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Musharaka [ Cooperation ]  Calligraphy by Khaled Al-Saai


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A website for K-12 educators featuring innovative resource on the culture, geography, history and religions of the Middle East, including essays, classroom activities, downloadable multimedia content and interactive Google Earth tours.


This section contains full-text readings from a variety of sources. Many of these texts have never been offered online before. They represent a range of scholarly views and interests, and are intended to offer a more in-depth view of selected topics covered in this module. Please be aware that these texts may not be reproduced in any way without the express permission of the original copyright holder, as indicated at the head of each reading.

The readings listed in grey are currently unavailable, as we work toward renewing copyright permission from the publishers.

The Basics of Islam

  • Ten Things Everyone Needs to Know about Islam
    John Esposito

    This book, by the Director of the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, is an excellent introduction to Islam, particularly in relation to recent events. The issues are addressed in question and answer format, and range from basic beliefs and practice to the status of women, Islamic views on other religions, terrorism, and the use of violence. As the author indicates in his introduction, the text is intended to address specific questions with direct answers, in a manner that is accessible to the general reader. In the excerpt on this site, we have chosen ten questions from the book, with a view both to introducing the religion and providing context for issues often raised in the media today. Question 1 explains why the author believes everyone in American today needs to know something about Islam. Questions 2-5 provide a basic understanding of what Muslims believe and how they practice their faith. Questions 5-6 address some of the diversity within the Islamic community, and questions 7-9 address Islamic attitudes toward other religions, terrorism and the status of women. Question 10 introduces Islamic law. Those looking for a more in-depth treatment of these issues should consult some of the additional materials in this unit, which include a detailed discussion of Islamic law and the obligations it entails for Muslims, theological developments in contemporary Islam, and the nature of Islamic movements with political objectives.

  • Excerpts from Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations
    Michael Sells

    This reading is the introduction to a book by Michael Sells Professor of Religion at Haverford College, that is intended to introduce the Qur’an to non-Muslim readers. The author provides a very succinct but useful introduction to the Qur’an and its enormous cultural, spiritual and aesthetic significance for Muslims. Also addressed are some of the major recurring themes in the Suras that comprise the Qur'an. The comparisons to Christian and Jewish scripture are quite helpful to readers more familiar with these texts. In the last part of his essay, the author describes the process of putting togehter his book, the challenges faced by the translators, and his methods for dealing with them.

  • Law and Society: The Interplay of Revelation and Reason in the Shariah
    Mohammad Hashim Kamali

    Shariah is a term one is likely to hear in the international news these days. Riots have been provoked in countries like Nigeria when certain provinces tried to implement “Shariah law,” and the implementation of Shariah law is often defined as one of the dangerous objectives of Islamist radicals. In the popular media of the West, the term has become somewhat synonymous with radical, inflexible, authoritarian systems. This essay by Mohammad Hashim Kamali, a professor in Islamic law at the International Islamic University in Malaysia, provides a much more nuanced explanation of the term, which is most often translated as 'Islamic law', although the author considerably refines this definition in this piece. He also explores the origins, development and application of Shariah in society. The essay begins with an explanation of two Arabic terms that are extremely important in understanding Islamic law, Shariah and fiqh, including the major schools of interpretation, their origins and the contributions they have made toward the development of Islamic law. The rest of the article discusses the characteristics of Shariah in some detail within an historical framework. Among issues discussed are the comparative status of the individual and the community in Shariah, as well as recent attempts by some Islamic countries to implement it in their society. This article is very scholarly in tone, with frequent reference to the Arabic terms in a manner that helps the reader avoid equating these structures with parallel, though different, Western institutions. Those wishing for a more succinct explanation of Shariah and its applications may wish to consult the interview with Sherman Jackson, who also addresses the Shariah and the obligations it entails for Muslims.

