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Department of the Study of Religions

Shi'a Islam: Religious Authority and Community Identity

Course Code:
Course Not Running 2014/2015
Unit value:
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Full Year

The purpose of this course is to provide a comprehensive overview of the historical development of the shi'a sects together with in-depth analysis of their religious beliefs and practices. Furthermore, the course will explore the crucial interaction between religious and secular authority in the formation of shi'a identity.

The course will begin with an examination of early Islamic history and the factional disagreements regarding the imamate. It will explore the nature of the devotionalist attitude that centered on the figure of Ali, and its implications for the social as well as the theological views of subsequent shi'a communities. The role of the shi'a in the establishment of the Abbasid caliphate will be discussed, as well as the development of messianic conceptions surrounding the figure of the hidden imam. The establishment of an Islamic state in Iran will be presented, as well as the situation of the shi'a communities in contemporary Iraq.

This course is conceived as providing tuition in an area that is of great importance both historically as well as in regard to contemporary issues, but which is not covered at all by any course currently offered at SOAS. Furthermore, the course is intended to allow for progression in the study of Islam within the Department of the Study of Religions in year two and three. At present, the only course offered by SOR in the area of Islam is an introductory course.

Finally, this course can serve as a complement to courses already offered in Zoroastrianism for those students interested specifically in the religious history of Iran.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

At the end of this course, a student should be able to:

  • Evaluate the place of Shi'a sects within the broader context of Islamic history.
  • Identify and explain the distinguishing features of Shi'a doctrine.
  • Assess the interdependance of religious and political ideas, both in general and in specific relation to Shi'a history.
  • Discuss the place of devotion within Shi'ism.
  • Evaluate the relationship between personal charisma and religious authority, both in general and in relation to Shi'a history.
  • Write essays that utilize and integrate both historical and religious studies sources.

Method of assessment

2 essays (2,500 words each) (30% each), 2-hour exam (40%).

Suggested reading

  • Arjomand, S A (1988) The Turban for the Crown: the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Oxford.
  • Halm, Heinz (1991) Shiism Edinburgh.
  • Hamdani, A H (1956) The Beginnings of the of Isma'ili Da'wa in Northern India, Cairo.
  • Jafri, S H M (1979) Origins and Early Development of Shi'a Islam, London.