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Department of History

Origins and Development of Islam in the Middle East: Problems and Perspectives

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Full Year

This course discusses the formative period of Islam, the period during which the religion acquired the main features which today we would regard as characteristics of Islam. 

The approach is historical and assumes that religions do not emerge fully formed, overnight or even in the lifetime of the person who is regarded as the religion's founder. 

Islam, like other major religious traditions, is complex and varied, and we should envision it as developing gradually and not uniformly before crystallizing in the forms which subsequently came to be regarded as characteristic and typical. 

Objectives and learning outcomes of the course

The main aim of the course is to provoke questions and to suggest ways of looking at things which are still quite new and not widely available in literature. The study of the early Islam is characterized by disagreements among scholars about methods and conclusions.

The complexity of Islam, the problems regarding source material, and the abstruseness of much modern writing on the subject also make for difficulties.

At the end of the course students will be more aware of the problems involved in studying this theme, rather than posses direct answers. 

Scope and syllabus

The course involves study of a number of topics in the history of the Middle East in the period from about 600 AD to about 900 AD. Topics are chosen for their relevance to the origins of Islam, its diffusion and its early development. The course attempts to familiarize students with a number of general questions which are important for this period of Middle Eastern history, e.g: 

  • the scope and nature of the source material; 
  • continuity and innovation; 
  • Islam as the creation of a community or of a prophet-figure; 
  • arabization and islamization; 
  • political change and religious developments.

Method of assessment

Exam (50%) and 2 x Coursework (50%)

Suggested reading

Introductory bibliography
  • I. Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, Eng. tr. (Princeton, 1981); 
  • G.R. Hawting, The First Dynasty of Islam (London 1986); 
  • J. Schacht, Introduction to Islamic Law (London, 1964); 
  • M. Cook, Muhammed (Oxford, 1983); 
  • S.D. Goitein, Studies in Islamic History and Institutions (Leiden, 1966); 
  • A. Rippin, Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, vol. 1, The Formative Period (London, 1990).