Course Syllabus

Islamic Theology

RELS 3563 section 001 (CRN 42032)
Spring 2022, University of Oklahoma, College of Arts and Sciences
Mondays and Wednesdays, 3:00-4:15 in Cate Center One room 174


David Vishanoff
vishanoff at ou dot edu
Robertson 119

Office hours: Tuesdays and Wednesdays 4:30-5:30, or by appointment. You are welcome either to come to my office (Robertson 119) or to meet with me over Zoom (just email me in advance to let me know, and then click here for my personal Zoom room).


This seminar is an attempt to enter into a theological conversation with Muslims through close reading of several different types of Islamic theological writing such as the Qur'an, creeds, disputational theology (kalam), philosophical theology, mystical theology, Islamist thought, and postmodern thought. Our primary goal will be to learn how to converse with each author by seeking to discover his assumptions, methods, and theological concerns. As we move from one author to the next, we will also develop our own ongoing conversation about some of the theological topics they address such as salvation, predestination, God's attributes, prophecy, revelation, the nature and sources of theological knowledge, and religious pluralism.

We will work very deliberately on the skill of reading primary texts attentively, and on the equally difficult art of contributing to a class discussion. I will provide feedback to help you improve whatever skills you already have (or feel you don’t have) in these areas. Some texts will be short, but will require very careful reading. You will write a midterm essay analyzing how one or two Muslim theologians approach a specific theological topic of your choice, and then expand that study into a term paper showing how that topic was addressed by a number of different Muslim writers over the course of Islamic history. The final exam will consist of an essay about your own intellectual development over the course of the term.

This course satisfies the General Education IV-WDC requirement (World Culture). It is a fully in-person class.


The following textbooks are all required and must be brought to class when assigned. I strongly recommend purchasing print copies rather than e-books, as you will need to mark them up and refer to them constantly in class, jumping quickly to page numbers that may not be visible in e-books. You may order them through the OU online bookstore at I have a few extra copies of some of these books that former students have donated so that you can borrow them for the semester if your budget is tight; if you would like to borrow a set, please email me before the term begins or talk with me after our first class.

  • The Qur'an, translated by Muhammad A. S. Abdel Haleem. Oxford World's Classics, Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199535958. $12.95 (paperback; hardcover and English/Arabic also available).
    • We will use this immediately. Please use this specific translation, which is excellent. I suggest ordering your own copy before the term begins. However, it is also available free to OU students online here; if you are not on campus, you may need to log on to the OU Library's web site before this link will work. If you use the online version, please print out the text before you read, so that you can mark it up and bring it with you to class. You can use the chapter : verse lookup to find the sura you want.
  • Islamic Creeds: A Selection, by W. Montgomery Watt. Edinburgh University Press. ISBN 9780748605132. $57.95 (much cheaper used)
  • Al-Ghazali's Moderation in Belief, translated by Aladdin M. Yaqub. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0226060873. $50 hardcover, $22.99 Kindle; $10 limited time ebook (45 days) from publisher.
  • Avicenna on Theology, translated by Arthur J. Arberry. Reprint by Kazi Publications. ISBN 978-1930637412. $9.95.
    • There are several reprints of this floating around, and any one of them should do, as they all seem to have the same page numbers.
  • The Faith and Practice of al-Ghazali, translated by William Montgomery Watt. Oneworld. ISBN 978-1851680627. $23.99.
  • Milestones, by Sayyid Qutb. Dar al-Ilm. 978-0934905145. $14.95.
    • Please use this specific edition, which is available along with all the other books through; other editions have different page numbers, which makes class discussion very confusing.
  • Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism, by Farid Esack. Oneworld. ISBN 978-1851681211. $34.99.

Course Goals

  1. To develop the desire and ability to learn through close reading of primary texts and attentive listening to Muslim authors.
  2. To develop the skills and ethics of constructing knowledge collectively through discussion.
  3. To develop a basic conceptual and historical mental map of major currents in Islamic thought, as a framework for further learning.
  4. To identify tacit assumptions and stated principles that are shared or debated in Islamic discourse, and understand these findings both in the Muslim authors’ terms and in terms of our own categories.
  5. To develop listening knowledge--that is, to train and equip ourselves for the difficult art of listening to, conversing with, and getting to know religious people who do not share our assumptions, convictions, or ways of thinking.


