MA in Muslim Societies and Civilisations

The MA in Muslim Societies and Civilisations is designed and delivered by the IIS, and validated by SOAS University of London. It is designed to provide in-depth study of Islam and Ismaili heritage within the broader dimensions of Muslim societies and civilisations. The MA degree offers students a systematic and critical interdisciplinary examination of Muslim history, cultures and societies. It helps develop in students sound scholarly skills, capacity for critical analysis, methodological and research skills, and clear communications skills.

The MA is aimed at:

  1. Developing and cultivating in students a systematic understanding and engagement with subject knowledge pertaining to the interdisciplinary field of Islamic Studies, with particular focus on societal, civilisational and humanistic-informed approaches. As an example of curricular material employing the aforementioned approaches, due attention will be paid to the IIS’ Secondary Curriculum.
  2. Fostering capacity to conduct an insightful and critical review of relevant literature in all pertinent subject areas, as well as creativity and independence of thought in the application of knowledge.
  3. Fostering capacity to critically evaluate current issues and recent developments in the field and arrive at sound critical insights using research methodologies in the study of humanities and social sciences in Muslim contexts.
  4. The programme will develop in the students a range of practical and intellectual skills that contribute to:
    1. the critical evaluation of scholarship, literature and research in Islamic studies, religious studies, and the humanities at the postgraduate level;
    2. a systematic understanding of how established and emerging techniques of research and enquiry are used to create and interpret knowledge;
    3. independence of thought in the application of knowledge, and the creative and critical handling, presenting and analysis of data.
  5. Throughout the programme, students will acquire a systematic grasp of established and evolving ways of communication and presentation for this field of study, while producing postgraduate-level coursework that shows criticality, clarity, focus and cogency in organization and presentation of arguments and conclusions.

Upon successful completion of the MA students are expected to acquire a series of subject-specific knowledge and intellectual skills, as well as subject-based practical and transferable skills.

The MA curriculum is comprised of the following modules:

MA Modules


History of the Islamic World I


History of the Islamic World II


The Qur’aninfo-icon and its Interpretations


Faith, Ethics and Practice


Literature in Muslim Societies


Developments and Issues in the Contemporary Muslim World


Dissertation (10,000 words)




History of the Islamic World I & II

The paramount aim of the module is to develop in the students an ability to think historically about the ideas, events and institutions that emerged in the Muslim world from its formative period until approximately the 10th century. Ideas – theological, philosophical, moral and political – are to be understood in relation to prevailing forces and circumstances, at any given time, of material (social, political, economic and institutional) factors. A comparative dimension is important for helping students to realise that all history is human history: law, traditions of literary expression, musical composition and recital, the visual arts – whether non-figurative, representational or symbolic – are the hallmarks of all human civilisations.

The module will also challenge the objectively unsustainable dichotomy between ‘pre-Islamic’ and ‘Islamic’ cultures. An analytical study of Muslim history will show, by contrast, that Islam emerged in more than one geographical region, at a number of points in its history, and against the background of pre-existing cultures: Greco-Roman, Indian, Zoroastrian-Persian and sub-Saharan African. This pattern of emergence may in fact be considered one of the defining features of Islamic civilisation. This need not negate the appropriateness of the description of this civilisation as ‘Islamic’. Rather, it points to a dynamic revolutionary process whereby established cultures in the broad span of the Muslim world came, over time, to be adapted, rejected, integrated and transformed into historically-based Islamic definitions and identities.

The Qur'an and its Interpretations

The Qur’an, believed to be of universal relevance, both reflects and transcends the specific conditions and circumstances of the Prophet Muhammad’s mission in the changing environments of Mecca and Medina. Its very status as a sacred text has caused it to be treated in different ways and with varying degrees of intellectual richness, ranging from literalism at one end through legal codes to speculative, esoteric or mystical interpretations at the other. In contemporary times, this diversity is liable to be forgotten, with exclusively legalistic and political-ideological positions brought to the fore instead. Therefore, it is essential to retrieve knowledge of this varied past.

To this end, the module will confront a range of subjects and issues related to the Qur’an and its reception, from the meaning of the idea of Revelation to the process of the compilation of the Qur’an to the canonisation of the Qur’anic text as the premier source of fiqh (jurisprudence). The Shi’i principle of living interpretation and the authority of the Imam that emerged as a counterpoint to the overwhelmingly textualist emphasis will receive particular attention in the module.

Faith, Ethics and Practice

The first aim of this module is to explore faith, not in the restricted sense of an idea or an emotional attitude, but as an integrated phenomenon consisting of ideas, affects and creative action in society, amid historically given circumstances.

The module will then proceed to survey the elaboration of Qur’anic faith, religious authority and ethical ideas in several different genres which came to prominence in classical Islamic civilisation: jurisprudence and law (fiqhinfo-icon and shariah); philosophy; and mysticism. The social and political context of these ideas will be borne in mind, not as mere historical background, but also as illustrative of the unity of material and spiritual or intellectual life. As it would be highly artificial to regard religious faith and ethics as discrete or separable phenomena, ethics will not be treated here as a distinct, special subject.

The module will also deal with ritual and spaces of worship. These subjects are included in the module for three main reasons. First, while ritual is part of the practice of faith, it is not the whole of it. Secondly, Islamic rites share the characteristic of fiqh and shariah mentioned above, namely fluidity and variability dictated by time and context. Thirdly, ritual has the same susceptibility to the rigidity of formalism as formulations of belief and codes of law. In this light, forms and rites of prayer in particular will be examined with respect to their historical and contextual development, as well as their variety.

In communal practice (as distinguished from individual choice and inclination), rites require standardization. This in turn requires them to be mandated by what is understood, in the particular school of Islam concerned, as a locus of legitimate authority. The prevailing principle in Ismaili Jamats is that the community’s practice of faith is legitimised by the authority of the Imaminfo-icon of the time. Selected case-studies will be considered to illustrate this principle.

Literature in Muslim Societies

Literature in an important aspect of complex civilisations, such as Islamic civilisations, and the complexity of the civilisation is reflected in the complexity of its literary productions.

This module will examine such complexity against the background of the uses of language in human societies. Every language with a lettered tradition has a unique scope as well as limits in the expression of human experience. These are reflected alike in representations of nature, the moral order, and the human soul in its quest for salvation. It will be one of the aims of this module to note the treatment of these themes in the languages of Islam (even if only in translation). To this end, the module will employ an inductive approach, using examples from both classical and contemporary literature diachronically in order to illustrate the proposed themes and their development across time.

This idea of literature encompasses both oral and written forms, sacred as well as worldly themes, and fictional as well as empirical narratives. A selection of illustrative samples will stimulate in the student a feeling for the beauty of the verbal composition in the service of expressing (a) moral or transcendent ideals; (b) perspectives on reality, as in travelogues, biographies, scientific treatises etc.; (c) the imaginative world of mythical and legendary narratives; (d) the quest for self-transformation. Texts from smaili history, which reproduce much of the above range, will be accorded special attention. Also, aspects of material and visual culture that relate to literary productions will be highlighted in the module.

Developments and Issues in the Contemporary Muslim World

The module will undertake a thematic examination of ideas, institutions, and socio-economic developments characteristic of the Muslim world from the beginning of the 19th century to the present. The module will also be particularly concerned with critically reviewing the long-prevalent assumption that modernity is a singular process dictated by the historically contingent events and circumstances of European history. It will be important to appreciate that, in fact, there are in the world today, potentially as well as in actuality, differing models of modernity. The issue of modernity in the Muslim world will be addressed in the light of this principle. Similarly, the view, once dominant and still persistent, that the Muslim world has been an essentially passive recipient of the impact of western modernity will be critically assessed with supporting evidence, highlighting a range of developments that emerged from within a variety of Muslim contexts.

The module will also hone in on a recurrent element in modern Islamist discourses: the assumption that there are clear dividing lines between ideas and practices within the broad spectrum of Muslim communities which may be branded, according to pre-given criteria, as either ‘Islamic’ or ‘non-Islamic’. This pattern of thinking is closely tied to claims of orthodoxy and heterodoxy in regard to doctrine and practice. Although the outlook entailed in this assumption has antecedents, the module will show how the relation between such ideas and practices and their modern versions is likely to be less than straightforward. More importantly, the actual history of Islam would appear to belie this dogmatic standpoint and expose its basis in power-politics. Indeed, a section of the module will be dedicated to the ways in which authority and community in Muslim countries are built and legitimated, and it will also include a comparative overview of non-Muslim contexts.