SOAS University of London

Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East

Introduction to Early IslamicTexts

Module Code:
Unit value:
Year of study:
Year 2
Taught in:
Full Year

This is an introductory text-based course which aims to acquaint students with aspects of Arabic literature not covered in the Modern Standard Language course. It examines representative Islamic texts relating to the rise of Islam and Arabic-Islamic culture, also exploring their expression in later Islamic thought. In the first part of the course, students study a selection of chapters and passages from the Qur’an with the aim of gauging not only key features of the text’s form and content, but also its historical impact upon the emerging literary traditions of early Islam. Within this context, developments in Arabic orthography, attitudes to literacy, the early Qur’anic manuscript tradition, and exegesis are reviewed. The range of literary genres that were devoted to the collation and study of the ḥadīth is explored; and, classical scholarship’s attempts to evolve methods of authentication are also given due consideration. Having been introduced to the principal scriptural sources of Islam, students will also have the opportunity to study sample texts from a range of literary traditions, including historical, theological, exegetical and biographical writing. These forms of writing will be assessed for their impact upon later approaches to the study and expression of Islamic thought. The extent to which classical and modern writers augmented, expounded upon, and synthesised the source material will be assessed. Emphasis will be placed upon examining the historical contexts within which the early and classical sources were interpreted in modern contexts.


Successful completion of Arabic 1

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

Upon completion of the course, the student:

  • should have acquired an awareness of the history surrounding the development of the early Islamic literary sciences and the forms of scholarship pursued within them
  • should be able to read, translate and comprehend selected Arabic texts from the Qur’an, the Prophetic traditions and sample materials from a range of early literary genres, including exegetical, biographical, theological and historical texts
  • should have gained knowledge of the fundamental theoretical constructs and paradigms which feature in the selected Arabic texts
  • should have acquired a distinct understanding of the academic frameworks and methodological issues which are germane to the analysis and treatment of early Islamic literature
  • should have become acquainted with the literary legacy of the early Islamic tradition together with the impact of its discourse upon subsequent forms of learning in both the classical and modern periods


This course is taught over 22 weeks with two hours classroom contact per week. 

Students read, translate and discuss selected material. Students are expected to present at least one seminar relating to topics covered during the course of the lectures.

Scope and syllabus

The course readings and lectures are based on the related aspects of the major themes and topics outlined below:

  1. Introducing the Qur’an; history, form and content
  2. The physical preservation of the text: critical links between theories of the chronology and the theological-narrative themes of the Qur’an
  3. Literary issues: inimitability, the role of exempla, and ethics
  4. Sample chapters and passages; themes; a chronology of revelation (Meccan-Medinan revelation)
  5. Early exegesis; development and synthesis; Translations of the Qur’anic text
  6. Ḥadīth: links with the construct of Prophetic sunna; constructs of authority
  7. The development of Ḥadīth literature: moves towards the collation and codification of the traditions; methods of authentication; the role of the isnād; its origins and function
  8. The great collections and their historical background;
  9. Materials from the analytical age: key personalities and movements
  10. Genesis of historical writing: sīra and maghāzī texts:
  11. Legacies of the early compilers: biographical literature
  12. Ibn Isḥāq, Muḥammad ibn Saʿd, and al-Ṭabarī: the synthesis of knowledge; antecedents of later historical compilations;
  13. Theological, historical, legal and exegetical legacies: contours of the traditions of learning
  14. Scholarship within the traditional literary sciences among post 18th and 19th century reformists
  15. Modernists and the review of theological, exegetical and legal literature; discourses of modernity and the scriptural sources








Method of assessment

One three-hour written examination taken in May/June (70%); an essay of 2,500 words to be submitted on the first day of term 2 (15%); an essay of 2,500 words to be submitted on the first day of term 3 (15%).

