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Anthropology of Muslim Societies


Admission Requirements

Admission to the MA Middle Eastern Studies, to the MA Middle Eastern Studies (research) or another relevant MA. Students should have had approximately 30 EC worth of courses in Islamic studies at BA level. Students who are interested in taking this course, but who do not fullfil these requirements are requested to contact Dr. Egbert Harmsen or drs. N.A.N.M. van Os.


Since more than four decades cultural/social anthropologists are engaged in the study of Muslim societies. Anthropological perspectives have become increasingly prominent in studies of the Muslim world. According to Edward Said, they might serve as an antidote against essentialist and static views of older “orientalist” approaches. This seminar aims to give an overview of anthropological studies of Muslim societies, both contemporary and historical. This means that also books of historians who use an anthropological perspective might be subject of analysis. Starting point is the seminal essay by Clifford Geertz, “Islam Observed” (1968). Following this lead, the comparative study of Muslim societies is understood to be central. The first meetings are dedicated to a general introduction to anthropology, its theories, concepts and methods. Special attention will be given to combination of the study of written sources with fieldwork. The different styles of report and writing ethnographies will also be analyzed. The anthropological approach itself is also subject to scrutiny, by placing it in its social and historical context, in which the colonial past looms large. The second part of the seminar is focused on a systematic comparison of several regional traditions in which anthropological approaches have taken place. Through the comparison of monographs from those regions (for instance the Arab World, Central Asia, the South Asian subcontinent, South East Asia and/or Sub-Saharan Africa) on related issues, such as religion, social structure, urban culture, gender, politics and the public sphere, pilgrimage and sacrifice, important themes in anthropology will be addressed. Every student is required to study one anthropological monograph in detail by analyzing it in an extensive essay.

Course objectives

  • A sound overview of important anthropological studies of Muslim societies and its main issues.

  • An introduction to anthropological theories and methods relevant for the subject.

  • A critical reflection on the history of the anthropological approach to Muslim societies by analyzing its social context.


Weekly seminar from 10 September onward.
For the most recent update of the timetable click here

Mode of instruction

Tutorial, occasional lecture and individual study of source materials.

Assessment method

The final mark is composed of 30% for participation, reading notes and presentation of general readings; 20% oral presentation of the monograph; 50% final paper.


Blackboard will be used.

Reading List

The following four books will be studied by all participants during the first part of the course:

  • Geertz, Clifford; 1968 Islam Observed. Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia, New Haven & London: Yale University Press

  • Monaghan, John & Just, Peter; 2000 Social and Cultural Anthropology. A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press

  • Rabinow, Paul; 2007 (orig. 1977) Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press Thirtieth Anniversary Edition with a new preface by the author

  • Varisco, Daniel; 2005 Islam Obscured. The Rhetoric of Anthropological Representation, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Some additional readings. A definitive reading list will be made available at the beginning of the course.


Through uSis

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply

Contact information

Dr. Egbert Harmsen


Participation in the course entails the following requirements:

  • Attendance at all seminar meetings and active participation in the discussions.

  • Weekly reading notes to be handed at the beginning of the meeting.

  • Oral presentation, with handout, of assigned general readings.

  • Oral presentation, with handout, of a particular monograph.

  • Paper about a monograph on the anthropological study of Muslim societies and its place in the oeuvre of the athor and in the field. The paper should contain about 6000 words and should be presented in a printed form, with 1.5. interline, to be handed in on 21 december 2012.