SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Comparative Study of Islam: Anthropological Perspectives A (Masters)

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2016/2017
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.

The course, thus, will enhance and develop 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 module

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 to understanding Islam
  • have an understanding of the patterns of values, practices and discourses associated with Islam and being Muslim in the societies under examination
  • have an understanding of the various ways in which Islam, and religion in general, can be political
  • be able to apply anthropological theories and concepts in the analysis of contemporary representations of Islam
  • have improved critical reading and analytical writing skills.


Number of weeks over which the course will be taught 11 weeks. Number of contact hours per week: Lecture/Seminar, 1 hour per week; Seminar, 2 hours per week. Required readings each week: usually 2-5 articles or book chapters. The course will be run mostly as a seminar, and students will be expected to attend class sessions having read the required readings and be prepared to discuss them.

Scope and syllabus

The course emphasises the history of anthropological approaches to Islam as they developed in particular historical contexts.  It introduces students to some of the diverse ways of being Muslim in Muslim-majority states and Muslim communities in different global locations, and explores the varying ways in which these contribute to the vitality and complexity of Islam’s place in the contemporary world. It focuses especially on ways in which power, authority, government, political identities and political conflict are shaped by local and global ideas about Islam, and about what being a good Muslim is, in particular contexts.

Some of the key themes we will explore include:
  • the intersection of Islam (as a belief system, set of practices, idea, etc.) with authority and the state
  • the significance of Islam and other religious identities in colonial and postcolonial history
  • the historical specificity of notions of secularism, religion, and their “proper” political place
  • the role of Islam in the production of social subjectivities, political identities and conflicts
  • the so-called ‘politicisation of religion’ in the context of globalising modernity and violent conflict
  • the intersection of neoliberalism and Islam
  • the political significance of the way Islam is defined, understood, and represented
Outline of Course Topics
  • Week 1. ANTHROPOLOGY OF RELIGION/ISLAM, pt.1 Anthropology of Islam
  • Week 2. ANTHROPOLOGY OF RELIGION/ISLAM, pt.2 Clash of Civilizations  
  • Week 6. READING WEEK
  • Week 8. SECULARISM
  • Week 11. GENDER

Method of assessment

One essay and one analysis of the politics of representing Islam or Muslims will count for 25% each. A final longer essay will count for 50% towards the final mark.

Suggested reading

Online course outline (TBC)


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules