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Anthropology of Muslim Societies


Admission requirements

Admission to the MA Middle Eastern Studies, to the MA Middle Eastern Studies (research) or another relevant MA. Students should have had approximately 30 EC worth of courses in Islamic studies at BA level. Students who are interested in taking this course, but who do not fullfil these requirements are requested to contact Mw. M.J. Kahmann or drs. N.A.N.M. van Os.


Since more than four decades cultural/social anthropologists are engaged in the study of Muslim societies. Anthropological perspectives have become increasingly prominent in studies of the Muslim world. According to Edward Said, they might serve as an antidote against essentialist and static views of older “orientalist” approaches. This seminar aims to give an overview of anthropological studies of Muslim societies, both contemporary and historical. This means that also books of historians who use an anthropological perspective might be subject of analysis. Starting point is the seminal essay by Clifford Geertz, “Islam Observed” (1968). Following this lead, the comparative study of Muslim societies is understood to be central. The first meetings are dedicated to a general introduction to anthropology, its theories, concepts and methods. Special attention will be given to combination of the study of written sources with fieldwork. The different styles of report and writing ethnographies will also be analyzed.
The anthropological approach itself is also subject to scrutiny, by placing it in its social and historical context, in which the colonial past looms large. The second part of the seminar is focused on a systematic comparison of several regional traditions in which anthropological approaches have taken place. Through the comparison of monographs from those regions (for instance the Arab World, Central Asia, the South Asian subcontinent, South East Asia and/or Sub-Saharan Africa) on related issues, such as religion, social structure, urban culture, gender, politics and the public sphere, pilgrimage and sacrifice, important themes in anthropology will be addressed.

Course objectives

  • A sound overview of important anthropological studies of Muslim societies and its main issues.

  • An introduction to anthropological theories and methods relevant for the subject.

  • A critical reflection on the history of the anthropological approach to Muslim societies by analyzing its social context.



Mode of instruction

  • Tutorial, occasional lecture and individual study of source materials.

Course Load

Total course load for the course for 10 EC, 280 hours:

  • Hours spent on attending lectures and seminars: 3 hours per week x 12 weeks = 36 hours

  • Time for studying the compulsory literature: 100 hours

  • Time for assignments (presentation and participation): 44

  • Time to write a paper (including reading / research) : 100 hours

Assessment method

The final mark is composed of 25% for participation, 25% for presentation; 50% final paper


Blackboard will be used.

Reading list

The following four books will be studied by all participants during the first part of the course:

  • Geertz, Clifford; 1968 Islam Observed. Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia, New Haven & London: Yale University Press

  • Monaghan, John & Just, Peter; 2000 Social and Cultural Anthropology. A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press

  • Rabinow, Paul; 2007 (orig. 1977) Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press Thirtieth Anniversary Edition with a new preface by the author

  • Varisco, Daniel; 2005 Islam Obscured. The Rhetoric of Anthropological Representation, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Some additional readings. A definitive reading list will be made available at the beginning of the course.


Registration via uSis


Mw. M.J. Kahmann


Students with disabilities

The university is committed to supporting and accommodating students with disabilities as stated in the university protocol (especially pages 3-5). Students should contact Fenestra Disability Centre at least four weeks before the start of their courses to ensure that all necessary academic accomodations can be made in time conform the abovementioned protocol.

Academic Integrity

Students are expected to be familiar with Leiden University policies on plagiarism and academic integrity. Plagiarism will not be tolerated. If you submit any work with your name affixed to it, it is assumed to be your own work with all sources used properly indicated and documented in the text (with quotations and/or citations).