Islamic Studies

Islamic studies refers to the academic study of Islam. Islamic studies can be seen under at least two perspectives:

  • From a secular perspective, Islamic studies is a field of academic research whose subject is Islam as religion and civilization.
  • From a traditional Islamic perspective, Islamic studies is an umbrella term for the “religious sciences” (‘Ulum al-din, distinct from non-religious sciences such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, astronomy and philosophy), pursued by the ulama i.e. the Islamic scholarly class.


Ulum al-din

In a Muslim context, Islamic studies is the umbrella term for the Islamic sciences (Ulum al-din), i.e. the traditional forms of religious knowledge and thought. These include kalam (Islamic theology) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), Uṣūl al-Fiqh (methodology/principles of Jurisprudence), ḥadīth (traditions), ʿulūm al-ḥadīth (hadith criticismnaskh or al-nāsikh waʾl-mansūkh (abrogations), Usul al-Din (theology), Asma’ al-Rijal (biographies of Hadith scholars), Sirah (Biography (of the Prophet) and Maghazi (Battles of the Prophet). (Studied in institutions in the Muslim world.

A subset of the Islamic sciences are `Ulum ul-Qur’an, (the sciences of the Quran). These include “how, where and when the Quran was revealed”, and its transformation from an oral tradition to the written form, etc., and Ilm ul-Tajwid (proper recitation), Ilm ul-Tafsir (exegesis of the Quran). (In this context “science” is the translation of the Arabic term for “knowledge, learning, lore,” etc., rather than “science” or natural science as commonly defined in English and other languages—i.e. the use of observation, testable explanations to build and organize knowledge and predictions about the natural world/universe. It is not to be confused with the scientific work of Muslims such as Avicenna or Nasir al-Din al-Tusi.)

The religious sciences/Islamic studies “within Islamic civilization, … began to take their present shape and to develop within competing schools to form a literary tradition in Middle Arabic” in Iraq in the ninth century CE, according to Oxford Islamic Studies.

Islamic Studies in academia

Ilkhanate Empire ruler, Ghazan, studying the Quran

Ilkhanate Empire ruler, Ghazan, studying the Quran

In addition to the traditional Islamic sciences, Islamic Studies in the modern Muslim world incorporates more recent fields generally considered secular in the West, such as Islamic science and Islamic economics.

In a non-Muslim context, Islamic studies generally refers to an academic multidisciplinary “studies” program—similar to other such programs (environmental studies, Middle East studies, race studies, urban studies, etc.)—where scholars from diverse disciplines (history, culture, literature, art) participate and exchange ideas pertaining to the particular field of study. (According to one Muslim scholar, Hossein Nasr, the difference between traditional religious sciences and secular Islamic studies is that the Muslim sciences “provide all the answers to questions posed by modern western orientalists about the structure and text of the Koran, except, of course, those questions that issue from the rejection of the Divine Origin of the Koran”, a rejection “usually hidden under the guise of rationality and objective scholarship. For Muslims there has never been the need to address these ‘problems’ …”)

Such secular academic programs often include the historical study of Islam: Islamic civilization, Islamic history and historiography, Islamic law, Islamic theology and Islamic philosophy. Specialists in the discipline apply methods adapted from several ancillary fields, ranging from Biblical studies and classical philology to modern history, legal history and sociology. A recent trend, particularly since 9/11, has been the study of contemporary Islamist groups and movements by academics from the social sciences or in many cases by journalists, although since such works tend to be written by non-Arabists they belong outside the field of Islamic studies proper.

