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

Intellectual Rationale

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.

Water pipe base, late 17th century, attributed to India,

Deccan, Bidar. (Photo credit:  www.metmuseum.org)

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).