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

Module titleIslam Contested: Faith, Thought and Politics in the Contemporary World
Module codeARA3195
Academic year2017/8
Module staff

Dr Mustafa Baig (Lecturer)

Duration: Term123
Duration: Weeks


Number students taking module (anticipated)


Description - summary of the module content

Module description

An understanding of contemporary Islam is indispensable to making sense of current affairs and the world around us. Public debates refer to a ‘crisis’ in Islam and a ‘war’ for Muslim minds and souls, while policy, security and academic communities struggle to anticipate unfolding Islamic trends. This module will introduce you to the world of Islamic faith, thought and politics today, paying particular attention to the crucial theme of contestation over Islam and its application. If you want to tackle the key issues behind and in contemporary Islam while understanding how modern history drives it, and with an eye to possible future developments, then this module is for you.

No specific prior skills or experience are needed to take this module, and there are no co-requisite modules, but you are expected to have a general interest in the role of Islam today, the modern history of the Arab-Muslim world, and current affairs. 

Module aims - intentions of the module

The module aims to develop a balanced understanding of contemporary Islam and Muslim faith, thought and politics worldwide. It will tackle a series of key issues: Why is Islamic authority today contested and fragmented? What has happened to Muslim devotional life, Sufism, learned Islamic cultures and Islamic law in the shadow of ideology and politics? Are there viable new approaches to the Qur’an? Who wants an Islamic state, and what are the rival Islamic visions of society and state? Why did Islamism rise to prominence and where is it heading? Is jihadism here to stay? What are the defining stances of traditional and progressive Muslim trends? By studying such questions, different kinds of texts, and relevant contexts, you will gain the skills to discuss aspects of contemporary Islam and competing Islamic actors and agendas in current affairs in a balanced and analytical manner.

In addition to a wide range of academic literature, the module aims to integrate current media reports, audio-visual and web-based materials, and translated texts by contemporary Islamic thinkers and activists, providing you with opportunities to consolidate your generic skills of textual analysis and intellectual and critical enquiry. The module encourages discussion of future trends and possibilities, inviting you to anticipate unfolding trends in the world of Islam much as policy communities grapple with this, encouraging you to develop the skills to argue evidence-informed cases and to formulate strategic thinking. Learning and skills opportunities make the module relevant to a broad range of research and employment contexts, while the knowledge it imparts is relevant to contexts requiring expertise on the Middle East, the Muslim world, politics, security and religion in the modern world.

The module will also provide you with a level of knowledge that will enable you to discuss this not only in selected cases, but also in global terms. As a grasp of pertinent historical factors is indispensable to understanding contemporary Islamic realities the module aims to provide you with knowledge of the major historical developments that continue to drive contemporary Islam, from the experience of colonial modernity to the rise of nation-states, the decades of the Islamic ‘resurgence’, and the emergence of radical, anti- and post-Islamism in the global arena. This will equip you with the necessary perspective and understanding to critically assess media analyses of aspects of contemporary Islam. 

Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

ILO: Module-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 1. Demonstrate advanced knowledge and a nuanced understanding of contemporary Islam, encompassing its evolution and diversification, and its major constitutive and competing religious, ideological and intellectual trends;
  • 2. Identify, analyse and account for the changed expressions of contemporary Islam compared with its antecedents;
  • 3. Demonstrate an informed alertness to the central concerns and preoccupations of contemporary Islam, the changed credentials of its 20th century spokespersons and possible future challenges;
  • 4. Make effective use of the relevant secondary scholarly literature and a representative selection of primary sources in translation to research aspects of contemporary Islam;
  • 5. Critically engage with discussions of contemporary Islam in scholarly and other literatures and in mainstream media;
  • 6. Understand and critically evaluate the challenges involved in the study of contemporary Islam whilst demonstrating critical self-awareness as a student of the subject;

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 7. Demonstrate advanced knowledge of a range of religious, intellectual and ideological trends and their engagement in the contemporary world;
  • 8. Appreciate the value of a historical-contextual approach to the study of Islamic thought and movements and alongside this demonstrate contextual analysis of trends, ideas and arguments;
  • 9. Critically assess ideas, arguments, evidence and texts;

ILO: Personal and key skills

On successfully completing the module you will be able to...

  • 10. Locate, select, digest and effectively organize, synthesise and analyse material from a wide range of sources and effectively time-manage all elements of this;
  • 11. Prepare and effectively deliver an oral presentation and address audience questions related to it; and
  • 12. Produce coherent, reasoned and supported argumentation in writing, in individual and group oral presentation and in debate, including the development of persuasive strategy- or policy-oriented cases;

Syllabus plan

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

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

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


Formative assessment

Form of assessmentSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Short group briefings on a pre-assigned topic & class debatesBriefings: 5-10 minutes1-12Verbal & peer assessed

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Individual presentation plus question & answer session on a pre-assigned topic4030 minutes1-12Verbal
Extended research paper 503,000 words1-10, 12Written & verbal
Short paper 101,000 words1-10, 12Written & verbal


Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
Extended research paper Extended research paper of 3,000 words (50%)1-10, 12August/September re-assessment period
Short paperShort paper of 1,000 words (10%)1-10, 12August/September re-assessment period
Individual presentation plus question & answer session on a pre-assigned topicEssay of 2,500 words setting out your presentation (40%)1-10, 12August/September re-assessment period

Re-assessment notes

If you have been referred/deferred for the presentation you will complete a written summary of this presentation (2,500 words), which will constitute 40% of the module assessment.


Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

Basic reading:


Ibrahim Abu Rabi’, ed., The Contemporary Arab Reader on Political Islam (London, 2010)

John L. Esposito, ed. in chief, Encyclopedia of the Islamic World (NY, 2009)

Roxanne L. Euben & M. Qasim Zaman, ed., Princeton Readings in Islamist Thought: Texts and contexts from al-Banna to Bin Laden (Princeton, 2009)

Samira Haj, Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition:reform, rationality, and modernity (Stanford, 2009)

Meri Hatina, ed., Guardians of Faith in Modern Times: ‘Ulama’ in the Middle East (Leiden, 2009)

Charles Kurzman, ed., Liberal Islam: a source-book (New York, 1998)

Joseph E.B. Lumbard, ed., Islam, Fundamentalism and the Betrayal of Tradition: essays by western Muslim scholars (Bloomington, 2004)

Muhammad Khalid Masud, A. Salvatore and M. van Bruinessen, ed., Islam and Modernity: key issues and debates (Edinburgh, 2009)

Roel Meijer, ed., Global Salafism: Islam’s new religious movement (London, 2009)

Vali Nasr, The Shia Revival: how conflicts within Islam will shape the future (NY, 2006)

Ali Rahnema, ed., Pioneers of Islamic Revival (London, 1994)

Omid Safi, ed., Progressive Muslims: on gender, justice and pluralism (Oxford, 2003)

Suha Taji-Farouki & B. M. Nafi, ed., Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century (London, 2004)

Suha Taji-Farouki, ed., Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an (Oxford, 2004)

Muhammad Qasim Zaman, Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age: religious authority and internal criticism (Cambridge, 2012)

Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources


Module has an active ELE page

Key words search

Islam, contemporary, Salafism, Islamism, jihad, jihadism, politics, anarchy, revolution, colonialism, democracy, feminism, war, political Islam, Shi’ism, Sufism, modernity, Islamic movements, radicalism, liberalism, al-Qa‘ida

Credit value30
Module ECTS


Module pre-requisites


Module co-requisites


NQF level (module)


Available as distance learning?


Origin date