Political Theology Today A forum for interdisciplinary and interreligious dialogue

The Political Theology Syllabi Project: Paul Heck


Last year’s series on Political Theology syllabi was such a success that we decided to do it again. Here is our second offering, by Paul L. Heck of Georgetown University.

Political Theology: The Case of Islam

I had been teaching a course called “Muslims and Politics” at the undergraduate level for some time at Georgetown. The goal was to introduce students to the range of political viewpoints in Islam. When my department began a doctoral program, it made sense to teach the course at the graduate level. I still seek to introduce the students, now grads, to the range of political formulations in Islam, but in contrast to the undergraduate version of the course, we also look to political theology as a method for thinking about politics. Why? And How? After all, political theology is really a product of the Christian West. Does it have applicability in other contexts?

One teaching challenge for me in a post-9/11 world is the pervasive assumption that Christianity is not political and that it is at home with secular democracy (and thus that it is domesticated and, indeed, a willing participant in its own definition as “religion” in the sense of a set of ideas that private individuals choose to believe or not to no public effect), whereas Islam is intrinsically political and politicized and politicizing. Political theology is one way to address this challenge because it suggests that all beliefs have a public face and therefore that Islam is not the anomaly. There are differences, of course, but the echoes are strong. One can always argue the extent to which, for example, the demand for covenanted rule in John Knox’s Scotland parallels the politics of contemporary Salafism; or whether John of Salisbury’s criteria for tyrannicide parallel the reasons that Abu l-Hasan al-Mawardi gives for treating a standing ruler as a rebel against the social order of Islam. Still, reading one tradition alongside the other is always illuminating—in both directions.

We begin with readings on political theology from the Christian West in order to grasp some of the concepts and a bit of the history. We then take up case studies in Islam (past and present) to see how these concepts apply or not. In other words, the application of political theology to Islam invariably requires a single albeit refracted lens, thinking back and forth between the phenomenon as a product of the Christian West and the way it illuminates the study of politics in Islam. The course, now entitled “Political Theology: The Case of Islam,” is thus designed to problematize assumptions about religion(s) and also to invite a discussion about ourselves rather than simply undertaking the study of Islam as a distant albeit interesting curiosity.

A note on the syllabus that I’ve made available here: My laptop was stolen from my office the first day of the spring semester 2013 (the last time I taught the course). I had posted the semester’s readings on blackboard but had not saved the outline, which included all the reading info. To be ready for the opening class, I hastily rewrote the syllabus but without the reading info, only the themes to be considered.

Paul L. Heck is founding director of The Study of Religions across Civilizations (SORAC) and Associate Professor of Islamic Studies in Georgetown University’s Department of Theology. He blogs at www.paulheck.org.

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