Model Course Description

Teachers: This course description may be used in tandem with the model syllabus below. It can, of course, be edited to suit the needs and purposes of your particular course.

Course title: “Introducing Islam”, or other title as desired.

Course description: At a time when Islam has a bad press among outsiders and is the subject of considerable contention among its adherents, this course seeks to provide an “empathetic” introduction to the tradition as a whole, balancing the insiders’ and outsiders’ views, the diversity and the unity of the tradition, the historical and the contemporary, and the political/social and the more strictly religious. At all points, though, an effort is made to indicate the current relevance of the material.

After a brief introduction to the Islamic religion and our approach to studying it, the course is divided into three main parts of unequal length.

Part One surveys the history, mainly political, of the tradition and the Muslim community (including the pre-Islamic background and the career of the Prophet Muhammad) from about 500 to 1700 CE. This is intended to provide a framework for the later sections.

Part Two explores the main aspects or areas of “traditional” Islam as they developed up to about 1700, but in most cases also with attention to modern developments and relevance. These areas include the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad as model and guide for the community, the main rituals and ceremonies practiced by the whole community, sectarian divisions and political thought, learning and scholars (‘ulama’), religious law, theology and philosophy, mysticism and spirituality, literature and the arts.

Part Three deals with modern issues, particularly political and legal. After an overview of the main issues, especially those connected with Western imperialism and the responses to them, four countries – Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Indonesia – are discussed in detail as “case studies”. Finally the “globalization” of Islam is considered in the context of globalization generally, with attention to the Muslim diaspora, so-called “jihadism” and terrorism, and recent efforts to rethink Islam in a more liberal direction.

Course Aims/Learning Outcomes: A willingness on the part of the student to understand Muslims and Islam both empathetically and critically, taking into account the diverse views of Muslims and of non-Muslim scholars.
A familiarity with the main ideas, personalities and movements of the Islamic tradition along with an awareness of their social settings.
Pedagogical Features: The course is taught through the medium of a textbook along with a companion website. Audio-visual resources (slides, PowerPoint, videos, audio tapes, cds and dvds) may be used to enhance understanding.

Introducing Islam
Model Syllabus

This syllabus is based on 24 sessions of 75 to 100 minutes each, e.g. two per week for 12 weeks. Most of the sessions can be expanded, collapsed with others or in some cases omitted to fit the needs of other schedules.



Subjects covered



Administrative matters

Nature of the course, requirements, assessment, etc.


Approaching the subject, Chapter 1, first part

What is Islam and who speaks for it? Empathetic understanding


Chapter 1, an introductory presentation of Islam

An overview of Islam as some Muslims today see it

Part One: History of the Community


Chapter 2, On the Eve of Islam

The Greco-Iranian world and its religious movements as of about 600 CE


Chapter 3, Arabia before Islam

Religious and social views and practices of the Arabians before Islam


Chapter 3, Muhammad

The career of the Prophet Muhammad mainly from a historical point of view


Chapter 3, Conquest and Conflict after Muhammad

The history of the Muslim community to about 700 CE


Chapter 4, Expansion and Flowering

History of the community from about 700 to 1700 CE

By this point the student has been introduced, at least briefly, to most of the main figures and features of the Islamic tradition.

Part Two: Aspects of Islam


The Qur’an, as Understood and Used by Muslims

The ritual use, teachings and interpretation of the Qur’an, some Western criticism


The Prophet Muhammad, Beloved of God and of his People

The Prophet Muhammad as political and moral exemplar, and as spiritual intermediary. Modernist views of Muhammad


Chapter 7, Key Rituals and Celebrations

The “pillars” of Islam, such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage; also life cycle rituals, the “birthday” of Muhammad, etc.


Chapter 8, Divisions in the Community, especially Sunni and Shi‘i

The Sectarian divisions and the political theories by which they understood how the community should be divinely guided


Chapter 9, Those Who Know, the ‘Ulama’

The development of the scholarly tradition, the training and roles of the scholars or ‘ulama’, the “clergy” of Islam


Chapter 10, Islamic Law

The concepts of Shari‘a (the divine will as law) and fiqh (jurisprudence), the bases and practice of these; Sunni and Shi‘i versions


Chapter 11, Theology and Philosophy

Muslim efforts to reason about God and His relation to humans and the world, especially the issues of God’s unity, justice and power


Chapter 12, Sufism and Wisdom

Efforts to find and follow spiritual paths to God, with primary attention to the diverse forms of the Sufi movement


Chapter 13, Three Major Thinkers

Three spiritual and intellectual leaders who lived from the tenth to thirteenth century: Ibn Sina, a philosopher; Al-Ghazali, a scholar and mystic; and Ibn Taymiyya, a reformer


Chapter 14, Literature and Arts

How Islam has been expressed, and sometimes criticized, in visual art, architecture, poetry, prose, and music

Part Three: Modern Developments


Chapter 15, Modern Challenges: Imperialism and Response

The main features of Western imperialism: modernization, Westernization and secularization as consequences; traditionalism, secularism and Islamism as responses; illustrated especially from India and Pakistan


Chapter 16, Turkey, Secularist Reform

Reform efforts in the Ottoman Empire, Secular state under Atatürk and successors, partial return to religion


Chapter 17, Egypt: Between Secularism and Islamism

The beginnings of modernization and secularization in the nineteenth century, the reformism of Muhammad ‘Abduh, continuing secularization, the Muslim Brothers, the continuing stand-off between secularism and Islamism and violent Islamism in the late twentieth century


Chapter 18, Iran: From Secularism to Islamic Revolution

The ‘ulama’ and the state under the nineteenth-century Qajars and the twentieth-century Pahlavis, the Islamic Revolution and its aftermath


Chapter 19, Indonesia: Islamic Society or Islamic State?

The Islamization of Java and Sumatra, Dutch imperialism, the struggle between secularism and Islamism in their Indonesian forms after independence, neo-modernism and violent Islamism


Chapter 20, Globalization: Challenge and Opportunity

The meaning of globalization, “global jihad”, diaspora in Western countries, liberal or “progressive” Islam today
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