Course Syllabus (updated August 30,2021): History of Islam 1500 to the Present
Shared Drive for Course Readings
Week One (August 31/September 2: Introduction to the Course, Framing and Themes, and Important Backgrounds
This Week’s Readings
Reading Guide and Questions
1. al-Nawawī: This is an instance of a popular genre of hadith literature from the medieval world forward, the forty hadith collection (an idea itself supported by hadith, as noted in the introduction to this collection!): a very select collection based on some kind of theme, culled from a truly vast ocean of hadith material and meant for easy consumption, reference, and memorization (as indicated in the above manuscript copy of al-Nawawī’s collection). Al-Nawawī was a prominent medieval scholar whose forty hadith collection enjoyed special popularity, not only being copied but often being given commentaries (another popular medieval and early modern Islamic genre)- note that al-Nawawī did not come up with these hadith but instead selected them from particular collections (which he notes- most of them are from the collections of the medieval scholars Muslim and Ṣaḥīḥ). As you browse these hadith ask yourself: how would we describe Islam as a religion based only on these forty hadith? For your writing assignment this week you will answer this question, drawing upon specific hadith; but as you read you might also think about why al-Nawawī chose these hadith (were they particularly popular, for instance?), and that by choosing different hadith a quite different ‘version’ of Islam might have been given. Also keep in mind potential challenges Muslims at different points in history might have had in realizing the vision contained within these hadith, which came out of a particular time and place (ie late antique Arabia).
The following are some structuring questions that should help you interpret these hadith and the message al-Nawawī wanted to convey through his selection of them:
What are the basics of Islam according to these hadith? What must a believer know and do, and is external action and/or assent sufficient?
What is the nature of God and His relationship to the creation according to these hadith? What should the believer’s relationship with God look like?
How should relationships among believers be structured? What might a society informed by these hadith look like?
2. Padwick: This selection is a from a longer book that consists primarily of translated excerpts from prayer books and other sources having to do with religious devotion in Islam, practices that have been very typical of everyday Islam from the medieval period to the present. This chapter has to do with the practice of taṣliya, which should be able to define after having read it. Since much of this material will probably be rather unfamiliar, you can browse the chapter slowly, do not try to read it all at one go (you are free to read the chapter on saints, also included in this selection, now, but you do not have to, as we will read it later). As you read, a primary question to ask yourself is: who is Muhammad according to these prayers and other texts, and what is his relationship with 1) God and 2) ordinary believers? What is his role in Islam *according to these texts*? How might that role look different from what you might have expected or from the role described in the forty hadith selected by al-Nawawī? Are you surprised by these devotions? Do they remind you of practices in, say, Christianity? Why or why not?
Writing Assignment No. 1:
Description: Using the reading from al-Nawawī, in one to two pages answer the following question: using only the hadith collected in the text as your source, how would you describe Islam as a religion? You should address theology (who is God?), authority/epistemology (where/from whom does religious knowledge come from?), practice (what should the believer do/believe/feel?), and ethics (what should the believer’s relationship with others be like?). Be sure to include specific hadith (with their number designation in parenthesis following your quotation of the hadith) in your answers.
Please share your completed assignment with me via email no later than the start of class on September 9.
Week 2 (September 7 & 9): The Early Modern Ottoman Empire
This Week’s Readings
Reading Guide and Questions
1. Mustafa ‘Ali: Mustafa ‘Ali was an Ottoman bureaucrat and scholar of the sixteenth century who, like many in his position, found himself periodically frustrated by his ascent in the service or, rather, his lack of ascent in the direction he desired. He wrote prolifically, and, as this reading reveals, did not spare his peers from all sorts of criticism. As such he provides a good view into what we might call ‘political theology’ but also critiques of the prevailing order. His writing, even in English translation, is a good example of the ornate and prolix style favored by the Ottoman elite (though not, thank God, by everyone in the Ottoman world!), and so if you find yourself scratching your head over what exactly he means, it’s not just you- be glad you’re not reading it in the original!
You should read pages 17 through 23; you can stop after the second paragraph on page 23. Feel free to read the rest of this long introductory section to ‘Ali’s ‘counsels’ to the sultans, but the rest is not required.
As you read, try to figure out what kind of a political order ‘Ali has in mind, both in terms of 1) what he assumes is ‘normal’ (in the way we in contemporary America might assume that a liberal democratic order is ‘normal’) and does not really require explanation or defense but also 2) what he considers the best form of that political order, and what the problems in his own age are and how they might be fixed. You should also ask: how does Islam as a source of authority, guidance, and so on, figure in to ‘Ali’s advice? Would you describe this work as ‘Islamic’ or othewise? How does ‘Ali use Islam in his arguments?
What are ‘Ali’s recommendations? What has been going wrong in the Ottoman lands, and who primarily is to blame? What is the role of the state in ‘Ali’s estimation, and what constitutes the state? What are the risks sovereigns carry in terms of their eternal destiny?
2. Sinan: These short texts are autobiographic works by the greatest of Ottoman architects, Sinan, whose life is laid out in them and so requires no introduction here. We know relatively little about architects in the Islamicate before the Ottomans but considerably more about Sinan and some of his contemporaries, whose work was increasingly seen as akin to other forms of artistic endeavor. Indeed it is in architecture that the Ottomans arguably excelled more than in any other field of creative activity and for which they are best known today. Sinan’s autobiographies are also helpful in that they reveal the career trajectory, self-image, and religious and intellectual ideas and practices of someone who rose through the ranks of the Ottoman military, having been enslaved as a young man in the devşirme and inculcated into Ottoman culture and religion afterwards.
