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 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?
Week 5 (September 28 & 30): Everyday Islam in the Early Modern World
This Week’s Reading:
Note that in this reading ‘Sudanic’ does not refer to the modern country of Sudan but to parts of what we more typically call ‘Sub-Saharan Africa,’ in this case the region around Lake Chad, part of what was then the Bornu Empire. Note too that in terms of Islam historically some of the ethnic groups in this vast region had been Muslim for quite some time, others, such as the communities Muḥammad al-Wālī would have addressed, were only recent converts. As you read this article, pay attention to issues of conversion and of local crafting of Islam. Why, according to the author, did Muḥammad al-Wālī ultimately reject tobacco? Was this a decision primarily based on what scholars in the rest of the Islamic world were concluding, or was it based on local concerns?
What were the main reasons al-Wālī gives for rejecting tobacco? What is the main thrust of his argument? Did al-Wālī arrive at his anti-tobacco conclusions on his own, or were they more common in the African context? Why? What kinds of racial and other undertones seem to have been present in how people approached tobacco?
What did conversion to Islam look like in early modern Africa according to this article? Could it always be easily identified? What were the stakes of appearing or not appearing to be Muslim? How did tobacco possibly configure into all this? Do van Dalen’s arguments make sense to you?
Week 6 (October 5 and 7): Introduction to Islam in China and Africa, Non-Muslims in the Early Modern Islamicate
This Week’s Readings:
1. Wang Daiyu: This text is a translation of an early 17th century Chinese work by the Muslim Chinese scholar Wang Daiyu; as he writes in the short autobiographical preface which you’re reading here his family had been in China for a long time (whether or not the particular story he tells is legendary or essentially true is somewhat beside the point). While he was fluent in Persian and Arabic- though as he notes he did not have access to as many volumes of learning in those languages as he would have liked- he lived in a milieu in which classical Chinese was the primary if not exclusive language of learning and culture, and in which neo-Confucianism was dominant. This work is an early example of the Han Kitab genre, and is meant both for Chinese Muslims and for non-Muslims to read; Wang draws upon Confucian ideas and the Confucian canon, accepting elements and criticizing other aspects of Confucianism.
As you read, ask yourself: how does Wang view Confucianism on the whole? What is his strategy for introducing Islam to a non-Muslim audience? Why?
How does Wang describe himself? What can you gather about his social life and status? Did he interact with non-Muslims, and if so, how and for what reasons?
2. Ibraham Hâs: Since this translation is part of a blog post on this website I will have little to say about it here; you can read the introduction and discussion there.
Week 7 (October 14): Eighteenth Century Transitions: the Fall and Aftermath of the Safavids and the Terminal Decline of the Mughals
Lecture Slides: October 14
This Week’s Readings:
Both of these readings have to do with Nadir Shah, arguably the last of the would-be world conquerors hailing from the Persianate world, but whose empire was very short-lived ultimately. One of the most striking aspects of Nadir Shah’s rise to power was the attraction it drew from many different people around the world- Nadir Shah was the subject of art and literature for some time in Western Europe, for instance, and both of today’s readings are by Armenian Christians living in the post-Safavid lands. Refer to the introductions I’ve provided for each reading for further context, but in general as you read these ask yourself:
what seems to have been Nadir Shah’s attitude towards religious diversity in his domains? What kinds of ideologies or beliefs might he himself have held? How did others view Nadir Shah? What kinds of challenges did he likely face in bringing together so many different peoples and regions? What other challenges did Nadir Shah clearly face? What do you think made rule over the Iranian lands so difficult? Besides Nadir Shah, what other sources of authority and power existed in the post-Safavid lands?
Writing Assignment No. 2:
For this week’s writing assignment, I want you to select two videos (not necessarily related, you will answer the following questions separately for each) from those you viewed last week, using the provided prompts or springboarding off of them into other, related topics. In one to one and half pages discuss what you noticed about these videos, incorporating knowledge gained from the course: what is going on the videos, as best you can tell? What are the social, linguistic, political, etc, contexts that appear visible? What might the practices revealed in the two videos suggest about contemporary Islam, and how similar or different might that be from what we now know of early modern Islam? If there are comments to the videos briefly discuss them as well- are they positive, negative, long, short, etc?
