Kristin Zahra Sands

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 The Subtleties of Allusions (Part I) for The Great Commentaries on the Holy Qur’an Project. SLC, 2003–

Current undergraduate courses

Muslim Ethics and Religious Law (Shari’a)

Spring

In recent years, the concept of Shari’a has become increasingly associated with states and military groups who champion repressive rules, harsh punishments, and executions. Capitalizing on the fear and disgust that many Americans feel toward these examples of “Islamic law,” a movement called American Laws for American Courts has led to the adoption of antiforeign law legislation in some US states—legislation that the American Bar Association, among others, finds highly problematic. But the anxiety over “Shari’a creep” in the United States and Europe obscures the other ways in which Shari’a is understood and practiced by Muslims. Some Muslims see Shari’a as a social and political nightmare, abhorring its use by states and militants. Some criticize Shari’a even in less oppressive environments, portraying it as little more than dry legalism and a spiritually dead way of practicing one’s religion. On the other hand, there are many Muslims who embrace Shari’a as a path for cultivating a deep moral consciousness in their individual and communal lives. They also view it as a powerful tool to address injustices. In order to better understand these contemporary debates, we will study the classical formation of Islamic law and juridical discourse, as well as classical literary and mystical writings that reflect other ethical sensibilities that co-existed with, or sometimes contested, the juridical and pious norms of earlier time periods. The contemporary issues to be discussed will include sexual and medical ethics, freedom of speech and offense controversies, apostasy and violence, and the ideology and practices of ISIS.

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Muslim Thought and Cultures

Year

Within the maelstrom of current events, caricatures and apologetics too often supply shortcuts for understanding a world largely unknown to Americans, obscuring rather than informing people of the richness and variety of the traditions of Islam and Muslim cultures. This course will provide an introduction to these rich traditions by addressing the early history of Islam, its foundational texts, and the development of Sunni, Shi‘i, and Sufi thought. In addition to studying the formative and classical periods of Islam, primarily located in the Middle East, we will look to the ways in which Islam spread throughout the world to regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, China, Europe, and the United States. Muslims in the Middle East now represent a mere 20% of Muslims worldwide; from jihadis to mystics to hip-hop artists, Muslims are not easily categorized. To address how being a Muslim is understood in specific contexts, we will study not only religious texts but also how Islam and Muslim practices are represented in autobiographies, fiction writing, films, music, and art.

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The Qur’an and Its Interpretation

Fall

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 analyses, and to mystical insights said to be achieved by the experience of spiritual states. Contemporary writings will be included that reflect the interaction between the classical heritage of Qur’anic exegesis and new interpretations that reflect current paradigms of gender relations, social activism, and spirituality.

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Previous courses

Classical Sufi Texts

Fall

Between the 11th and 13th centuries, an impressive body of literature emerged from the religious movement that came to be known as Sufism. These writings describe spiritual disciplines, moral guidelines, and metaphysical thought—sometimes in highly appealing stories and poetry and sometimes in dense but very 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 understanding things “as they really are.” 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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Contemporary Muslim Novels and Creative Nonfiction

Spring

In 1988, two writers from Muslim backgrounds achieved international fame. One was the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, who became the first Arab to win the Nobel prize in literature. The other was the British Indian writer Salman Rushdie, who published his novel, The Satanic Verses, in the same year. Within a few months, protests against the portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad in the novel spread worldwide, leading to the banning of the book in numerous countries and the issuing of a fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran calling for Rushdie’s death. Although the perspectives of Mahfouz and Rushdie on Islam are markedly different, their writings have, in common, a keen interest in religion and culture. In the years since 1988, many new writers have emerged in Muslim majority and minority areas of the world. Their works embrace, resist, reject, transmute, and show nostalgia for the beliefs and practices with which they grew up or have adopted. As natives, immigrants, third culture, or converts, some have actively promoted themselves as Muslim writers, while others question this label or view it as only one signifier of many. The writings that have been selected for this course will be ones that deal substantially with issues of Muslim identity.

