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Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Comparative Study of Islam: Anthropological Perspectives (A)

Course Code:
Unit value:
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Term 2
The aim of this course is to familiarise students with an increasingly diverse range of conceptual approaches taken by anthropologists to the study of Islam. Anthropological studies of Islam value the study of sacred texts and practices as they are locally understood, interpreted, debated over, and experienced throughout the world and in specific historical and political contexts. By engaging both with texts and lived practices, as well as apparently more universal and local ways of ‘being Muslim’, anthropological work on Islam has contributed to some of the key debates animating the study of religion and politics in the discipline today. It is also increasingly seen as being a model that could be replicated for the study of other ‘world religions’, notably Christianity.

The course, thus, will enhance and develop in new directions students’ understanding of some of the key dimensions of anthropological thought covered in other areas of their degrees, most especially the interaction between religion and politics.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

By the end of this course students will:

  • have an understanding of the historical development of the anthropology of Islam;
  • be able to relate this knowledge to broader theoretical questions concerning the anthropology of religion and world religions in particular;
  • have an awareness of debates between anthropologists concerning different theoretical and ethnographic approaches for understanding Islam;
  • have an understanding of the patterns of values, practices and discourses associated with Islam and being Muslim in the societies under examination.


Number of weeks over which the course will be taught 11 weeks Number of contact hours per week: Lectures 1 hour per week Seminar/tutorials 2 hour seminar + 1 hr 30 min hour film viewing

Scope and syllabus

The course emphasises the diversity of ways of being Muslim found in Muslim-majority states and Muslim communities elsewhere and explores the varying ways in which these contribute to the vitality and complexity of Islam’s place in the contemporary world.

It focuses on ethnographic work on Islam and being Muslim from Africa, South and South East Asia, the Middle East and Europe. These ethnographic cases studies, however, seek to prompt wider forms of ethnographic and analytical comparison. Analytically, the lectures deal with a range of older and new debates that have come to define anthropological thinking about the study of religion in general and of world religions in particular.S

Some of the key themes we will explore include: 

  • the relationship between ‘global’ and ‘local’ forms of religious thought and identity;
  • the contours of religious morality and ethics;
  • the status of the book in religious life;
  • the role played performance and emotion in religious experience;
  • the nature of ritual;
  • the so-called ‘politicisation of religion’ in the context of globalising modernity and violent conflict

In the first half of term we will discuss the emergence of ‘the anthropology of Islam’, situating it within past and current anthropological debates about the analytical validity of categories such as ‘world religion’ and ‘religion’. Anthropologists have engaged in hotly contested debates about these issues through ethnographically rich studies that explore the nature of Islamic knowledge, authority, prayer, ritual and piety. Why do what appear to be insignificant differences in the ways in which Muslims pray often become a source of debate and even violent conflict between Muslims? What is Islamic knowledge and what forms does it take in Islam’s diverse intellectual traditions? How is the authority of those who hold such knowledge manifested? We will cover a range of diverse examples including conflicts between Muslims in Afghanistan over the form of correct prayer, the experiences of West African Muslims of the pilgrimage to Mecca, and the ways in which South Asian Muslims talk about and experience devotion at the shrines of holy men.

The second half of the course turns towards the interaction between Islam and politics. Much early work focused on the ‘politicisation of Islam’ in a world widely assumed to be becoming more secular. These accounts categorised different types of Islamic political activists and asked how far Islam’s apparently expanding role in formal forms of politic life (political parties, elections and governments) marked it as being distinct from other ‘world religions’. More recent works have suggested these studies treated religion itself as an unproblematic category. Anthropologists today, instead, are exploring the diverse ways in which politics has played out in the everyday lives of Muslims. In what ways is ‘the political’ historically and socially situated. Is the notion of Muslim politics a helpful category? How have nation-states sought to define Islam and in what ways have Muslims responded to state-led attempts to Isalmise and secularise society? How have Muslims in countries in Central Asia experienced the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the new types of political spaces that have emerged in its wake? Has ‘globalising modernity’ transformed the shape of Muslim identity formations, political life and religious authority?

Method of assessment

The written exam will count for 70%. Coursework will count for 30% towards the final mark.

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