Masterseminar “What is Islam?”: An interdisciplinary exploration of the meaning of Islam
Course infoSchedule
Course moduleFTR-RSMAI103
Credits (ECTS)10
Language of instructionEnglish
Offered byRadboud University; Faculty of Philosophy, Theology and Religious Studies; Opleiding Religiestudies;
Contactperson for the course
dr. H.J. Viersen
Other course modules lecturer
dr. H.J. Viersen
Other course modules lecturer
dr. H.J. Viersen
Other course modules lecturer
Academic year2023
SEM1  (04/09/2023 to 28/01/2024)
Starting block
Course mode
Registration using OSIRISYes
Course open to students from other facultiesNo
Waiting listNo
Placement procedure-
After finishing this course you will:
  • have detailed knowledge of the different contemporary theoretical approaches to Islam;
  • be able to adapt this theoretical knowledge to study other phenomena, such as religions generally, but also questions of identity, culture, and tradition;
  • will have become acquainted with various cultural, artistic, and philosophical trends in the Islamic tradition;
  • be able to use this knowledge to critically reflect on both contemporary issues with regard to Islam as well as Islam’s historiography.
Islam is the central link that unites the community of around two billion Muslims – roughly one quarter of the world population. For this reason, a good understanding of Islam is of utmost importance. To study Islam from an academic perspective, however, we must ask ourselves what exactly Islam is. What is it that unites this gigantic group of people with such diverse social, cultural and linguistic backgrounds? Of course it is obviously relevant to point out they are united in their religion, but this can never give us a complete answer. After all, what is religion to begin with? Moreover, how do you deal with the fact that most Muslims do not agree with each other on fundamental religious matters? Yet, if religion cannot function as a common denominator, what can? Is it Islamic culture that binds the community together? Its system of law, also referred as the sharia?

Using the recently published book What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic by Shahab Ahmed, this interdisciplinary course will engage with these and other questions that can help us gain a deeper insight into Islam. We will take up the questions that he poses and the contradictions that he has indicated in the various perspectives on Islam to study the philosophical, mystical, juridical, artistic, and poetic traditions in the Islamic tradition from a new vantage point. We will also learn about the different definitions of Islam that have been put forward and critically discuss Ahmed’s own dissatisfaction with these various positions. This way the student will become acquainted with a wide range of conceptions of Islam and how they have influenced the study of not just Islam itself, but religious traditions generally. Finally, we will go into Ahmed’s own alternative conception of Islam to see how it may (or may not) help us come to grips with the phenomenon known as Islam.

This course offers a theoretical framework for approaching Islam, but also other religions. We will not, however, stick to theory alone. During the course we will look at recent, historical, and hypothetical examples offered by both the teacher and students to test how different conceptions of Islam affect how Islam is studied and how it is lived. We will look at how these conceptions have a real influence on politics, law, education and the individual lives of Muslims. Thus, the students are not merely taught to think abstractly about what Islam might mean, but what how these abstract philosophical issues can have a real effect on society and daily life.
This course is part of the Master "Islam, Politics, and Society".
Presumed foreknowledge
No previous knowledge is required to take this course. Some acquaintance with central aspects and concepts of the Islamic tradition is highly recommended. Should you be in doubt about whether you are sufficiently prepared to take this course, you may contact the teacher.
Test information

The course will be graded on the basis of
  • Active participation in class
  • A live presentation of the reading for a particular week.
  • An abstract on a possible paper topic
  • A final paper

Required materials
Title:What is Islam
Author:Shahab Ahmad
Publisher:Princeton University Press

Instructional modes
Attendance MandatoryYes

Test weight1
Test typePaper
OpportunitiesBlock SEM1, Block SEM2