History of Islamic Societies


Week 6, February 20/22: Sciences, Philosophy, Theology, and Sufism: The Emergence and Formation of Systems of Knowledge and Practice in the Early Medieval Islamic World.

Planispheric Astrolabe (Khalili Collections SCI 430), made in North Africa, 9th century AD, brass, cast, with fretwork rete and surface engraving. 18.5 x 13.2cm.

Reading 1 (February 20): Pierre Lory, ‘Divination and Religion in Islamic Medieval Culture’; Christiane Gruber, ‘From Prayer to Protection: Amulets and Talismans in the Islamic World,’ in Power and Protection Islamic Art and the Supernatural. Oxford Ashmolean Museum, 2016..

Questions: For Lory: What sorts of ‘sciences’ does Lory discuss in this chapter? What was the ‘official’ Islamic scholarly stance towards these various disciplines? Was it invariable? Why were some ‘divinatory’ disciplines more respectable than others? Were Islamic societies in agreement on the relative value of all of these disciplines? 

To what extent can these various practices and systems of knowledge be described as ‘Islamic’? Why or why not? Do some seem more ‘Islamic’ than others?

For Gruber: What is the ‘logic’ of the talisman and amulet in Islamic societies? Where is their power perceived to come from, and what about the object- its shape, decoration, etc- is believed to contain or channel that power? How is the power of the protective object ‘actualized’?

What makes these objects ‘Islamic’? How does Muhammad figure into the world of talismanic production? Did textual amulets require the understanding of the user to ‘work’?

Dervishes Dancing, Harvard 1958.23.149
Sufi dervishes dancing, with women and men looking on from the edge of the room. Safavid Empire, c. 1540 (Harvard Art Museum 1958.23.149)

Reading 2 (February 22): Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥusayn Sulamī. Early Sufi Women Dhikr an-Niswa Al-Mutaʻabbidāt Aṣ-Ṣūfiyyāt. Translated by Rkia Elaroui Cornell. Louisville, KY Fons Vitae, 1999.

Questions: These entries are excerpts from a longer compilation of female sufis’ lives, which is itself an appendix- long lost in fact- to a larger and better known compilation, by the same author, of early male sufis’ lives. Al-Sulamī died in 1021, so he would have lived just a little after many of the women described in these accounts; both he and the women he profiles were part of the formative period of sufism, such that lives such as these, transmitted in other texts, helped form the ‘classical’ resource base of sufism for future centuries.

Based just on this selection of sufi lives, how would you describe ‘sufism’? What kinds of attitudes, practices, beliefs, and social relationships seem to make up sufism? How do these sufi women relate to the wider practice of Islam? What makes these various women distinctive such that al-Sulamī would include them in his compilation?

How much does it matter for these various women that they are women, in terms of their practice of sufism? What kinds of relationships do they have with sufi shaykhs? With their husbands? With other women? How different, or similar, do you think these women’s lives were from those of other, non-sufi women? Some of these women are described as saints (in our translation, ‘friends of God’)- what makes them holy? What sorts of miraculous powers do they possesses?

Sound: Sufism and Islamic sainthood have provided the context and impetus for a vast world of musical development and performance, from very early on, whether in the form of musical accompaniment to samā’ and dhikr– types of sufi ritual- or out of devotion to particular saints or inspired by sufi poetry (some of the previous weeks’ musical samples are connected with sufism, as well). This album is a selection of contemporary ‘sufi music’ in Pakistan, and gives you a good sampling of the musical traditions and styles associated with sufism in Pakistan and India:

Week 5, February 13/15: The Formation of Islamic Law, the Rise of Scholarly Culture and Infrastructure. Introduction to Islamic Ritual and the Shaping of Everyday Life.

Layla and Mahnūn at school: a lovely depiction of the educational environment not unlike that described by al-Qābisī, though in a Persianate as opposed to North African context. Source: Met. 1994.232.4

Reading 1 (February 13): Excerpts from Classical Foundations of Islamic Educational Thought: A Compendium of Parallel English-Arabic Texts, edited by Bradley J. Cook and Fatḥī Ḥasan Malkāwī (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2010). 

