2014-2015 Religion Courses
First-Year Studies: Islam
This course will provide a comprehensive introduction to the foundational texts of Islam, the historical development of different Muslim cultures, and the contemporary issues that animate Islam’s ever-evolving manifestations. We will begin with the Qur’an, a book whose juxtaposition of narrative fragments, apocalyptic imagery, divine voice, and sociopolitical themes conveyed in rhymed Arabic prose has both entranced and confounded readers. We will look at the historical roots of the “isms” used today to describe the orientations of Sunnism, Shi‘ism, Sufism, and Salafism. Looking beyond the Middle East, where only about 20 percent of the current global Muslim population resides, we will examine how migrating people, concepts, texts, and practices both transform and are transformed by existing traditions in different geographical locations. Contemporary preoccupations such as the status of women in Islam and the relationship between Islam and violence will be examined from a variety of perspectives, illustrating the intricacies of Muslim and non-Muslim acts of interpretation and their relationship to power and authority.
The Buddhist Tradition in India, Tibet, and Southeast Asia
This intoductory course treats the evolution of Buddhism in India from the origins of the religion as a group of “world-renouncing” ascetics through the development of large, state-supported monastic communities and the emergence of the major reform movements known as Mahāyāna and Tantra. The course also focuses on the Buddhism of two regions of the world—Southeast Asia and the Tibetan plateau—where the respective traditions have been most self-consciously concerned with maintaining precedents inherited from India. Equal attention is paid to (1) matters of philosophy and doctrine, (2) religious rites and practices, and (3) social and institutional arrangements. The lectures are accompanied by copious audiovisual materials. For students who wish to continue studying the development of the Buddhist tradition in other parts of the world. The Buddhist Tradition in East Asia, a companion lecture, is offered in the spring semester.
The Buddhist Tradition in East Asia
This introductory course focuses on the Buddhism of East Asia: China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. Buddhism first began to take root in China in the early centuries of the Common Era, having been transmitted from India via Central Asia and the maritime states of Southeast Asia. Buddhism initially met with much resistance, being branded an “alien” cult that was at odds with native Chinese (especially Confucian) values. Eventually, however, the Indian religion adapted to Chinese culture and came to have a profound influence on it, spawning new schools of Buddhism such as Tiantai, Huayan, Pure Land, and Chan (called Zen in Japan). The smaller, neighboring countries that fell under the sway of Chinese civilization—Korea, Japan, and Vietnam—first imported forms of Buddhism that had taken shape in China, not India; but each, in turn, further changed the religion in ways that accorded with their own indigenous cultures. Equal attention is paid in this course to (1) matters of philosophy and doctrine, (2) religious rites and practices, and (3) social and institutional arrangements. The lectures are accompanied by copious audiovisual materials. The course has no prerequisite; it is suitable for students who have already taken the companion lecture—The Buddhist Tradition in India, Tibet, and Southeast Asia—offered in the fall.
The Hebrew Bible
The Hebrew Bible stands at the foundation of Western culture. Its stories permeate our literature, our art—indeed, our sense of identity. Its ideas inform our laws, have given birth to our revolutions and social movements, and have thereby made most of our social institutions possible (as well as the movements to remove them). What is this book? How was it written? Who wrote it? Who preserved it for us? Why has all or part of this body of literature been considered holy to the practitioners of Judaism and Christianity? Four thousand years ago, various groups from small tribe-wandering nomads would get together and tell stories. These stories were not preserved on stone tombs but in the hearts and memories of the people to whom they belonged. We will read this collection of traditions in a book called Genesis and compare these stories with other texts (written in mud and stone) such as The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Babylonian Creation Epic, which were contemporary with biblical traditions. We will read the great biblical epic of liberation, Exodus, and the oracles of the great Hebrew Prophets of Israel—those reformers, judges, priests, mystics, and poets to whom modern culture owes its grasp of justice. We will trace the social intellectual and political history of the people formed by these traditions until the Roman age.
Christianity and the Roman Empire
Roman culture has traditionally been studied for its capacity to absorb and transform the ideas and beliefs of others, most notably those of the Greeks. This course seeks to examine the interaction between traditional Greco-Roman religious belief or ideology and various religious movements within Judaism from late Hellenistic and Roman times. Judaism of this period was itself complex and diverse, including breakaway groups such as the Essenes, as well as the messianic movement that eventually produced Christianity. The course will consider such developments against the background of Hellenistic Greek and Roman imperial religion and ruler glorification, eventually focusing on the transition of Christianity from its initial setting into an evermore significant component of Greco-Roman culture that diverged increasingly from its Hellenistic Jewish origins. The course will then examine the imperialization of Christianity in the fourth century under Constantine and his successors, concluding with the emergence of the Church as the heir of imperial institutions in the fifth and sixth centuries. Though focusing extensively on historical and religious texts, the course will also examine the evidence of artistic monuments.
