Course Syllabus

Islamic Theology

Fall 2017
RELS 3563-001
University of Oklahoma
College of Arts and Sciences

Mondays and Wednesdays, 3:00-4:15
In Farzaneh Hall (formerly Hester Hall) 148

This course satisfies the Gen Ed Non-Western Culture requirement


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


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 final 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.


The following textbooks are all required and must be brought to class when assigned. 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 some, 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; any edition of this translation is okay).
    • 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.
  • Al-Ghazali's Moderation in Belief, translated by Aladdin M. Yaqub. University of Chicago Press, 2013. 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 Kazi Publications, 2007. 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, 2000. ISBN 978-1851680627. $23.99.
  • Sayyid Qutb. Milestones. Dar al-Ilm, 2007. 978-0934905145. $14.95.
    • Please use this specific edition, as other editions have different page numbers, which makes class discussion very confusing.
  • Farid Esack. Qur’an, Liberation, and Pluralism. Oneworld, 1997. 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 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%):

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 before class, in response to the questions about the readings that are posted with each assignment. 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’ve found your voice in writing, start looking for opportunities to bring up your ideas in class. Written comments should be posted in Canvas, in the Reply box beneath the assignment, at least one hour before class so that other students and I can read them before class. Please keep a copy of all your posts for yourself as well, in case some get lost in cyberspace.

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. 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 whether you distract and discourage others from being completely focused on the class (by surfing the web, texting, packing up early, etc.), or whether you help to maintain a considerate and focused atmosphere.

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 Guidelines for Midterm Essay). 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 Guidelines for Term Paper).

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 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.

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. Individual instances of suspected academic dishonesty will be referred to the appropriate University authorities, who will investigate and determine whether a grade penalty and/or additional penalties (e.g., extra classes, suspension, or expulsion) are warranted. 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, 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 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 due 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.
  • 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 (Goddard Health Center, Suite 166, 325-3852, TDD 325-4173,
  • 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 I and all your other OU professors, GAs, and TAs are 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
  • Should you need modifications or adjustments to your course requirements because of documented pregnancy-related or childbirth-related issues, please contact me and/or the Disability Resource Center (405-325-3852) as soon as possible. See for answers to commonly asked questions.

Course Summary:

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