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Study of World Religions MPhil Pathway

Study of World Religions MPhil Pathway

Michaelmas Term 2017

Law for the Gentiles?: Universalism and ritual purity in Judaism, Christianity and Islam

Course Coordinators: Dr Holger Zellentin and Dr Daniel Weiss

Is the Hebrew Bible truly the particularist, tribal heritage of Israel, which is then universalized by Christianity or Islam?  This paper will explore universalist approaches to humanity and to ritual purity first sketched in the Pentateuch and in the prophetic literature, and trace its development in the New Testament, the rabbinic corpus, and in the Qur’an.  We will study the question of which laws each of the three major Abrahamic traditions presented as incumbent on all of humankind, assessing the degree to which the universalist tendencies of these three traditions were intertwined and developed in dialogue with each other, and how their similar yet distinct notions of “laws for the gentiles” may present a new opening for a comparative understanding of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Among the topics and questions that the seminars will explore are:

In what ways do the Pentateuchal laws incumbent on ‘the resident’ (ha-ger) prefigure later “Abrahamic” views of universal salvation and universal law?

How do competing dynamics within the New Testament with regard to ‘law for the gentiles’ (eg in the Letters of Paul and in the Book of Acts) relate back to Pentateuchal specifications?

Does rabbinic literature’s conceptualization of ‘ger’ as proselyte mark a major departure from the biblical notion of ‘ger’ as resident?

How do the rabbinic concept of the ‘sons of Noah’ (bnei noach) relate to the notion of a ‘universal’ covenant?

How do Qur’anic presentations of Islamic purity law relate to Biblical, Jewish and Christian views of ‘laws for the gentiles’?

How does the Decree of the Apostles relate to rabbinic notions of the ‘Noahide Laws’ and to Islamic law?

Seminar Topics

1. The Hebrew Bible

2. New Testament

3. Classical Rabbinic Literature

4 The Qur’an

Module Objectives

The aim of the module is, firstly, to enable students to develop their skills of textual analysis and of hermeneutic of scriptural and legal reception in early Christian, rabbinic, and Qur’anic traditions.  Secondly, the module aims to provide M.Phil. students with tools for comparative cross-traditional textual and conceptual analysis.  Thirdly, the module seeks to enable students to draw connections between analysis of concrete legal topics (in this case, that of ritual purity) and broader conceptual-theological themes (eg, universalism and humanity) within the three scriptural traditions under consideration.  In addition, in terms of comparative historical content, students should develop a clear sense of the importance and development of ‘ritual law for gentiles’ in Early Christianity, rabbinic Judaism and Islam.


All texts will be presented in translation as well as in the original languages, primarily Hebrew, Greek, and Arabic.  There are no specific language prerequisites, but students are encouraged to prepare and engage texts in original languages that they know.

Mode of Assessment

Assessment for the module will take the form of a submitted 5,000-word essay.  Each student will choose a topic for the essay in consultation with the coordinators of the M.Phil. module.

Sample Essay Questions

How do two (or all three) of the three traditions studied in the module deal with and reinterpret the heritage of the Hebrew Bible?

What is the relationship between purity laws for Jews and non-Jews in the Hebrew Bible in two (or all three) of the traditions studies in the module?

What role does the discourse about Jewish ethnicity play in two (or all three) of the three traditions studied in the module?

What is the historical impact of Paul’s letters on Christian discourse concerning the “Noahide laws”?

How do the Noahide laws develop from Tannaitic to Amoraic Judaism?

How can we understand the shift towards treating blood as a factor of impurity, for gentitles, within the Hebrew Bible?

How is our understanding of the concept of ‘universalism’ affected by examining the conceptuality of purity laws for gentiles within two (or all three) of the three traditions studied in the module?

Essay titles must be agreed with the course coordinators, and subsequently by the Degree Committee.

Lent Term 2018

Anthropology of Islam in Contemporary Europe

Course Coordinator: Mr Chris Moses

This is a non-specialist module within the Study of World Religions pathway, which takes a broadly anthropological approach to the study of Islam and Muslims in contemporary Europe.

Lived Islam in Europe is dynamic, varied, and complex.  This M.Phil. module will explore some key areas of academic and wider interest in the subject area.  Drawing on a number of excellent case studies, it seeks to tackle the subject in depth and breath.

There will be four fortnightly seminars.  The seminar topics are listed below: topic 1 is compulsory, and students will then choose any three of the remaining four.  There will also be some flexibility regarding which areas students would like to focus upon within a particular seminar.

1.  Methodology and Reflexivity

     Example foci: terminological debates, theory, academic reflexivity

2   Constructing Identity

     Example foci: practice, ethnicity, transnationalism, inter-religious relations

3   Structuring Community

     Example foci: authority, institutions, education, rituals

4   Culture and Society

     Example foci: gender, youth, dress

5   Political Engagement

     Example foci: state-religion relations, secular liberalism, public sphere

Students will be set readings in advance of each class.  Before the meeting, students will send an A4 page offering a critical analysis of the readings to the coordinator.  In class, students will take turns to present readings and lead group discussion.

Aims: This module aims to develop students’ knowledge and understanding of Muslim and Islam in Europe from a social science perspective through reading, analysing and discussing texts, and writing a substantial essay on this subject.