  • The Way of the Sufi
    David Waines

    This essay, by David Waines from the Department of Religious Studies at the university of Lancaster, UK, is a thorough introduction to the ascetic and Sufi traditions in Islam. It follows the development of these traditions through the 14th century in the Western calendar, the point at which it can be said that “Sufi ideas and idioms had penetrated all levels of society and every region where an Islamic presence had become established.” The discussion encompasses the entire Islamic world, and not just the Arab countries. The article begins with a tale told by Ibn Tufayl which is an allegory for the ascetic quest. Waines then turns his attention to Sufism, explaining the movement, its emergence and its philosophies. Commonly thought of as “Islamic mysticism,” Sufism has a long and interesting theological tradition. While some writers on Sufism seem to dwell on popular rituals and manifestations, some of which tend toward the spectacular, Waines steers clear of that trap, helping the reader to understand the spiritual nature of Sufism. Similarly, the article situates Sufi tradition squarely within its Islamic context, rather than decontextualizing it. While the article discusses the development and impact of several different orders, it ends by focusing on two orders which emerged from opposite sides of the Islamic world: the Chishtiyah from India and the Shadhiliyyah from Morocco.

  • The Rise of Islam in the World
    Patricia Crone

    This essay by Patricia Crone, Professor of Islamic History at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey is an excellent introduction to the first four centuries of Islamic history. The essay begins with a brief introduction to the culture and political structure that existed during the pre-Islamic era. The world into which the Islamic order emerged was dominated by the Sassanian and Byzantine empires, and, as the author points out, a challenge to this balance from the Arab tribes was certainly unexpected. Yet a challenge did emerge. The author traces the spread of Islam from a small band of Arabian tribesmen, through the life of the Prophet, the power struggles that occurred after his death, and the emergence of the Umayyad and Abbasid Empires, to the tenth and eleventh centuries, a period marked by “extraordinary cultural brilliance.”

  • Islam as a Political System
    Stephen Humphreys

    The central question of this essay is posed at the end of the opening paragraph: “Can we identify a set of basic political concepts and institutions of government within the historical experience of Muslim societies, growing from the same roots as their religious faith and practice?” In response, Humphreys, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barabara begins a historical exploration of systems of Islamic governance, beginning from the time of the Prophet through to the modern era. He explores the Islamic caliphate, and the extent to which it could lay claim to legitimacy on religions grounds. Both Sunni and Shiite traditions are considered. Though the essay is quite brief, it does provide a succinct introduction to some of the major issues confronting political structures attempting to govern in the name of Islam.

  • Popular Religion
    Jonathan P. Berkey

    This book, by an Associate Professor of History at Davidson College, considers the history of Islam from roughly the middle of the seventh century through to the beginning of the 18th century, i.e., from the Umayyad era through Medieval Islam. While the book is chronologically organized, it's approach is more analytical than many histories of the period tend to be. this chapter looks at "popular religion" in the Medieval Period (1000-1500), introducing the distinction between popular practices and the scholarly teaching of the Ulama, including festivals and visits to tombs. Berkey makes a useful distinction between popular Islam and Sufism, however, is discussed in the precending chapter.

  • The Spiritual Significance of Jihad
    Seyyed Hossein Nasr

    Seyyed Hossein Nasr is an Iranian-born intellectual who holds a B.S. in physics from MIT and a Ph.D. in the history of science and learning, with a concentration in Islamic Science, from Harvard. He is also a proponent of what he calls “Traditional Islam”, which can be distinguished clearly from both Islamic “fundamentalism” and modernist interpretations of Islam. Traditional Islam is firmly rooted in the Qur’an and Sunnah, as well as the lived traditions of Islamic communities throughout the centuries. In this essay he discusses the notion of jihad. In the West, and perhaps among Islamic fundamentalists, this term is widely believed to mean “holy war” and the struggle against the infidel. Nasr argues that its meaning is much more complex than that. He argues that jihad denotes the struggle of Muslims to maintain an equilibrium “within the being of man, as well as in the human society where he functions and fulfills the goals of his earthly life.” Ultimately, he argues, this equilibrium is “the terrestrial reflection of Divine Justice and the necessary condition for peace in the human domain.” It has been said that jihad is the sixth pillar of Islam, but Nasr argues rather that it pervades all the other pillars as a manifestation of Muslims’ struggle to maintain a sense of equilibrium in their lives. More on this topic can be found in the readings by and Khaled Abou El Fadl. There are also a number of useful resources in the links list.

