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. 

Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies 2024-2025 Courses

First-Year Studies: Anthropology and Images

FYS—Year

Images wavered in the sunlit trim of appliances, something always moving, a brightness flying, so much to know in the world. —Don Delillo, Libra

A few cartoons lead to cataclysmic events in Europe. A man’s statement that he “can’t breathe” ricochets across North America. A photograph printed in a newspaper moves a solitary reader. A snapshot posted on the Internet leads to dreams of fanciful places. Memories of a past year haunt us like ghosts. What each of these occurrences has in common is that they all entail the force of images in our lives, whether these images are visual, acoustic, or tactile in nature; made by hand or machine; circulated by word of mouth; or simply imagined. In this seminar, we will consider the role that images play in the lives of people in various settings throughout the world. In delving into terrains at once actual and virtual, we will develop an understanding of how people throughout the world create, use, circulate, and perceive images—and how such efforts tie into ideas and practices of sensory perception, time, memory, affect, imagination, sociality, history, politics, and personal and collective imaginings. Through these engagements, we will reflect on the fundamental human need for images, the complicated politics and ethics of images, aesthetic and cultural sensibilities, dynamics of time and memory, the intricate play between the actual and the imagined, and the circulation of digital images in an age of globalization and social media. We will also consider the spectral, haunting qualities of many imaginal moments in life. Readings are to include a number of writings in anthropology, art history, philosophy, psychology, cultural studies, and critical theory. Images are to be drawn from photographs, films and videos, paintings, sculptures, drawings, street art and graffiti, religion, rituals, tattoos, inscriptions, novels, poems, road signs, advertisements, dreams, fantasies, and any number of fabulations in the worlds in which we live and imagine. The seminar will be held during two class sessions each week during the fall and spring terms. Along with that, students will meet individually with the instructor every other week through the course of each semester to discuss their ongoing academic and creative work. In the fall semester, we will all also meet every other week in an informal group setting to watch films together, discuss student research and writing projects, and engage creatively with images and imaginal thought.

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Understanding Experience: Phenomenological Approaches

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Year

How does a chronic illness affect a person’s orientation to the everyday? What are the social and political forces that underpin life in a homeless shelter? What is the experiential world of a blind person, a musician, a refugee, or a child at play? In an effort to answer these and like-minded questions, anthropologists have become increasingly interested in developing phenomenological accounts of particular lived realities in order to understand—and convey to others—the nuances and underpinnings of such realities in terms that more general social or symbolic analyses cannot achieve. In this context, phenomenology offers an analytic method that works to understand and describe in words phenomena as they appear to the consciousnesses of certain peoples. The phenomena most often in question for anthropologists include the workings of time, perception, selfhood, language, bodies, suffering, and morality as they take form in particular lives within the context of any number of social, linguistic, and political forces. In this course, we will explore phenomenological approaches in anthropology by reading and discussing some of the most significant efforts along these lines. Each student will also try their hand at developing a phenomenological account of a specific social or subjective reality through a combination of ethnographic research, participant observation, and ethnographic writing.

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Art and Society in the Lands of Islam

Open, Lecture—Spring

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 multiconfessional 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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Law and Political Economy: Challenging Laissez Faire

Open, Lecture—Year

This yearlong course, based on the professor’s new book—Legal and Political Foundations of Capitalism: The End of Laissez Faire?—introduces students to the emerging Law and Political Economy tradition in economics. The course will deal with four interrelated questions: (1) What does economic regulation mean? (2) What is the relationship between institutions, legal ones in particular, and the economy? (3) How does one theoretically analyze the nature of property rights, money, corporations, and power? (4) How does rethinking the relationship between law and the economy challenge conventional ideas about the nature of economic regulation? The course will seek to understand the nature of power and its relationship to institutions, especially legal ones, by considering property rights and money, the business corporation, constitutional political economy, the links between “free markets” and authoritarianism, colonialism and race, and inequality as it intersects across class, race, and gender lines. We will deal with these questions by focusing on the insights of the Original Institutional Economics and American Legal Realists and their relationship to the classical political economy tradition (especially Adam Smith and Karl Marx). The Law and Political Economy framework will be contrasted with the insights of New Institutional Economics, with the latter’s basis in neoclassical economics. Core questions that will be addressed include: What is laissez faire, and does legal-economic history show any proof of its existence? What is assumed when dueling perspectives advocate “more” or “less” government intervention; and are these, in fact, false binaries that distract from core questions of public policy and key challenges such as climate instability, growing inequality, and threats to democracy? No prior background in economics is required.

