Islam in Asia:   Traditions and Transformation

An NEH Summer Institute ~ June 12 to July 7, 2017 ~ Honolulu, Hawaii ~ Hosted by the Asian Studies Development Program

Institute Overview

The available scholarship on Islam in English is now vast. In addition to scholarly treatments of Islam undertaken primarily within the context of a particular culture and a specific historical period, there are now many studies using different disciplinary lenses—for example, religion, philosophy or anthropology—to investigate Islam as a global and not solely Middle Eastern phenomenon.  The length and structure of the program are geared to enable taking full advantage of the depth of available scholarship on Islam while at the same time responding to the distinctive needs of undergraduate educators who teach survey courses in which they are responsible for helping students from majors across the humanities and sciences to make broad and yet intellectually-rewarding connections with what they are learning in other courses.


The Institute’s presenters have been selected to afford participants with a rich array of intellectual and pedagogical resources for understanding and teaching about the evolution of Islam in Asia, and have been drawn primarily from the disciplines of religion, philosophy, history, literature, and art history. Over the course of the program, Institute participants will develop teaching-
relevant facility in working with Islamic texts, discussing the historical transformations of Islamic traditions as they spread across South and Southeast Asia, and placing those traditions in their historical, political and cultural contexts. In addition, each participant will draft a detailed course module, syllabus, or research project that draws on Institute content and themes, and that responds to the needs of their home institutions. To facilitate progress on these projects, the project Co-Directors will meet with participants individually and in small disciplinary groups during the first and second week of the program and will be available for consultation throughout the Institute.
Mosque Lamp, 1525-40, Turkey, Iznik (Photo credit:

Prior to the Institute, participants will receive a topical bibliography, from which they will be encouraged to read materials selected according to their own teaching and research interests. All participants will be expected to read the following three background texts:

  • William E. Shepard, Introducing Islam (second edition, Routledge: 2014)
  • Burjor Avari, Islamic Civilization in South Asia (Routledge: 2013)
  • Robert Pringle, Understanding Islam in Indonesia: Politics and Diversity (University of Hawaii Press: 2010).


Two other texts are suggested as supplementary readings that participants are encouraged to explore in connection with major Institute themes:

  • Ebrahim Moosa, What is a Madrasa? (University of North Carolina Press: 2015)
  • Shahab Ahmed, What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic (Princeton: 2015).


William Shepard’s Introducing Islam, provides a concise, yet thorough introduction of important topics that recur regularly in the readings and lectures of the Institute, including the Qurˋan, Islamic law, Islamic theology, and Sufi movements. Although it a substantial work, it is written accessibly enough for undergraduate classroom use. In contrast with shorter introductions, Shepard features discussions of Islamic civilization via sections on art and culture, as well as communal rituals and feasts, placing Islam in social context, and devotes a chapter to detailing the study of Islam in four countries, including Indonesia.


Providing excerpts of primary texts in each chapter, Burjor Avari, Islamic Civilization in South Asia, illuminates the close relation between commerce, the quest for (economic) power, and the spread of Islam in South Asia. Placing religious developments in the contexts of social, economic, political and cultural history, Avari also explains how religious syncretism evoked recurring impulses to restore Islamic “orthodoxy” and led to the foundation of religious schools. One of the book’s guiding themes is how Muslims in each time period addressed questions about Islamic normativity—one of the Institute’s organizing themes.

Pringle’s Understanding Islam in Indonesia similarly addresses issues of syncretism and normativity within religious institutions and teachings in Indonesia. Using relevant biographical sketches of modern-day leaders of Islam, he shows how these discussions continue as Indonesian Islamic thinking has developed at a great distance from the heartlands of Islam. The book is particularly effective in showing the importance of regional connections in the early evolution of Islam in Indonesia and is one of the few that manages to cover trends in contemporary Indonesian Islam as they relate to the Middle East.


These three books will provide participants with a shared foundation and vocabulary for exploring the doctrinal, historical and social dimensions of Islam in Asia. Ebrahim Moosa’s What is a Madrasa? is based on his experiences inside the world of the madrasa, the most common school for religious instruction in the Islamic world. Providing insights into the genealogy of internal debates of Islamic thinking, Moosa addresses recurring contemporary questions about normativity and orthodoxy that are posed across South Asia, focusing on the post-secondary-level madrasas in the Indo-Pakistan heartlands and how they have shaped and continue shaping Islamic reform and radicalization in the region. Shahab Ahmed’s What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic is an intellectual tour de force that deftly addresses the at times tense relationship between Islamic authority and diversity, reflecting critically on questions about what is “Islamic” in Islamic philosophy or Islamic art as well as offering a challenging perspective on whether the Islamic (the religious) should be distinguished from the Islamicate (the cultural).