Study of Religion: The Academic Study of Religion in North Africa and the Middle East

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The academic study of religion in North Africa and the Middle East builds upon a long and rich tradition of comparison and analysis of the history, beliefs, and practices of different religious communities. Most of the major universities in the region currently teach the comparative study of religion within an Islamic studies curriculum, whether or not the university and its programs are intended to be secular. Despite the relatively limited visibility of the comparative study of religions in regional institutions, the scholarly discipline can be traced back to a vigorous and creative scholarship that flourished at least as early as the tenth century.

The disciplinary approach and institutional organization of the study of religion in the Middle East and North Africa is based largely on a scholarly tradition developed in the premodern period, particularly during the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries. Several well-known scholars wrote far-reaching and influential works during this period that still serve as the basic textbooks for the contemporary university study of religion.


Perhaps the single best example of the study of religion within Islamic civilization comes from the penetrating works of al-Bīrūnī (9731050). Attached to the Ghaznavid court in what is today Afghanistan, al-Bīrūnī produced two important works studying ancient and contemporary religions. The first, titled Book of the Remains from Bygone Centuries, contains al-Bīrūnī's account of pre-Islamic civilizations. The second, titled the History of India, is an encyclopedic catalog and analysis of the culture of South Asia. The information in al-Bīrūnī's study of India comes both from firsthand observations in northwest India and from his extensive study of Sanskrit and related Indian languages and texts. Combing both ethnographic and textual research, al-Bīrūnī's work is primarily descriptive, though a rudimentary analytical framework utilizing more generic categories such as "ritual" and "belief" is evident from al-Bīrūnī's observations.

Milal wa Nihal

Most influential in many contemporary university programs in comparative religion is a body of scholarship known under the Arabic term al-Milal wa al-Nihal, roughly translated as "Sects and Heresies" and is often understood as heresiographical or doxographical in nature, though individual authors provide different rationales for their works. In general, this scholarship presents an overview of beliefs attributed to different groups both historically and contemporaneous with the writers. These beliefs are often grouped into three broad categories: Islamic beliefs and sects, beliefs and sects of "People of the Book" (Arabic, ahl al-kitāb ) or "revealed" religions, and everything else, including other religions and philosophers. Sometimes this categorization is reduced to Muslim and non-Muslim beliefs, as in the work of Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī in which he discusses Jews, Christians, Mazdaeans, dualists, Sabians, and philosophers.

Ibn Hazm

Abū Muammad Alī Ibn Amad, known as Ibn azm (9941064) was one of the most prolific writers on other religions and their relationship to Islam. In his al-Milal wa al-Nihal work, Ibn azm discusses doctrines pertaining to Islam, Mazdaeans, Christians, Brāhmas, Jews, various philosophers, dualists, and others. The book is organized according to specific topics rather than particular religious groups, but the topics themselves are loosely arranged according to what Ibn azm sees as sectarian divisions arising from adherence to certain beliefs. For example, Ibn azm has a general section on Christianity followed by more specific discussion of the nature of Christ, those who deny prophethood and the angels, and the difference between miracles and magic. In his discussion of Judaism Ibn azm mentions that the Jews reject the trinitarianism of Christians but faults them for using a Torah that does not contain an accurate record of the revelation given to Moses. Zoroastrians are faulted for insisting upon the prophethood of Zoroaster while denying the equality of other prophets.

Ibn azm spends considerable attention detailing examples of how the stories of the prophets in the Jewish Torah and the Christian New Testament contradict what is known from the Qurʾān and Islamic tradition. In addition to his criticism of the sources and redaction of the Bible used by Jews and Christians, Ibn azm wrote extensively on Islamic law. He was a strong proponent for the notion that the Qurʾān and the sharīʿah derived from it superseded all earlier older legal codes, to the extent that the revelation of the Qurʾān abrogated all parts of the Bible that it did not specifically confirm. Although he is apparently well informed about the different religious ideas he catalogs, Ibn azm's main interest is in a defense of Islam as providing a holistic interpretation of the world fully compatible with history and rationality. His al-Milal wa al-Nihal work also includes a section mentioning what is known about certain biblical prophets and the veneration due to them, followed by discussions of beliefs concerning the creation of heaven and hell, the resurrection of the dead, the punishment of the tomb, and repentance. In his final sections he treats a number of individual issues not necessarily associated with any particular group such as visions, the created nature of certain things, and the relationship of body and soul.

Abū al-Maʿālī

Abū al-Maʿālī Muammad bin ʿUbayd Allāh (c. 1092) produced one of the earliest Persian works in the al-Milal wa al-Nihal tradition. His book, titled Explication of Religions, treats a number of religions that came before Islam, including ancient Arab religion, Greek philosophy, Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Mazdakism, and Manichaeism. He separates this group of religions from "idolatrous" religions such as Hinduism. Abū al-Maʿālī's main focus in the book appears to be his conviction that all people, even non-Muslims, hold a belief in a creator being, which he claims proves the existence of God.


