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

Undergraduate Courses 2017-2018


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.


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.


Previous Courses

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 only be accomplished 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.”


Muslim Ethics and Religious Law (Shari’a)

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Previous coursework or knowledge in Islamic Studies is desirable for this course. Permission of the instructor is required.

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.


The Qur’an and Its Interpretation

Open , Seminar—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.


Muslim Thought and Cultures

Open , Lecture—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.


Contemporary Muslim Novels and Creative Nonfiction

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Previous coursework in Islamic Studies is desirable but not required.

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.


Classical Sufi Texts

Advanced , Seminar—Fall

Previous coursework or knowledge in Islamic Studies, Sufism, or another mystical tradition is desirable. 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 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.