sample course synopses


This is an advanced undergraduate course that serves as an introduction to the key historiographical and methodological debates in the field of Qur’anic studies as they have developed over the last century or so in Western Europe and North America. While still a burgeoning field, the academic study of the Qur’an can often seem like an alienating and perplexing domain of inquiry for beginners. This course seeks to demystify this field of study and to make it user-friendly for students of religion. To that end, it encourages you to build bridges between the source-critical historicist and philological approaches currently dominating Qur’anic studies and approaches to scripture, canon-formation, and textuality that are central to religious and literary studies.

Our foray into this scholarly forest will be methodical and inclusive of both select primary texts of Qur’anic exegesis and key secondary texts that are illustrative of broader trends in the field. In Unit I we will study Nicolai Sinai’s monograph, The Qur’an: A Historical-Critical Introduction, along with excerpts from pre-modern and modern Qur’anic exegeses (as skillfully edited and translated by Feras Hamza and Sajjad Rizvi in An Anthology of Qur’anic Commentaries). The first four weeks of study will thus give you a synoptic view of the types of questions scholars have been asking of the Qur’anic text, how they have attempted to answer these questions, and the broader political constraints on this field of inquiry. Yet, in this initial unit you will also discover and examine the interpretive tools pre-modern and modern Muslims have used to construct exegetical edifices around the Qur’an.

Unit II will briefly survey historicist debates on Qur’anic origins and the text’s authorship, composition, and dissemination. This unit will introduce you to the advantages but also the limitations of both the skeptical and the revisionist historiographical paradigms. A notable domain of inquiry in Qur’anic studies pertains to intertextuality and examines the relationship between the Qur’an and other texts of Antique and Late Antique origins, such as the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the Midrash, among others. In Unit III we will thus explore the work of prominent scholars who have paved the way to place the Qur’an in its historical-textual milieu.

Scholars have also offered competing modes of reading and analyzing the metaphysical and moral content of the Qur’an. In Unit IV we will explore two parallel paradigms of interpretation: reading the Qur’an as a self-contained work of theology and reading the Qur’an as a literary text. The question of interpretation is also central in another arena of Qur’anic studies, namely the study of Qur’anic exegesis (tafsīr) and translation. We will examine some of the key debates in the latter subfield in Unit V. We will conclude our study of this field by briefly considering the function of the Qur’anic text in Islamic modernism (Unit VI).


Sufi masters and their disciples—their beliefs, practices, and social institutions—are central to South Asian Islam. The subcontinent’s Sufi traditions span both the pre-modern and modern periods and pervade most regions of present-day Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. This course offers students the opportunity to immerse themselves in this exciting historical and contemporary tradition, as reflected in primary texts and as discussed but also debated in secondary literature.

“Sufism in South Asia” is divided into five units. In Unit I we will read and discuss Carl Ernst’s The Shambhala Guide to Sufism. After understanding the general features of Sufism, we will explore three different aspects of South Asian Sufism. Yet, you might be wondering: Why South Asia? We concentrate on South Asia because the region’s strong Sufi traditions have been the subject of vast scholarship in the fields of history, anthropology, and religious studies. This rich scholarship yields us the opportunity to isolate certain aspects of South Asian Sufism that are especially germane for placing our course content and its debates in the thematic terrain of religion more broadly. The three aspects that we will isolate for analysis are:

1) the interplay between doctrine and ritual

2) gender and eros in religious life

3) the politics of spiritual authority.

South Asian Sufi texts, spaces, rituals, and communities are replete with ideas about God, human nature, and meditative as well as contemplative rituals. Unit II includes scholarly works that address these facets of South Asian Sufism, and the key questions we should ask ourselves from weeks four to seven include:

  • How did Sufis imagine India to be a sacred Islamic space?
  • How do certain bodies and books became holy?
  • What are the broader objectives of Sufi dance and music?

In Unit III we transition to studying gender and sexuality (or, sexual difference and eros), as recent scholars have particularly turned to Sufism to bring out the salient features of gendered and sexual life in Muslim South Asia. During weeks eight to eleven, we will read Kelly Pemberton’s ethnographically-grounded monograph, Women Mystics and Sufi Shrines in India, and sample Scott Kugle’s work on sexuality and Sufism. In this phase of our course, our key questions will be:

  • What is it about Sufi institutions and ideas—but also practices and persons—that renders gender and sexuality visible to the scholarly gaze?
  • Is Sufism more amenable to projects of gender equality than Islamic law and theology?
  • What does it mean to transcend the body by means of spiritual practices and experiences?

The penultimate unit of the course will turn to the modern period and examine how colonialism and the pressures of the nation-state and globalization have transformed South Asian Sufism. Following the recent scholarly call to analyze Sufism as a product of broader economic, social, and political processes, in Unit IV we will ask ourselves:

  • How do Sufis deploy spiritual authority as a world-making force?
  • In what ways did colonialism transform South Asian Sufism?
  • What are South Asian Sufism’s modalities of mobility and transmission as it travels from Delhi to Durban; from Dhaka to Detroit; from Lahore to London?

The course’s concluding unit consists of student presentations on final paper topics.

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