Muammad bin ʿAbd al-Karīm al-Shahrastānī (10861153) lived near Khurāsān and wrote a well-known al-Milal wa al-Nihal work. Shahrastānī states that he wrote the book in an attempt to document "the religious beliefs of all the world's people." Shahrastānī divides these religious beliefs into two main categories: ideas derived from revealed books and ideas derived from elsewhere. The first category is further subdivided into Muslims and People of the Book. People of the Book include the Jews (Kairites, Isawiyah, Samaritans), Christians (Chalcedonians, Nestorians, Jacobites), and the people of a "false book" such as the Zoroastrians and the dualists, under which category he places the Manichaeans. The second category of beliefs originating from nonrevealed sources includes the Sabians of Harran, philosophers (Greek and Islamic), pre-Islamic Arab religions, and the beliefs of Indians (Brāhmas, adherents to spirits, star worshipers, and idol worshipers). He follows this by a brief discussion of philosophical ideas among the Indians.

The longest section in the book is that on the philosophers and their ideas. Shahrastānī describes the different religious ideas within the Islamic framework of revealed and nonrevealed corresponding to the general Qurʾanic notion of the People of the Book following prophets with divine messages. Shahrastānī conceives of God as a unitary being from whom creation proceeds in a fashion that gained him as reputation as adhering to Nizarī Ismāʿīlī doctrines of emanation and incarnation. This allows him to see truth in ideas derived both directly and indirectly from God. A similar approach is found in the ikmat al-khālidah of Miskawayh and the abaqāt al-umam of Saʿīd al-Andalusī, where it is argued that God gave each of the world's peoples certain intellectual and civilizational gifts that they retain despite their straying from the directly revealed truths of Islam.


Medieval Muslim historians often write about the history of different religions. In the course of his history of the world, for example, Muammad bin Jarīr al-abarī (839923) recounts numerous traditions from both Muslim and pre-Islamic sources concerning the religious beliefs and practices of Iran, Arabia, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Fertile Crescent. Later historians, such as Ibn al-Athīr, built upon abarī's work and repeated much of his information, sometimes with their own additions. Other historians provide detailed historical backgrounds to explain the origins of religious groups present in their time. Amad b. Abd al-Qādir al-Maqrīzī (13641442), well-known historian of Egypt, includes an especially long section on the different groups among the Jews of his time. He uses a variety of medieval, late antique, and Hellenistic sources, including the medieval Hebrew translation of Josephus.

Stories of the Prophets

Equally important are the historical and mythological accounts pertaining to what is called the "Stories of the Prophets" in Muslim histories and Qurʾān commentaries. Although regarded as "Muslim" prophets by these writers, the cycle of stories associated with such pre-Islamic figures as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus were told often in conscious comparison to Jewish and Christian accounts of the same figures. Scholars such as Ibn Kathir specifically compare passages from the Bible and from Jewish and Christian interpretation with the Qurʾān and its interpretation by Muslims. In addition to major prophetic figures, other characters also appear in these stories, including Samson, St. George, and the Seven Sleepers. Such scholarship frequently reflects a relatively sophisticated approach to textual criticism and the burgeoning of a sort of comparative mythology.

Travel and Geography

The approach and content of most al-Milal wa al-Nihal and historical scholarship is focused on literary sources and doctrinal questions. Descriptions of practices, largely drawn from ethnographic-type observations comparable to those found in the histories of Herodotus, can be found in the large collection of travel accounts produced by Arab and Muslim scholars in the medieval period but continuing through to the nineteenth century.

One of the best-known travelers is Ibn Baūa (13041368) who left from Tangiers and traveled throughout the Middle East, East Africa, Asia Minor, Central Asia, India, Sri Lanka, Bengal, Sumatra, and China. Ibn Baūa's travel account, as well as those of many others, are expanded journals of pilgrimage journeys. During the travels described in his account, Ibn Baūa made pilgrimage to Mecca at least four times. Ibn al-Jubayr (11451217) was one of the first to leave a long account of his journeys in the Middle East while on pilgrimage to Mecca, which includes his firsthand observations on the beliefs and practices he encountered. Travel accounts and guides written for pilgrims visiting regional sites in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, such as those of al-Harawī and Ibn al-awrānī, constitute a valuable record not only of Muslim practices and beliefs but also myths and rituals associated with certain sites by other religious groups in the area.