Week 8 (October 19 and 21): The Beginnings of Modernity: The Ottomans to Mahmud II, the Career of Muhammad ‘Ali of Egypt, and Backgrounds to the Fulani Jihāds
This week’s article deals with an enslaved sufi saint of Mauritania, a region in the Sahara of Africa in which North African people groups and those more typical of Sub-Saharan Africa are in close contact, though often, both historically and to a considerable extent into the present, via relations of slavery. Bilal, the nineteenth century saint discussed in this article, was himself a slave, yet came to be venerated as a saint. His life provides a snapshot of other historical realities during the nineteenth century, and so can serve as a model for the kind of paper you will be writing for your final project. As you read this article, try to reconstruct what Islam meant to different people in different statuses in Mauritania, and the roles that racial categories and enslavement played; pay attention to the differences of degree in slavery and in the use of racial categories and their tension with religious ones. Also pay attention to ways in which Mauritania during Bilal’s lifetime was becoming more integrated into the world economy and world system, particularly through European interventions and eventual colonialism.
One of the particular features of much scholarship on Africa and on enslaved populations more generally is the need to use oral sources, sometimes collected directly by a historian from informants. What kinds of issues might arise in using oral sources for a nineteenth century figure? How much or to what degree do oral sources differ from written ones? Is one more ‘trustworthy’ than the other do you think?
What was it that made Bilal a saint in the eyes of his contemporaries and people after his death? What aspects of his identity as a slave contributed to his saintly status? What was his relationship with other sufi shaykhs and saints, and to sufism as a ‘system’?
Final Assignment Description (Due During Finals’ Week)
Your final assignment is to put together a biographical study of a particular individual, to be selected from the list below of possible subjects, though you may choose a different individual not in the list based on consultation with me. You will include a brief biography of the individual in question, but the paper will focus on placing the individual in his or her historical context, relating the individual’s life to the themes and material of the course. Students will also introduce and evaluate the primary and secondary sources used in writing the paper.
The written paper will be supplemented by digital material chosen by the student in consultation with me and can vary in format and content. I encourage you to make use of primary sources as much as possible, in original languages where applicable; all students will be required to use at least two written primary sources, and three written secondary sources (either books—monographs—or scholarly articles), as well as two non-textual sources (photographs, art works, material culture, audio material, or film).
Your goal in writing this paper will not simply to tell the story of a single individual, as important as he or she might be, but to use that story to identify and discuss important trends and events in that person’s life. As such we will also explore what kinds of themes are most important—for instance, were you to choose the Mughal emperor Babur you would discuss the role of the Turko-Mongol inheritance, the relationship between Muslim conquerors and North India, the place of Persianate culture in elite life, and so forth. You might choose illustrations from the Akbarnama or Mughal court classical music to support your ideas with non-textual sources.
Once you have decided upon a historical individual as your subject, you should begin collecting sources—I would like for you to do an initial search, after which we can meet to go over your sources and what else might be of use. Afterwards we can begin plotting out the direction of your paper.
List of possible figures:
Mehmed II Mustafa ‘Ali Shah Isma’il Shah ‘Abbas I
Babur Akbar Jahangir Jahanara Begum
Nadir Shah Aurangzeb Sabbatai Zevi Abraham of Erevan
Usman dan Fodio Nana Asma’u Ahmad al-Tijani Ibrahim Niass
Muhammad ‘Ali Rifa’a al-Tahtawi Vardapet Komitas Amadou Bamba
Rashid Rida Muhammad Abduh Ibrahim Müteferrika Abdul Rahman Khan
Jamal al-Din al-Afghani Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq Bilal Ould Mahmoud
‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk Osman Hamdi Bey Hajiyeh Seyyedeh Nosrat Begum Amin
Muhammad Qasim Nanautavi Ahmed Raza Khan Barelvi Muhammad ibn Ali al-Sanusi
Ahmad ibn Idris al-Fasi Abdallah ibn Alawi al-Haddad
Week 9 (October 26 and 28): The Fulani Jihads and the Sudanese Mahdiyya; Technological Modernity in the Long 19th Century and Islamic Interactions
[No readings this week]
Week 10 (November 2 and 4): Daily Life in the Age of Abdūlhamid II; the Islamicate World and the First World War
[No readings this week]
Useful Online Resources:
The Imperial War Museum has a remarkable trove of film and photography related to the First World War in the Middle East; the following are only three films- silent of course- in their archive that relate to the war in the Ottoman lands:
The Library of Congress also has an excellent trove of photographs taken on and behind the Palestinian Front by residents of the American Colony in Jerusalem; browsing these is well worth your time, see for instance the following example: Photograph album, World War I, Palestine and Sinai.
