Department of Religious Studies

Islam, Society and Culture (ISC)

This field is devoted, but not limited, to the study of Islamic beliefs and practices within the cultural and historical context of the Middle East and South and Central Asia.

Students in this field will specialize in the texts, traditions, and critical analysis of Islamic society and culture from the medieval (6th century) to the modern era. Students interested in the study of Islam and ethics, or Islam in the US and North America (i.e. from a contemporary perspective) will find intersections with the Department's track in Religion and Critical Thought; those interested in comparative study between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism will find intersections with the track in Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean; and those interested in South and Central Asia will have overlap with Asian Religious Traditions track. Applicants should have advance preparation in the relevant research languages. Students in this field may pursue their graduate work in conjunction with area studies programs (Middle East Studies, South Asian Studies, African Studies, etc.) and will make use of the resources provided by the Departments of History, Comparative Literature, Art History and Anthropology.


Successful applicants to the doctoral program in ISC ordinarily possess an M.A. or the equivalent in a related field of study. Prior language training is also an important factor taken into consideration in the admissions decision. At least two years of a core language such as Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, etc. is required; three or more years is highly recommended. Excellent command of English, both spoken and written, is also required.


Courses should be selected each semester in consultation with the student's primary advisor. In addition to the departmental course requirement in theory and method (RELS 2000), ISC students are expected to complete at least six graduate seminars or the equivalent. Students in this field may pursue their graduate work in conjunction with courses offered by the various area studies programs and may also make use of the resources provided by the Departments of History, Comparative Literature, and Anthropology, among others. Students are also encouraged to cross-register for other specialized courses at Harvard University, as appropriate.


In addition to a) two (usually) pre-modern research languages, ISC students must attain reading competence in b) two modern research-related languages other than English (ordinarily French & German, but this may be adjusted according to field of study). Native speakers of one research language in category a) will be asked to demonstrate mastery of a second as well as in two modern research-related languages other than English.

Graduate students are urged to take intensive language courses in the summer whenever possible, so as to complete their requirements in a timely fashion. ISC students are also encouraged to refine their language skills abroad during summers or other limited periods during the course of their graduate studies. Enquiries about the possibility of financial assistant for language study should be made will in advance of the projected study program.

Pre-Modern Languages

Depending on the area of study, the ability to conduct research in Arabic, Persian, Hebrew, Turkish or other pre-modern language (e.g. Syriac) should be attained as early as possible and students in ISC should be prepared to demonstrate competence in one of these languages by the end of the fourth semester, and in the second, no later than the end of the sixth semester by passing an exam administered by a faculty member.

Modern Languages

Ordinarily, and depending on area of study, reading knowledge of German and French needs to be attained as early as possible (other Modern languages, such as Persian, Turkish, Hindi, or Spanish may be options as well). Students in ISC should be prepared to prove competence in these languages no later than the end of the fourth semester by passing an exam administered by a faculty member or by receiving an honors grade in German 12 ("German for Reading") or a similar course in French when offered. 

Preliminary Examinations

Doctoral examinations are based on bibliographies negotiated by the student and the advisory committee several months in advance. Students will complete three exams in total, one Major Field exam and two Minor Field exams. Minor Field exams may be conducted with a professor outside the department, in consultation with the graduate committee for ISC (Khalek/Bashir).

Ordinarily, Major Fields will cover areas of Islamic intellectual and/or social history, whle Minor Fields will cover more thematically specific areas, such as "Shi'i Thought" or "Islamic Hagriography," for example. A Minor Field may also cover a theoretically relevant area of inquiry such as "Post-Colonial Theory," "Gender Studies," "Mysticism," etc.



Upon successful completion of all courses, language requirements, and preliminary exams, a student shall develop his or her dissertation prospectus and present it to the department according to the standard departmental procedure (see Dissertation Prospectus in the Grad Handbook, pp 11-12).


Students are generally expected to conduct research using original sources, whether critical editions, primary texts in archives and libraries, works of art in museums, interviews with subjects, or other materials. For research conducted abroad, ordinarily students will apply for fellowships in the fall of the year preceding the academic year in which they play to live in the country of their choosing.

Suggested Timetable

The following schedule is approximate only. Graduate students should consult with their faculty advisors to discuss the courses and requirements they should complete each semester. Students who enter the department with an MA in hand are ordinarily expected to complete 2 years of department course requirements, while those without an MA are expected to complete 3. Therefore the suggested timeline below is a general example only: 

  • First year: departmental course requirement (RELS 2000); third year of the first language; first year of the second language; two seminar-level courses in the field.
  • Second year: fourth year of the first core language; second year of the second coure language; two seminars in the field; French/German competence certification by the end of thsi academic year.
  • Third year: third year of the second core language; advanced readings in the first core language; two seminars (these may be Independent Studies) in the field; first two preliminary examinations.
  • Fourth year: grant applications for fieldwork or travel, if applicable; third preliminary examination by the end of the first semester; remaining language work; dissertation prospectus approval and, as possible, beginning of dissertation writing by the end of this academic year.
  • Fifth year: dissertation writing (or research abroad).
  • Sixth year: dissertation writing.

Core Faculty

Additional Programs

RCT students in this program focus on issues, problems, and texts concerning: philosophy and religion, religious ethics (that is, the interrelation among religion, ethics, and politics), and the theory of religion.