In the year 610, according to the Christian calendar, one of the more momentous events in Western Civilization's history took place. In an isolated cave outside of Mecca, a city of the Arabian peninsula that few Europeans had reason to know existed, a caravan trader by the name of Muhammad began receiving visits from an entity he knew as the archangel Gabriel. This visitor had a new revelation from God, he said, and Muhammad was to be the new prophet. Moreover, he was to be God’s final prophet.

Since that moment, the message given to Muhammad and spread by his converts has spread to encompass not simply the Middle East, but large parts of Africa, parts of the Indian subcontinent, most of the Indonesian archipelago, central Asia, and is currently spreading through immigration and conversion in Europe and the Americas.

The purpose of the course is to examine this expression of the monotheistic tradition, to understand Islam as best we can on its own terms, to acquaint ourselves with what it means (and does not mean) to be a Muslim. We will examine the historical progression of Islam’s ascendancy, its later decline, and subsequent efforts to recover its original initiative. Alongside the historical component, the course will also provide as much cultural exposure as is feasible in southside Virginia. Thus, we will read the Qur’an quite regularly, watch films approved by religious authorities (plus some that skate on thin ice),  and seek to understand popular conceptions of Islam by ordinary Muslims. In addition, we will visit a mosque in the region.

Grading and Assignments

Readings:  There is an abundance of reading ahead, but a steady pace will keep your head afloat. Please take this counsel to heart, and do not skip assignments. Doing so will eventually catch up with you in unpleasant ways. In addition, do not put the reading off until the last moment; much of the material will be complex and wholly foreign, and you will need time to digest it properly.  Allow sufficient time to absorb what you’re reading. Some of the readings will overlap a bit; trust me: the repetition will only help you. And when this does occur, you then have the opportunity to explore the nuances of interpretation and to appreciate the multiple voices of Islam.

Qur’an journal:  Over the next fifteen weeks, we will immerse ourselves in the Qur’an. There are readings for each class period; sometimes they will dovetail with the day’s material, and other times, they will apply to much larger issues. On six Fridays across the semester you will need to submit by 5pm (via Canvas™) a journal entry about these readings. In this brief response, you can trace your own reactions to the material you’ve read, relate the verses to historical contexts or modern events, or something else clever. Your primary objectives herein are to demonstrate 1) that you’re reading what is assigned, and 2) you’re thinking about this very material in a substantial manner. (18% of course grade)

Mosque:  At some point in the semester, but probably best left for the later parts of the calendar, you will visit a mosque. The delay is to your benefit so you will understand more of what occurs and your role in the service. Your final journal will detail and analyze your experience. (10%)

Exams:  How else shall we “make manifest that which is locked up in human breasts?” (S.100:10) This course has three major exams, listed below on the schedule. These exams will have a variety of components: essay, short answer, and objective questions. (17, 20, and 22% of course grade)

Discussion Assignments:  Using Canvas™, we will have an open discussion forum available throughout the semester.  This will be your chance to ask questions of both one another and of the professor.  In addition, we will have a directed discussion assignment in the latter half of the course. For the second of these, you will be expected to make two contributions to a group discussion/analysis of Just Like a River. (7% each of course grade)

Participation:   The instructor will assess your overall participation in the course as well. This category can include things like attendance, academic courtesy, diligence in completing assignments, and perhaps still other intangibles. The bottom line? Even if you must fake it, act like you care about the course. (And, please, if you are “faking it”, don’t let the instructor catch on; that backfires with unpleasant consequences!) (6% of course grade)

Lecture and Reading Schedule

We have four required texts, plus a number of on-line readings, for this course. Be sure you have:

Come to class having already digested the day’s reading.



