Kristin Zahra Sands

Frieda Wildy Riggs Chair in Religious Studies

BA, The New School. MA, PhD, New York University. Special interests include Sufism, Qur’anic exegesis, religion and media, and political theology. Author of Sufi Commentaries on the Qur’an in Classical Islam and numerous articles on mystical exegesis. Translator of Abu’l-Qasim al-Qushayri’s Subtle Allusions (Part I) for The Great Commentaries on the Holy Qur’an Project. SLC, 2003–

Undergraduate Courses 2019-2020

Religion

Religious Mavericks and Radicals

Open , Seminar—Spring

Is religion meant to protect the status quo or to challenge it? This course examines individuals and groups that have experimented with ideas and practices that are designed to upend established paradigms and institutions in nonviolent ways. On the individual level, this might involve spiritual training along the lines of “crazy wisdom,” which is intended to destabilize the ordinary ways in which one views oneself and reality. It might also entail the adoption of monastic-like disciplines that stand in stark contrast to the materialist preoccupations of ordinary life. On the societal and political levels, religious innovators have created communities and movements that challenge the mainstream interpretations of their respective traditions or the norms of their societies. What distinguishes these individuals and groups is their strong commitment to ideas and practices that require fundamental and profound changes in individual, social, and political behaviors. These commitments are usually not considered a reinterpretation of scriptures and earlier teachings but, rather, a rediscovery of their most crucial elements. Whether flouting society’s conventions through holy madness or alternative communitarian practices—or contesting them through new theologies and political activism—these practices are understood as a type of spiritual work. Examples of this phenomenon will be taken from a variety of religious traditions and movements.

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Storytelling and Spirituality in Classical Islam

Open , Seminar—Fall

One of the greatest rock songs of all time, “Layla,” was written by Eric Clapton after he read the story of the star-crossed lovers Layla and Majnun. This tale of a Bedouin poet, who went mad after he was cut off from his beloved, circulated widely in Arabic sources for hundreds of years before being expanded into a long narrative poem in Persian by Nizami in the 12th century. By this point in time, telling compelling stories had become a means by which Sufi writers (the mystics of Islam) described their particular vision of being Muslim—which was that of the pitfalls, despairing moments, and ecstasies of the spiritual quest and search for closeness to the divine Beloved. Layla and Majnun were just one of several couples in allegorical stories that were understood as teaching vehicles for disciples on the path. On the opposite end of the plot spectrum, there is Ibn Tufyal’s famous story of Hayy ibn Yaqzan, a mystical-philosophical work in Arabic also written in the 12th century. That story describes an abandoned baby growing up on a desert island, raised first by a deer and then by his own devices as he slowly discovers the nature of the human-divine relationship. Other classical works dispensed with this format of the singular narrative, opting instead for nesting stories within stories and mixing animal stories with stories about humans. We will look at examples of those literary techniques in translations of Farid ad-Din Attar’s Conference of the Birds, Jalal ad-Din Rumi’s Mathnawi, and The Thousand and One Nights. What is common to all of the works that we will be reading in this class is the way in which storytelling here is rooted in a deeper dimension that explores the human potential for more refined behavior and ethics, as well as for higher spiritual states.

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Related Disciplines

The Qur’an and Its Interpretation

Open , Seminar—Year

To watch a Muslim kiss the Qur’an is to recognize that this is not a “book” in the ordinary sense of the word. There is an art to reciting its verses and an art to its calligraphy. The uncovering of its meanings has been variously understood by Muslims to be a matter of common sense, diligent scholarship, or profound inspiration. In this seminar, we will begin by studying the style and content of the Qur’an. Some of the themes that may be discussed are the nature and function of humans and supernatural beings, free will and determinism, the structure of this and other worlds, God’s attributes of mercy and wrath, gender and family relations, other religions, and the legitimate use of violence. We will also look at the types of literature that developed in response to the Qur’an in texts ranging from the entertaining stories of the prophets, to scholastic theological and philosophical analysis, to poetic mystical insights. Also included will be contemporary writings, written by Muslims, that mine the riches of the classical heritage of Qur’anic exegesis while grappling with the difficulties of dealing with a text that originated in seventh-century Arabia.