Jewish Mysticism From Antiquity to the Present
This course examines a powerful, vibrant countertrend within Judaism known as mysticism. We begin with the ancient “Chariot Mysticism,” proceed to ascetic medieval German pietism, and dwell at length on the erotically-charged “kabbalah” that emerged in medieval Spain and Southern France—its unique conceptions of God, evil, demonology, sin, death, sexuality, and magic. We then follow the emergence of ambitious circles of mystics in 16th-century Safed (Land of Israel) that eventually sparked a mass messianic movement around the figure of Shabbetai Tzevi. In the second semester, we delve into the most popular and enduring Jewish mystical movement, Hasidism. Founded on the teachings the Ba’al Shem Tov (The Besht) in 18th-century Eastern Europe, Hasidism was forged into a mass movement by charismatic miracle workers called “tzaddikim” and spread by means of oral and written tales. We follow the emergence of Hasidic dynasties, gauge Hasidic responses to modern phenomena like Zionism and the Holocaust, and follow the movement’s continued flourishing today in tight-knit communities from Brooklyn to Jerusalem. Finally, we will examine the phenomenon of neo-kabbalah. Throughout, we strive to appreciate new manifestations of Jewish mysticism within changing historical contexts.
Pariah Lives: Modern Jewish Fiction and Autobiography
In the late-18th century, Jewish authors began to emerge from the ghetto and grapple openly with the challenges of modernity through genres like fiction and autobiography. Some, like Solomon Maimon, Franz Kafka, Isaac Babel, and Sholem Aleichem (whose short stories formed the basis of the play Fiddler on the Roof), achieved universal acclaim. But the path of the modern Jewish writer was rarely smooth. It usually entailed alienation and rebellion against the Jewish tradition; bouts of nostalgia, longing, and regret; and rejection by non-Jewish societies that were generating increasingly virulent forms of anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust. Despite the ambivalence, tension, and anguish that runs through their writings, we will discover works of great beauty and poignancy that yield profound insights into the modern experience. Throughout the course, we interweave modern works of fiction and autobiographies by Jewish men and women whose outsider, “pariah,” status gave them a unique perspective on the world.
Chan and Zen Buddhism
This course is an in-depth, historical examination of the philosophy, mythology, literature, institutional arrangements, religious practices, art, and architecture associated with this most famous and widely misunderstood branch of East Asian Buddhism. The Chan (Zen) school of Buddhism arose in China as the result of a cross-cultural exchange of epic proportions: the gradual intrusion of an alien set of religious ideas, values, and practices—those belonging to Indian Buddhism—into China between the first and the eighth centuries of the Common Era and the subsequent efforts of some 20 generations of Chinese Buddhists to defend, adapt, domesticate, and finally make the foreign religion entirely their own. Chan became the most “Chinese” school of Buddhism by defining itself in terms of indigenous concepts of clan genealogy, by exalting members of its spiritual lineage as native-born buddhas, and by allowing those buddhas to speak in the vernacular, using a mode of rhetoric that was heavily influenced by the Confucian and Daoist traditions. The course begins by outlining the Indian Buddhist doctrines and practices that were imported into China and by summarizing the indigenous cultural milieu that was initially quite hostile to the alien religion. We then explore the various compromises and adaptations of Indian Buddhist teachings, practices, and institutions that took shape within the Chan tradition and enabled it to emerge in the Song dynasty (960-1278) as the predominant school of Chinese Buddhism. The main theme of the second semester is the transmission of the Chan school of Buddhism to Japan, where it became known as Zen, and the subsequent development of the tradition in that country from the 13th century to the present. No prior knowledge of East Asian history, languages, or religions is required.
Contemporary Muslim Novels and Creative Nonfiction
In 1988, two writers from Muslim backgrounds achieved international fame. One was the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, who became the first Arab to win the Nobel prize in literature. The other was the British Indian writer Salman Rushdie, who published his novel, The Satanic Verses, in the same year. Within a few months, protests against the portrayal of the Prophet Muhammad in the novel spread worldwide, leading to the banning of the book in numerous countries and the issuing of a fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran calling for Rushdie’s death. Although the perspectives of Mahfouz and Rushdie on Islam are markedly different, their writings have, in common, a keen interest in religion and culture. In the years since 1988, many new writers have emerged in Muslim majority and minority areas of the world. Their works embrace, resist, reject, transmute, and show nostalgia for the beliefs and practices with which they grew up or have adopted. As natives, immigrants, third culture, or converts, some have actively promoted themselves as Muslim writers, while others question this label or view it as only one signifier of many. The writings that have been selected for this course will be ones that deal substantially with issues of Muslim identity. Previous coursework in Islamic Studies is desirable but not required.
Classical Sufi Texts
Between the 11th and 13th centuries, an impressive body of literature emerged from the religious movement that came to be known as Sufism. These writings describe spiritual disciplines, moral guidelines, and metaphysical thought—sometimes in highly appealing stories and poetry and sometimes in dense but very rich prose. In this course, we will explore excerpts in English translation from the classics of three of the most influential of the mystics from this time period. Qushayri, Rumi, and Ibn ‘Arabi are among the most widely read and studied Sufis. Their remarkable intellectual and literary talents have given their works longevity, especially among those who continue to mine them for spiritual wisdom and guidance. All three were intensely committed to Muslim practices, which they sought to understand in profound and expansive ways. This meant thoughtful attention to the details of the legalistic norms of Shari‘a even as they articulated a more refined system of ethics based on their readings of the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. For these Sufis, the subtler virtues to which humans aspire are inextricably linked to views of reality and the human self that are radically different from common notions. Spiritual practice is as much about discipline as it is about understanding things “as they really are.” The works to be studied will include long passages from Qushayri’s Risala, Rumi’s Mathnawi, and Ibn ‘Arabi’s Futuhat al-makkiyya. Previous coursework or knowledge in Islamic Studies, Sufism, or another mystical tradition is desirable. Permission of the instructor is required.