Other scholarship focused on geography includes a great deal of information on religious practices and beliefs. Scholars such as Yāqūt, Ibn al-Faqīh, and al-Bakrī compiled geographical dictionaries that contain a wealth of information derived from a variety of sources on the religious traditions associated with certain cities, shrines, mountains, and places of pilgrimage. Scholars such as al-Qazwīnī produced works examining the "wonders" (ʿajāʾib ) of the world, compiling and comparing mythologies associated with different locations, often utilizing historical, linguistic, and ethnographic approaches. Other early "wonders" accounts focused specifically on India and China. Similar approaches can be found in the large collection of works focused on the "virtues" (faāʾil) of cities such as Jerusalem, Damascus, and Mecca. These fadāʾil works bring together from various types of sources historical and mythological traditions associated with the origins of sanctuaries, certain ritual practices, and beliefs connected to particular peoples and locations.

Jewish and Christian Studies of Islam

Jewish and Christian scholars also wrote extensively on Islam, and on their own religions, not always with the simple aim of discrediting others but rather in formation of their own distinct identity. This is particularly true where the Muslim majority was and is still in close contact with large non-Muslim minorities, in Spain, Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon, and the Fertile Crescent. Much of this went on in the area of comparative scriptural exegesis, with Jews, Christians, and Muslims interpreting what amounts to a common scriptural tradition, though the identity and authority of different texts (i.e., Qurʾān, Bible) was often the issue in such discussions. This sort of more direct polemic continues today and is not often overt, strongly influenced by perceptions of the political situation between Israel and the Palestinians.

Modern and Contemporary Study of Religion

In the modern period, many state-sponsored and private universities include the comparative study of religion as part of the regular curriculum. There are few independent departments devoted to the comparative study of religion, with the exception of departments of daʿwa (proselytizing) at some regional universities. Separate departments of daʿwa can be found at some universities such as the Islamic University of Medina and the Department of Daʿwa and Religious Fundamentals (uūl al-dīn ) founded in 1991 at the Umm al-Qura University of Mecca. The curriculum emphasizes the comparative study of religions as a means to allow students to contextualize their own religious traditions within a global religious community.

The Amir ʿAbd al-Qadir University in Constantine, Algeria has a Department of Creed and Comparative Religion (al-ʿAqīdah wa Muqārinah al-Adyān). Ain Shams University in Cairo offers the comparative study of religious traditions within the various language and literature departments in the Faculty of Arts, including the languages of Islamic nations, and Hebrew language and literature. The Center for Oriental Studies at the University of Cairo offers a number of courses and a publication series in Comparative Religion. The University of Mauritius offers a degree program in history and heritage studies that incorporates Islamic studies into a broad spectrum of cultural and religious influences on Mauritius history. Individual courses teaching Islamic studies within a comparative, liberal arts framework can also be found at the University of the United Arab Emirates, Sidi Muammad b. ʿAbdallah University in Fes, the American University of Beirut, Sultan Qabus University in Musqat, Bogazici University in Istanbul, and the American University of Cairo.

Uūl al-dīn

Other universities devote departments and colleges to the general study of religion, within the framework of an Islamic studies curriculum. The department of uūl al-dīn at the University of Jordan, for example, teaches the standard subfields within Islamic studies, including al-Milal wa al-Nihal studies as well as individual courses in comparative religion and Muslim-Christian dialogue. A similar curriculum exists university-wide at Omdurman Islamic University in the Sudan, and al-Quds University in Jerusalem includes an Islamic studies department within liberal arts and a separate Islamic Research Center established in 1987 with a broad, comparative scope. Within its uūl al-dīn faculty, al-Azhar University offers a comparative curriculum devoted to the study of religions (Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, pre-Islamic Arab religions, Buddhism, Confucianism, and ancient Egyptian religions) with courses examining the origins of religion, the connections between religion and society, and the history and importance of the study of different religions from an Islamic perspective.

Sharīʿah colleges

Most comparative studies of religion within the universities of the Gulf region are housed within separate colleges devoted to the study of sharīʿah (Islamic law) and Islamic studies. The department of uūl al-dīn in the College of Sharīʿah at the Imam Muammad bin Saʿud University was established in the 1950s. The faculty of sharīʿah and uūl al-dīn at the King Khalid University was founded in 1976, and in the 1990s Islamic studies (including the comparative study of religions under the heading of al-Milal wa al-Nihal ) was moved into the College of Sharīʿah and Islamic Studies at Kuwait University. Iranian universities, such as the Bu Ali Sina University and Shiraz University offer degree programs in Islamic law through the faculties of law at each institution.

Despite their separate institutionalization, these colleges of sharīʿah and Islamic studies are often more akin to a North American "divinity school" with a more diverse curriculum than a "seminary"-style college. Other colleges of sharīʿah and Islamic studies are more strictly preprofessional, however. The Salahaddin University in Arbil, Iraq, was established in 2003 with the aim of preparing imāms for service in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The faculty of sharīʿah and Islamic studies at Yarmouk University in Irbid, Jordan, was established in 1991, merging the then existing Islamic Studies Center into a college designed for professional training. A similar situation pertains to the college of sharīʿah at al-Ahqaf University in the aramawt region of Yemen.

Challenges and Current Trends

Today the basic focus of most regional programs in the comparative study of religion is historical and doctrinal. The more differentiated conception of religion as inclusive of practices and beliefs outside of canonical texts and officially sanctioned venues has suffered in the modern period. Modern Muslim scholars of religion tend to isolate what they consider to be religion (Arabic, dīn ) from tradition and culture (Arabic, turāth, thaqāfah ). The broad view taken by premodern travelers, historians, and al-Milal wa al-Nihal scholars, as well as the more self-critical approach to canonical Islamic texts and doctrines, has largely been replaced by a less complex cataloging of accepted beliefs and practices.

The major challenge facing the study of religion in Arab universities is the perception that comparison and theoretical models represent a challenge to indigenous methods and approaches to the study of religion. This is particularly evident in the defensive and protective posture taken by scholars of the major foundational subjects in classical Islam, especially the historical study of the Prophet Muammad and the interpretation of the Qurʾān. Such a defensive stance sometimes has the unfortunate result of stifling discussion and use of the rich comparative approaches developed by pre-modern Muslim scholarship.

Scholars trained largely in European and North American institutions have introduced innovative approaches to regional studies of religion. This includes, for example, perspectives adopted from the history of religions, text-critical studies, philosophy of religion, and anthropology. Scholars using such approaches are not always successful given the institutional and intellectual barriers in regional universities. Reactions range from the establishment of institutions to the publication of monographs criticizing particular schools of thought and individuals, but sometimes reactions have taken the form of threats and outright violence against particular individuals. The banning of certain publications, both classical and modern, is not uncommon in the region, including the expurgation of passages from classical texts and modern textbooks for K12 education.

Where European and American models have been most influential is in the areas of archaeology and textual-historical studies. Archaeologists from the King Saʿūd University in Riyadh, for example, have produced a number of excellent analyses of pre-Islamic Arabian religion, and indigenous scholarship on antiquities in other areas, especially Egypt and Jordan, is world class. The German approaches associated with Religionswissenschaft and Religionsgeschichte are more easily integrated into regional curricula, perhaps because of the emphasis, familiar from the classical Islamic tradition, upon history and doctrine. Within the context of other disciplines, religion is treated with more theoretical ingenuity, as a variable in anthropological, art historical, and political scientific studies.

Centers for comparative religion

Since the 1970s a number of initiatives have created regional centers and brief runs in journals and other periodicals devoted to the relations of Muslims and non-Muslims. Most of this has focused on Muslim-Christian dialogue, such as the programs at the Centre d'Études et de Recherches Économiques et Sociales in Tunis, the joint visits between the Vatican and al-Azhar officials, and the Seminar on Islamic-Christian dialogue founded in Tripoli, Libya, in 1976. These initiatives, however, appear to have been more concerned with political relations than with the academic study of religion.

More recently, as a reaction to the more insular attitude of some regional scholars, a number of regional institutions and centers specifically devoted to the comparative study of religions have been established. A prime example of this is the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies (Arabic, Maʿhad al-Malakī li-Dirāsāt al-Dīnīyyah) founded by Prince asan bin Talal in 1994 in Amman, Jordan. The RIIFS, devoted primarily to the study of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, publishes quarterly journals in English and Arabic and sponsors lectures and visiting scholars from around the world. Other state-supported and private institutions in the region have begun to cultivate more active and creative programs in the comparative study of religion as a means to broaden both academic and popular conceptions of religious identity and civil cooperation.

Another example of this is the Department of Theology and Religions at Qum University in Iran, founded in 2001 with the stated aim of "highlighting the role of religion in dialogue among civilizationsfor the purpose of understanding one another." Associated centers in Iran include the Institute for Dialogue among Religions in Tehran and the Bureau for Knowledge and Religions at the Research Center for Human Sciences and Cultural Studies. Since 2001, al-Azhar University has introduced an English-language unit for Islamic studies, and Tashkent Islam University implemented a revised curriculum in the study of world religions. This corresponds with the growing number of Turkish and North African universities that have begun to offer a curriculum aimed explicitly at participating in dialogue with non-Muslim societies.

Such initiatives should not be seen as novel undertakings but rather represent a reinvigoration of the fertile indigenous tradition of the comparative study of religion from the classical Islamic period.


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Study of Religion: The Academic Study of Religion in North Africa and the Middle East

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