From this selection you should read the following: pages 64-75 (you should skim the long list in this selection), 88-90; and 112-117, though of course you are encouraged to read as much as you’d like (being aware that Sinan repeats material within these treatises).
Questions for these texts: much as we did with al-Nawawi, if you had only this source to go on, how would you describe Islam as understood by Sinan? What stands out to you?
What is the role of the architect in Sinan’s understanding? How does his work related to God’s work as Creator? How did Sinan come to be an architect in his telling?
Just based on the kinds and numbers of structures the design and construction of which Sinan supervised, what can you say about Ottoman ideas of city organization? Of economic life? Of religious and political life?
The third treatise you are reading begins with many allusions to the Ottoman-Safavid conflict, with Sinan stressing what we might call the Sunni credentials of the Ottomans, even as he expressed devotion to ‘Ali and his descendants. The Safavids are referred to as ‘kızılbaş,’ literally ‘redheads,’ due to their distinctive headgear. What is Sinan’s attitude towards them? How do they facilitate his becoming an architect? What ultimately leads to him leaving the Janissary corps and becoming a full-time architect?
Week 3 (September 14 & 16): The Rise of the Safavids and Mughals
This Week’s Readings
1. Shahzad Bashir: This is our first secondary source reading, so somewhat different concerns apply than with previous readings- for instance, one thing you should ask of any scholarly article or monograph is what the historiographic background is, that is, what had previous scholars had to say on the subject and how does this particular article or book fit into that conversation? You may have to look for subtle clues, especially in an article like this. Second, you should be able to identify and evaluate the author’s use of primary sources- which sources does he or she use, why, and what might be the potential issues with them (the author may or may not raise these issues, and if not, it might be hard for you to guess what they might be, keep in mind)? Third, try to summarize for yourself the author’s main points and overall argument and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. For this article you should be able to answer the following questions:
Did Safavid cannibalism actually take place? What are the issues with the primary sources Bashir examines in this article? How does he interpret them? Do you agree with his reading of the sources and his interpretations? What additional information might be helpful in this regard?
What was the meaning of the strange rituals that the Qizilbash performed? What did they mean for devotees, and how were they related to wider trends and practices in late medieval/early modern Islam?
What role did ritual cannibalism, and other Qizilbash practices and rites, play in the making of the Safavid state? What happened to Qizilbash identity and practice over time, and why?
2. Babur: The pages excerpted here are from the autobiography of the founder of the Mughal dynasty, Babur, one of relatively few Islamic rulers of any period to leave extensive- or any- personal writings. In his autobiography he details the many travails that led to his ultimately becoming a ruler in India and indeed founder of a mighty dynasty- it was a long road to get there, and involved his being reduced to essentially leader of a small band of fighters, traveling from one court to another seeking support and alliance. The section excerpted here details some of his travels and encounters in what is now Afghanistan; these pages provide an excellent view of elite life at the beginning of the early modern period, and of how someone like Babur conceptualized and practiced Islam in such settings.
As you read, pay close attention to what causes Babur moral trouble, and what doesn’t- how does he negotiate the demands of elite Persianate and Turkic cultural and political life with the demands of Islam? What compromises (though he might not have thought in such terms) is he willing to make, and what is he unwilling to compromise upon? What seems to be his self image as a Muslim?
What practices and characteristics make a man (or perhaps a woman) praiseworthy in Babur’s eyes? What qualities does he like? What does he dislike? What is his character like, in his own telling of course, and what makes him a good leader? To what degree does Islam figure into the self-image seen here? How important is Islam to Babur, do you think? Where else might his values and virtues come from?
Week 4 (September 21 & 23): Mughal World, Continued, and Introduction to Islam in China and Southeast Asia
This Week’s Readings:
A. Setiawati, ‘Sunan Ampel of the Javanese Wali Songo,’ trans. by Anna M. Gade, in Tales of God’s Friends: Islamic Hagiography in Translation, ed. by John Renard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).
A couple of things to keep in mind with this reading: as the introduction notes, this is a translation of a more recent work, but which makes use of older material, so pay attention to how the author is trying to answer more contemporary concerns and situate older material and ideas in a modern setting. That said, we can gather a lot about early modern Java and what Islam meant- including the fact that even among the saints there was disagreement, and that later memory did not try to suppress recollection of this disagreement or of the diversity of early modern Islam.
One of the things to look out for in this reading is the very important question of conversion and of translation. How did Sunan Ampel go about converting people to Islam? What did he do after converting them? Did he always use the same strategy? What does it actually seem to have meant to initially have converted to Islam, and what kinds of people are shown being attracted to Sunan Ampel’s message? Think about how you might describe the Islam practiced or envisioned in these stories, and how it might, or might not, differ from other examples we’ve seen.
What made Sunan Ampel a saint? How did he demonstrate his divinely-granted power, and why?
What is the story’s attitude towards Arabic? Towards Javanese? How ‘strict’ ought Islam to be according to this text? Was there a consensus?
What seems to have been the political philosophy of Sunan Ampel, and how did it differ from some of the other saints?