Questions: For al-Qābisī (pp. 46-58): This excerpt comes from a longer treatise (al-Risālah al-mufaṣṣilah li-aḥwāl al-mutaʻallimīn wa-aḥkām al-muʻallimīn wa-al-mutaʻallimīn) by Abū al-Hasan al-Qābisī (d. 1012), a Mālikī jurist from Qayrawan (in what is now Tunisia). As you will probably pick up even without knowing much about Islamic law and jurisprudence, while this treatise is about the proper role, shape, and social support for what we would now call ‘elementary education,’ it has the form of a legal discussion, and provides a good example of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) applied to a particular question.

As you read, pay attention to the following questions: what kinds of issues were at stake in the matter of education? What did Muslims seem to agree upon according to al-Qābisī, and what was there disagreement on? How does al-Qābisī try to resolve disagreements? What are his sources? What kinds of arguments does he use?

What kinds of things ought children be taught? Which rituals are the expected to participate in? Why? What are the differences between the education envisioned for boys versus that envisioned for girls? How are students and teachers supposed to relate?

For al-Zarnūjī (pp. 145-155): The author of this treatise is rather obscure- he probably died around 1223, and was evidently from the town of Zarnūj in what is now Turkmenistan. He is best known for the work from which this passage comes, which deals with all of the things necessary to be a scholar of Islamic knowledge- which  What is the role of the body in acquiring knowledge? What kinds of tools does the seeker of knowledge require? What are the practices and relationships and places that help and hinder the acquisition of knowledge? How would you describe the sort of life a scholar is supposed to lead according to this selection?

Part of this selection is devoted to practices and attitudes that ‘increase sustenance,’ that is, increase one’s livelihood and longevity. In these prescriptions, is there a bright line dividing the ‘religious’ and the ‘not religious’? Is there any aspect of daily life that, as depicted and envisioned here, would not have to do with one’s performance of Islam?

A late medieval example of a kuttāb, or Qur’anic elementary school, built by the Mamluk Sultan Qaytbay in Cairo in 1477; here the kuttāb combined- as was often the case with late medieval and early modern Qur’anic schools- with a public fountain, or sabīl. Source: Archnet.
Above and below, another sabīl-kuttāb combination in Cairo, this one built by the Ottoman amīr  ‘Abd al Rahman Katkhuda in 1744. Source: Archnet.


BnF turc 190 Prayer Leading
Muhammad leads prayer at the beginning of his ‘Night Journey,’ from a Timurid Mi’râj-nâmeh written in Uyghur script. Source: BnF supplement turc 190.

Reading 2 (February 15): Moallem, Minoo. “Praying through the Senses: The Prayer Rug/Carpet and the Converging Territories of the Material and the Spiritual,” Center for the Study of Material and Visual Cultures of Religion, August 20, 2014.

Questions: What is the relationship of the ‘material’ and the ‘spiritual’ in Islam according to Moallem? How do worshipers modify Islamic ritual using particular material objects? What does an object like a prayer rug ‘do’?

Audio-Visual Material:

LE GRAND JIHAD • soufisme en Tchétchénie (2) from Vincent Moon / Petites Planètes on Vimeo.


Week 4, February 6th/ 8th: Expansion West, Political Fragmentation, Economic and Social Dynamics.

A view of the Mosque of Ibn Ṭūlūn, built by one of the de facto successors to the ‘Abbasids.

Questions: According to Kennedy, what is harder to explain, the rise or the decline of empire? (And, by the by, what constitutes an empire?) What sorts of problems do empires often encounter? Is there only one possible trajectory for imperial dissolution?

What happened to the ‘Abbasids? What was the role of ‘internal’ developments- those at the ‘center’ of the caliphate- and of more ‘external’ ones, those in the provinces? What kinds of strategies did the ‘Abbasids employ to try and stem imperial decline and dissolution?

What was the base of ‘Abbasid tax revenue? What happened to this base?

How did successor states and dynasties emerge in the provinces? What did they look like?

Questions: Note that the two khuṭbas presented here were read by a Fatimid caliph (or heir to the caliphate); we will explore further the origins and nature of the Fatimids and of Isma’ili Shi’i Islam in class. What was the purpose of these khuṭbas (addresses or sermons) do you think? What do you notice about their composition, style, mood, and so on? How do these sermons make use of the Qur’an? How might their listening audiences have responded to them?