There is a fair amount of musical recordings from the late Ottoman period- especially recordings of migrants to America from the Ottoman and post-Ottoman lands- now available online. Baltimore-based Canary Records has digitized numerous albums in this vein, some quite early, such as the following; I encourage you to check out their other offerings:
Week 11 (November 9 and 11): Islamic Reform, Reaction, and Rebuilding in Qajar Iran, Origins to 1906
Muḥammad Ḥusayn Nā’inī’s treatise on good government as opposed to bad is a nice example of the kind of intellectual balancing work many Muslim scholars of the long nineteenth century into post-First World War period engaged in, as they sought to simultaneously revive what they saw as flagging commitment to Islam while also tackling the problems of modernity and especially of competetion with Western Europe (and to a lesser extent for this period, America). Nā’inī’s work is especially interesting to us as it offers a window into Shi’i Muslim political thinking and historical memory, something we have not extensively covered thus far.
As you read this treatise- actually just the introduction- pay attention to a couple of things. One, note how Nā’inī understands history and the forces and processes that generated modernity, as well as the Islamic world’s falling behind. What is the ‘secret’ of Western success in his mind? How did Western Europeans end up being so successful, and why did Muslims lag behind them? What is the relationship between good government and overall social success?
Second, how does Nā’inī demonstrate the Islamic nature of constitutional government? What are his sources, and what aspects of distant Islamic history does he appeal to? What gives his work a particularly Shi’i cast, and how much does it matter for his project? What seems to be the role of the Shi’i ‘ulama in his scheme? What kinds of concerns did people raise against constitutional government, and how different might Nā’inī’s vision of good government be from our own in the twenty-first century West? Is he describing a democratic government? What are the limits of representation? What ought to be the limits of government power in his understanding?
Week 12 (November 16 and 18): Diverse Islamic Paths into the Twentieth Century: Reform, Revolution, and Renewal in the Middle East, French West Africa, and South Asia
Lecture Slides: November 16
This week’s reading is by the famous- or infamous depending on who you ask!- Islamist Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Quṭb (1906-1966), who we’ll be discussing further this week and next. While he would become a major figure in contemporary political Islamism, the selection I’ve given you here comes from his autobiography (in which he refers to himself in the third-person, a literary conceit), which was written before his turn towards Islamism and political action as part of the Muslim Brotherhood. Instead it reflects the attitude of an Islamic modernist and intellectual- Qutb was particularly involved in literary studies and production- and is a really powerful view into how different people in the first decades of the 20th century perceived modernization, technology, and the formation of the fully modern state. As you’ll gather from the chapter Qutb grew up in an Egyptian village, marked by the age-old patterns of the Nile, but very much part of the modern world, albeit in a contested manner. Given that Qutb would later become one of the most important of Islamism’s theorists this chapter really stands out for its almost brutal dismissal of ‘traditional’ Islamic practices, which you will no doubt pick up on. Note that the time period covered here is roughly the duration of the First World War, with Egypt under a form of British rule albeit governed at the ground level by Egyptian functionaries.
As you read, pay attention to how Qutb describes the traditional school versus the modern government school. What kinds of emotional, even physical reactions does he have? What is about the traditional school that repels him? What about the modern school attracts him? How important is Islam in his understanding here, and how might Qutb describe proper Islam based on what you can read here?
What are the particular markers of modernity that show up in the text? Where does modernity come from? How does the young Qutb make Egyptian modernity his own, as it were? What do you think might have driven others in his village to stick to the ‘old ways’? For instance, why might the traditional school have been appealing to children with less of an inclination towards rigor and discipline?
Here is the short documentary on pilgrimage to Touba mentioned in class; I encourage you to also look around online and you will find many other instances of Muradiyya devotional culture, alive and well and in many cases thriving in digital formats:
There is a lot of music coming out of Senegal and its neighbors that is either directly or indirectly related to sufism and sainthood; my current favorite is this album, a collaboration between a Swedish musicologist and Senegalese musicians, it’s absolutely infectious and includes a number of sufi praise-songs in very innovative style: