Research Guide

A Guide to Writing Research Papers on Islam

The following notes and references are meant to help you to organize and compose a traditional academic research paper on Islam and related topics, such as Islam and science. You may find the basic sequence and resources helpful in other disciplines, too, especially in religious studies, philosophy, and biblical studies. Short or long, your research paper can be crafted in five steps: (1) choose a topic, (2) research your topic, (3) outline your argument, (4) write the first draft, and (5) refine the final paper.

1. Choosing a Topic

If your topic is not chosen for you, you should aim to choose one that is (1) interesting to you, (2) manageable (with readily available sources) and malleable (so you can narrow in on an especially interesting or important aspect), and (3) arguable. Your research paper will essentially be an argument based on the available primary and secondary sources and authorities.

Experienced researchers have developed several good tools for choosing a topic and beginning the research paper. Here are some resources you might consider:

  • Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research, second ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).
  • James R. Kennedy, Library Research Guide to Religion and Theology: Illustrated Search Strategy and Sources, second ed. (Ann Arbor: Pierian, 1984).
  • Thomas Mann, The Oxford Guide to Library Research (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
  • Roy Preece, Starting Research: An Introduction to Academic Research and Dissertation Writing. (New York: Pinter, 1994).

The chapters of Understanding Islam: An Introduction provide a very good place to start finding a research topic. Perhaps there was a topic in one of the chapters (such as Islamic mysticism or Christian-Muslim relations) that caught your interest. Topics might also be suggested by classroom discussion, by the further readings, by your own religious or historical interests, or from other sources. Additionally, one of the following topics might be of interest to you:

The Pillars

Choose one of the five pillars of faith in Islam and elaborate on its importance in the life of a Muslim. How difficult is it to pray five times a day? How does one even begin to plan a trip to Mecca/Makka to participate in the Hajj?


Where to start: Reread chapter 2 of Understanding Islam

  • Jonathan Benthall, "Financial Worship: The Quranic Injunction to Almsgiving," The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 5:1 (March 1999): 27-42.
  • John L. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, third ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), esp. chapter three.
  • Valerie J. Hoffman, "Eating and Fasting for God in Sufi Tradition," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 63:3 (Autumn 1995): 465-84.
  • Thomas W. Lippman, Understanding Islam: An Introduction to the Muslim World, second ed. (New York: Penguin, 1995), esp. chapter one.
  • F. E. Peters, The Hajj: The Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca and the Holy Places (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).
  • Joseph B. Tamney, "Fasting and Modernization," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 19:2 (June 1980): 129-37.
  • Michael Wolfe, One Thousand Roads to Mecca: Ten Centuries of Travelers Writing About the Muslim Pilgrimage (New York: Grove, 1999).

Muslims in the West

How have Muslims adapted to life in the West? How does their faith inform their lifestyle and how does the Western lifestyle shape Muslim faith and practice?


Where to start: Reread chapter 10 of Understanding Islam

  • Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Muslims in the West: From Sojourners to Citizens (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
  • Tariq Ramadan, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
  • Feisal Abdul Rauf, What's Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004).
  • Steven Salaita, Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where it Comes From and What it Means for Politics Today (London: Pluto, 2006).
  • Jane I. Smith, Islam in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

For up-to-date information, visit the websites of the Islamic Foundation in Leicester (, the American-Arab Anti-Defamation Committee (, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (

The Prophet Muhammad

What were the formative events of Muhammad's life? Why is he such a figure of devotion for Muslims? What can Christians and other persons of faith constructively say about the Prophet of Islam?


Where to start: Reread chapter 2 of Understanding Islam

  • Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993).
  • Kenneth Cragg, Muhammad and the Christian: A Question of Response (Oxford: Oneworld, 1999).
  • David Noel Freedman and Michael J. McClymond, eds., The Rivers of Paradise: Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, and Muhammad as Religious Founders (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000).
  • Ibn Ishaq, The Life of Muhammad, trans. A. Guillaume (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955).
  • Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1987).
  • Annemarie Schimmel, And Muhammad Is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985).
  • W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961).


There are many ways to approach this highly contemporary and sometimes controversial topic. For the purposes of this course, it might be best to investigate the role of religion in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Do you think the roots of the problem are primarily political, social, historical, or religious in nature? What claims do Judaism, Christianity and Islam make on the land of historic Palestine?


Where to start: Reread chapter 9 of Understanding Islam

  • Colin Chapman, Whose Promised Land? The Continuing Crisis Over Israel and Palestine (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002).
  • Marc Gopin, Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring Peace to the Middle East (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  • Michael Lerner, Healing Israel/Palestine: A Path to Peace and Reconciliation (New York: North Atlantic, 2003).
  • Charles P. Lutz and Robert O. Smith, Christians And a Land Called Holy: How We Can Foster Justice, Peace, And Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006).
  • W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1961).

The Iraq Conflict

What is the role of religion in the Iraqi conflict? How have Muslims spoken against or supported U.S. and coalition actions in Iraq? What effect has the American invasion had on the relationship between Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurdish groups, all of whom are Muslim?


Where to start: Reread chapter 2 of Understanding Islam

  • Liam Anderson and Gareth Stansfield, The Future of Iraq: Dictatorship, Democracy, or Division? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
  • Noah Feldman, What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
  • Yitzhak Nakash, The Shi'is of Iraq (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).

Contemporary Islamic Thought

Choose a modern Muslim thinker and discuss the importance of their teachings on the Muslim community. Contemporary thinkers to consider might include Khaled abu El Fadl, Abdulaziz Sachedina, Omid Safi, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, Benazir Bhutto, Abu Zayd, Asma Barlas, Hamid Algar, and Leila Ahmed. You might also consider an important activist from the last generation such as Muhammad Iqbal, Sayyid Qutb, Ali Shariati, or Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi.


Where to start: Reread chapter 10 of Understanding Islam

  • Sana Abed-Kotob, "The Accommodationists Speak: Goals and Strategies of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt," International Journal of Middle East Studies 27:3 (Aug. 1995): 321-39.
  • Abdullahi Ahmed An-Naim, Toward an Islamic Reformation: Civil Liberties, Human Rights, and International Law (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996).
  • Khaled Abou El Fadl, The Place of Tolerance in Islam (Boston: Beacon, 2002).
  • Khaled Abou El Fadl, et al, Islam and the Challenge of Democracy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004).
  • John L. Esposito, ed., Voices of Resurgent Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983).
  • Abdulaziz Sachedina, The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).
  • Omid Safi, Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (Oxford: Oneworld, 2003).
  • Information on Ali Shariati can be found at

Islam and Sports

Sport is an integral component of modern human existence. Soccer (football if you're not in the U.S.) is a particularly ubiquitous sport around the world, including the Islamic world. Students might want to research the importance of sport for Muslims. One could look at modern practice, see how Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd commented on Aristotle's thoughts about sport, or address the issue of mixed-gender teams (as are common among American youth, especially for soccer [that is, football]).


Where to start: Reread chapter 7 of Understanding Islam

  • Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization (New York: Harper Collins, 2004).
  • Linda Robertson, "A Great Day for Arab Women," in The Best American Sports Writing 2005, ed., Mike Lupica (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005).
  • Paul A. Silverstein, "Sporting Faith: Islam, Soccer, and the French Nation-State," Social Text 18:4 (Winter 2000): 25-53.

Medieval Spain

Research the rise and fall of Islamic rule on the Iberian Peninsula. What were the political and interreligious realities of this period. You may want to focus on cultural or academic achievements.


Where to start: Reread chapter 4 of Understanding Islam

  • Roger Collins and Anthony Goodman, eds., Medieval Spain: Culture, Conflict and Coexistence (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).
  • Thomas F. Glick, Vivian B. Mann and Jerrilynn D. Dodds, eds., Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain (New York: George Braziller, 1992).
  • Chris Lowney, A Vanished World: Medieval Spain's Golden Age of Enlightenment (New York: Free Press, 2005).
  • Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (New York: Little, Brown, 2002).
  • Mireille Mentre, Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Spain (London: Thames & Hudson, 2004).

Western Popular Views of Islam

How does Western popular culture interpret Islam? What effect does this have on the policy of western countries?


Where to start: Reread chapter 10 of Understanding Islam

  • Matthew Bernstein and Gaylyn Studlar, eds., Visions of the East: Orientalism in Film (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997).
  • Fawaz A. Gerges, "Islam and Muslims in the Mind of America: Influences on the Making of U.S. Policy" Journal of Palestine Studies 26:2 (Winter 1997): 68-80.
  • Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
  • Edward W. Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (New York: Vintage, 1997).
  • Jack G. Shaheen, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People (New York: Olive Branch, 2001).

Islamic Architecture

Explore the principles of Islamic architecture. How did architecture change between regions and dynasties? Are there distinctive aspects to western Muslim architecture? What forms do you see in your area?


Where to start: Reread chapter 6 of Understanding Islam

  • Dominique Clevenot, Splendors of Islam: Architecture, Decoration and Design (New York: Vendome Press, ).
  • Ernst J. Grube, et al, Architecture of the Islamic World: Its History and Social Meaning (London: Thames & Hudson, 1995).
  • Robert Hillenbrand, Islamic Architecture: Form, Function, and Meaning (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).
  • John D. Hoag, Western Islamic Architecture: A Concise Introduction (New York: Dover, 2005)
  • Henri Stierlin and Anne Stierlin, Islamic Art and Architecture: From Isfahan to the Taj Mahal (London: Thames & Hudson, 2002).
  • Jo Tonna, "The Poetics of Arab-Islamic Architecture," Muqarnas 7 (1990): 182-97.

The website presented by the Islamic Architecture Organization is a comprehensive resource and guide (

Visual Arts in Islam

Explore the principles of Islamic visual arts. What is the theological approach to representational art in Islam? How do these principles relate to Christian (and more generally, western) approaches to art?


Where to start: Reread chapter 6 of Understanding Islam

  • Manijeh Bayani, et al, The Decorated Word: Qur'ans of the 17th to 19th Centuries (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999-).
  • Isml R. al-Frq, "Islm and Art," Studia Islamica 37 (1973): 81-109.
  • Lois al Faruqi, "The Aesthetics of Islamic Art," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 35:3 (Spring 1977): 353-55.
  • S. Brent Plate, Religion, Art, and Visual Culture: A Cross-Cultural Reader (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).
  • John Renard, Islam and the Heroic Image: Themes in Literature and the Visual Arts (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1999).
  • Nabil F. Safwat, The Art of the Pen: Calligraphy of the 14th to 20th Centuries (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996-).
  • Again, will be a good source of information and images.

Music in Islam / Qur'an Recitation

Explore the use of music in Islamic life and culture. one might focus on popular traditional music or on Qur'anic recitation. What are the various styles of Qur'an recitation. What is the process for a person to become trained in the art of recitation?


Where to start: Reread chapter 7 of Understanding Islam

  • Philip V. Bohlman, "The European Discovery of Music in the Islamic World and the 'Non-Western' in 19th-Century Music History," The Journal of Musicology 5:2 (Spring 1987): 147-63.
  • Walter Denny, "Music and Musicians in Islamic Art" Asian Music 17:1 (Autumn 1985): 37-68.
  • Lois Ibsen al Faruqi, "The Cantillation of the Qur'an," Asian Music 19:1 (Autumn 1987): 1-25.
  • Kristina Nelson, The Art of Reciting the Qur'an (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2001).
  • Michael A. Sells, Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations (Ashland, OR: White Cloud, 1999).
  • Jonathan H. Shannon, "Sultans of Spin: Syrian Sacred Music on the World Stage," American Anthropologist 105:2 (June 2003): 266-77.
  • Amnon Shiloah, Music in the World of Islam: A Socio-Cultural Study (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995).
  • Amnon Shiloah, "Music and Religion in Islam," Acta Musicologica 69:2 (July 1997): 143-55.
  • Mohammad Abdul Mujeeb Siddiqui, Guide to the Fundamentals of Tajweed Al-Quran (Toronto: Al-Attique, 2003).

Children's Books on Islam

How do Muslims seek to communicate their faith tradition to their children? How do western authors attempt to inform young people about Islam and Muslim life? Review various children's books. Consider their accuracy, their aims and goals, and their methodologies.


Where to start: Review various sections of Understanding Islam

  • Tricia Brown and Ken Cardwell, Salaam: A Muslim American Boy's Story (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2006).
  • Sarah Conover, et al, Ayat Jamilah: Beautiful Signs: A Treasury of Islamic Wisdom for Children and Parents (Spokane: Eastern Washington University Press, 2004).
  • Rukhsana Khan and Patty Gallinger, Muslim Child: Understanding Islam Through Stories and Poems (Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman & Co., 2002).
  • Judith V. Lechner, "The World of Arab and Muslim Children in Children's Books," an annotated bibliography available online in .pdf format (
  • Cynthia Mosher, "Adventure into Islam: Children's Books on the Muslim Life," Mothering Magazine (July-August 2002).
  • Large lists of books can be found via online retail outlets, including from the Islamic Bookstore ( and at this location:

Marriage, Ethics, and Law

Explore the general theory of law in Islam. Investigate Islamic religious law (shari'a), perhaps comparing it with the intersection of modern, western contract law. Or, if you like, select one aspect of Islamic law and ethics (i.e., marriage law) for investigation.


Where to start: Reread chapter 7 of Understanding Islam

  • Leila Ahmed, "Women and the Advent of Islam," Signs 11:4 (Summer 1986): 665-91.
  • Jonathan E. Brockopp, ed., Islamic Ethics of Life: Abortion, War, and Euthanasia (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003).
  • Imam Al-Ghazali, The Proper Conduct of Marriage in Islam (Adab an-Nikah): Book 12 of Ihya 'Ulum ad-Din (Ft. Lauderdale, FL: Al-Baz, 1998).
  • Nayer Honarvar, "Behind the Veil: Women's Rights in Islamic Societies," Journal of Law and Religion 6:2 (1988): 355-87.
  • George F. Hourani, Reason and Tradition in Islamic Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).
  • Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, The Muslim Marriage Guide (Beltsville, MD: Amana, 2000).
  • Ann Elizabeth Mayer, "Law and Religion in the Muslim Middle East," The American Journal of Comparative Law 35:1 (Winter 1987): 127-84.
  • David S. Powers, "The Islamic Inheritance System: A Socio-Historical Approach," Arab Law Quarterly 8:1 (1993): 13-29.
  • Ron Shaham, "Custom, Islamic Law, and Statutory Legislation: Marriage Registration and Minimum Age at Marriage in the Egyptian Shar'a Courts," Islamic Law and Society 2:3 (1995): 258-81.

Christians under Islam

Explore the various communities of Arab Christians. How have they related to Muslims (i.e., in dhimmi status)? How have Arab Christians engaged in interreligious dialogue with Muslims?


Where to start: Reread chapter 9 of Understanding Islam

  • Betty Jane Bailey and J. Martin Bailey, Who Are the Christians in the Middle East? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).
  • Kenneth Cragg, The Arab Christian: A History in the Middle East (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1991).
  • William Dalrymple, From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East (New York: Henry Holt, 1998).
  • Andrea Pacini, ed., Christian Communities in the Arab Middle East: The Challenge of the Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
  • Charles M. Sennott, The Body and the Blood: The Middle East's Vanishing Christians and the Possibility for Peace (New York: Public Affairs, 2002).
  • Mitri Raheb, I Am a Palestinian Christian (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995).
  • Uri Rubin and David J. Wasserstein, eds., Dhimmis and Others: Jews and Christians and the World of Classical Islam (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1997).
  • Robert O. Smith, "Secular and religious: ELCJHL Contributions to Palestinian Nationalism," Currents in Theology and Mission 32:5 (Fall 2005): 338-48.
  • Anton Wessels, Arab and Christian? Christians in the Middle East (Kampen, Netherlands: Pharos Books, 1984).

The Nation of Islam

Describe the movement known as the Nation of Islam. In what ways is it a response to its American context? Compare and contrast the Nation of Islam with orthodox Islam? Describe the developments in African American Islam since the late 1960s.


Where to start: Reread chapter 10 of Understanding Islam

  • Zafar Ishaq Ansari, "Aspects of Black Muslim Theology," Studia Islamica 53 (1981): 137-76.
  • Robert Dannin, Black Pilgrimage to Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
  • Martha F. Lee, The Nation of Islam: An American Millenarian Movement (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996).
  • Sherman A. Jackson, Islam and the Blackamerican: Looking toward the Third Resurrection (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
  • Clifton E. Marsh, From Black Muslims to Muslims: The Resurrection, Transformation, and Change of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam in America, 1930-1995, second ed. (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1996).
  • Aminah McCloud, African American Islam (New York: Routledge, 1994).
  • Felicia M. Miyakawa, Five Percenter Rap: God Hop's Music, Message, And Black Muslim Mission (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005).
  • William Strickland, et al, Malcolm X : Make It Plain (New York: Viking, 1994).
  • Steven Tsoukalas, The Nation of Islam: Understanding the "Black Muslims" (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001).
  • Richard Brent Turner, Islam in the African-American Experience, second ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003).
  • Malcolm X and Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (New York: Ballantine Books, 1987).

Jesus in Islam

How do the Qur'an and Islamic tradition approach the figure of Jesus? How has Jesus been honored in Sufi thought and practice? In what ways have Christians attempted to communicate their understanding of Jesus to Muslims?


Where to start: Reread chapters 2, 3 and 9 of Understanding Islam

  • Kenneth Cragg, Jesus and the Muslim: An Exploration (Oxford: Oneworld, 1999).
  • Tarif Khalidi, The Muslim Jesus: Sayings and Stories in Islamic Literature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).
  • Hava Lazarus-Yafeh, "Some Neglected Aspects of Medieval Muslim Polemics against Christianity," The Harvard Theological Review 89:1 (Jan. 1996): 61-84.
  • Javad Nurbakhsh, Jesus in the Eyes of the Sufis, second ed. (New York: KNP, 1992).
  • Kathleen Malone O'Connor, "The Islamic Jesus: Messiahhood and Human Divinity in African American Muslim Exegesis," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 66:3 (Autumn 1998), 493-532.
  • Geoffrey Parrinder, Jesus in the Qur'an (Oxford: Oneworld, 1995).
  • David Pinault, "Images of Christ in Arabic Literature," Die Welt des Islams 1:3 (1987): 103-25.


What is fundamentalism and how is it manifested in Judaism, Christianity, Islam? What happens when a group ties its particular interpretation of faith to an existing or imagined political order? Does all fundamentalism result in militarized resistance? What ways can fundamentalist tendencies be identified and countered?


Where to start: Reread chapter 10 of Understanding Islam

  • John L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, third ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
  • Gershom Gorenberg, The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount, second ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
  • Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, third ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
  • Gilles Kepel, Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam, trans. Anthony F. Roberts (Cambridge: Belknap, 2003).
  • Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil: Five Warning Signs (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).
  • Olivier Roy, The Failure of Political Islam, trans. Carol Volk (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).
  • Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky, Jewish Fundamentalism In Israel (London: Pluto, 2004).
  • Jessica Stern, Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill (New York: Ecco, 2003).
  • Bassam Tibi, The Challenge of Fundamentalism: Political Islam and the New World Disorder (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).

See also the generally high-quality articles collected in the volumes edited by Martin E. Marty and R. Scott Appleby for The Fundamentalism Project.

Abraham in the Three Faiths

The three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—engage and appropriate the prophetic personage of Abraham in three very different ways. Compare and contrast the textual heritage of each tradition. From the perspective of Islam, what aspects of the other two traditions are most helpful for understanding Abraham?


Where to start: Reread chapter 2 of Understanding Islam

  • M. Athar Ali, "Muslims' Perception of Judaism and Christianity in Medieval India," Modern Asian Studies 33:1 (Feb. 1999): 243-55.
  • Jerome Baschet, "Medieval Abraham: Between Fleshly Patriarch and Divine Father," MLN 108:4 (Sept. 1993): 738-58.
  • Bruce Feiler, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (New York: William Morrow, 2002).
  • Reuven Firestone, "Abraham's Journey to Mecca in Islamic Exegesis: A Form-Critical Study of a Tradition," Studia Islamica 76 (1992): 5-24.
  • Karl-Josef Kuschel, Abraham: Sign of Hope for Jews, Christians and Muslims (New York: Continuum, 1995).
  • F. E. Peters, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: The Classical Texts and Their Interpretation, 3 vols. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).

Islamic Mysticism

Sufism has been of great interest to western scholars of Islam. Prepare an overview of the movement, sharing the basic contours of Sufi commitment and life. If you want to go into greater depth, write a more detailed project on a major Sufi school or figure, such as al-Ghazali, Rabi'a, or al-Hallaj. Be sure to examine the tensions between Sufism and mainstream Islam.