Preparation and contribution (40% of the course grade):

There are two ways to demonstrate your preparation and contribute to this class:

  1. By speaking up in class. Oral contributions in class are often the most helpful for the rest of us–but only if what you say is clear, concise, relevant to where we are or where we need to go in our conversation, and well grounded in the assigned readings. Don’t talk just to fill silence! If you tend to speak up often, make a special effort to defer to those who speak less often, and please help me to notice students who have their hands up if I don’t see them.
  2. By posting written comments in Canvas, in the Reply box beneath the day's assignment, at least one hour before class, in response to my questions about the assigned readings. These comments should be concise, should refer to specific parts of the readings, and should present just one idea in response to just one of the questions raised in the assignment. You can mention ideas that others have already raised in their posts, but be sure to credit them, and add your own substantive contribution based on your own reading in your own words. Please keep a copy of all your posts for yourself as well, in case some get lost in cyberspace.

If you are shy, or have trouble formulating ideas quickly enough to speak up, I suggest you start out with written comments; then, when you have found your voice in writing, start looking for opportunities to bring up your ideas in class.

How much should you contribute? As long as we are meeting in person and you attend regularly, you should aim to make a substantial contribution about once a week, whether orally in class, in writing online, or any combination of the two.

Your grade for “preparation and contribution” will be based not only on whether you have contributed regularly but also on the depth, insightfulness, clarity, and conciseness of your contributions, and especially on how well they reflect careful reading of the assigned texts. Your grade will not depend on having “the right interpretation” of the readings--we will often disagree, and we will all make plenty of mistakes trying to understand our texts, and that’s fine. Your grade will also be affected by little indications of preparation and engagement such as bringing the assigned texts to class, and by how well you help us to maintain a focused intellectual atmosphere in the classroom by doing things like staying alert and engaged, respecting others, and avoiding anything that might disrupt, distract, or discourage others from staying focused.

Major paper, in two stages (15% and 30%)

The first stage (15%) will be a 1500-2000 word midterm essay in which you analyze what one or two primary texts have to say about a theological topic of your choice (see the Midterm Essay Guidelines). The second stage (30%), a 3000-4000 word term paper, should expand your midterm essay into a multidimensional study of your chosen topic (see the Term Paper Guidelines). Your term paper may incorporate material from your midterm essay, improved and reframed to fit the argument of the new paper.

Final exam (15%)

An open-book and open-notes essay exam describing your own intellectual process and development over the course of this term.

Attendance (crucial)

The work of this course consists in thinking and reaching conclusions together in class, not learning information on your own. This is only possible with your consistent preparation, attendance, and participation. There is therefore a severe grade penalty for excessive absences. If you will not be able to attend regularly, please drop the course. You will be allowed to miss up to four classes without penalty, after the deadline for adding classes. Every absence beyond your first four will result in a reduction of your final course grade by one half of a letter grade. For example, if your course grade would have been a B, but you missed six classes (two more than allowed), you would be down to a C. Please note that there is no limit to this penalty, so if you miss enough classes you will quickly drop down to an F in the course, regardless of your grades on assignments. I fully expect that you will occasionally (up to four times) be unable to attend class for one reason or another, so it is not necessary to apologize or provide any excuse for your absences. On the other hand, if a serious ongoing personal or health situation will result in four or more absences during the term, please do talk to me about it as soon as possible, and I will be as supportive as I can. Absences that result from religious observances will be not be counted, and exams or work falling on religious holidays may be rescheduled without penalty; please let me know in advance, as soon as you are able to determine that a holiday may conflict with class.

I will usually take attendance just before class begins, so if you arrive after class has begun you will be irrevocably recorded as absent unless you check in with me after class, in which case I will record you as merely late. Please don’t be embarrassed about doing this; I’m not offended by your lateness. Nevertheless, since arriving late can undermine your learning and can be distracting to other students, I may decide to count each lateness as a fraction of an absence if lateness becomes a recurring problem.

