Course Syllabus

Islamic Law (Focus on Gender)

RELS 3543 section 001 (CRN 34797)
University of Oklahoma, College of Arts and Sciences
Spring 2017

Tuesdays and Thursdays, 3:00-4:15 in Gould Hall 150


David Vishanoff
vishanoff at ou dot edu
(405) 325-1150
Robertson 119
Office hours: 4:30-5:30 on Mondays and Tuesdays, or by appointment. I am usually free after class on Thursdays as well, and you are welcome to walk back to my office with me and talk.


This seminar will follow one thread (gender) through the many layers of Islamic legal discourse.

After setting up some of the issues for the term, we will work sequentially through the following “layers” of Islamic law:

  1. The sources of law: the Qur’an, the practice of the Prophet, and rules for interpreting them.
  2. Classical legal discourse: a medieval manual of legal rules with several layers of later commentary.
  3. Law in practice: how the law actually functions in the lives of North American Muslims today.
  4. A contemporary critique: one Muslim thinker’s proposal for how Islamic law should be defined.

Readings will be drawn mostly from primary texts. We will work very deliberately on the skill of reading primary texts attentively. During the third section of the course our “primary text” will be the lives of modern Muslims, which we will learn about from a secondary text written by a social scientist.

This class will function as a seminar, in which we collectively build up a shared set of questions and ideas about Islamic law and gender. We will work very self-consciously on the difficult art of contributing to a seminar discussion, and I will attempt to provide feedback to help you improve whatever skills you already have (or feel you don’t have) in this area.

The course will touch on all the major topics of Islamic law, but our focus throughout will be on issues relating to the construction of gender and gender relations: gender-specific purity and ritual regulations, separation of men and women, gender-specific social roles and spheres, gender equity, gendered authority, the regulation of sexuality, conceptions of the nature of gender, and especially the major legal topics of marriage and divorce.

You will have the opportunity to pursue one aspect of Islamic law that is of particular interest to you in a series of two essays. The midterm essay will analyze passages relating to a specific legal topic from just one or two primary sources (e.g. the Qur’an and perhaps a classical law manual). For the final paper you will expand this study to address your topic through multiple sources, across several layers of Islamic law.


  • Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveller, translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller, revised edition. Beltsville, Md.: Amana Publications, 1994. $29.95 ISBN 978-0915957729
  • Julie Macfarlane, Islamic Divorce in North America: A Shari’a Path in a Secular Society. Oxford University Press, 2012. $73.00. ISBN 978-0199753918
  • Khaled Abou El Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women. Oneworld, 2001. $30.00 ISBN 978-1851682621
  • Additional readings will be provided as handouts.

Course Goals

  1. To develop the desire and ability to learn through attentive listening to primary texts and other Muslim voices.
  2. To develop the skills and ethics of constructing knowledge collectively through discussion.
  3. To construct collectively one or more conceptual and historical diagrams of how the many layers of Islamic legal discourse and practice fit together.
  4. To identify tacit and explicit constructions of gender and gender relations, and the ways these are articulated, embedded, justified, critiqued, enforced, and resisted in Islamic legal discourse and practice; and to understand these findings both in the tradition’s own terms and in relation to our own moral and analytical 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%)

There are two main 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 submitting written comments in Canvas, as a response to the day's assignment/discussion post, 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.

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.

You can choose how much you speak and how much you contribute online, but either way, aim to make a substantial contribution about once a week. Your grade for “preparation and contribution” will be based on the depth, insightfulness, clarity, and conciseness of your contributions, and especially on how well they reflect careful reading of the assigned texts. It 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 to maintain a focused intellectual atmosphere in the classroom. 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.

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

The first stage (15%) will be a 1500-2000 word midterm essay in which you analyze how one or two kinds of primary source material address a legal topic of your choice. The second stage (30%), a 3000-4000 word final paper, should be an expansion of your midterm essay into a multidimensional study of your chosen topic.

Final exam (15%)

An 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 in 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 papers and the exam. I fully expect that you will occasionally (i.e. 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 early on, 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.

Please note that 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 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 (zero). 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 exam essay or sharing it with someone who might use it instead of doing his or her own work, submitting answers or comments online without having studied the relevant materials for yourself, and even 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. False excuses therefore mean that you are attempting to falsify your grade, and in my estimation this warrants a course grade of F. See for information on student rights and responsibilities with regards to academic misconduct.

Course evaluation (a moral requirement)

At the end of the term you will have the opportunity to answer the university-mandated online questions about this class 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 themselves, their learning experiences, and my own teaching. There is no way for me to formally require completion of these evaluations, and I never find out which students 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 an evaluation. Thank you; my future students and I will all 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.
  • Daily assignments cannot be made up; please do not ask. If you miss one, just forget it and do the next one so that you keep pace with the class.
  • 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 all our reading and papers are completed before the last week of classes. We will spend the last week reflecting back on the thinking we did during the term, tying together our thoughts, and preparing outlines for the final exam essay. (For specific provisions of OU's official pre-finals week policy see
  • 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: Bobby J. Mason, University Equal Opportunity Officer and 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 your professor or the Disability Resource Center at 405/325-3852 as soon as possible. Also, see for answers to commonly asked questions.

Course Summary:

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