Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies

Classes from disciplines such as art history, economics, geography, history, politics, religion, and sociology comprise the classes available within this cross-disciplinary path. 

2017-2018 Courses

Islamic Art and Society

Open , Lecture—Fall

This course will explore the architecture and visual arts of societies in which Islam is a strong political, cultural, or social presence. We will follow the history of some of these societies through the development of their arts and architecture, using case studies to explore their diverse artistic languages from the advent of Islam through the contemporary world. We will begin with an introduction to the history surrounding the advent of Islam and the birth of arts and architecture that respond to the needs of the new Islamic community. We will proceed to follow the developments of diverse artistic and architectural languages of expression as Islam spreads to the Mediterranean and to Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America, exploring the ways in which arts can help define and express identities for people living in multi-confessional societies. We will then draw this exploration into the present day, in which global economics, immigration, and politics draw the architecture and artistic attitudes of Islam into the global contemporary discourse. Our work will include introductions to some of the theoretical discourses that have emerged concerning cultural representation and exchange and appropriation in art and architecture. One of our allied goals will be to learn to read works of art and to understand how an artistic expression that resists representation can connect with its audience. And throughout this course, we will ask: Can there be an Islamic art?

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Romanesque and Gothic: Art and Architecture at the Birth of Europe

Open , Lecture—Spring

This course explores the powerful architecture, sculpture, and painting styles that lie at the heart of the creation of Europe and the idea of the West. We will use a number of strategies to explore how monumental architecture and expressive narrative painting and sculpture were engaged in the formation of a common European identity and uncover, as well, the architectural vestiges of diverse groups and cultures that challenge that uniform vision. These are arts that chronicle deep social struggles between classes, intense devotion through pilgrimage, and the rise of cities and universities that could both advocate genocide and nurture enormous creativity, in styles both flamboyant and austere, growing from places as diverse as rural monasteries to Gothic cathedrals. The course will explore those aspects of expressive visual language that link the buildings to social history, the history of ideas, and political ideology.

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First-Year Studies: Pilgrimage and Initiation

Open , FYS—Year

1) Pilgrimage and initiation play a major role in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Sufi Islamic traditions of South Asia. This seminar introduces students to the cultures of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka through a comparative study of religious practices. In homes, temples, and shrines throughout this region, devotees perform elaborate rituals of initiation. These often occur at moments of life-cycle transition. Calendar-based sacraments also occur on the major holidays of each religion. When devotees celebrate these ceremonies, they are "performing" important cultural values. 2) Globally, pilgrimage festivals can be seen as codes for interpreting cultures. Meaningful journeys reflect the structure of initiation rites in that one is transformed by the experience. 3) Pilgrim fairs and festivals serve multiple functions. They provide venues not only for religious expression but also for arts performance, social negotiation, and economic exchange. 4) This seminar explores questions such as: Are pilgrimage and tourism functionally indistinguishable? What role, if any, do travelers’ intentions play in such an analysis? Is a spiritually inscribed journey qualitatively different from tourism with recreational, cultural, or service agendas? How does the transitional process of a journey relate to the experience of arrival at a destination? What do pilgrimage and initiation sometimes have in common with the experience of immigration? 5) Using travel memoirs, we explore themes of quest, discovery, and personal transformation. Postcolonial writings on spiritually inscribed journeys raise issues of dislocation, exile, memory, and identity. We inquire critically into traditional mappings of “sacred geographies” and the commercial promotion of competing destinations. 6) Sources: Within travel industries, we analyze the specialists who service many spectacles and attractions found along pilgrimage routes. Films and photographic sources are used extensively. Readings are drawn from cultural studies, history of religions, anthropology, and personal narratives.

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The Emergence of the Modern Middle East

Open , Seminar—Year

This course provides a broad introduction to the political, social, cultural, and intellectual history of the Middle East from the late 18th century to the present. After a brief conceptual overview, the course draws upon a wide array of primary and secondary sources to illuminate the manifold transformations and processes that have contributed over time to shaping what has meant to be “modern” in this remarkably diverse and dynamic region. Particular attention will be paid to the following themes: the question of modernization and reform within the Ottoman and Qajar empires; the experience of different forms of European imperialism in the Middle East; the integration of the Middle East into the world economy; World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; state-building in both colonial and post-colonial contexts; transformations in religious thought; changing family norms and gender roles and the genesis of Middle Eastern women’s movements; nationalism; class politics, social movements, and revolution; Zionism and the Israel-Palestine conflict; post-WWII geopolitics and the Cold War in the Middle East; Nasserism and pan-Arabism; the role of US power in the Middle East; the origins and spread of political Islam; the political economy of oil; globalization and neoliberalism; and the impact of various new cultural forms and media on the formation of identities across the region.

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Middle Eastern Nationalisms

Advanced , Seminar—Fall

Students are expected to have completed previous coursework in either Middle East Studies or modern history, though exceptions can be made with permission of the instructor.

This course provides an intensive theoretical and historical inquiry into the phenomenon of nationalism as it has played out in the Middle East since the late 19th century. What is a nation? How are nation-states built and sustained? How did the nation form first take shape in the Middle East, and what are the broad challenges and historical mechanisms that have governed its evolution across a variety of specific contexts? The course will be broken into two main sections. Part I will examine the current theoretical literature on the origins and spread of nationalism, introducing students to key scholarly debates and innovations that transcend Middle Eastern historiography. Part II will develop and apply the themes and theoretical concepts from Part I by exploring specific Middle East case studies, focusing both on state-sponsored nationalism as well as on popular practices and experiences of nationhood and national identity. Brief attention will also be paid to professional history-writing in the Middle East since the 1930s, specifically the role of nationalist historiography in partitioning the Middle Eastern past.

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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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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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Gender and Nationalism(s)

Advanced , Seminar—Year

Open only to juniors, seniors, and graduate students.

Nationalism can be understood as a project simultaneously involving construction(s) of memory, history, and identity. In this seminar, we will identify the multiple and shifting dimensions of nationalism as a world historical phenomenon. Central to our focus will be the centrality and particular constructions of gender in different national projects. Attention will be paid to nationalism in its colonial and contemporary trajectories. Questions to be addressed include the following: What is the relationship between nationalism and identity? Which symbols/languages are called upon to produce a sense of self and collective identity? What are the various inclusions, exclusions, and silences that particular historically-constituted nationalisms involve? Is nationalism necessarily a positive force? If not, under what circumstances, in what ways, and for whom does it pose problems? What is the relationship of nationalism(s) to minorities and socially/politically marginalized groups? How is pluralism and difference constructed and treated? How do the same positions (e.g., issues of cultural authenticity and identity) take on a different meaning at diverse historical moments? How does the insider/outsider relationship alter in different periods and conceptualizations? Women have been interpellated and have participated within nationalist movements in a variety of ways. The dynamics and contradictions of such involvement will be analyzed closely. We will strive to explore the implications of these processes for women's sense of self, citizenship, and belonging at specific periods and over time. In the spring semester, we will turn our attention more specifically to performances of nationalism through institutional and popular cultural arrangements. Under the former category, we will look at issues of migration, immigration, and exile; public policy and international relations; war and conflict. In the arena of popular culture, we will examine the production of nationalism(s) through the mass media, sports, film, museums and exhibitions, and tourism. Conference work may include an examination of a specific nationalist movement, theoretical issues pertaining to nationalism(s), memory, identity, performances of nationalism(s) in popular culture and the mass media, and the interplay between institutional and everyday constructions of nationalism in specific settings.

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