have used Eric Hansen, Motoring with Mohammed: Journeys to Yemen and the Red Sea (New York: Vintage, 1991) Find it in your Library and Tony Horwitz, Baghdad without a Map, and Other Misadventures in Arabia (New York: Plume, 1992). Find it in your Library The Horwitz book is badly out of date since the Gulf War, but often still allows students to see, in contrast, some of the biases of Western reporting. Hansen’s account is not only highly entertaining but also remains one of the best introductions to Yemeni culture which, for students, presents a good case-study of a particular local context for Islam. Other useful accounts include Nicholas Clapp, The Road to Ubar (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998) Find it in your Library, and his Sheba (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001). Find it in your Library Recently reprinted are Freya Stark’s The Southern Gates of Arabia (New York: Modern Library, 2001) Find it in your Library and The Valleys of the Assassins (New York: Modern Library, 2001). Find it in your Library

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