Detail of the al-Aqmar Mosque, an important Fatimid construction.

Questions: Note that Nāṣir, who died around 1088, was also Isma’ili, which explains some of his allusions, though he does not make much explicit reference to his particular affiliation in our excerpts. As you read, pay attention to how Nāṣir describes things, and what he chooses to describe- obviously there are things he did not include. What made something interesting to him?

What can we understand, using this text, about 1) travel and trade routes in the medieval Islamic world 2) rural, peasant, and nomadic life 3) urban life and markets, and 4) everyday religious life and sentiments? Note down things that stand out to you, as well as things that are confusing or strange.

Sound: Gnawa music is one of the more important musical traditions to develop in the Maghrib (North Africa), albeit later than the period we are considering. However, we can think of distinct musical traditions such as gnawa as part of the process of decentralization and local variety whose political manifestations are discussed in Kennedy’s article.

Week 3, January 28/Feburary 1: Umayyads, Continued. The ‘Abbasid ‘Revolution.’ The Formation and Uses of the Hadith Corpus.

For more on the Dome of the Rock, including additional papers and essays, as well as numerous images and plans, see the extensive record on Archnet.

Questions: Who were the ‘hadith folk’? Why is a Sunni-Shi’i-Khariji (Kharijite) tripartite division too simplistic for this period?

What were the practices that distinguished the ‘hadith folk’ from others? How does Melchert describe the relationship of the hadith folk to God? What kind of relationship did they desire? How did they pursue it? What was their attitude towards ‘prodigious feats’ of asceticism? Why?

How did the hadith folk differ from the sufis or the ‘folk of adab’?

Questions: What are the differences between Sunni and Shi’i hadith collections?

What is an isnād? A matn? What is meant by ‘canonical collections’? What was the purpose of biographical dictionaries? What kinds of standards have governed the evaluation and use of hadiths?

What kinds of topics appear in hadith collections? What are some of the most important ones in terms of overall numbers? How would you categorize or summarize the hadith selected in this article?

[Optional Reading]: The Forty Hadith collection of al-Nawawi, available here.

Week 1, January 16th /18th: Background and the Birth of Islam

5th century Sasanian plate depicting a scene from the story of Bahram Gur. (Met. 1994.402)


Questions: What kind of a character is Mar Qardagh? How would you describe the life of a Sasanian noble as it is depicted here? What values, skills, social ties, and so forth, seem to be most important? How does ‘religion’ figure into Mar Qardagh’s life before his conversion to Christianity?

Describe the sort of Christianity encountered by Mar Qardagh. Who are its representatives? What is its relation to the ‘pagan’ Sasanian elite? What kinds of physical spaces seem particularly Christian?

How does this hagiographic account deal with violence? What kind of a political message might it be conveying? Keep in mind that it was written at a time when much of the Sasanian Empire was in the process of converting to Christianity, with the political elite taking a much more favorable view of native Sasanian Christians.

Sound: ‘B’utho Mor Jakob,’ a Syriac language hymn in honor of Mar (Saint) Jacob of Serugh, sung by the choir of the Syriac Orthodox Church of St. Ephrem of Aleppo:

Batlte of Badr, in a 16th century Ottoman depiction. (British Museum 1985,0513,0.1)

(For some helpful introductory information on this text, see this encyclopedia article)

Questions: What is the role of Christianity in these stories? How much familiarity does the author/compiler(s) assume on the part of his audience? Describe the Christianity depicted here in your own words- what are its salient features, its representatives, its physical artefacts?

How does Muhammad stand out as a young man? Why are these details worth recording? What seem to be the expectations for a prophet? How are other members of Quraysh depicted here? Is Mecca presented as an isolated society? What sort of a structure is the Ka’ba? What kinds of religious traditions intersect in giving it its significance?

Compare the depiction of warfare in this selection to that found in the story of Mar Qardagh. Are there parallels? Differences?

What is the role of women in these stories?

Sound: a portion of Surah al-Nahl recited by Abdelbasset Mohamed Abdessamad: