Undergraduate Module Descriptor

ARA3195: Islam Contested: Faith, Thought and Politics in the Contemporary World

This module descriptor refers to the 2017/8 academic year.

Module Content

Syllabus Plan

Whilst the module’s precise content may vary from year to year, it is envisaged that the syllabus will cover some or all of the topics detailed below.


The module will begin with an overview of late pre-modern movements for Islamic reform, leading to a theoretical discussion of approaches to the categories of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’, which frame the module, in the study of contemporary Islam. The rise of modern salafism will be considered as a response to the challenges of colonial modernity and a stand against traditional Islam, laying foundations for our understanding of a major fault-line in contemporary Islam. Study of the emergence of Islamism from salafism clarifies major intellectual, ideological and political characteristics of this pervasive strand of contemporary Islam: by tracking the evolution of Islamist discourse against the shifting 20th century context, the scene is set for conceptualizing recent Islamist self-transformations and reinventions.

Building on these foundations, the module will map competing trends and camps in contemporary Sunni Islam, opening onto a discussion of the issue of who speaks for this today, addressing claims to authority, credentials, media and audiences, and giving due attention to the impact of pertinent global cultural and political trends. A detailed exploration of the characteristic self-understandings, arguments and methodologies of contemporary salafis and their traditionalist opponents helps build a working approach to many actors within the complex world of contemporary Sunni Islam, so that defining arguments can be identified and random examples analyzed. The picture is completed with an overview of modernist, liberal and progressive trends, especially in their stand against Islamism/salafism. Shifting to the Shi’i arena, the module will explore significant transformations and contestations in thought and activism, particularly as these relate to authority, power and the state. It then addresses two burning issues in contemporary Islam: the nature of state and polity, especially the defining features of an Islamic state and the relationship between Islam and democracy; and competing discourses concerning jihad and the legitimacy of political violence. There is the opportunity to analyse transformations and contestations across the contemporary Muslim arena in such key spheres as approaches to the Qur’an and Islamic law, and Muslim spirituality, especially in relation to Sufism (Islamic mysticism). Following an exploration of challenges and conflicts associated with Islam’s new global and minority contexts, the module culminates in a final class debate tackling the role of the west and possible end result scenarios in the ‘war’ for Muslim minds and souls.

Indicative class topics:

Colonial modernity & Islamic responses

From salafism to Islamism; from gradualism to revolution

Authority & anarchy in the Sunni arena: contested theologies, pieties & politics

Shi’i Islam: from quietism to activism, revolution & power

Politics, shari’a & the state: Islamic state or Muslim democracy?

Jihad: legitimate & illegitimate violence

Reading the Qur’an: new hermeneutics

Shari’a: competing approaches

Sufism challenged & transformed

New thought for new contexts: global, ‘minority’ &‘diasporic’ Islam

Debating the future: Islam, the west, & the ‘war’ for Muslim minds and souls

Learning and Teaching

This table provides an overview of how your hours of study for this module are allocated:

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

...and this table provides a more detailed breakdown of the hours allocated to various study activities:

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching activities1111 x 1 hour lectures
Scheduled learning and teaching activities1111 x 1 hour lecture
Guided independent study120Weekly reading and follow up for seminars and class discussions, debates and short group briefings
Guided independent study158Reading and preparing for summative assessment individual oral presentation; researching, preparing and writing 2 summative assignments

Online Resources

This module has online resources available via ELE (the Exeter Learning Environment).

ELE – http://vle.exeter.ac.uk/