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Controversies in Microeconomics

Open, Seminar—Year

What assumptions, methodologies, values, vision, and theoretical foundations do microeconomists incorporate and rely upon for analyzing economic behavior at the individual level? What insights, knowledge, inferences, and/or conclusions can be gleaned through examining characteristics of individual firms, agents, households, and markets in order to understand capitalist society? How do our theories of individual and business behavior inform our interpretation of distributional outcomes? Among other topics, this yearlong seminar in microeconomics will offer an inquiry into economic decision-making vis-à-vis: theories of demand and supply, the individual (agents), households, consumption (consumer choice); theories of production and costs; theories of the firm (business enterprise, corporations); theories of markets and competition; prices and pricing theory; and public policy. This course will provide a rigorous analysis of theory and policy in the neoclassical and broad critical political economy traditions. A central theoretical issue will be an engagement of the “governments versus markets” dichotomy, which is at the heart of neoclassical economics. This important theme will be addressed by investigating the rival treatments of institutions in neoclassical economics (New Institutional Economics) and the Law and Political Economy tradition. Among other topics, we will analyze how these different approaches to institutions and the economy study cost-benefit analysis, Pareto optimality, business competition, and the Coase Theorem. The spring semester will incorporate the study of business history.

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The Rise of the New Right in the United States

Sophomore and Above, Seminar—Fall

Why this course and speaker series/community conversations now? The rise of the New Right is a critically important phenomenon of our time, shaping politics, policies, practices, and daily life for everyone. The insurrection at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, is only one egregious expression of long-term ideas and actions by a newly emboldened collective of right-wing ideologues. The violent challenges to the realities of a racially and ethnically diverse America is not a surprise. Nor is the normalization of White Power politics and ideas within mainstream politics and parties. The varied nature of the New Right’s participants—their ideologies, grievances, and goals—requires deep analysis of their historical roots, as well as their contemporary manifestations. The wide range of platforms and spaces for communicating hate, lies, and calls for violence against perceived enemies require their own responses, including the creation of platforms and spaces that offer analysis and alternatives. Seriously engaging the New Right, attempting to offer explanations for its rise, is key to challenging the authoritarian drift in our current political moment and its uncertain evolution and future. To do so requires our attention. It also requires a transdisciplinary approach, something inherent to our College and to geography as a discipline, be it political, economic, cultural, social, urban, historical, or environmental geography. The goal of this seminar, one that is accompanied by a planned facilitated speaker series and community conversations, is to build on work in geography and beyond and engage a wide array of thinkers from diverse disciplines and backgrounds, institutions, and organizations. In addition to teaching the course itself, my hope is that it can be a vehicle to engage our broader communities—at the College and in our region, as well as by reaching out to our widely dispersed, multigenerational alumni. Pairing the course with a subset of facilitated/moderated speaker series, live-streamed in collaboration with our Alumni Office, offers the chance to bring these classroom conversations and contemporary and pressing course topics, grounded in diverse readings and student engagement, to a much wider audience and multiple communities. In this class, we will seek to understand the origins and rise of the New Right in the United States and elsewhere as it has taken shape in the latter half of the 20th century to the present. We will seek to identify the origins of the New Right and what defines it, explore the varied geographies of the movement and its numerous strands, and identify the constituents of the contemporary right coalition. In addition, we will explore the actors and institutions that have played a role in the expansion of the New Right (e.g., courts, state and local governments, Tea Party, conservative think tanks, lawyers, media platforms, evangelical Christians, militias) and the issues that motivate the movement (e.g., anticommunism, immigration, environment, white supremacy/nationalism, voter suppression, neoliberal economic policies, antiglobalization, free speech). This is a reading-intensive, discussion-oriented, open, large seminar in which we will survey a broad sweep of the recent literature on the New Right. While the class focuses most specifically on the US context, conference papers based on international/comparative case studies are welcome. Students will be required to attend all associated talk and film viewings; write weekly essays and engage colleagues in conversation online the night before seminar; and write two short research papers that link the themes of the class with their own interests, creative products, research agenda, and/or political engagement. Students will also do two associated creative projects/expressions. Transdisciplinary collaborative activities across the College and community are encouraged. Film, performance, written commentary, podcasts, workshops, and other forms of action can provide additional outlets for student creative projects and engagement.

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History of South Asia

Open, Lecture—Fall

South Asia, a region at the geographic center of the world’s most important cultural, religious, and commercial encounters for millennia, has a rich history of cultural exchanges. Its central location on the Indian Ocean provided it with transnational maritime connections to Africa and Southeast Asia, while its land routes facilitated constant contact with the Eurasian continent. The region has witnessed numerous foreign rules, from the early Central Asian Turkic dynasties to the Mughals and, finally, the British. After gaining independence from British colonial rule, the region was eventually partitioned into three different nations—India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh—each with its distinctive form of government. South Asia has produced a significant diaspora worldwide, preserving its cultural heritage and creating further cultural exchanges with the adopted nations, thereby influencing global culture. Despite facing development challenges and political instability, South Asia is rapidly developing within the capitalistic world economy and becoming an important player on the global scene, both politically and culturally. This course will provide students with a survey of South Asia from the era of the early Indus Civilization to the present. Lectures and sources will trace major political events and the region’s cultural, ecological, and economic developments that have significantly shaped South Asian history. Students will analyze both primary and secondary sources, enhancing their understanding of this diverse society. They are expected to engage in lectures, reading, class discussions, group work, and writing to examine the major themes and debates in South Asian history and develop sound arguments.