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Contemporary Trends in Islamic Thought

Spring

The beginning of the 21st century is turning out to be a dynamic one for Islamic thought. From bloggers to superstar imams, academics to activists, a host of individuals and groups are moving beyond defensive or reactive postures to address contemporary local and global challenges in increasingly confident ways. Examples include post-Islamist politics in North Africa and Turkey, Indonesian eco-Sufism, American Muslim inner-city initiatives, Islamic microfinance, and recent approaches to Muslim sexual ethics, nonviolent resistance, and peaceful conflict resolution. Although the focus of this course will be on intellectual and theological approaches that break new ground in one way or another, the range of political, social, and religious orientations examined will be wide. We will look at movements with charismatic leaders and movements that are leaderless or “leaderful.” We will also look at the way in which new media is shaping or being shaped by these discourses. Because the course will not provide basic introductory material on Islam, a prior course in Islam or the Qur’an is a prerequisite.

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First-Year Studies: Islam

FYS

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 percent of the current global Muslim population resides, 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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Islam in Europe and the United States

Year

In this course, we will study Muslims who have lived and are living in the West, as well as non-Muslim Western representations of Islam. While Islam is often viewed as a foreign and even alien religion to Europe and the United States, its presence in the West has been substantial ever since the Muslim conquest of Spain in the eighth century. We will begin by examining the cultural interactions that occurred in Spain during the nearly 800 years of Muslim rule, exploring such areas as literature, philosophy, architecture, and political theories on religious diversity. Looking at Islam in the imagination of Europeans, we will read about medieval depictions of the prophet Muhammad as the demonic figure Mahound and the sexual and mystical exoticism located in the translations of the Arabian Nights and Persian Sufi poetry that began in the 18th century. Moving across the Atlantic, we will study the complex and distinctive history of African American Islam, from the first Muslim slaves brought to America in the 16th century to the establishment of the Nation of Islam and contemporary African American Muslims. Other Muslims in America and in Europe today are primarily immigrants or the descendents of immigrants from the Middle East and Asia. Through the essays, literature, art, and music of these Muslim communities, we will examine the challenges arising from European and American multiculturalism and the post-9/11 political environment. These self-representations will be compared with representations of Islam and Muslims in the news media, books, and films. Issues such as the prohibition on veiling in French schools will be used to discuss minority beliefs and practices and assimilation into Western secular societies.

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Religion, Ethics, and Conflict

Year

Religion’s role in starting, perpetuating, or accelerating conflict in the world has been the focus of a large number of academic and policy-driven analyses in recent decades. Much less broadly publicized, but just as extensively studied, has been its role in conflict resolution, social activism, and faith-based initiatives in domestic and foreign policies. The different roles that religion plays in contemporary public life sometimes support and sometimes challenge secular liberal notions such as the separation of church and state, universal human rights, and humanitarian actions and interventions. In this course, we will explore religious and secular justifications for the use of force and violence, definitions of individual and communal rights and responsibilities, universalist versus communitarian theologies and ideologies, and the development of contemporary political theologies. We will also look at how religion is talked about by public intellectuals, with someone like the late Christopher Hitchens arguing that “Religion poisons everything” and others speaking of “militant atheism” and “aggressive secularism.” We’ll examine the religious content in recent statements and speeches by world leaders. Readings will include discussions of “postsecularism” and critiques of “religious illiteracy” in education, journalism, the military, and foreign policy. 

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Sufism

Year

Critics of Sufism, both Muslim and non-Muslim, claim that many of its teachings and practices seriously distort the Islamic message to the point where some declare Sufis heretical. Many of its adherents and admirers, on the other hand, believe that Sufism represents the very core and heartbeat of Islam. These disagreements are ultimately traceable to different assumptions concerning the nature of reality and knowledge. This course will explore this controversy, which continues to the present day, by examining the distinctive doctrines of Sufism on sainthood, ethics, mystical states, the nature of the self, and the relationship between the divine and human. We will look at examples of the more obvious points of conflict, such as Sufi notions regarding the importance of passion in spirituality and the portrayal of Satan as a tragic lover of God. Reading the writings of Muslim critics of Sufism, we will examine the criteria they use to distinguish between what they judge to be praiseworthy, neutral, or reprehensible aspects of Sufi thought and practice. We will study the practices of Sufism, including meditation techniques, communal structures and networks, and creative expression in music and poetry. Finally, we will explore the popularity of Sufism today in Europe and America and its role in conversions to Islam. 

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