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RELS 399 Islamic Origins: did Muhammad exist?

MW 2-3:20 PM, Kauke 141

Sarah Mirza: smirza@wooster.edu, 330-287-1939

Office hours: MW 1-2 PM or by appointment, Kauke 005

This course is about a particular subfield in Islamic Studies that is highly politicized, prone to vicious infighting, home to ultra-skeptical arguments that challenge the conventional history of the origins of Islam, as well as brilliant historical insights and circuitous reasoning alike. There is a lot to be learned from this, in relation to both methods applied in the history of Islam and the discipline of Religious Studies. We will be repeatedly introduced to the conventional/“traditionalist” history of the origins of Islam as based on classical Islamic sources, usually by way of our authors dismissing it, and that will be the extent of our exposure to it. Our focus instead will be on methods and evidence used by scholars of Islamic Origins, organized under various topics of debate. This course demands that you be open to seriously considering extremely skeptical arguments, as well as examining how a single inscription on a coin or building can overturn an entire historical narrative. The course is reading intensive, and the readings are highly technical. I will help you navigate them, concerning both their overarching concerns and details, but I expect you to read them in relation to each other and to develop interest, early on in the semester, in tracing the history of particular arguments as the subjects of your papers.

Keep these questions in mind as you prepare for discussion:

  1. How is the historical evidence used and which methods are applied to its analysis?
  2. Does any given argument characterize Islamic Origins as an unusual historical case?
  3. Which larger academic frameworks are being applied to a particular argument (including influence from other fields)?
  4. What are the criteria for historical accuracy used by a given argument, and what should our criteria in this field be?

Required materials:

Fred Donner, Muhammad and the Believers (Belknap, 2012) ISBN-13: 978-0674064140

Donner is a key figure in the field of Islamic Origins, and we will be reading his latest book in its entirety. Use this book throughout the course to get your bearings in the overall narrative of Islamic Origins.

All readings except for Donner’s book are available as PDF on this site.

It is your responsibility to obtain the readings for the paper assignments.