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History of the Indian Ocean

Open, Seminar—Spring

The Indian Ocean is the third-largest ocean in the world and contributes almost 30 percent to the total oceanic realm of our planet. Current scholars have defined the Indian Ocean to include the oceanic and littoral spaces in the southwest from the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, to the Red Sea in the north, then horizontally through to the South China Sea in the east, and down to Australia in the southeast. Commerce around the Indian Ocean continued as a web of production and trade that spanned across the ports of India, the Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, and Europe. Indian Ocean ports were the fulcrum of maritime trade that precipitated spontaneous transcultural interactions between traders and inhabitants of different geographic regions who mingled there to exchange commodities. Ships followed monsoons or seasonal wind patterns, and sailors were obliged to wait at length for return departures from ports, which was a significant cause of cultural transfer. Various religions, including Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, were mobile across the Indian Ocean networks; and extant beliefs, practices, and material cultures are evidence. The study of the Indian Ocean World (IOW), as some historians have termed it, is a newly emerging field in world history. New evidence from historical research of the last 30 years has recovered the lost significance of this region, which was the center of a robust and complex trade and cultural network for a millennium and that continues today. This course is designed to provide students with a survey of Indian Ocean world history from the medieval to the colonial era. Lectures and sources will help students deepen their knowledge of peoples and cultures around the Indian Ocean and gain a wider appreciation for the transnational trade and cultural and religious networks that existed there. Students will learn to examine that globalization is not a modern phenomenon but, rather, an ongoing aspect of the Indian Ocean. Each week, students will evaluate sources that explore the discrete regions of the Indian Ocean, their people, and the religious networks, commercial exchanges, migrations, and political events that they engender to make a complex and dynamic connected history. Students are expected to engage in lectures, reading, class discussions, group work, and writing to examine the major themes and debates in Indian Ocean history and develop sound arguments.

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“Friendship of the Peoples”: The Soviet Empire From Indigenization to “Russkii mir”

Open, Seminar—Spring

This seminar looks at the history of the Soviet Union through the lens of ethnonational diversity. To be a Soviet person, one had to be identified by “nationality” (closer to our understanding of ethnicity), a category that outlasted class. Soviet policy toward different nationalities varied widely from 1917 to 1991, ranging from the aggressive promotion of indigenous cadres and cultures to the deportation of whole nationalities. The USSR was the largest country in modern history and the first attempt to build a communist state, yet it ended up as a union of federal republics organized along national lines. The nation was supposed to be the vehicle that ushered people through Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist phases of historical development, yet the nations that constituted the Soviet Union outlasted it. We will look at the ways in which Soviet conceptions of nationalities shaped the Soviet project and how being a member of one or another nationality impacted people’s fates. Our readings begin with a brief overview of the diversity of the Russian Empire on the eve of revolution and continue to address the major events of Soviet history through to the continued relevance of the history of Soviet nationalities policies today.

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Freedom of Mind: Medieval and Modern Philosophy

Open, Small Lecture—Spring

This course will continue the investigation undertaken in the fall course. For a description, see Freedom of Mind: Ancient Philosophy, fall semester; theme and writing requirements will be the same as for that course. Our focus will shift, however, to medieval and modern philosophy, with attention to Averroes (Ibn Rush’d), Montaigne, Descartes, and Shaftesbury. Either course may be taken independently, but students are, of course, invited to take both.

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Jewish History I: The People of the Book

Open, Lecture—Fall

This course will provide a survey of the history of the Jewish people, beginning with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE and ending with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 CE—an event which some scholars have argued represented the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the modern world. The class will be focused on two central questions: Firstly, what does it mean when a community that was once oriented around the Temple and the Holy Land went into exile and had to reconstitute itself as a community grounded in the text and the book? Secondly, what does it mean for the Jews to be a people; and how does the idea of peoplehood relate to emergent concepts of nationhood, religion, race, and ethnicity? The class will focus heavily on the emergence of the form of rabbinic literary interpretation known as midrash and the diverse modes of reading Jewish texts that emerged after the destruction of the Temple; the place of Jews under both Christian and Muslim rule; and the forms of Jewish philosophy, literature, and mystical thought that flourished in these differing cultural contexts. We will discuss the historical development of Jewish law (halakhah), how it emerged through contested interpretations of Jewish texts, and how legal concepts had to evolve to respond to the changing sociopolitical conditions under which Jews lived. Though the class will discuss anti-Jewish persecution and violence across the centuries, we will also focus on moments of cultural interchange and cooperation. Students will read both primary sources, including rabbinic texts and Jewish philosophical and mystical treatises, as well as selected secondary source materials. This course is designed to be taken as part of a two-semester sequence with Jewish History II in the spring semester, but students are permitted to enroll in only one semester or the other, based on interest.

