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Culture and Society in the Medieval Muslim World


= this is the course description of 2013-2014. A revised version will follow shortly.=

Admission requirements

Admission to the MA ‘Middle Eastern Studies’ or the MA ‘Middle Eastern Studies (research)’ is required. Furthermore, students should be able to use Arabic sources, which form the core of the material studied and discussed in class. Please, contact the student advisor, Nicole A.N.M. van Os or the instructor if you are interested in taking this course but NOT a student of one of the above-mentioned MA programmes and/or if you are not certain your level of Arabic is sufficient.


This course will examine the daily life experience of religious minorities, both Muslim and non-Muslim, in the medieval Middle East. Through Arabic narrative sources and documents as well as background secondary readings, we will treat such topics as the theoretical framework of heterodoxy and orthodoxy; the development of Muslim sects; the legal position of non-Muslims in theory and practice – to whom non-Muslims turned in cases of conflict or need; the relation between social, economic and political hierarchies and religion; the extent to which different Muslim and non-Muslim communities were intertwined, co-existed, competed and how this differed throughout the medieval Middle East. The course has two connected goals: to deepen the student’s knowledge and experience of medieval Muslim history and to familiarise him/her with the reference tools of the study of this period. These two academic goals are joined in the work with primary sources, such as coins, documents, manuscripts and inscriptions, which is central to this course.

Overview of class topics:

  • Introduction: Sources and problems

  • Early Islam: From Arabs to Muslims

  • Dhimmis in court: Islamic law and other forms of legal recourse

  • Interfaith debates

  • A global commercial network: The Genizah and the Indian Ocean trade

  • Egyptian Christians in the Fatimid administration

  • Muslim minorities: The Shi’ites and Alids

  • The voice of reason and the rise of orthodoxy

  • Whom to turn to in times of distress: Petitions

  • Feasts and rituals

  • Family life: Marriage, divorce and birth

  • Shrines and pilgrimage

  • Convivencia?

Course objectives

Objectives of this course are:

  • to allow students to become thoroughly acquainted with the historical debate on medieval and early-modern Islamic religious minorities;

  • to discuss theoretical approaches to the theme;

  • to become familiar with the main reference works used in the study of the medieval and pre-modern Arabic world;

  • to become familiar with the tools needed to understand the primary sources (coins, documents, manuscripts) relevant to the study of this period;

  • to develop and carry out a small research project on a well-defined topic, based on primary source texts;

  • to report on research findings orally (by reading a paper) and in writing, in accordance with the basic standards of historical scholarship.



Mode of instruction

Seminar: weekly attendance and participation is required. Each week an assignment will be handed out to be prepared for the next class and to be discussed in class. Students are expected to be able to answer the different issues presented in the homework. The assignment will introduce students to the main reference works and tools of the study of medieval Arabic history.

Course load

Total course load: 280 hours

  • Contact hours: 26 hours

  • Preparation classes, presentation and writing paper: 254 hours

Assessment method

  • Oral presentation: 20%

  • Participation and performance in weekly assignments: 20%

  • Final paper (written; c. 5000 words): 60%

The final paper is written in two stages: a first version which will be commented on and a final version. Students who do not meet the deadline for the first version will lose the right to get comments and will only be graded based on their final version.

In order to pass the course, students must obtain an an overall mark of 5.50 (=6) or higher.

The course is an integrated whole. The final examination and the assignments must be completed in the same academic year. No partial marks can be carried over into following years.



Reading list

  • P. Crone, God’s Rule: Government and Islam. Six Centuries of Medieval Islamic Political Thought, New York: Columbia University Press, 2004 (or the same book with the title Medieval Islamic Political Thought, Edinburgh University Press, 2004).

  • M. Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross, Princeton University Press, 1994.

  • Further readings, indicated in the syllabus, will be provided via Blackboard or the pidgeon hole in the department or will be made available on a ‘reserve plank’ in the university library or the NINO library.

Reading assignment for the first class:
Students should sign up before the first class on Blackboard for this course where the reading and assignment for the first class can be found. Students should bring their completed assignment to class.


Students are required to register through uSis. To avoid mistakes and problems, students are strongly advised to register in uSis through the activity number which can be found in the timetable in the column under the heading “Act.nbr.”.

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply.


Prof. Dr. P.M. Sijpesteijn


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).