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Teaching Islam as an Asian Religion

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In the introduction to his book Islam: The View from the Edge, Richard Bulliet states, “The story of Islam has always privileged the view from the center.”1 He then recounts a standard version of that story found in many introductory textbooks. In summary, in 611 CE Muhammad hears the revelation of God and becomes the Prophet of Islam. In 622 he immigrates to Medina and establishes the first Islamic polity. After conquering Mecca, he dies in 632 and the Muslim community (ummah) institutes the Caliphate. After a period of civil war (fitna) following the death of the third Caliph Uthman, the Arab Umayyad Dynasty is established, followed by the more diverse Abbasid Caliphate, and, after a brief period of cultural fluorescence, the Islamic empire sinks into an irreparable political degeneration, which culminates in the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258. Thus begins the lengthy decline of Islam.2

As Bulliet points out, many accounts of Islamic history actually end here. Those that continue often describe the following period of Islamic history as one of atrophy and decay that is of little historical consequence until the recent “fundamentalist” resurgence. But as Bulliet notes, this narrative is deeply inaccurate.3 Most significantly, it privileges the Arab lands of Islam’s origin, erroneously equating the political decline of the Arabs with the decline of Islamic civilization.



John R. Bowen, Muslims through Discourse: Religion and Ritual in Gayo Society. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993. Excellent book on Southeast Asian Islam.

Carl Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism. Boston: Shambhala, 1997. Fine easy-toread introduction to Islamic mysticism.

Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Vols. 1–3. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. Despite its difficulty and density, still the most coherent and balanced account of Islamic history. Volume II is the most useful for understanding Islamic Asia.

Azim Nanji, ed., The Muslim Almanac: A Reference Work on the History, Faith, Culture, and Peoples of Islam. Detroit: Gale Research, 1996. For teachers, an excellent resource with useful materials on Asian Islam.

Vernon James Schubel, Religious Performance in Contemporary Islam: Shi’i Devotional Rituals in South Asia. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. My book is an attempt to address the nature of South Asian Shi’i Islam and its relationship to the larger Islamic context.


I suggest the CD Shahbazz by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on Real World Records as an excellent introduction to the power of the South Asian Sufi music of qawwali. Similarly the CD Asya Iclerinden Balkanlara Saz (the Saz from Inner Asia to the Balkans) on Kalan Records is a masterful overview of stringed instrument traditions from throughout Eurasia, including wonderful pieces of Alevi and other Islamic music.


I am a Sufi, I am a Muslim. Production, Herman Meyssen; written and directed by Dirk Dumon. Princeton, N.J.: Films for the Humanities and Sciences, 1996. I suggest this film for its striking images of shrine culture in South Asia.


The best all-around Web site for understanding Islam is the one maintained by Professor Alan Godlas of the University of Georgia at A remarkable site with links to most of the useful and reliable information on the Web, it includes numerous links to material on Islam in Asia.


1. Richard Bulliet, Islam: The View from the Edge (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 5.

2. Bulliet, 5–6.

3. Bulliet, 6–8.