Scholars in the field of academic Islamic studies are often referred to as “Islamicists” and the discipline traditionally made up the bulk of what used to be called Oriental studies. In fact, some of the more traditional Western universities still confer degrees in Arabic and Islamic studies under the primary title of “Oriental studies”. This is the case, for example, at the University of Oxford, where Classical Arabic and Islamic studies have been taught since as early as the 16th century, originally as a sub-division of Divinity. This latter context gave early academic Islamic studies its Biblical studies character and was also a consequence of the fact that throughout early-Modern Western Europe the discipline was developed by churchmen whose primary aim had actually been to refute the tenets of Islam. Despite their now generally secular, academic approach, many non-Muslim Islamic studies scholars have written works which are widely read by Muslims, while in recent decades an increasing number of Muslim-born scholars have trained and taught as academic Islamicists in Western universities. Many leading universities in Europe and the US offer academic degrees at both undergraduate and postgraduate level in Islamic studies, in which students can also study Arabic and therefore begin to read Islamic texts in the original language. Because Arabic and Islamic studies are generally seen as inseparable in academia, named undergraduate degrees that combine the two are usually still categorized as single-subject degrees rather than as ‘joint’ or ‘combined’ degrees like, for example, those in Arabic and Politics. This rationale explains why, because of their heavy emphasis on the detailed study of Islamic texts in Classical Arabic, some institutions – such as the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London and Georgetown University in Washington DC – only accept graduates who already have degree-level Arabic and a strong background in the academic study of Islam onto their Masters programmes in Islamic studies. Such institutions will generally direct students new to the field and with little or no Arabic to broader master’s degrees in Middle Eastern studies or Middle East politics, in which Arabic can be studied ab initio.

A recent HEFCE report emphasises the increasing, strategic importance for Western governments since 9/11 of Islamic studies in higher education and also provides an international overview of the state of the field.


A Persian miniature of Shah Abu'l Ma‘ali a scholar.

A Persian miniature of Shah Abu’l Ma‘ali a scholar.

The first attempt to understand Islam as a topic of modern scholarship (as opposed to a Christological heresy) was within the context of 19th-century Christian European Oriental studies.

In the years 1821 to 1850, the Royal Asiatic Society in England, the Société Asiatique in France, the Deutsche Morgenländische Gesellschaft in Germany, and the American Oriental Society in the United States were founded.

In the second half of the 19th century, philological and historical approaches were predominant. Leading in the field were German researchers like Theodore Nöldeke ’s study on the history of the Quran, or Ignaz Goldziher ’s work on the prophetic tradition.

Western orientalists and Muslim scholars alike preferred to interpret the history of Islam in a conservative way. They did not question the traditional account of the early time of Islam, of Muhammad and how the Quran was written.

In the 1970s, the Revisionist School of Islamic Studies questioned the uncritical adherence to traditional Islamic sources and started to develop a new picture of the earliest times of Islam by applying the historical-critical method.


History of Islam

Main article: History of Islam

To understand the history of Islam provides the indispensable basis to understand all aspects of Islam and its culture. Themes of special interest are:


Main articles: Islamic theology and Kalam

Kalam (علم الكلام) is one of the “religious sciences” of Islam. In Arabic, the word means “discussion” and refers to the Islamic tradition of seeking theological principles through dialectic. A scholar of kalam is referred to as a mutakallim.


Main article: Sufism

Sufism (تصوف taṣawwuf) is a mystic tradition of Islam based on the pursuit of spiritual truth as it is gradually revealed to the heart and mind of the Sufi (one who practices Sufism).

It might also be referred to as Islamic mysticism. While other branches of Islam generally focus on exoteric aspects of religion, Sufism is mainly focused on the direct perception of truth or God through mystic practices based on divine love. Sufism embodies a number of cultures, philosophies, central teachings and bodies of esoteric knowledge.


Main articles: Sharia and Fiqh

Islamic jurisprudence relates to everyday and social issues in the life of Muslims. It is divided in fields like:

Key distinctions include those between fiqhhadith and ijtihad.


Main article: Islamic philosophy

Islamic philosophy is a part of Islamic studies. It is a longstanding attempt to create harmony between faith, reason or philosophy, and the religious teachings of Islam. A Muslim engaged in this field is called a Muslim philosopher.

It is divided in fields like:


Main articles: Islam and science and Science in the medieval Islamic world

Islam and science is science in the context of traditional religious ideas of Islam, including its ethics and prohibitions. A Muslim engaged in this field is called a Muslim scientist

This is not the same as science as conducted by any Muslim in a secular context. Certain liberal movements in Islam eschew the practice of Islamic science, arguing that science should be considered separate from religion as it is today in the West. As in Catholicism however, believers argue that the guiding role of religion in forming ethics of science cannot be ignored and must impose absolute constraints on inquiry.

