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The World of Shi’i Islam: History, Art and Culture


Admission requirements

This course is open to:

  • Students of the BA programme Midden-Oostenstudies / Islamstudies;

  • Students of the other tracks of the BA programme Midden-Oostenstudies who have been admitted, by the Board of Examiners, to the Shadowprogramme;

  • Students of the minor Islam: Religion and Society.


This course offers an introduction into the history, art and culture of the Shi’i world. Shi’i Islam not only plays a large role in present-day Iran and Iraq, but also in many other regions of the world, in Asia and the Middle East: for example in Lebanon, India, Yemen, Pakistan, Bahrein, Syria and Turkey. Today, Shi’i communities can be found around the globe. In this course, various aspects and characteristics of Shi’i Islam in a broad geographical framework will be examined. Past and present are closely connected in the world of the Shi’a. Insight into the long history of the Shi’a in the Islamic world contributes to a better understanding of the position of Shi’i Islam in all its varieties today. We will look for example at developments in Iran, which has been a Twelver-Shi’i state since the 16th century, and where the Shi’a is closely interwoven with politics, especially since the revolution of 1979. We will explore the global features of contemporary Isma’ili Shi’ism, which can boast a fascinating history that leads us for example to the fortresses of the Assassins in Syria and Iran. We will see how one of the least well-known branches of the Shi’a, the Zaydiyya, is related to the Houthi movement in present-day Yemen. While the focus of the course is on the historical background and doctrines of the three branches of the Shi’a today, we will also study other groups related to Shi’i Islam, such as the Alevis in Turkey, the Alawis in Syria and the Druze community in Lebanon. There will be ample attention for the material culture of Shi’i Islam, as exemplified by the grand pilgrimage complexes scattered around the Islamic world and the rich manuscript culture connected to Shi’i textual traditions, in Arabic, Persian and other languages. Material culture is connected in many cases to devotional practices, such as the great variety of Muharram rituals among Shi’i communities around the globe. The performative aspect of Shi’i Islam, of which a famous example is the ritual theatre or ta’ziya in commemoration of the events in Karbala in 680 CE, will be covered too in this course. Participants will be able to focus on their own area of interest within the Shi’i world by writing a review of a book of their choice related to the broad topic of the course.

Course objectives

  • Knowledge and comprehension of Shi’ism and the Shi’i world from a multidisciplinary perspective.

  • The ability to interpret and critically reflect on academic writings regarding the Shi’a.


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction

A combination of lectures and seminars.

  • Lecture

Attendance is not obligatory for lectures. The conveners do not need to be informed in case of missed classes. Information and knowledge provided in the lectures greatly contribute to the subsequent courses of the programme. In order to pass the course, students are strongly advised to attend all sessions.

  • Seminar

Attendance and active participation are obligatory for seminars. Students are required to prepare for and attend all sessions. The convenors need to be informed without delay of any classes missed for a good reason (i.e. due to unforeseen circumstances such as illness, family issues, problems with residence permits, the Dutch railways in winter, etc.). In these cases it is up to the discretion of the convener(s) of the course whether or not the missed class will have to be made up with an extra assignment. The maximum of such absences during a semester is two. Being absent without notification and/or more than two times can result in exclusion from the term end exams and a failing grade for the course.

Assessment method


Five written assignments in the first block of the course
Written examination with short open questions
Paper: writing a book review
Oral presentation on the book review


| Five written assignments in the first block of the course | 20% | | Written examination with short open questions | 30% | | Paper: writing a book review | 40% |
Oral presentation on the book review | 10% |


Resit of the written examination and the paper (70%).

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

  • Najam Haider. Shīʻī Islam: An Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). Online available via University Library (course book)

  • Farhad Daftary. A History of Shi’i Islam (London: IB Tauris, 2013), chapter 6: “The Nusayris or ‘Alawis”, pp. 175-190.

  • Other reading materials will be announced and/or distributed during the course.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available on the website.