Objectives: Students will; (1) read and analyse a series of texts exploring a series of issues of academic and wider interest pertaining to Islam and Muslims in Europe,  (2) develop their presentational skills in a seminar setting, (3) develop their academic writing skills, (4) explore the diversity and complexity of Muslim experiences in Europe, (5) analyse the contested nature of particular concepts within their field of study, (6) evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of anthropological approaches to their object of study, (7) consider the wider significance of the understanding they have gained from the course for related areas in the fields of anthropology and religious studies, and (8) develop an understanding of the role of research for their object of study.

Description of assessment

Coursework essay of 5,000 words.  Students may wish to select an essay from the list below, in consultation with the course coordinator.  Any alternative essay title will need the approval of the course coordinator, and subsequently the approval of the degree committee.  Alternatively, they may wish to formulate their own title, subject to the approval of the course coordinator and the Degree Committee.  The latter option has proved popular with students thus far, often wanting to develop their interest in a specific area.  Students wishing to pursue this option are recommended to discuss their plans at an early stage with the Module Coordinator, who will be happy to advise.

Suggested Essay Titles

1        Does it make sense to speak of ‘European Islam’?

2        What is Muslim identity?

3        What structures Muslim ‘community’?

4        Among European Muslims, what is the significance of national context for any of the following? (i) Gender; (ii) Youth; (iii) Dress.

5        What, if anything, is unique about the political engagement of European Muslims?

6        ‘Muslims are present in Europe and yet absent from it.’ (Talal Asad) Discuss.

7        ‘… it seems obvious that there is hardly anything except Islam that could constitute a common denominator for Eastern and Western European Muslims.’ (Katarzyna Górak-Sosnowska) Discuss.

8        What are the strengths and weaknesses of ‘Muslim’ as an analytical lens?

9        Can the anthropological study of Islam in Europe generate any theological insight?

10    What is at stake in the academic study of European Muslims?


Before the Qur’ān: Texts, monuments, perceptions

Course Coordinator: Professor Garth Fowden

This module will not be offered for the academic year 2018-19.

An approach to the Qur’ān at the moment of its conception, as texts arising from a late antique socio-historical context.  What is the evidence that permits us to enter this context, and what are the researcher’s preferred methods?  How was the pre-Qur’anic world filtered for early Muslim consumption?  Four main types of evidence are addressed: pre-Islamic Arabic poetry; architecture, art and epigraphy; the Qur’ān itself; and the biographical literature.  The poetry evokes the world the Qur’ān rejected: hunters, warriors and lovers, with no thought of an afterlife.  The material evidence, thanks to Saudi Arabia’s recent, cautious opening to archaeology, is transforming our picture of pre-Islamic politics and religion.  The Qur’ān turns a vastly varied scene into a single Muslim narrative, while preserving echoes of dialogue with Jews and Christians.  The biographical and historical narratives are copious for Muhammad, less so for his rivals.

Module objectives: Participants in the seminar will consider (1) the evolution and adequacy of the instrumenta studiorum and the modern bibliography; (2) how to deduce historical narrative from sparse and disparate sources requiring various disciplines for their analysis; (3) how socio-historical contexts impact the formulation of religious teachings; (4) how scriptures and their exegetes promote their uniqueness by (re)constructing historical narratives.

Specimen Seminars

1: ‘Poets wandering in every valley, saying that which they do not’: The Qur’ān and poetry

What can pre-Islamic poetry tell us about the socio-cultural environment of Arabia, and the jāhilīya mindset which the Qur’ān attacks?  How were the texts transmitted, and they be dated?

2: ‘You hew the mountains into houses’: Architecture, art and epigraphy

Why does the Qur’ān so frequently refer to monuments of times past?  Is archaeology able to elucidate these references?  Can epigraphy help us understand the Qur’ānic text?  What picture of pre-Islamic Arabian religion and politics emerges from the material evidence?

3: History from the Qur’ān?

What didactic use does the Qur’ān make of precedent/exemplum from history?  Can the scripture also be seen as an historical source?  Does the Qur’ān’s engagement with Judaism and Christianity reflect the situation in 6th-/early -7th c. Arabia?

4: Prophetic biographies: Muhammad, Musaylima and others

What is the value of Ibn Ishāq’s Life of the Prophet as a source for pre-Islamic Arabia, given its teleological Muslim narrative?  Why was Ibn Ishāq’s pre-Islamic narrative so truncated by his editor Ibn Hishām, and what contribution did his Life make to Tabarī’s eventual historical synthesis?  What evidence is there for other prophets in Muhummad’s Arabia, and how has it been treated?

Description of assessment

There will be four ninety minute seminars.  Students will be required to write an essay of not more than 5,000 words and a seminar presentation of 1,000 words.

Suggested Essay Titles

Essay titles must be agreed with the course coordinator and subsequently by the degree committee.

Does ‘pre-Islamic’ poetry anticipate, or explain, or even (given the process of its transmission) reflect the Qur’anic world view?

How has study of Arabian epigraphy changed our understanding of the religious context of sixth- and seventh-century Arabia?

Consider the symbolism of built structures in pre-Islamic poetry and the Qur’ān.

What is the evidence for ‘Judeo-monotheism’ and Judaism in pre-Islamic Arabia?

Account for the divergences between the Qur’ān’s perception of Christianity and that which we derive from our Greek and Syriac sources.

Compare the involvement in pre-Islamic Arabia of the three neighbouring empires: Iran, Aksum and East Rome.

‘Classical Arabic historians and contemporary Wahhabi ideologues have similar reasons for cultivating the impression of an empty pre-Islamic Hijāz.’  Discuss.