Islamic Thought

The Islamic Thought program at NELC examines the religious foundations of Muslim thought—the Quran and the Hadith literature—and the engagement of Muslim thinkers with these foundations as well as with other religious and intellectual traditions. The field thus includes the disciplines of Islamic theology, law, exegesis, philosophy, mysticism, and political thought, as well as subjects such as historiography and heresiography. The aim of the training offered in the field of Islamic Thought is to familiarize students with the broad contours of these disciplines, especially in the early and middle periods (first/seventh to tenth/fifteenth centuries), and to enable them to carry out advanced research in a more narrowly defined area of specialization. There is great emphasis in both coursework and research on the extensive use of original sources.

General Program Overview

Students entering NELC with a primary focus in Islamic Thought must meet all of the same requirements as other Ph.D. fields within NELC. These requirements include the following (for further details about each requirement, please see the NELC Rules and Requirements). Student progress toward these requirements is periodically reviewed, especially at the end of year one and again at the end of year two before approval is given for continuation in the Ph.D. program.

  1. Successful completion of at least 27 courses, which will normally amount to 3 years of coursework under our quarter system (Rules & Requirements §§ 2 and 6-12).
  2. A grade of “high pass” in two European language reading examinations (normally French and German), one by the end of the first year, and the other by the end of the second year of coursework (Rules & Requirements §§ 14-15).
  3. Completion of an acceptable M.A. thesis paper (Rules & Requirements §§ 16-20) in Spring of the second year. Students who successfully complete the second-year review will receive an M.A. degree and be continued forward to the Ph.D. degree.
  4. Completion of 5 units of teaching in the university, as language assistant, course assistant, and/or lecturer, from year three through year five (normally one unit in year three, and two units in each of years four and five).
  5. Successful completion of comprehensive exams by the end of year four (Rules & Requirements §§ 24-34).
  6. Preparation of a dissertation proposal by the end of year five (Rules & Requirements §§ 35-39).
  7. Successful defense of the dissertation within seven years of the successful dissertation proposal (Rules & Requirements §§ 40-48).

Language Requirements

Students in all of the Islamic and Modern Middle Eastern fields, including Islamic Thought, must achieve competence in at least two Near Eastern Languages. Students in the Islamic Thought program will generally have Arabic as their primary language, and will also declare a secondary Near Eastern language, in consultation with their advisor. In cases where the student’s academic interests warrant a language taught outside of NELC, he or she may, with the approval of the advisor and the Graduate Counselor for the Islamic/Modern fields, petition the Student Affairs Committee to substitute a related language taught in another department for his secondary Near Eastern Language.

Before taking comprehensive examinations, students in the Islamic Thought program must reach advanced level competency in their primary language and intermediate level competency (or better) in their secondary language. Advanced level competency is defined as satisfactory completion (with grades of B or better) of at least four years of language study, or the equivalent of two years of coursework (six quarters), beyond the usual intermediate-level (second-year) language course. Intermediate level competency is defined as satisfactory completion (with grades of B or better) of the intermediate-level (second-year) language course.

All Ph.D. students in NELC are also required to high-pass two European language reading examinations (regularly French and German). Any other European language to substitute for French or German must be supported by the advisor and approved by the Students Affairs Committee.


Students in the Islamic Thought program are expected to take 27 courses, determined in consultation with their advisor. The year-long sequence (3 courses) in Islamic Thought and Literature is required.

Comprehensive Examinations

The comprehensive examinations in Islamic Thought consist of the four following subjects:

  1. Major Field: a written exam of four hours in a subject chosen from the following:
    • Islamic Philosophy
    • Islamic Theology
    • Islamic Law
    • Quranic Studies
    • Hadith
    • Islamic Political Thought
    • Sufism
  2. Minor Field: a written exam of four hours in a subject chosen either from the list above, or from the following:
    • Islamic Art
    • Islamic Archaeology
    • Early Islamic History (ca. 500-1200 C.E.)
    • Middle Periods Islamic History (ca. 1000-1700 C.E.)
    • Modern Middle Eastern History (ca. 1500-Present)
    • Pre-Modern Arabic Literature
    • Modern Arabic Literature
    • Pre-Modern Persian Literature
    • Modern Persian Literature
    • Pre-Modern Turkish Literature
    • Modern Turkish Literature
    • Pre-Modern Hebrew Literature
    • Modern Hebrew Literature
    • Philology (Arabic, Persian, Turkish, or Hebrew)
    • Linguistics (Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hebrew, or Comparative Semitics)

    With the approval of his/her advisor and the Graduate Counselor, a student may choose a minor field in the Ancient section of NELC or outside the Department, if relevant to his or her research interests.

  3. Methodology: a written exam of eight hours that assesses the student’s ability to work with primary materials in Islamic Thought (usually a text or texts of a kind familiar to the student) and to utilize those materials in the production of scholarship. The exam may involve preparing a translation or summary of the text, a commentary on it, and/or an essay on an assigned topic or topics using the text as part of the evidence. The student may consult any working aids (dictionaries, encyclopedias, notes, etc.) that may be deemed useful.
  4. Islamic History and Civilization: an oral exam of up to two hours, conducted by three NELC faculty, that ensures that the student has a broad, general grasp of the history and civilization of the Near East from the rise of Islam until the present. The faculty of the Islamic/Modern fields will prepare a basic reading list to guide students in preparing for this examination. It will be the responsibility of the Graduate Counselor, working in consultation with the student’s advisor, to select the three faculty members who will administer the oral exam.

Dissertation Proposal

After passing the Comprehensive Examinations, the student will select a dissertation advisor, and will—in consultation with the Graduate Counselor, the Chairman of the Department, and the advisor—set up a faculty committee of three or more members to supervise the dissertation. The advisor, who is the chairman of this committee, must be a faculty member of NELC. The proposal must be submitted within one year after completing the Comprehensive Examination. Once the proposal has been approved by the Department’s faculty, the student shall be formally admitted to candidacy for the Ph.D. degree (see the NELC Rules and Requirements § 33).

The Dissertation and Final Oral Examination

After approval of the dissertation proposal, the student will conduct dissertation research, keeping in close touch with his or her advisor and the members of his or her dissertation committee. The finished dissertation must meet all University and Departmental requirements (see Rules and Requirements §§ 39-41) and should be submitted within seven years of the dissertation proposal and admission to candidacy for the Ph.D.