Where to start: Reread chapter 8 of Understanding Islam

  • William C. Chittick, The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi (Albany: SUNY Press, 1983).
  • A. Nizar Hamzeh and R. Hrair Dekmejian, "A Sufi Response to Political Islamism: Al-Ahbash of Lebanon," International Journal of Middle East Studies 28:2 (May 1996): 217-29.
  • Valerie J. Hoffman, "Annihilation in the Messenger of God: The Development of a Sufi Practice," International Journal of Middle East Studies 31:3 (Aug. 1999): 351-69.
  • Claudia Liebeskind, Piety on Its Knees: Three Sufi Traditions in South Asia in Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).
  • Louis Massignon, Hallaj: Mystic and Martyr, trans. Herbert Mason (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).
  • Seyyed Hossien Nasr, ed., Islamic Spirituality, 2 vols. (New York: Crossroad, 1997).
  • Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975).
  • Michael A. Sells, Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Qur'an, Mi'raj, Poetic and Theological Writings (Paulist Press, 1995).
  • J. Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

Muslims in Your Neighborhood

Report your research of where the Muslim community centers and mosques are located in your city or town. Find out if there are Muslims on your campus; have they affiliated with the Muslim Student Association? What is the background and history of the Muslim community in this context (how many generations has the community been here; what sorts of work do its people do)? Are they primarily Sunni or Shi'a? From where did most of the original immigrants come? How do they maintain ties to their countries of origin?

This can be exciting and enlightening work. Lincoln, Nebraska, for instance, has a large community of recently arrived Shi'a Muslims from Iraq. They fled the persecution of Saddam Hussein, but are now experiencing a heavy draw back to their homeland with the toppling of his regime.

In addition to the historical work, interview at least three Muslims. Have a list of questions prepared. Ask, for instance, about their family's background (and their home country, if it is not the U.S.), what the Qur'an means to them, how they think about the Prophet Muhammad, and how living in the West challenges them in their Muslim life. Consider asking them about their views of Christianity and Judaism.


Where to start: Reread chapter 7 and 10 of Understanding Islam

  • Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad, Muslims in the West: From Sojourners to Citizens (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
  • Adam Lebor, A Heart Turned East: Among the Muslims of Europe and America (London: Thomas Dunne, 2001).
  • Tariq Ramadan, Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003).
  • Feisal Abdul Rauf, What's Right with Islam: A New Vision for Muslims and the West (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004).
  • Steven Salaita, Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where it Comes From and What it Means for Politics Today (London: Pluto, 2006).
  • Jane I. Smith, Islam in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

2. Researching Your Topic

Material about your topic may reside in a single text or an array of historical texts by one or many authors or in the conflicting opinions of contemporary scholars. In most cases, you can build your research by moving from general to specific treatments of your topic.

One caution: In your research, it is vital that you not allow your expanding knowledge of what others think about your topic to drown your own curiosities, sensibilities, and insights. Instead, as your initial questions expand and then diminish with increased knowledge from your research, your own deeper concerns, insights, and point of view should emerge and grow.

Encyclopedia articles, scholarly books, dictionaries of church history, journal articles, and other standard reference tools contain a wealth of material and helpful bibliographies to orient you to your topic and its historical or theological context. Look for the most authoritative and up-to-date sources. Checking cross-references will deepen your knowledge.

  • The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1960-), 12 vols. plus indices. This resource is also available online through most university libraries.
  • Encyclopedia of Religion. Mircea Eliade, ed., (New York: Macmillan, 1993). (second ed., 2005), 16 vols.

Other major reference sources include these volumes:

  • Laleh Bakhtiar, ed., Encyclopedia of Islamic Law: A Compendium of the Views of the Major Schools (Chicago: KAZI, 1996).
  • E. Van Donzel, ed., Islamic Desk Reference: Compiled from The Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden: Brill, 1994).
  • John L. Esposito, ed., Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
  • Isma'il R. al-Feareuqei, Cultural Atlas of Islam (New York: Macmillan, 1986).
  • H. A. R. Gibb and J. H. Kramers, eds., Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam (London: Brill, 1953).
  • Richard C. Martin, ed., Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World (New York: Macmillan, 2004).
  • Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, ed., Encyclopedia of Islamic Doctrine (Mountainview, CA: As-Sunna Foundation of American, 1998).
  • N.K. Singh and A.M. Khan, eds., Encyclopaedia of the World Muslims: Tribes, Castes and Communities (Delhi: Global Vision, 2001).

If you are looking to compare your research of Islam with research in Christianity or Judaism, these references might be of some use:

  • Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, F. L. Cross & E. A. Livingstone, eds., third ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).
  • New Encyclopedia of Judaism, Geoffrey Wigoder, et al., eds. (New York: New York University Press, 2002).

Periodical Literature

Even if you are writing on a single text (e.g., the Qur'an), you'll be able to place your interpretation in contemporary context only by referring to what other scholars today are saying. Their work is largely published in academic journals and periodicals. In consulting the chief articles dealing with your topic, you'll learn where agreements, disagreements, and open questions stand; how older treatments have fared; and the latest relevant tools and insights. Since you cannot consult them all, work back from the latest, looking for the best and most directly relevant articles from the last five, ten, or twenty years, as ambition and time allow.