Academic honesty (all or nothing)

In my estimation, any form of deceit, however “mild,” warrants a final course grade of F. Individual instances of suspected academic dishonesty will be referred to the appropriate University authorities, who will investigate and determine appropriate penalties (which may include grade penalties, extra classes, suspension, expulsion, and/or other penalties). In my estimation, academic dishonesty includes (but is not limited to) turning in writing not created by yourself solely for this class, plagiarism (reproducing or paraphrasing someone else’s words or ideas without citing them), failing to document sources as required in an assignment, helping other students to avoid doing their own reading or thinking or writing, selling a paper or post or exam essay or sharing it with someone who might use it instead of doing his or her own work, using the ideas or wording in others' online posts without citing them, submitting answers or comments online without having studied the relevant materials for yourself, and false excuses for absences or late or missed assignments. You have no need to invent excuses, because unmet requirements will affect only my evaluation of your work, they will not affect my respect for you as a person; so false excuses mean that you are attempting to falsify your grade, which in my estimation warrants a course grade of F. See for information on student rights and responsibilities with regard to academic misconduct.

Student experience survey (a moral requirement)

At the end of the term you will have the opportunity to answer the university's online survey about your experience in this course at This may seem like a meaningless exercise, but I actually care a great deal about the insights that students give me in these surveys about their learning experiences. There is no way for me to formally require completion of these evaluations, and I never find out which students do and do not fill them out (unless they mention their names in their answers, which can help me understand their comments better). But I hope you will agree, when you see how much of myself I poor into this class over the course of the term, that you owe me ten minutes of your time and some honest answers about the class! I sincerely want and expect every student to fill out the survey. Thank you; my future students and I will be grateful that you did.

General policies

  • Assignments may or may not be accepted late, at the instructor’s discretion. Unless arranged in advance, any such lateness will be penalized one letter grade for each interval between class periods (or any fraction thereof) that elapses after the scheduled date.
  • No extra-credit work will be assigned or accepted; please do not ask. To benefit from this class, you need to do the work as it is assigned, not do other work later.
  • In order to help alleviate the stress of "dead week" or "pre-finals week," I have designed the schedule so that the papers and almost all the readings are completed before the last week of classes. For specific provisions of OU's official pre-finals week policy see
  • Exams or work falling on religious holidays may be rescheduled without penalty; please let me know in advance, as soon as you are able to determine that a holiday may conflict with class or an assignment.
  • Any student who has a disability that may prevent him or her from fully demonstrating his or her abilities should contact me personally as soon as possible; I will be very glad to make accommodations to help you participate and learn more effectively. If you are unsure whether you should request some kind of accommodation, or what kind of accommodation might be most helpful for you, consult the staff at the Disability Resource Center who will be able to help figure out what is best and whether you should formally register with the Center (730 College Avenue, 325-3852, TDD 325-4173).
  • Title IX Resources and Reporting Requirement: For any concerns regarding gender-based discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating/domestic violence, or stalking, the University offers a variety of resources. To learn more or to report an incident, please contact the Sexual Misconduct Office at 405/325-2215 (8 to 5, M-F) or Incidents can also be reported confidentially to OU Advocates at 405/615-0013 (phones are answered 24 hours a day, 7 days a week). Also, please be advised that a professor/GA/TA is required to report instances of sexual harassment, sexual assault, or discrimination to the Sexual Misconduct Office. Inquiries regarding non-discrimination policies may be directed to: Christine Taylor, Institutional Equity Officer & Title IX Coordinator, at 405/325-3546 or For more information, visit
  • Adjustments for Pregnancy/Childbirth Related Issues: Should you need modifications or adjustments to your course requirements because of documented pregnancy-related or childbirth-related issues, please contact me or the Disability Resource Center at 405/325-3852 as soon as possible. Also, see for answers to commonly asked questions.
  • If you are experiencing any mental health issues that are impacting your academic performance, counseling is available at the University Counseling Center (UCC). The Center is located on the second floor of the Goddard Health Center, at 620 Elm Rm. 201, Norman, OK 73019. To schedule an appointment call (405) 325-2911. For more information please visit
  • OU also has a detailed non-discrimination policy.