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Perspectives on 9/11: Religion, Politics, and Culture

Open, Seminar—Fall

It has now been more than 20 years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. How have perceptions changed about the events that occurred that day? Shortly after the attacks, then-President George W. Bush insisted that Islam was not to blame and, instead, framed the battle ahead as “the war on terror.” But what about those who insisted that what had happened was an almost inevitable result of the “clash of civilizations”? How did Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda frame the narrative and their part in it? What kinds of arguments were presented to justify the attack and the US military interventions that followed? In the wake of the attacks on 9/11, what has been called the “Islamophobia industry” developed and flourished, taking full advantage of new forms of media. What role have both mainstream and alternative media played in how Muslims have been portrayed and the discrimination that they have faced in the years since 9/11? Ten years after the attacks, the 9/11 Memorial and Museum opened in New York City. How have this site and other memorials shaped the collective memory of the events, as well as the curriculum being taught to a generation born after 2001? In addition to the architects of these memorials, artists, writers, and filmmakers have explored the many religious, political, and social dimensions of the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath. How have these works of imagination expanded the ways in which people have made sense of, and found meaning in, painful events? While this seminar is being offered as a religion course, the approach is an interdisciplinary one—drawing upon readings and other materials from a variety of academic, artistic, and literary fields.

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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 analysis, to poetic mystical insights. Contemporary writings written by Muslims will be included 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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Sufi Sciences of the Soul

Open, Seminar—Spring

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. The 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 both the past and the present, this course will explore their systematic exposition of the “sciences of the soul.”

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Contemporary Muslim Novels and Creative Nonfiction

Open, Seminar—Spring

In current global circumstances, Islam is all too frequently represented solely in terms of political and militant ideologies. For those who wish to dig deeper, there are the rich and varied traditions of classical religious scholarship and jurisprudence. But to look at Islam through these lenses alone is to miss alternate sensibilities that are just as important in providing the material from which many Muslims construct their identities. In 1988, the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz became the first Muslim writer to win the Nobel prize in literature. Although Mahfouz was one of the first to adopt the format of the novel, in recent years many new writers emerging from Muslim majority and minority areas around the world have found broad audiences. Their works embrace, resist, reject, transmute, and/or show nostalgia for the beliefs and practices with which the authors grew up or have adopted. As natives, immigrants, third culture, or converts, some of the writers to be explored here 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 will be ones that deal substantially with issues of Muslim identity. All of them were either written in English or have been translated into English. No prior knowledge of Islam is necessary to take this course.

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The Freedomways Workshop

Open, Seminar—Year

The Iowa Writers Workshop was founded by Wilbur Schramm in 1936. Schramm went on to a many-faceted career, which included writing a postwar manual for the Army, called The Nature of Psychological Warfare. He saw the writing workshop as a way to train “the kind of young persons who can become the kind of writers we need” in a future framed by the dominance of the United States. In much American poetry, the consequences of this project of domination are unseen. As is often not true elsewhere, the prison is seen (or unseen) from the point of view of the free. This course looks for the traces of this project of domination and asks what might happen for writers when the domination is seen from the point of view of the dominated and the free from the point of view of the prison. Why are censorship and incarceration such central facts of what it’s meant to be a poet elsewhere? Why hasn’t that been true in the United States? How does Archibald MacLeish’s “a poem should not mean but be” or T. S. Eliot’s “like a patient etherized upon a table” sound beside Adam Wazyk’s “how many times must one wake you up before you recognize your epoch?” or Suzanne Césaire’s surrealism as a tool to recover stolen power, “purified of colonial stupidities”? What is real freedom? What are its ways? What might the poetry be that comes from it? Our text will be an anthology and workbook, The Most Beautiful Sea: Poems & Pathways Toward Poems, including the work of Nas, Elizabeth Bishop, Refaat Alareer, Nazim Hikmet, Marie Howe, Joshua Bennett, Lucille Clifton, Nipsey Hussle, Mahmoud Darwish, Dionne Brand, and the greatest of all poets: Anonymous. You’ll be asked to do in-class writing exercises, write letters with a partner, and bring drafts to conference. Each term, you’ll be required to make an anthology and a chapbook. In the words of Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet, we’ll look together for “The most beautiful sea” that “hasn’t been crossed yet”—aka “the most beautiful words I wanted to tell you/I haven’t said yet.”

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