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Previous Courses

Classical Sufi Texts

Intermediate/Advanced , Seminar—Spring

Previous course work in or knowledge of Islamic Studies, Sufism, or another mystical tradition is desirable for this course. Permission of the instructor is required.

Between the 11th and 13th centuries, an impressive body of literature emerged from the religious movement that came to be known as Sufism. These are writings that describe spiritual disciplines, moral guidelines, and metaphysical thought—sometimes in highly appealing stories and poetry and sometimes in dense, rich prose. In this course, we will explore excerpts in English translation from the classics of three of the most influential of the mystics from this time period. Qushayri, Rumi, and Ibn “Arabi” are among the most widely read and studied Sufis. Their remarkable intellectual and literary talents have given their works longevity, especially among those who continue to mine them for spiritual wisdom and guidance. All three were intensely committed to Muslim practices, which they sought to understand in profound and expansive ways. This meant thoughtful attention to the details of the legalistic norms of Shari‘a even as they articulated a more refined system of ethics based on their readings of the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. For these Sufis, the subtler virtues to which humans aspire are inextricably linked to views of reality and the human self that are radically different from common notions. Spiritual practice is as much about discipline as it is about seeking knowledge. The ultimate goal is intimacy with God. The works to be studied will include long passages from Qushayri’s Risala, Rumi’s Mathnawi, and Ibn “Arabi’s” Futuhat al-makkiyya.

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Related Disciplines

Salafi and Jihadi Thought

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

The turmoil of recent decades in the Middle East and the high-profile attacks in Europe and the United States have sent journalists, public intellectuals, and scholars racing to define and assess the theological doctrines behind various political and militant groups. The terms salafi, wahhabi, and jihadi have been used repeatedly in the media but generally without the necessary context to understand the diversity of orientations and groups being described. In this course, we will study the geneaology of these terms and movements, as well as the social and political contexts that gave rise to them. There are quietist Salafis who avoid all engagement with politics and could be easily compared with conservative Christians or Jews. These individuals are very different from the Salafi-Jihadis, who believe in the religious legitimacy of using violence to achieve their goals. Although the main focus of this course will be on the theology and practices of Salafi and Jihadi groups, we will also examine the discourse on “Islamic radicalism” and “Islamic terrorism” in Europe and the United States and its relationship to economic and political entanglements with countries that support these groups as part of their religious establishment or as destabilizing forces to be used against others. Memoir or other literary material will help us understand the appeal of these religious orientations, as well as the disenchantment of those who have rejected them. While there is no background required for this course, a strong interest in reading texts explaining the intricate details of Islamic theology and law is essential.

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Sufi Sciences of the Soul

Open , Seminar—Fall

Muslim mystics have left us with a vast body of literature that explains the faculties and capabilities of human beings. These theoretical writings go hand in hand with the experiential dimension of Sufi practice, which includes the careful and diligent cultivation of spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical disciplines. The purpose of their path, as they often label their thought and practice, goes beyond that of religious salvation—at least as understood in the usual sense. Their goal might be best described as a desire to attain intimate knowledge of the true nature of reality, as in the saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “Our Lord, show us things as they really are.” Following another saying of the Prophet, “He who knows himself, knows his Lord,” Sufis have insisted that this deeper knowledge can be accomplished only by a greater understanding of oneself. This necessarily involves the deconstruction of any solid or static notions about what is perceived to be the self. According to Sufis, what we think of as ourselves is really a cacophony of forces from within and without that flow through and interact with different faculties within us. The spiritual disciplines in which Sufis immerse themselves are intended to destabilize the false self by enabling the practitioner to become more conscious of these forces and faculties. Furthermore, according to Sufis, there is a strong relationship between our level of awareness, our attitudes and behaviors, and the way in which we perceive reality. Changes within us change the reality that seems to be outside of us. Through a series of readings from Sufi figures in the past and present, this course will explore their systematic exposition of the “sciences of the soul.”