One place to start is the ATLA Religion Database, which indexes articles, essays, book reviews, dissertations, theses, and even essays in collections. You can search by keywords, subjects, persons, or scripture references. Other standard indexes to periodical literature, most in print but some now available on CD-ROM or on the internet, include:

  • Guide to Social Science and Religion in Periodical Literature
  • Religion Index One/Two
  • Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature (web, CD-ROM)
  • Dissertation Abstracts International (web, CD-ROM)
  • Catholic Periodical and Literature Index, 1930-
  • Humanities Index (web, CD-ROM)

The website for the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia provides many links to online religion resources under several headings, including Academic Journals and Specific Traditions:

For Islamic Studies in particular, these journals are a good place to start research:

  • Der Islam: Zeitschrift fuer Geschichte und Kultur des islamischen Orients (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1910-1995).
  • Islam & Christian Muslim Relations (Birmingham, U.K.: Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations, 1983-1989, 1990-).
  • Islam & Science: Journal of Islamic Perspectives on Science (Canada: Center for Islam and Science, 2003-).
  • Islamic Law and Society (Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1994-).
  • Islamic Studies (Islamabad, Pakistan: Islamic Research Institute, 1963-).
  • Journal of Palestine Studies (Washington, DC: Institute of Palestine Studies, 1971-).
  • Journal of Scriptural Reasoning (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Jewish Studies Department, 2001-).
  • The Muslim World (Hartford, CT: Hartford Seminary Foundation, 1911-).
  • The Islamic Quarterly (London: Islamic Cultural Centre, 1953-).
  • Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs (Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge, 1996-).
  • Medieval Encounters: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Culture in Confluence and Dialogue (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1995-).
  • Saudi Aramco World (Houston, TX: Aramco, 1949-).

Online Resources

NOTE: Although not all internet sources meet scholarly standards, some very good reference tools do appear online. Some of them are listed here.

  • The website of the Muslim Student Center at the University of Southern California (MSA-USC) is dedicated to providing their Compendium of Muslim Texts, an impressive assortment of primary and secondary texts for Islamic studies
  • The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning Forum, a site dedicated to the latest form of deep interrelations between the Abrahamic faiths
  • Wabash Center's Guide to Internet Resources for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion
  • Sacred Texts: Islam—links to several interpretations and translations of the Qur'an, hadith, Sunna, and other devotional texts
  • Virtual Religion Index—lists of primarily academic links related to all world religions, including this very good page on Islam
  • The Religious Movements Page—academic research site primarily on new religious movements (Christian and non-Christian) with extensive listing of religions and information on origins, history, principle beliefs and practices, and additional bibliographies; information provided on Islam and National of Islam

Research the Most Important Books and Primary Sources

By now you can also identify the most important books for your topic, both primary and secondary. Primary sources are actual historical documents or artifacts that provide data for interpretation: the Qur'an, hadith, and early biographies of Muhammad, for example. Secondary sources are all the articles or books that analyze or interpret primary sources. Your research topic might be in a single primary source-for example, the idea of memory in Augustine's Confessions-with countless secondary commentaries, analyses, or interpretations. Conversely, your primary resources may be vast—the polled opinions of thousand of people, a collection of narratives, or all the instances of a philosophical term in medieval treatises—with hardly another researcher in sight who has cultivated expertise in or even expressed mild interest in your topic.

Apart from books you've identified through the sources you've consulted, you can find the chief works on any topic readily listed in your college or seminary library's catalog, the Library of Congress subject index (, and other online library catalog sites. Many theological libraries and archives are linked at the "Religious Studies Web Guide": One especially helpful library website is offered by the Yale University Divinity School Library:

The eventual quality of your research paper rests entirely on the quality or critical character of your sources. The best research uses academically sound treatments by recognized authorities arguing rigorously from primary sources.

Taking Notes

With these sources on hand—whether primary or secondary, whether in books or articles or websites or polling data—you can review each source, noting down its most important or relevant facts, observations, or opinions. One technique is to put each point or cluster of points on a separate index card, keyed to a main bibliographical card for that source. As a memory aid, the main bibliographic card or entry for each source can also include a thumbnail sketch of its argument or import or point of view. Another method is to keep notes with a word processing program in files organized by topic or source name or number. Either way—cards or computer—you'll need each notable point to identify the subtopic, the source (including page numbers), and the main idea or direct quotation. This practice will allow you to redistribute each point to wherever it is needed in your eventual outline.

While most of the notes you take will simply summarize points made in primary or secondary sources, direct quotes are used for (1) word-for-word transcriptions, (2) key words or phrases coined by the author, or (3) especially clear or summary formulations of an author's point of view. Remember, re-presenting another's insight or formulation without attribution is plagiarism. You should also be sure to keep separate notes about your own ideas or insights into the topic as they evolve.

When Can I Stop?

As you research your topic in books, articles, or reference works, you will find it coalescing into a unified body of knowledge or at least into a set of interrelated questions. Your topic will become more and more focused, partly because that is where the open question or key insight or most illuminating instance resides and partly for sheer manageability. The vast range of scholarly methods and opinions and sharply differing points of view about most religious topics (especially in the contemporary period) may force you to settle for laying out a more circumscribed topic carefully. While the sources may never dry up, your increased knowledge gradually gives you confidence that you have the most informed, authoritative, and critical sources covered in your notes.

Outlining Your Argument

On the basis of your research findings, in this crucial step you refine or reformulate your general topic and question into a specific question answered by a defensible thesis or hypothesis. You then arrange or rework your supporting materials into a clear outline that will coherently and convincingly present your thesis to your reader.

First, review your research notes carefully. Some of what you initially read may now seem obvious or irrelevant, or perhaps the whole topic is simply too massive. As your reading and note-taking progressed, however, you might also have found a piece of your topic, from which a key question or problem has emerged and around which your research has gelled. Ask yourself:

  • What is the subtopic or subquestion that is most interesting, enlightening, and manageable?
  • What have been the most clarifying and illuminating insights I have found into the topic?
  • In what ways have my findings contradicted my initial expectations? Can this serve as a clue to a new and different approach to my question?
  • Can I frame my question in a clear way, and, in light of my research, do I have something new to say and defend—my thesis or hypothesis—that will answer my question and clarify my materials?

In this way you will advance from topic and initial question to specific question and thesis. For example, as you research primary and secondary sources on mysticism in the Renaissance period, you might find that women mystics were important figures in promoting a personal experience of God for laypeople. You might then advance a thesis that mystics such as Teresa of Avila were able to subvert their typically marginalized role in society by expressing direct spiritual experiences unmediated by male church leaders. So you have:

  • Topic: Islam and Modernity
  • Specific topic: Muslim immigrant communities have engaged their western context in a variety of ways
  • Specific question: In what ways have Muslims accommodated or rejected western values and patterns of life? What problems has this caused for them and for the communities they have joined?
  • Thesis: There are some basic aspects of western life that conflict with the teachings and values of traditional Islamic society. Some Muslim thinkers have been at the forefront of rearticulating Islamic identity in the western context, but have faced opposition from both their own community and western leaders.

You can then outline a presentation of your thesis that organizes your research materials into an orderly and convincing argument. Functionally your outline might look like this:

  • Introduction: Raise the key question and announce your thesis.
  • Background: Present the necessary literary or historical or theological context of the question. Note the "state of the question" or the main agreements and disagreements about it.
  • Development: Present your own insight in a clear and logical way. Present evidence to support your thesis and develop it further by:
    • offering examples from your primary sources
    • citing or discussing authorities to bolster your argument
    • contrasting your thesis with other treatments, either historical or contemporary
    • confirming it by showing how it makes good sense of the data, answers related questions, or solves previous puzzles.
  • Conclusion: Restate the thesis in a way that recapitulates your argument and its consequences for the field or the contemporary religious horizon.

The more detailed your outline, the easier will be your writing. Go through your cards or note files, reorganizing them according to your outline. Fill in the outline with the specifics from your research, right down to the topic sentences of your paragraphs. Don't hesitate to set aside any materials that now seem off-point, extraneous, or superfluous to the development of your argument.

Writing Your Paper

You are now ready to draft your paper, essentially by putting your outline into sentence form while incorporating specifics from your research notes.

Your main task, initially, is just to get it down on paper in as straightforward a way as possible. Assume your reader is intelligent but knows little or nothing about your particular topic. You can follow your outline closely, but you may find that logical presentation of your argument requires adjusting the outline somewhat. As you write, weave in quotes judiciously from primary or secondary literature to clarify or punch your points. Add brief, strong headings at major junctures. Add footnotes to acknowledge ideas, attribute quotations, reinforce your key points through authorities, or refer the reader to further discussion or resources. Your draft footnotes might refer to your sources as abbreviated in source cards, with page numbers; you can add full publishing data once your text is firm.

Reworking Your Draft

Your first draft puts you within sight of your goal, but your project's real strength emerges from reworking your initial text in a series of revisions and refinements. In this final phase, make frequent use of one of the many excellent style manuals available for help with grammar, punctuation, footnote form, abbreviations, and so on:

  • The Chicago Manual of Style, fifteenth ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).
  • Joseph Gibaldi, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, fourth ed. (New York: Modern Language Association, 1995).
  • Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, sixth ed. rev. by John Grossman and Alice Bennett (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
  • Joseph M. Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).
  • Online, see the searchable website Guide to Grammar and Writing ( and How to Cite Turabian (

Polishing the Prose

Closely examine your work several times, paying attention to:

  • Structure and Argument. Do I state my question and thesis accurately? Does my paper do what my introduction promised? (If not, adjust one or the other.) Do I argue my thesis well? Do the headings clearly guide the reader through my outline and argument? Does this sequence of topics orchestrate the insights my reader needs to understand my thesis?
  • Style. Style here refers to writing patterns that enliven prose and engage the reader. Three simple ways to strengthen your academic prose are:
    • Topic sentences: Be sure each paragraph clearly states its main assertion.
    • Active verbs: As much as possible, avoid using the linking verb to be, and instead rephrase using active verbs.
    • Sentence flow: Above all, look for awkward sentences in your draft. Disentangle and rework them into smooth, clear sequences. To avoid boring the reader, vary the length and form of your sentences. Check to see if your paragraphs unfold with some short sentences, questions, and simple declarative sentences.
  • Likewise, tackle some barbarisms that frequently invade academic prose:
    • Repetition: Unless you need the word count, this can go.
    • Unnecessary words: Such filler phrases as The fact that and in order to and There is/are numb your reader. Similarly, such qualifiers as somewhat, fairly, rather, very take the wind from the adjective that follows.
    • Jargon. Avoid technical terms when possible. Explain all technical terms that you do use. Avoid or translate foreign-language terms.
    • Overly complex sentences. Short sentences are best. Avoid compound-complex sentences and run-on sentences. Avoid etc.

