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. Students will read a selection of primary Arabic sources as well as relevant academic scholarship in English. The course has to main foci: the examination of representative Islamic texts from the early and classical periods relating to the rise of Islam and Arabic-Islamic culture; and the exploration of their expression and reception in later modern Islamic thought and western academia. The course is divided into four broad sections, covering four genres in Islamic scholarship: the study of the Qur’an; the exegetical tradition (tafsīr); the Prophetic traditions or ḥadīths; and finally the sīra literature on the Prophet’s life. In the first part of the course, students will learn about different scholarly theories – both classical and modern, Muslim and non-Muslim – of the emergence and compilation of the Qur’anic text. The methodology and sources underlying the respective theories will be highlighted. Some of the Qur’an’s defining features and themes will also be studied. The second part of the course will explore the emergence of Qur’anic exegesis in classical times, its aims and methods. Certain themes characteristic of modern exegesis will be discussed by taking into account their historical context. The third part of the course focuses on the circumstances in which the earliest ḥadīth collections were compiled; classical and modern disputes about their role and significance; and the contentious question of their authenticity. The last part of the course gives students the opportunity to gain an insight into the developments of the sīra literature, focusing both on content and form. A comparison between excerpts from classical and modern sīra works highlights similarities but also differences in content, style, language and presentation, and brings the question of the historical environment of the authors once more to the forefront.


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 and the Prophetic traditions; from pre-modern and modern exegetical works, biographies of the Prophet as well as other literary genres, including 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 three hours classroom contact per week (two hours lecture, one hour tutorial). 

Students read, translate and discuss selected materials. Students are expected to come prepared and to participate in class. They are also expected to give a short presentation 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. Introduction
  2. Emergence and Compilation I
  3. Emergence and Compilation II
  4. The Qur’an as Miracle: Mysterious Letters and Inimitability
  5. Prophetic Stories in the Qur’an
  6. Classical Tafsīr
  7. Modern Tafsīr I
  8. Modern Tafsīr II
  9. Abrogation I
  10. Abrogation II
  11. Introduction to Ḥadīth
  12. Early Compilations: Mālik’s al-Muwaṭṭaʾ
  13. Shāfiʿī’s Risāla and the Role of the Sunna
  14. The ‘Qur’an Only’ Movement
  15. The Question of Authenticity
  16. Shīʿī Ḥadīth
  17. Early Maghāzī/Sīra Texts
  18. Literary Features
  19. Modern Biographies I
  20. Modern Biographies II

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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