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Islamic Studies

The Islamic Studies area of study in the Department of Religious Studies is dedicated to the advanced study of Muslim societies and Islamic intellectual history spanning fifteen hundred years. We have particular strengths in both the medieval and early modern religious and philosophical traditions, and in the lived experience of Islam in the contemporary world, with an interest in the connective space between these two fields. Further, out faculty’s research is especially attentive to the interconnections among Muslims and other communities, among them Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, Manichean, Hindu, and African traditions. Graduate students will examine in seminars and tutorials such topics as the Qurʾān and its reception, philosophy, theology, Sufism, Shi‘ism, Islamic jurisprudence and law, ethics, belles-lettres, Muslim history, historiography, anthropology, oratory, and literary biography.

PhD students must demonstrate mastery of Arabic by the end of their second year in the program and must demonstrate mastery of other languages relevant to their research by the end of their third year. The Islamic Studies area of study also directly supports the study of Persian and Judeo-Arabic. Other potentially relevant languages such as Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, Sanskrit, Swahili, Urdu-Hindi, and Yoruba are offered across the University. Beyond course offerings in the Department of Religious Studies, the University also provides relevant training through such departments and programs as Classics, Philosophy, History, Middle East and South Asian Languages, German, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese, Art History, Anthropology, the Carter G. Woodson Institute, and Medieval Studies. The University of Virginia’s library provides a rich resource of Arabic-language books and reference materials on Islamic civilization.

Doctoral Coursework  

PhD students in the Islamic Studies area of study must take two seminars on theory and method. The first is RELG 7360 (“Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion,” required of all PhD students in Religious Studies); the second is RELI 5415 (“Introduction to Arabic and Islamic Studies”). Doctoral students must complete at least 13 additional seminars or tutorials on topics related to their research area(s), the selection of which should be discussed with their advisor(s), in order to fulfill the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) requirement of at least 45 credit hours of graded graduate coursework. Students who enter the PhD program with a relevant prior graduate degree may, in their first year, petition for “advanced standing,” which must be approved by their advisor(s) and the Director of Graduate Studies. Advanced standing would allow a PhD student to obtain up to 15 transfer credits toward their doctoral degree, thereby reducing the graded graduate coursework requirement to 30 credit hours. (Which would mean that, in addition to the two required seminars on theory and method, a PhD student in Islamic Studies would need to take at least 8 further seminars or tutorials.

Language Requirements

Language learning is an essential part of this research area. Islamic Studies PhD students are required to master Arabic as the primary research language to a level that is equivalent to four years of study. Other relevant research languages must be mastered to a level that is equivalent to two years of study. Proficiency in these languages must be demonstrated by a written translation examination by the end of the semester following the completion of a PhD student’s coursework. Reading knowledge of French and/or German may also be required. Each student’s Language Plan of Language study must be determined in consultation with the student’s advisor(s) in their first semester of the PhD program.

Comprehensive Examinations  

PhD students must take three written comprehensive exams covering three different areas of Islamic Studies (e.g., qurʾānic or ḥadīth studies, Islamic history, philosophy, mysticism, anthropology of Islam, or theology), in addition to the required language exams. Students must complete all examinations by the end of the semester following the completion of coursework. (In some cases, it is also possible to take some of comprehensive exams during coursework.) Each exam will be supervised by two faculty members: a primary examiner and a secondary examiner. The reading lists (bibliography) and the format of these exams will be determined by students in consultation with their advisor(s). If the three exams are taken together, they must be taken within one week. Every exam will be followed by an oral defense.

Dissertation and Research Fieldwork

Within approximately three months of completing comprehensive examinations, each candidate will assemble a committee of at least three faculty members and present and defend a dissertation proposal. After the proposal defense, students will conduct intensive primary source research on their chosen topic through textual and/or ethnographic study. Every proposal should include a thorough plan for research, developed in consultation with the dissertation. Students must aim to write, complete, and orally defend the dissertation by the end of their sixth year.

Islamic Studies Colloquium

The Islamic Studies Colloquium (ISC), an interdisciplinary forum based in the Department of Religious Studies, brings together all students and faculty at the University of Virginia whose academic work involves Islam and Muslim cultures—including but not limited to Religious Studies, Medieval Studies, Anthropology, History, and Comparative Literature—to discuss their research in conversation. Presenters alternate between advanced graduate students, who are encouraged to use this forum as an opportunity to receive feedback on their research, and current or visiting faculty, with occasional guest lecturers. Please see the colloquium website for further details.