Islam before Europe. Islamic reform movements of the 18th century

Theme for MES4560 spring 2019

Course Description

It is a stereotype idea that modern developments in Islam are primarily a result of the confrontation with European modernity in the 19th century. Scholarship has done much over the past decades to question this idea, but the image of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt shaking a stagnant Muslim world out of a long period of decline still holds sway over the minds of many. In this course, we shall study what Ahmad Dallal in a work just published has called “one of the most lively and creative periods in [Islamic] intellectual history” where “enormous energies were devoted to a systematic and comprehensive restructuring of Islamic thought”. Dallal’s book will be our guide into this world, summarising as it does the collective efforts of a generation of scholars. Major themes of the 18th-century restructuring were:

  1. the role of Prophetic Tradition (ḥadīth) in transcending the sectarian boundaries of the so-called ‘law schools’ (madhāhib) in order to create a more malleable, and more inclusive, vision of Islam;
  2. the assertive use and widening scope of individual reasoning (ijtiihād) in defining the the meaning of Islam and Islamic normativity;
  3. the criticism of what was regarded as degenerate forms of popular religiosity and saint veneration in the Sufi tradition, and the espousal of the psychological and social repertoire of this tradition in developing a deeper and more widely spread understanding of Islamic ethics;
  4. the self-conscious pose of critically re-assessing the inherited understanding (fiqh) of Islam, and to rejuvenate knowledge by opening up direct access to the ‘original’ sources, Qurʾān and ḥadīth;
  5. the tendency to encourage and facilitate the participation of principally every individual Muslim in developing a proper understanding of their religion.

These themes constitute interlinked dimensions of reform movements that have left a decisive mark on Islamic intellectual life and religious practice even as they were partially disrupted and superseded by the colonial encounter and the 19th-century ‘renaissance’ (Nahḍa). Together, we shall study and discuss various representatives of these reform movements, using Dallal’s book as a guide but also discussing it critically in the light of other secondary literature and select readings of primary texts.

The course is organised as a series of ten seminars; every two of these will focus on one of the five themes outlined above. Students need to buy Dallal’s book (it is available both as a paperback and an e-book) and read its introduction (pp. 1-19) before the first class meeting. Additional course material will be announced at the onset of the semester and made available electronically.

Compulsory activity

  • At least 80 percent attendance in class.
  • A draft of the term paper must be approved by the teacher in order to take the exam. The draft should be approx. 2-3 pages long and include a working title, a clearly formulated problem/question/puzzle, and a brief, tentative outline of the argument, along with tentative literature list. The draft sketch is to be submitted in Canvas within a given deadline.
  • An oral presentation of about 15 minutes on a topic related to the term paper, to be presented as the introduction to one of the seminars.
  • A 1-page handout (“thesis paper”) accompanying the oral presentation, to serve as a springboard for discussion.
Publisert 20. nov. 2018 16:02 - Sist endret 21. nov. 2018 12:48