Almost from its beginnings, Islam has been regarded by many European historians, theologians, political figures and others as a threat to the political and cultural traditions of the West. A great many Islamic thinkers, for their part, have participated in the construction of this relationship too, treating the values espoused by Europeans and their heirs as fundamentally antagonistic to the ideals embraced by most of the inhabitants of the Islamic world. As a consequence, the history of this relationship has often been represented as one of ongoing conflict--a conflict that in many respects seems to continue to this day.

There is, however, another version of this story, one that the popularity of ideas about the "clash of civilizations" make rather hard to see. Indeed, while the history of Islam and the West often seems to be one of interminable conflict, there are numerous instances of conviviality and cooperation as well. Arab scholars were, for instance, instrumental in preserving and advancing the thought of the ancient Greeks. Generations of Christian theologians have looked with great admiration on the text of Islamic religious tradition. And in the past as well as the present, successive waves of population movements between East and West have made the putative opposition between Islam and Western Civilization harder and harder to believe.

This seminar therefore tries to go beyond the so-called “clash of civilizations” thesis in order to examine the shared histories of Islam and the West at sites throughout the Middle East, Asia, Europe and the United States. It begins with an examination of the relations among Judaism, Christianity and Islam from the time of Prophet Muhammad through to the Middle Ages, with a particular focus on the complexities of varied forms of intellectual and religious history. What defines the relations among the three Abrahamic faiths at the moment of Islam’s founding? How do varied communities of believers come to understand the differences between one another? And in what ways have otherwise forgotten forms of cultural and intellectual exchange informed the histories of Christianity, Judaism and Islam as we understand them in the present?

The seminar continues with an exploration of Islam and the culture and politics of the West in the 19th and 20th centuries. How have colonial encounters between Muslims and Christians informed the meaning of modernity in the East and the West? How does the spread of Islam throughout the globe change the way we think about religion, secularism, and the nature of the public sphere? And what does the proliferation of new media technologies, transnational solidarities, and reformist political movements presage for the future of politics in North Africa, the Middle East and beyond?

While our ways of talking about “Islam” and “the West” often invoke a mutual antagonism that seems to span the ages, the historical realities this seminar tracks are much more complicated than such rhetoric suggests. By examining the often intimate forms of relation at work in the history of Islam and the West, the seminar hopes, in the end, to chart a new trajectory for thinking about Islam as a religious, cultural and political influence in the world today.

Presenters will include Fred Donner (Near Eastern Languages and Cultures), Alireza Doostdar (Divinity), Iza Hussin (Political Science), Rashid Khalidi (History-Columbia), Franklin Lewis (Near Eastern Languages and Cultures), and James T. Robinson (Divinity).


  • Edward Said, Covering Islam (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 3-36. [Download]
    • An account of the ways in which Islam has been (mis)represented by Western media and academics--also an updated version of some of the arguments first presented in Orientalism.
  • Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 3-17. [Download]
    • An overview of an "anthropology of the secular," with attention to the problems it poses for thinking about religion and politics in Christian and Islamic societies.
  • Cyrus Schayegh, Who is Knowledgeable is Strong (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 32-52. [Download]
    • An argument about the ways in which an "Iranianized" account of scientific knowledge helped ground the self-identity and the Iranian middle-class and thereby further the production of modern Iranian nationalism in the early part of the 20th century.
  • F.E. Peters, The Quest for the Historical Muhammad IJMES 23 (1991): 291-315. [Download]
    • An examination of how scholars have approached the Qu'ran and related materials in order to investigate the "historical Muhammad" and related questions having to do with the history of early Islam.
  • “Persian Language and Literature,” from Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World Vol. 2, ed. Richard C. Martin (New York: MacMillan Reference USA, 2004), 522-539. [Download]

Supplemental Readings

  • Omar Khayyam (Quatrains) [Download]
  • Nezami "Layla and Majnun" [Download]
  • Hussin, "Islam, Ethnicity and the Problem of Mixed Legality: Two Malaysian Cases" [Download]
  • Hussin, "The Pursuit of the Perak Regalia: Islam, Law and the Politics of Authority in the Colonial State" [Download]
  • Farrokhzad "The Mechanical Doll" and "The Wind-up Doll [Download]
  • Jalal al-Din Rumi (Selected Poems) [Download]


  • Fred Donner, "Islam's Origins and Heritage" [Link]
  • Alireza Doostdar, "Islam, Science, and the Empirical Spirit in Iran" [Link]
  • Iza Hussin, "Islam, Law, and the Making of the Muslim State" [Link]
  • James Robinson, "How Much Islam in Jewish Thought?: Remarks on the Translation into Hebrew and Transmission of Arabic Texts in Christian Europe" [Link]
  • Rashid Khalidi, "Islam and the West in the Modern Era" [Link]
  • Franklin Lewis, "Representing the Vernacular and Mystical: Islamicate Literatures and the Deconstruction of 'Iconic' Islam in the West" [Link]