Suggested reading

Reference Works: 
  • Encyclopaedia of Islam, New edi. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1961, 1987, 1993, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2000) thereafter referred to as "E. I.". This is now available on-line through the Library's website. 
  • Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an, Jane McAuliffe, ed. (Leiden : E.J. Brill, 2001. 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006). (A-D), (E-I), (J-O), (P-Sh), (Si-Z) This is now available on-line through the Library's website. 
The Qur'an: 
  • Ambros, Arne Amadeus. A Concise Dictionary of Koranic Arabic, (Wiesbaden : Reichert, 2004). 
  • Arberry, Arthur. The Koran Interpreted (London: George Allen Urwin, 1980) 
  • Cook, Michael. The Koran, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000). 
  • Gade, Anna. The Qur’an: An Introduction (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2010).
  • Haleem, Abdel. The Qur'an: A New Translation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
  • McAuliffe, Jane Dammen (ed.), With Reverence for the Word: Medieval Scriptural Exegesis in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, edited by Jane Dammen McAuliffe, Barry D. Walfish, and Joseph W. Goering. (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). 
  • McAuliffe, Jane Dammen, Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).Watt, Montgomery, Introduction to the Qur'an, R. Bell's introduction Revised by Watt, W.M., Islamic Surveys, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1989). 
  • Pickthall, Mamaduke. The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (London: Mentor Classics, 1972).
  • Rippin, Andrew (ed.), The Qurʾān : Formative Interpretation (Aldershot : Variorum, 1999).
  • Rippin, Andrew. The Blackwell Companion to the Qurʾān (Oxford : Blackwell, 2005).
  • Sells, M. A., Approaching the Qurʾān: the Early Revelations. Introduced and Translated (Ashland (USA): White Cloud Press, 1999).
The Hadith and Law: 
  • Azami, Mustafa.  Studies in Ḥadīth Methodology and Literature (American Trust Publication: 1977).
  • Brown, Jonathan. Hadith: Muhammad's Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World     (Oxford : Oneworld, 2009).
  • Burton, John, Introduction to the Tradition (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000). 
  • Dickinson, Eerik. An Introduction to the Science of the Ḥadīth (Kitāb Maʿrifat anwāʿ ʿilm al-ḥadīth) Ibn al-Ṣalāh al-Shahrazūrī (Reading: Garnet Publishing Limited, 2006).
  • Hallaq, Wael. An Introduction to Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  • Motzki, Harald, with Nicolet Boekhoff-van der Voort and Sean Anthony.  Analysing Muslim Traditions Studies in Legal, Exegetical and Maghāzī Ḥadīth (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2010).
  • Motzki, Harald (ed.) Hadith: Origins and Development (Aldershot : Variorum, 2004). 
  • Schacht, Joseph. The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence. 2nd edi. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953).
  • Schoeler, Gregor. The Genesis of Literature in Islam: from the Aural to the Read (Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 2009).
  • Shah, Mustafa (ed.). The Hadith. 4 Vols. (Critical Concepts in Islamic Studies Series) (London; New York: Routledge, 2010).
  • Siddiqi, Muhammad, Hadith Literature: its Origin, Development, Special Features and Criticism (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1993).
Historical Texts: 
  • Abbott, Nabia. Studies In Arabic Literary Papyri, I: Historical Texts (Chicago: University of  Chicago, 1957). See also Abbott, N., Studies in Arabic Literary Papyri II, Qur’ānic Commentary and Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1967).
  • Duri, Abd al-Aziz. The Rise of Historical Writing Among the Arabs (New Jersey: Princeton, 1983). Edited and translated by Conrad, L.Introduction by Donner, F. 
  • Guillaume, Alfred. The Life of Muhammad (translation of the redaction of Ibn Hisham's life of the Prophet), (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1955).
  • Horovitz, Josef. The Earliest Biographies of the Prophet and their Authors, edited by Lawrence I. Conrad (Princeton, New Jersey: Darwin Press, 2002).
  • Humphreys, R. Stephen. Islamic History. (London, New York: I. B. Tauris, 1999).
  • Khalidi, Tarif. Arabic Historical Thought in the Classical Period (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994). 
  • Robinson, Chase. Islamic Historiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  • Rubin, Uri (ed.), The Life of Muhammad (Aldershot: Variorum, 1998).
Qur'anic manuscripts and inscriptions: 
  • Baker Colin. Qur’anic Manuscripts: Calligraphy, Illumination and Design (London: British Library, 2007).
  • Blair, Sheila. Islamic Calligraphy (Edinburgh : Edinburgh University Press, 2007).
  • Bloom, Jonathan. Paper before Print: the History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World (New Haven : Yale University Press, 2001).
  • Déroche, François. The Abbasid Tradition: Qur'ans of the 8th to 10th centuries, (London: Nour Foundation in Association with Azimuth Editions and Oxford University Press, 1992).
  • Déroche, François. The Abbasid Tradition: Qurʾans of the 8th to 10th centuries (London: Nour Foundation in Association with Azimuth Editions and Oxford University Press, 1992).
  • Déroche, F. (2006) Islamic Codicology: an Introduction to the Study of Manuscripts in Arabic Script, London: Al-Furqan Islamic Heritage Foundation. Translated by Deke Dusinberre and David Radzinowicz. Edited by Muhammad Isa Waley.
Arabic Linguistic Thought: 
  • Carter, Michael. Sibawayhi (Makers of Islamic Civilization Series) (London and New York, Oxford University Press, I.B. Tauris, 2004)
  • Versteegh, Kees. Landmarks in Linguistic Thought III: the Arabic Linguistic Tradition (London, New York: Routledge, 1997).
  • Versteegh, Kees. The Arabic Language (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001). 
Related Works: 
  • Brown, Daniel.  Islam: A New Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004).
  • Daniels, Peter and Bright, William. (Editors), The World’s Writing Systems (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996). 
  • Grabar, Oleg. Islamic Art and Beyond (Aldershot: Ashgate, Variorum, 2006). 
  • Hoyland. Robert. Arabia and the Arabs : from the Bronze Age to the coming of Islam (London ; New York: Routledge, 2001).
Reference section:
  • A Reference Grammar of Modern Standard Arabic,  Ryding, Karin C. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
  • Arabic-English Dictionary of Qur’anic Usage, Elsaid Badawi and M.A.S. Haleem, (E.J. Brill, 2008).
  • Encyclopaedia of the Canonical Ḥadīth (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2007). Complied and Edited by G.H.A. Juynboll.
  • Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics, Kees Versteegh (general ed.), (Leiden, Boston: E.J. Brill, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009). Five Vols.
  • The Islamic World (ed.) Andrew Rippin (London, New York: Routledge, 2008).
  • Lane, Edward. Arabic-English Lexicon. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 1984. [ISBN: 9780946621033]
  • Concordance de la Tradition Musulmane. Jan Wensinck (Mensing), Seven tomes (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1936, 1943, 1955, 1962, 1965, 1967, 1969).
  • See also ‘Arabic Language and Islam: Mustafa Shah.’ In Oxford Bibliographies Online: Islamic Studies. Editor in Chief Tamara Sonn. New York: Oxford University Press, April 2010. (


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