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Culture and Society in the Medieval Muslim World


Admission Requirements

Admission to the MA Middle Eastern Studies or the MA Middle Eastern Studies (research) is required. Furthermore, students should be able to use Arabic sources, which form the core of the material studied and discussed in class. Please, contact the Prof. Dr. P.M. Sijpesteijn, if you are interested in taking this course, but NOT a student of the one of the above-mentioned MA programmes and/or if you are not certain your level of Arabic is sufficient.


This course will examine the daily life experience of religious minorities, both Muslim and non-Muslim, in the medieval Middle East. Through Arabic narrative sources and documents as well as background secondary readings we will treat such topics as the theoretical framework of heterodoxy and orthodoxy; the development of Muslim sects; the legal position of non-Muslims in theory and practice – to whom non-Muslims turned in cases of conflict or need; the relation between social, economic and political hierarchies and religion; the extent to which different Muslim and non-Muslim communities were intertwined, co-existed, competed and how this differed throughout the medieval Middle East. The course has two connected goals: to deepen the student’s knowledge and experience of medieval Muslim history and to familiarise him/her with the reference tools of the study of this period. These two academic goals are joined in the work with primary sources, such as coins, documents, manuscripts and inscriptions, which is central to this course.

Overview of class topics:

  • Introduction: Sources and problems

  • Early Islam: From Arabs to Muslims

  • Dhimmis in court: Islamic law and other forms of legal recourse

  • Interfaith debates

  • A global commercial network: The Genizah and the Indian Ocean trade

  • Egyptian Christians in the Fatimid administration

  • Muslim minorities: The Shi’ites and Alids

  • The voice of reason and the rise of orthodoxy

  • Whom to turn to in times of distress: Petitions

  • Feasts and rituals

  • Family life: Marriage, divorce and birth

  • Shrines and pilgrimage

  • Convivencia?

Course objectives

  • to allow students to become thoroughly acquainted with the historical debate on medieval and early-modern Islamic religious minorities;

  • to discuss theoretical approaches to the theme;

  • to become familiar with the main reference works used in the study of the medieval and pre-modern Arabic world;

  • to become familiar with the tools needed to understand the primary sources (coins, documents, manuscripts) relevant to the study of this period;

  • to develop and carry out a small research project on a well-defined topic, based on primary source texts;

  • to report on research findings orally (by reading a paper) and in writing, in accordance with the basic standards of historical scholarship.


For the most recent update of the timetable click here

Mode of instruction

Seminar, weekly attendance and participation required. Each week an assignment will be handed out to be prepared for the next class and to be discussed in class. Students are expected to be able to answer the different issues presented in the homework. The assignment will introduce students to the main reference works and tools of the study of medieval Arabic history.

Assessment method

  • Oral presentation (20%)

  • Participation and performance in weekly assignments (20%)

  • Final paper (written; ca. 7,500 words) (60%)

Reading and assignment for the first class

Students should sign up before the first class on Blackboard for this course where the reading and assignment for the first class can be found. Students should bring their completed assignment to class.


Will be used for internal communication and the distribution of additional reading and/or source material.

Reading list

  • P. Crone, God’s Rule Government and Islam. Six Centuries of Medieval Islamic Political Thought, New York: Columbia University Press, 2004 (or the same book with the title Medieval Islamic Political Thought, Edinburgh University Press, 2004).

  • M. Cohen, Under Crescent and Cross, Princeton University Press, 1994.

  • Further readings will be provided in class.


Registration via uSis

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

Contact information

Prof. dr Petra Sijpesteijn