Science in medieval Islam examines the full range of scientific investigation in the Muslim world, whether performed within a religious or secular context. Significant progress in science was made in the Muslim world during the Middle Ages, especially during the Islamic Golden Age, which is considered a major period in the history of science.

  • Timeline of Islamic science and engineering
  • Alchemy and chemistry in medieval Islam
  • Astronomy in medieval Islam
    • Islamic astrology
  • Inventions in medieval Islam
  • Mathematics in medieval Islam
  • Medicine in medieval Islam
    • Ophthalmology in medieval Islam
  • Physics in medieval Islam
  • Psychology in medieval Islam


Main article: Islamic literature

This field includes the study of modern and classical Arabic and the literature written in those languages. It also often includes other modern, classic or ancient languages of the Middle East and other areas that are or have been part of, or influenced by, Islamic culture, such as Hebrew, Turkish, Persian, Urdu, Azerbaijanian and Uzbek.


Main article: Islamic architecture

Islamic architecture is the entire range of architecture that has evolved within Muslim culture in the course of the history of Islam. Hence the term encompasses religious buildings as well as secular ones, historic as well as modern expressions and the production of all places that have come under the varying levels of Islamic influence.

It is very common to mistake Persian architecture for Islamic architecture.


Main article: Islamic art

Islamic visual art has, throughout history, been mainly abstract and decorative, portraying geometric, floral, Arabesque, and calligraphic designs. Unlike the strong tradition of portraying the human figure in Christian art, Islamic art is typically distinguished as not including depictions of human beings. The lack of portraiture is due to the fact that early Islam forbade the painting of human beings, especially the Prophet, as Muslims believe this tempts followers of the Prophet to idolatry. This prohibition against human beings or icons is called aniconism. Despite such a prohibition, depictions of human beings do occur Islamic art, such as that of the Mughals, demonstrating a strong diversity in popular interpretation over the pre-modern period. Increased contact with the Western civilization may also have contributed to human depictions in Islamic art in modern times.

Comparative religion

Main article: Islam and other religions

Islamic comparative religion is the study of religions in the view of Islam. This study may be undertaken from a conservative Muslim perspective, which often sees Judaism and Christianity as having been originally similar to Islam, and later developing away from the root monotheist religion. However, some liberal movements within Islam dispute the conservative view as being ahistorical; they claim that Islam is the end-result rather than the origin point of monotheist thought.


Main article: Islamic economic jurisprudence

Islamic economics is economics in accordance with Islamic law. Because the Qur’an spoke against usury in the context of early Muslim society, it generally entails trying to remove or redefine interest rates from financial institutions. In doing so, Islamic economists hope to produce a more “Islamic society”. However, liberal movements within Islam may deny the need for this field, since they generally see Islam as compatible with modern secular institutions and law.


Main article: Islamic psychology

Islam and Modernity

An interesting field of study is how Islam reacts on the contact with Western modernity, and how Islam can catch up with modernity without betraying itself. These studies comprise Islamic history, Islamic theology, Islamic Mysticism, and Islamic philosophy, as well as the study of Western philosophy, sociology and politology.


  • Die Welt des Islams (Brill)
  • Islamic Law and Society (Brill)
  • Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations (Routledge)
  • Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam (The Max Schloessinger Memorial Foundation, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
  • Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies open access (Lancaster University)
  • Journal of Islamic Studies (Oxford University Press)
  • Hakeem Al Hind (Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit Kerala, India)
  • Al Mahara (Maharajas College, Kochin, India)
  • The Muslim World (Blackwell Publishing)
  • Studia Islamica (Maisonneuve & Larose)
  • Pax Islamica (Mardjani Publishing House)
  • Journal of Islam in Asia, International Islamic University Malaysia
  • Al-Qantara, Spanish National Research Council

See also

Secular perspective

Religious perspective

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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