Research and Essay Topics

Some of the following questions and ideas stem from other academic sources, including the NEH Summer Seminar for researchers “Islamic Origins” held at the University of Chicago in 2000, and from the discussion list ISLAMAAR. They are organized here under the following headings:

Issues in the History of the Origins of Islam
Issues in the Formation of Islamic Identity
Issues in the Emergence of the Islamic Empire
Issues in the Cultural Manifestation of the Early Empire
Issues in the Expression of Islamic Identity
Islam in Modern Times
Analysis of Primary and Secondary Sources


Issues in the History of the Origins of Islam

  • Why is it so difficult to obtain a clear view of “what actually happened” at the origins of Islam?
  • What are the strengths and limitations of the various literary–historical sources that purport to tell us about Islam’s origins (Arabic-Islamic, Syriac, Greek, Coptic, Armenian, etc.)?
  • Given the fact that these literary sources are often of much later date than the period of Islam’s origins, why did Western scholars favour their testimony for so long?
  • What can be learned from contemporary epigraphic, papyrological, numismatic, and archaeological evidence, and how can that evidence be coordinated with information from literary sources to best advantage?


Issues in the Formation of Islamic Identity

  • What was the nature of the early community of Believers?
  • How clear-cut were the community’s boundaries in the beginning (i.e., in the time of the prophet Muhammad himself)?
  • How did the early Believers define themselves in relation to other religious communities, particularly Christians and Jews?
  • What role did ideology, ritual, and social practices play in this self-identification?
  • If the early community’s identity was “porous” to some extent, when and how did it harden to become the clear-cut Muslim identity that is visible toward the end of the first century A.H. (seventh century C.E.)?
  • In what measure were the teachings of Muhammad a natural outgrowth of religious trends discernable in the late antique Near East?
  • What role, if any, did such concepts as gnosis, apocalypticism and messianism play in the movement’s dynamic?
  • How (if at all) did the core beliefs of the new community evolve between the time of Muhammad and the crystallization of “classical Islam” a century and more later?
  • How did religious polemics and inter-confessional relations affect the articulation of religious identities?
  • How did the notion of an Arab-Muslim identity develop during the Umayyad period and how was it contested by the Abbasid movement and revolution?


Issues in the Emergence of the Islamic Empire

  • What was the relationship of the communal identity of the early Believers to an ethnic (“Arab”) identity?
  • How should the question of ethnic identity (“Arabs”) as opposed to religious identity (“Believers/Muslims”) be viewed in the context of state-formation?
  • Can we identify the key institutions that permit us to describe the community of Believers as a state, and when did they appear?
  • How was the early expansion of the Believers organized?
  • To what degree were the conquests the product of centralized planning, and to what degree were they the product of independent initiatives undertaken by free-wheeling raid leaders?
  • Should the rise of the Islamic state be viewed as the culmination of processes of religio–political integration that had begun with the Byzantines’ and Sasanians’ conflation of imperial and monotheistic traditions?
  • What was the nature of the frontiers of the dar al-Islām like? What were the laws of just wars? How and why did certain ideologies of war develop and how were these mobilized for the legitimation of regimes?


Issues in the Cultural Manifestation of the Early Empire

  • What impact did the rise of the new regime have on the economic, social, and cultural life of the conquered territories?
  • How are changes in patterns of urbanism in the Near East during the seventh century C.E. related to the rise of Islam?
  • In what ways did the rise of Islam affect the traditional balance between Near Eastern village agriculturalists, urbanites, and pastoral nomads?
  • What role did various vernacular and written languages of the Near East (particularly Arabic) play in the interaction of religious and political communities in this period?
  • What cultures did Arabs and Muslims encounter as they expanded? How did they react to such encounters? How did they adapt? And how were they affected by the diverse cultures and institutions of their expanding world?
  • How did the movement of populations within the Islamic world affect the development of Islamic identities and cultures?
  • How were the identities and boundaries of religious minorities maintained and negotiated?


Issues in the Expression of Islamic Identity

All of the following topics can be framed to answer the basic question of: What makes this “Islamic”? For example, if the investigation is of some aspect of material culture or ritual, then the analysis would try to say what characteristics reflect an Islamic impulse, and/or what differentiates it from the manifestations of other cultures. Why are these acts/objects “Muslim” and why are they appropriate for Muslims? Some possible topics include:

  • Celebration of Muḥammad’s birthday
  • Purity in Islam
  • Islamic calendar and ritual
  • Nature and function of the qāḍī  (judge)
  • Idea of and history of jihād (“holy war”)
  • Relations with other religious communities
  • Freewill and predetermination in Islamic theology
  • Problem of theodicy in Islam
  • “Faith and belief” and the definition of a Muslim
  • Role of music in mysticism
  • Role of dance in mysticism
  • Concept of saintship
  • The Minaret and its symbolism
  • Representational art in Islam
  • The Islamic city
  • The Kaʿba
  • Al-Ghazālī (mystic, theologian
  • Ibn Khaldūn (historian)
  • Al-Ṭabarī (historian)
  • ʿĀʾisha (wife of Muḥammad)
  • Rabīʿa (mystic)
  • Caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd
  • Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik.


Islam in Modern Times

  • How did the colonial encounter affect Arab-Islamic cultural and religious identities?
  • What were the key factors and influences in the development of Arab national identities?


Analysis of Primary and Secondary Sources

Analysis of material available on the web is an essential skill. Many guides are available for such exercises that encourage critical consideration of aspects related to point of view and bias. This is also a useful approach in the analysis of topics related to the media presentation of modern Islam.  Suggested aspects of critical consideration include the following factors:

  • Who are the pages written by?
  • Who are the pages written for? What is the motivation of the author to place this information on the Web?
  • What is the character of the sources which the pages cite? (If none are cited, can you make any other observations?)
  • Does the site acknowledge opposing views or exhibit any biases?
  • How do the pages relate to the material we have covered in class? Do they add anything to your knowledge of the subject?
  • What is your assessment of the site overall?

For further help on the criteria for assessment of a web site (or media presentation) review http://www.library.ucla.edu/libraries/college/help/critical/index.htm (many libraries have such sites).