Along with typographical errors, look for stealth errors—the common but overlooked grammatical gaffes: subject-verb disagreement, dangling participles, mixed verb tenses, overuse and under-use of commas, semicolon use, and inconsistency in capitalization, hyphenation, italicization, and treatment of numbers. To check spelling and meaning of words or to help vary your prose, try Merriam-Webster Online, which contains both the Collegiate Dictionary and the Thesaurus:


Your footnotes will give credit to your sources for every direct quotation and for other people's ideas you have used. Below are samples of typical citation formats in Modern Language Association style. For a full listing of citation styles for internet sources, see "Online!: Citation Styles":

Basic order
Author's full name, Book Title, ed., trans., series, edition, vol. number (Place: Publisher, year), pages.
Dennis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 89.
Book in a series
Marcus J. Borg, Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus, Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity 5 (Toronto: Edwin Mellen, 1984), 1-2.
Essay or chapter in an edited book
Karen E. Mosby-Avery, "Black Theology and the Black Church" in Living Stones in the Household of God: The Legacy and Future of Black Theology, ed. Linda E. Thomas (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004), 33-36.
Multi-volume work
Karl Rahner, "On the Theology of Hope," Theological Investigations, vol. 10 (New York: Herder and Herder, 1973), 250.
Journal article
Joan B. Burton, "Women's Commensality in the Ancient Greek World," Greece and Rome 45, no. 2 (October 1998): 144.
Encyclopedia article
Hans-Josef Klauck, "Lord's Supper," The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 275.
Unsigned encyclopedia article
"Tyre," Encarta 98 Encyclopedia, CD-ROM (Microsoft Systems, 1998).
Online journal article
Pamela Sue Anderson, "The Case for a Feminist Philosophy of Religion: Transforming Philosophy's Imagery and Myths," Ars Disputandi 1 (2000/2001);
CD-ROM source
Helmar Junghans, Martin Luther: Exploring His Life and Times, 1483-1546, CD-ROM (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998).
Cite in your text (not in your footnotes) by book, chapter, and verse: Gen. 1:1-2; Exod. 7:13; Rom. 5:1-8. In your Bibliography list the version of the Bible you have used.
Qur'anic citations can be made either with the numbers of the Sura and aya (for example, 1:2). One might choose to be more precise by adding the name of the Sura (for example, Al-Fatiha [1]:2). In your Bibliography list the version of the Qur'an you have used.

If a footnote cites the immediately preceding source, use "Ibid." (from the Latin ibidem, meaning "there"). For example: 61. Ibid., 39.

Sources cited earlier can be referred to by author or editor's last name(s), a shorter title, and page number. For example: Burton, "Women's Commensality," 145.


Your bibliography can be any of several types:

  • Works Cited: just the works—books, articles, etc.—that appear in your footnotes;
  • Works Consulted: all the works you checked in your research, whether they were cited or not in the final draft; or
  • Select Bibliography: primary and secondary works that, in your judgment, are the most important source materials on this topic, whether cited or not in your footnotes.
  • Some teachers might ask for your bibliographic entries to be annotated, that is, including a comment from you on the content, import, approach, and helpfulness of each work.

Bibliographic style differs somewhat from footnote style. Here are samples of typical bibliographic formats in MLA style:

Basic order
Author's last name, first name and initial. Book Title. Ed. Trans. Series. Edition. Vol. Place: Publisher, Year.
Smith, Dennis E. From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003.
Book in a series
Borg, Marcus J. Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus. Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity 5. Toronto: Edwin Mellen, 1984.
Edited book
Thomas, Linda E., ed. Living Stones in the Household of God: The Legacy and Future of Black Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004.
Essay or chapter in an edited book
Mosby-Avery, Karen E. "Black Theology and the Black Church." In Living Stones in the Household of God: The Legacy and Future of Black Theology, 33-36. Ed. Linda E. Thomas. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004.
Multi-volume work
Rahner, Karl. "On the Theology of Hope." In Theological Investigations, vol. 10. New York: Herder and Herder, 1973.
Journal article
Burton, Joan B. "Women's Commensality in the Ancient Greek World." Greece and Rome 45, no. 2 (October 1998): 143-65.
Encyclopedia article
Klauck, Hans-Josef. "Lord's Supper." The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Ed. David Noel Freedman. Vol. 2. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Unsigned encyclopedia article
"Tyre." Encarta 98 Encyclopedia. CD-ROM. Microsoft Systems, 1998.
Online journal article
Anderson, Pamela Sue. "The Case for a Feminist Philosophy of Religion: Transforming Philosophy's Imagery and Myths." Ars Disputandi 1 (2000/2001);
CD-ROM source
Junghans, Helmar. Martin Luther: Exploring His Life and Times, 1483-1546. CD-ROM. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998.
The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
The Holy Qur'an, interp. M.H. Shakir (Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur'an, 1985).

Final Steps

After incorporating the revisions and refinements into your paper, print out a fresh copy, proofread it carefully, make your last corrections to the electronic file, format it to your teacher's or school's specifications, and print your final paper.






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