Progress on my Islamic thought course

I’ve been making slow and steady progress on developing my course in Islamic thought for the fall. I’m starting to see that one of the benefits of Shimer’s text-centered approach is that it makes room for professors to be more exploratory in their course offerings. After all, it’s not as though I need to be writing authoritative lectures every day — as long as I can be confident that I’ve picked texts that are broadly representative of important trends and widely recognized as being among the most exemplary achievements in Islamic thought, we should be okay. At the same time, the requirement to use primary texts does present a particular challenge for non-Western topics, because I can’t assume the broad (if vague) familiarity most American students would have with the background of most of the relevant historical periods, etc.

Right now I know I need to devote a significant chunk at the beginning to Muhammad and the Qur’an. I am planning to use some supplemental contemporary articles here, particularly on issues relating to women. For background, I’m considering trying ibn Ishaq’s Life of Muhammad, along with selected hadith. I don’t know if I’ll be able to get through the whole Qur’an or if that should even be a priority.

A second unit that I had in mind from the start was on Islamic legal reasoning. It’s a big topic and could perhaps make a good course on its own (maybe paired with rabbinic legal reasoning?). I’m currently inclined to skip it unless I can find an accessible anthology of major original thinkers in Shari’a law — something like that would be the biggest recommendation I would hope for in comments.

Either way, I’d conclude with a kind of “greatest hits” of the Big Names in Islamic Thought: al-Arabi, al-Ghazali (particularly Deliverance from Error, which seems like the nearest equivalent of Augustine’s Confessions), ibn-Sina, ibn-Rushd, ibn-Khaldun. A colleague gave me a copy of ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan, which seems like a fun text to include. Fitting in some Rumi might be nice — in general I’m not as sure of footing on Sufi mysticism. I feel like I have good leads kalam and Islamic philosophy, but I’d be grateful for further suggestions, particularly from people who have actually taught the primary texts.

Including women will be a challenge. I’ve been in dialogue with Laleh Bakhtiar of Kazi Publishing in Chicago, who has been very generous with review copies and has a translation of the Qur’an that I may use. I’m already planning to highlight “women’s issues,” and I can emphasize the role of Muhammad’s wives in early Islamic politics, etc., but it’d be nice to find at least something like a woman Sufi saint’s biography or her own writings.

I invite suggestions and criticisms!

11 thoughts on “Progress on my Islamic thought course

  1. I think that it’s important to get some Shi’ite thought into the syllabus. Also, there’s nothing here of the Illuminationist school, Suhrawardi, et al.

  2. henadology: Excellent point. Do you think Ismaili thought in specific would be a good representative of Shi’ism? (I ask because it seems especially convenient to include since al-Ghazali engages it in Deliverance.) Any guidance on specific texts would be wonderful.

    I would definitely like to include Suhrawardi. Do you have a specific text in mind?

  3. Some of the best explanations of Ibn al-Arabi and Rumi’s thought can be found in William Chittick’s work. He does a tremendous job of providing introduction to their complex ideas (especially in the case of al-Arabi).

  4. As for Suhrawardi, The Philosophy of Illumination is kind of the core work, and a great book in my opinion. As for Shi’ism, I’m not sure I’d really regard Ismaili thought as representative, though it’s certainly fun. I can’t seem to locate it right now, but there was a dandy little sourcebook of texts in Shi’ite thought that I used when I taught a class once. It had a lot of the early imams in it, like Ja’far al-Sadiq. I’ll keep looking for it, let you know if I track it down.

  5. I’m not even close to an expert on this, but we’ve had a few books dealing with Islam to review at Theology and Sexuality recently, so I know that Sa’diyya Shaikh has written on gender and sexuality in Ibn ‘Arabi, and Amanullah de Sondy has written on Islam and masculinity.

  6. It was A Shi’ite Anthology, edited by Chittick (SUNY Press, 1981). Looks as though it might be out of print, though.

  7. As far as law and legal theory is concerned, it is indeed a vast topic in itself. Additionally, most classical jurists and legal theorists, particularly those with a lasting impact, have left behind huge bodies of work. Even a single work would usually take the form of a reference book covering all the major areas of law. If you’re looking for primary sources, one way would be to pick a particular topic, either in the law and its application (e.g. prayer, fasting, marriage, etc), or in jurisprudence and legal theory (e.g. the enumeration of legal sources, the meaning and application of analogy, etc) then pick parts of those sections out from the works of two or three jurists to compare how they discussed it.

    Such a comparative approach, especially in law as opposed to legal theory, is present in the works of certain critical jurists, such as Al-Muḥallā of Ibn Ḥazm of the Ẓāhirī school or Nayl al-Awṭār of Muḥammad al-Shawkānī of the reformed Zaydī school (both minority schools associated with Sunnism and Shi’ism respectively). For each topic and subtopic, the authors would lay out the positions of each of the major legal schools, then state their own opinion, laying out their reasoning, especially if it broke with the positions of all other schools.

    Unfortunately, neither work has been translated. If working from translated legal works representing individual schools is too tedious, you might want to fall back on secondary sources for law. Wael Hallaq’s works are good to get an overview of things. Mohammed Hashim Kamali’s book on jurisprudence is not sufficiently critical in my opinion, but it offers a good representation of what classical jurisprudence looks like. Jonathan Brown’s works offer a good insight into the Hadith and its sciences.

    Completely unrelated, but if you’re looking for anthologies of original source material in translation from the modern period, three works are important: two sourcebooks on Modernist Islam and Liberal Islam, edited by Charles Kurzman, and The Contemporary Arab Reader on Political Islam, edited by the late Ibrahim Abu-Rabi.

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