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. Every Friday (except where noted) by 5pm, you will need to submit (via Blackboard) 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. (15% 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. (5%)

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 21% 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 two directed discussion assignments in the latter half of the course. For each of these, you will be expected to make two contributions as well. (6% each of course grade)

Inter-Cultural Contact: We have the good fortune at Longwood to welcome citizens from the Middle East.  To further your contact with a different cultural tradition (and aid Longwood's ESL program), each of you will pair up (by my assignment), and then as a pair you will be Conversation Partners with one of our visiting Arab-speakers.  This will involve two sessions, each possible on numerous Fridays between 1-4pm.  In the first, you will have the active role as questioners, posing a menu of queries over one hour.  In the second session, also foreseen as one hour, the visiting students will get to put questions to you.  You will write a report afterward which (duh) will cover some of what you've learned factually, but as importantly, you will also analyze your own process of encountering (and hopefully) overcoming cultural challenges and possible linguistic barriers. (5% 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!) (5% of course grade)

Lecture and Reading Schedule

We have five 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


26 Aug Introduction to Course;
  • Go over syllabus
  • Aslan, xi-xx
  • S.1 (& p.13)
    28 Aug Arabia Before Islam Ansary, xi-xxii; 1–15 S.96-98
    30 Aug Career of the Prophet
  • Aslan, 3-18
  • Qu‘ran Journal #1 Due
  • S.85-87
    4 Sept The Message Aslan, 18-49 S.53
    6 Sept The Message
  • Ansary, 17–26ish
  • S.2:122-167
    9 Sept The Message Aslan, 50-66, 104-106; Ansary, 26ish–31 S.2:168-242
    11 Sept Discussion & Digest
  • Aslan, 75-92
  • Qu‘ran Journal #2 Due
  • S.56: 57-96
    13 Sept Caliphate I: Expansion of Dar al-Islam
  • Aslan, 66-74
  • Ansary, 33–52
  • S.2:1-121
    16 Sept Caliphate II: Issues & Personalities
  • Aslan, 106–129; Ansary, 53–66
    18 Sept Shi‘ism
  • Aslan, 129–139, 171–187
  • Ansary, 67–78
  • S.59-61
    20 Sept People of the Book
  • Aslan, 92–104
  • Qu‘ran Journal #3 Due
  • S.4:1-42
    23 Sept Origins of Shari‘a
  • Aslan, 140-170; Ansary, 91–99
  • S.2:243-283
    25 Sept Development of the Madhabs
  • A Selection of Hadith
  • S.3:64-180
    27 Sept Umayyad Decline/‘Abassid Rise
  • Ansary, 79–89
  • “Baghdad under the ‘Abbasids”
  • Qu‘ran Journal #4 Due
  • S.19-20
    30 Sept The Golden Age
  • Ansary, 99–116
  • "The Lady and her Five Suitors"
  • Gaston Weit, "Baghdad: Metropolis..."
  • S.5:109-120
    2 Oct Fractures/Stresses/Opportunities Ansary, 117–132 S.4:71-152
    4 Oct First Exam    
    7 Oct Crusades I Ansary, 133–140 S.4:153-176
    9 Oct Crusades II
  • Ansary, 141–149
  • Qur'an Journal #5 Due

  • 11 Oct Sufism
  • Aslan, 194–219
  • Jalal ad-Din Rumi: “One Whisper of the Beloved”
  • Khayyam: "The Wisdom of the Supreme" & "In Praise of Wine"
  • S.31
    16 Oct Mongols & Mamluks
  • Ansary, 150–168
  • The Il-Khan Mongols
  • S.8:1-75
    18 Oct Gunpowder Empires: Ottoman Rise
  • Ansary, 168–183
  • Janissaries
  • Qu‘ran Journal #6 Due
  • S.11:1-95
    21 Oct Gunpowder Empires: Safavid Persia
  • Ansary, 183–189
  • S.11:96-123
    23 Oct Gunpowder Empires: Moghul India Ansary, 189–198  
    25 Oct No Class (Haskins Conference)
    28 Oct Changing Tides: the Ottomans   S.81-82
    30 Oct Colonialism I: European Penetrations Ansary, 217–241
    1 Nov Colonialism II: ‘Ali and Egypt Ansary, 241–246  
    4 Nov Second Exam   S.17:1-60
    6 Nov First Responses: Cultural
  • Aslan, 220-235
  • Ansary, 247–268
    8 Nov More Responses: Political
  • Ansary, 269–293
  • Qu‘ran Journal #7 Due
  • S.21:51-93
    11 Nov World War One Ansary, 293–299 S.42
    13 Nov States, Mandates, and Alternative Hopes
  • Ansary, 310(bottom)–316
  • Khul-Khaal, “Suda”
  • S.29
    15 Nov The Secularist Path (Turkey)
  • Ansary, 301–310
  • Aslan, 235-240
  • S.37:1-74
    18 Nov Turkey (cont.) / Palestine S.75-78
    20 Nov Palestine: Promises/Problems
  • MERIP’s Primer on the Conflict (all sections)
  • Begin Just Like a River
    22 Nov World War Two and After
  • Ansary, 317–328
  • Qu‘ran Journal #8 Due (opt.)
    25 Nov Islam as Answer: Wahhabism / Muslim Brotherhood / Khomeni
  • Aslan, 187-193, 235–248
  • Review Ansary, 306–310
  • Conversation Paper Due
    2 Dec Egypt's Search Khul-Khaal, “Dunya” and “Om Naeema ”
    4 Dec Iran's Revolution Aslan, 249-266  
    6 Dec Islam and the West: Interpenetration
  • Ansary, 329–347
  • Finish Just Like a River
  • Mosque Visit Journal Due
    9 Dec FINAL EXAM    

    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:  MWF 11:00–11:50; TR 10:00–10:50

    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.