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Study of World Religions MPhil Pathway

Study of World Religions MPhil Pathway

Michaelmas Term 2016

Issues in the Methodology of ‘Comparative Religion’

Course Coordinator: Mr Timothy Winter

Four seminars on alternate Fridays

The category of ‘comparative religion’ has come under sustained fire in the past three decades, partly as the result of diminishing certainties  about our ability to define religions as discrete traditions.  These seminars investigate four major approaches to the problem of interreligious engagement and definition, in the context of the current crisis in the field.  Particular attention is given to the social and political context of each methodological tradition.

All students pursuing the World Religions track of the MPhil are expected to attend these seminars; they are likely, however, to be of interest to those working in other subject areas as well.


  • ‘Comparative Religion’ from Gobineau to Robertson Smith
  • The Eranos Group and religious diversity
  • John Hick’s interpretation of religious diversity
  • Two Catholic readers of Islam: Louis Massignon and Charles de Foucauld

Lent Term 2017

Anthropology of Islam in Contemporary Europe

Course Coordinator: Mr Chris Moses

This module takes an anthropological approach to the study of Islam and Muslims in contemporary Europe.  It entails five seminars: Methodology, Constructing Identity, Structuring Community, Culture and Society, and Political Engagement.  Discussions will employ a series of case studies from the reading list to explore empirical accounts and theoretical questions.  Students will be set readings in advance of each class.  There will be a degree of flexibility regarding which specific areas they would like to focus upon within a seminar topic.  Before meeting, students will send an A4 page offering a critical analysis of the readings to the coordinator.  In classes, students will take turns to present readings and lead group discussion.

The module aims are 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.

The module objectives are students will read and analyse a series of texts exploring a series of issues of academic and wider interest pertaining to Islam and Muslims in Europe.  Develop their presentational skills in a seminar setting. Develop their academic writing skills.  Explore the diversity and complexity of Muslim experiences in Europe.  Analyse the contested nature of particular concepts within their field of study.  Evaluate the application of particular theoretical concepts to their field of study.  Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of anthropological approaches to their object of study.  Consider the wider significance of the understanding they have gained from the course for related areas in the fields of anthropology and religious studies.  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.  Alternatively, they may wish to formulate their own title, subject to the approval of the course coordinator and the Degree Committee.

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 

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

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

3: History from the Qur’ān?

4: Prophetic biographies: Muhammad, Musaylima and others

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

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.