Readings and Assignments


22 Aug Introduction to Course; Arabia Before Islam
  • Go over syllabus
  • Aslan, xi-xxvi
  • Ansary, xi-xxii
  • S.1 (& p.13)
    24 Aug Early Career of the Prophet; Start The Message
  • Ansary, 1–15
  • Aslan, 3–22
  • S.96-98
    25 Aug   Qu‘ran Journal #1 Due S.85-87
    29 Aug The Message
  • Aslan, 23–42
  • Ansary, 17–26ish
  • S. 71-73, 75 and 78
    31 Aug The Message (Concluding Discussion)
  • Aslan, 43–66
  • Ansary, 26ish–31
  • S.53
    1 Sept   Qu‘ran Journal #2 Due S.2:168-242
    5 Sept Caliphate I: Expansion of Dar al-Islam
  • Aslan, 109–126
  • Ansary, 33–52
  • S.56: 57-96
    7 Sept Caliphate II: Issues & Personalities Aslan, 127–141
    Ansary, 53–66
    8 Sept   Qu‘ran Journal #3 Due S.2:1-121
    12 Sept Shi‘ism
  • Aslan, 174–191
  • S.59-61
    14 Sept Umayyad Decline/‘Abassid Rise
  • Aslan, 75-92
  • Ansary, 67–89
  • S.4:1-42
    15 Sept Qu‘ran Journal #4 Due S.2:243-283
    19 Sept
  • Origins of Shari‘a
  • Development of the Madhabs
  • Aslan, 142–173
  • Ansary, 91-99
  • A Selection of Hadith

  • S. 19
    21 Sept The Golden Age
  • Ansary, 99-106
  • "The Lady and her Five Suitors"
  • Gaston Weit, “Baghdad: Metropolis...”
    26 Sept Fractures/Stresses/Opportunities
    (Seljuks and Sufis)
  • Aslan, 199–224
  • Jalal ad-Din Rumi: “One Whisper of the Beloved”
  • Khayyam: “The Wisdom of the Supreme” & “In Praise of Wine”
  • Ansary, 106-129ish
    28 Sept First Exam    
    3 Oct Crusades
  • Ansary, 133–149
  • S.3:64-180
    5 Oct Mongols & Mamluks
  • Ansary, 150-168
  • “Baghdad under the ‘Abbasids”
  • The Il-Khan Mongols
  • S.5:109-120; S. 20
    6 Oct   Qur'an Journal #5 Due S.4:71-152
    10 Oct Gunpowder Empires: Ottoman Rise
  • Ansary, 168-183
  • Janissaries
  • S.4:153-176
    12 Oct Changing Tides: the Ottomans vs. Europe Ansary, 217–241
    Lost Week Gunpowder Empires: Safavid Persia and Mughal India Ansary, 183-198 S.31
    24 Oct
  • Colonialism I: European Penetrations
  • Colonialism II: ‘Ali and Egypt
  • Ansary, 241–246
  • Aslan, 225–240
  • S.8:1-75
    26 Oct Ottoman Efforts to Reform/Revitalize/Resist... (the Spiritual and Secular paths)
  • Ansary, 247–268; 285–293
  • S.11:1-95
    31 Oct World War One
  • Ansary, 293-299
  • S.12
    2 Nov Second Exam (Haskins Conference)  
    7 Nov States, Mandates, and Alternative Hopes
  • Aslan, 240–254
  • Ansary, 301–316
  • S.81 and 82
    9 Nov Palestine: Promises/Problems
  • TBA
  • MERIP’s Primer on the Conflict (all sections)
  • S.17:1-40
    S.18: 1-22, 60-101
    14 Nov   Qu‘ran Journal #6 Due  
    16 Nov Post-War Frustrations (Nation-State letdown)
  • Ansary, 317–333
  • S.21:51-93
    21 Nov Case Studies: Egypt
  • Excerpt from Khul-Khaal (in Canvas)

  • S.29
    23 Nov Thanksgiving (Discussion Board) Just Like a River
    28 Nov Case Studies: Iran
  • Aslan, 191–198; 255–277
  • Ansary, 333–344
    30 Nov Islam and the West: Interpenetration
  • Aslan, 278–292
    1 Dec   Mosque Journal Due  

    Page 16 of the Baybars Qur'an, from the Collection of the British Library

    The Instructor

    Dr. Steven Isaac
    Office: Ruffner 226A
    Office Phone: 395-2225
    Office Hours: MTWRF 1:00–1:50

    Web Resources/Links

    This is hardly a comprehensive list below of all the available sites, but over the years I have found these folks typically to be the most helpful and consistently correct.