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Muslims in Europe

Open , Seminar—Fall

More than five percent of the total population of Europe is now Muslim, and this percentage could easily reach 10 percent or more by 2050. More than a million migrants and refugees streamed into Europe in 2015 alone, many of them fleeing the horrific violence of Syria and other conflict-ridden areas. That year, they entered a continent that was reeling from a decade of terrorist attacks within its own borders. In January 2015, two French citizens of Algerian descent stormed the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and murdered 12 writers, cartoonists, and other staff members. The cover of the magazine that day was a caricature of Michel Houellebecq, whose novel Soumission (Submission) had just been released. Houellebecq’s bleak fictive account of a not-so-distant future in which a newly elected Muslim head of state begins initiatives to supplant European values and institutions with authoritarianism and polygamy was an instant best-seller. The novel joined a slew of popular nonfiction works that have presented stern warnings of a Europe on its deathbed if non-Muslim Europeans do not wake up and address the failures of their policies of minority assimilation or multiculturalism. But is the growing Muslim population in Europe the enormous threat to modern European values and security that these writings make it out to be? What responsibilities, if any, do European nations have to migrants and asylum seekers who frequently come from nations that were former European colonies? To what degree must Muslim citizens in European states assimilate to the cultural mores of other Europeans? In the books mentioned above, the voices of Muslims are almost entirely absent. In this course, we will seek out a broad array of voices and historical perspectives to examine the challenges that have emerged in the increasingly diverse European societies of the 21st century.

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American Muslims: History, Politics, and Culture

Open , Seminar—Year

The United States has a long and complicated history with its very diverse body of Muslim citizens. Muslim slaves were brought involuntarily to this country and forcibly kept from practicing their religion. Many of their descendants began to rediscover Islam in the early 20th century and were joined by an increasing number of Muslim immigrants after the Immigration and Nationality Act ended racial quotas on immigration in 1965. White converts joined them throughout the years. Although Muslims currently comprise only 1% of the American population, their significance goes well beyond their numbers. Beginning with Malcolm X in the 1950s and early 1960s and continuing to the post-9/11 era in the 21st century, perceptions about Muslims have functioned as barometers of deep social and political anxieties. To carefully examine these anxieties is to expose major fault lines in the domestic and foreign policies of the United States. The rise of fearmongering discourse from self-proclaimed “experts” on radical Islam after 9/11 is very much connected to the religious, political, and economic objectives of different groups, which are important to investigate. This course will look behind, but also beyond, the hot-button issues that dominate current headlines, exploring the variety of ways in which Muslim Americans have flourished in America and contributed to its intellectual and creative heritage in substantial ways. Material studied throughout the year will include many examples from the rich body of American Muslim memoirs, social and political critique, theology, literature, poetry, and art.

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First-Year Studies: Islam

Open , FYS—Year

This course will provide a comprehensive introduction to the foundational texts of Islam, the historical development of different Muslim cultures, and the contemporary issues that animate Islam’s ever-evolving manifestations. We will begin with the Qur’an, a book whose juxtaposition of narrative fragments, apocalyptic imagery, divine voice, and sociopolitical themes conveyed in rhymed Arabic prose has both entranced and confounded readers. We will look at the historical roots of the “isms” used today to describe the orientations of Sunnism, Shi‘ism, Sufism, and Salafism. Looking beyond the Middle East, where only about 20% of the current global population of Muslims reside, we will examine how migrating people, concepts, texts, and practices both transform and are transformed by existing traditions in different geographical locations. Contemporary preoccupations such as the status of women in Islam and the relationship between Islam and violence will be examined from a variety of perspectives, illustrating the intricacies of Muslim and non-Muslim acts of interpretation and their relationship to power and authority.

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