Islam and Islamic Politics in the 20th Century

  • Islam and the Theology of Power
    Khaled Abou El Fadl

    This essay, by a Professor of Islamic Law at UCLA, attempts to trace the development of an ideology that led to the attacks of September 11, 2001. He argues that “The basic cruelty and moral depravity of these attacks came as a shock not only to non-Muslims, but to Muslims as well.” In asking why, the author rejects the notion of a “clash of civilizations,” arguing that this view fails to engage the classical tradition in Islamic thought regarding “the employment of political violence and how contemporary Muslims reconstruct the classical tradition.” The author then proceeds to trace the profoundly humane classical tradition through its demise, the adoption of civil law in most Muslim countries, and the rise of contemporary puritanical ideologies which compensate for feelings of “defeat, disempowerment and alienation with a sense of self-righteousness and arrogance vis-à-vis the non-descript other” which may be “the West, non-believers in general or even Muslims of a different sect and Muslim Women.” For more on Wahabism and Islamic views on terrorism, see the excerpt from John L. Esposito’s What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam.

  • The Paradox of Islamist Politics
    Salwa Ismail

    This article responds to the assertion that the Islamist project has failed in its goal of replacing Middle Eastern governments with Islamic States. To a large degree, the article is an engagement with the French scholar Olivier Roy, who argues that we are now witnessing a kind of “post-Islamism,” characterized by the shift in the focus of Islamist movements from Internationalist to nationalist goals, the transition from revolutionary movements to “run-of-the-mill ‘neo-fundamentalists'” concerned with morality, and the fact that Islamism has been swallowed up by consumer culture. Ismail argues that that judgment is premature and based on an excessively narrow definition of politics. She points out that Islamist challenges to the state on moral grounds are a constant challenge to the State’s legitimacy, and that Islamist movements have rivaled or even surpassed the state in their ability to provide social services and to mobilize resources to meet vital needs.

  • Contemporary Islam: Reformation or Revolution?
    John L. Esposito

    This unit deals with 20th century developments in Islamic history and theology, a period that the author characterizes as “one of the most dynamic, explosive and innovative in Islamic history,” and one in which Islam has become a truly global community of “Muslim majority communities in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, as well as significant minority communities in Europe and the United States.” The 20th century in the Islamic world saw many changes, including the end of European colonization, the rise of nation states, the oil boom, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Iranian revolution and the development of “Political Islam”. This chapter goes into some detail about the way in which Islamic thinkers and leaders both responded to and helped to shape those events. There is also an extended discussion of the compatibility of Islam and Democracy, as well as changes in the roles of women in Islamic thought. For more on the latter topic, see the unit on Family and Society, as well as the article by Salwa Ismail in this unit.

  • Islamic Ethics in International Society
    Sohail H. Hashmi

    In this essay the author presents, "the range of ideas that characterize both historical and contemporary Islamic thought on the character and structure of international society," as well as his own "suggestions for a normative Islamic framework for the evolution of international society. The essay distills down a long intellectual history to help the reader understand both the unity and diversity in "Islamic ethical and political thought." The author emphasizes the contemporary thought on these matters, however, is in a state of flux. Among the topics addressed are ideas on justice, human rights and relations between the Muslim and non-Muslim world. This essay is taken from a volume of essays by various scholars that is edited by the author. Sohail Hashmi is currently Alumnae Foundation Associate Professor of International Relations at Mount Holyoke College.

  • A View from the Other Side: The Political Theory of Sayyid Qutb
    Roxanne Euben

    In this essay Roxanne Euben, from the Department of Political Science at Wellesley College, analyzes some of the writings of Sayyid Qutb, one of the founding figures of 20th Century Islamist philosophy. Euben consders the book to be "a work of comparative political theory" and that is, indeed, the case in this chapter, though it also provides an in depth analysis of Qutb's theories on their own terms.

  • What is Progressive Islam?
    Omid Safi

    In this essay Omid Safi, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Colgate University, surveys a movement that has become known as "Progressive Islam." this movement is composed of intellectual who engage the rich tradition of Islamic theology, philosophy and practice with a critical eye that is also very much informed by Western political and critical theory. Progressive Islam "encompasses a number of these: striving to realize a just and pluralistic society through a critical engagement with Islam, a relentless pursuit of social justice, and emphasis on gender equality as a foundation of human rights and a vision of religious and ethnic pluralism."

  • Martyrdom and Resistance in the Middle East
    Sabine Damir-Geilsdorf

    In this article Sabine Damir-Geilsdorf discusses the phenomenon of suicide attacks in the Middle East, now referred to as "martyrdom operations" by their executors and sympathizers. He points out that while the first suicide attacks in the Middle East were met with condemnation from the Sunni religious establishment, they now receive broader support and even religious backing, as they are understood within the context of legitimate resistance and the national liberation struggles.

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