RELS 3533: The Qur’an
University of Oklahoma, College of Arts and Sciences, Fall 2013
Monday and Wednesday, 3:00-4:15
In Sarkeys Energy Center M204. (This building is confusing. The easiest way to find room M204 is to walk to Asp and Boyd, take the stairs down from street level just south of that intersection, enter the building at the bottom of those stairs, and go straight ahead--you are in corridor M, and room 204 will be on your left not far down.)
Class web site:
Course ID 32377


David Vishanoff
vishanoff at ou dot edu
(405) 325-1150
Robertson 146
Office hours: Monday and Thursday, 10:00-11:00, or by appointment. (Actually, I am usually in the office weekday mornings from about 7:30 to 11:30, and on Friday afternoons; I can almost always stop what I'm doing for at least a brief visit. I am also generally free right after class, and you are welcome to walk back to the office with me and talk.)


Intensive study of the Qur’an, its historical context, major themes, literary forms, and interpretive traditions. In the first half of the course we study passages from the Qur'an directly, attempting our own collective analysis of their form, purpose, assumptions, audience, and context, and comparing our conclusions with those of a prominent Western historian. Students then write their own commentary on a Qur'anic passage of their choice. In the second half of the course we read from three very different Muslim commentaries on the Qur'an, by a 9th-century Sufi named Tustari, a pair of 15th-century Sunni scholars called the Two Jalals, and the 20th-century Islamist Sayyid Qutb. We analyze each interpreter's assumptions, goals, and interpretive methods, comparing them with our own, and collectively developing a theory of how different interpretive lenses affect the Qur'an's meaning. Students then expand their commentaries to explore how several different Muslim interpreters would approach their chosen passages, and reflect on how the diversity of interpretion affects our understanding of the Qur'an and of Muslims.


Course Goals:

  1. To become thoroughly acquainted with the major themes and literary forms of the Qur’an.
  2. To develop the skills of close reading and textual analysis.
  3. To develop the skills and ethics of constructing knowledge through discussion of primary texts.
  4. To develop a critical awareness of multiple interpretive approaches to sacred texts.
  5. To become better prepared (intellectually and morally) to listen to, converse with, and get to know Muslims whose perspectives and convictions differ from our own.


Class preparation and contribution (40%): There are two main ways to contribute to this seminar: by speaking up in class and/or by sending me brief emails before class. Oral contributions in class are the most helpful for the rest of us - but only if what you say is clear, concise, relevant to where we are in our conversation, and grounded in the assigned readings. Don't talk just to fill silence! If you tend to speak up often, make a special effort to defer to those who speak less often. If you are shy, or have trouble formulating relevant and textually-grounded ideas quickly enough to speak up, I suggest you begin by emailing me your ideas about the readings before class, and then start looking for opportunities to bring those ideas up in class. A contribution by email should be short, it should present just one idea in response to just one of the questions about the assignment given on the web site, it should refer to specific parts of the readings, and it should be sent to vishanoff at ou dot edu at least an hour before class so that I can read it as part of my preparation for class. You can choose how much you speak and how much you email, but either way, aim to make a substantial contribution about once a week on average.

Your grade for "class preparation and contribution" will be based on the depth, insightfulness, clarity, and conciseness of your contributions, how well they reflect careful reading of the assigned texts, and their relevance and significance for our class discussions. Your grade will not depend on the correctness of your interpretations of texts - we will all make plenty of mistakes trying to understand our texts, and that's fine. Your grade will also be affected by little indications of preparation and engagement, such as bringing the assigned texts to class and helping to maintain a focused intellectual atmosphere.

Commentary, in two stages (15% and 30%): An extended written commentary on a Qur'anic passage of your choice, written in two stages. See the Guidelines for the Initial Commentary and the Guidelines for the Final Commentary. The Final Commentary is the culmination of a whole semester's work, so it is due at the beginning of the last week of classes, but I encourage you to plan ahead and submit it early if you anticipate a busy exam preparation week.

Final exam (15%): An essay exam describing your own intellectual process and development over the course of this term.

Attendance is required, because the work of the course consists in working together to develop a shared set of questions and ideas about the Qur'an by studying our texts together. This is only possible with your consistent preparation, attendance, and participation. There is therefore a severe grade penalty for excessive absences. If you will not be able to attend regularly, please drop the course. You will be allowed to miss up to four classes without penalty. I make no distinction between excused and unexcused absences. Every absence beyond your first four will result in a reduction of your final course grade by one half of a letter grade. For example, if your course grade would have been a B, but you missed six classes (two more than allowed), you would be down to a C. There is no limit to this penalty, so if you miss enough classes you will quickly drop down to an F in the course. I fully expect that you will occasionally (i.e. up to four times) be unable to attend class for one reason or another, so it is not necessary to apologize or provide any excuse for your absences; please do not ask me to treat any individual absence as "excused." On the other hand, if a serious ongoing personal or health situation will result in four or more absences during the term, please do talk to me about it as soon as you realize it may become a problem, and I will be as supportive as I can. Absences that result from religious observances will be excused, and exams or work falling on religious holidays may be rescheduled without penalty; please let me know in advance, as soon as you are able to determine that a holiday may conflict with class.

Please note that I will take attendance just before class begins, so if you arrive after class has begun, you will be irrevocably recorded as absent, unless you check in with me after class, in which case I will record you as merely late. Please don't be embarrassed about doing this; I am not offended by your lateness. Since arriving late can be distracting to other students, however, I may decide to count each lateness as a fraction of an absence.

Academic honesty ("all or nothing"): In my estimation, any form of deceit, however "mild," warrants a final course grade of F. Individual instances of suspected academic dishonesty will be referred to the appropriate University authorities, who will investigate and may impose additional penalties. In my estimation, academic dishonesty can include (but is not limited to) cheating on tests, disclosing questions or answers from online assignments or tests to others, turning in writing not created by yourself solely for this class, plagiarism (reproducing or paraphrasing someone else's words or ideas without citing them), failing to document sources as required in an assignment, submitting answers online without both studying the relevant materials and understanding your answers, and even false excuses for absences or late or missed assignments. You have no need to invent excuses, because unmet requirements will affect only my evaluation of your work; they will not affect my respect for you as a person; false excuses therefore indicate that you are attempting to falsify your grade, and this warrants a course grade of F. See for information on student rights with regards to academic misconduct.

General policies:

Assignments and tests may or may not be accepted or given late, at the instructor's discretion. Unless arranged in advance, any such lateness will be penalized one letter grade for each interval between class periods (or any fraction thereof) that elapses after the scheduled date.

Day-to-day assignments cannot be made up; please do not ask. If you miss one, just forget it and do the next one so that you keep pace with the class.

No extra-credit work will be assigned or accepted; please do not ask. To benefit from this class, you need to do the work as it is assigned, not do other work later.

Any student who has a disability that may prevent him or her from fully demonstrating his or her abilities should contact me personally as soon as possible; I will be very glad to make accomodations to help you participate and learn more effectively. If you are unsure whether your should request some kind of accomodation, or what kind of accomodation might be most helpful for you, consult the staff at the Disability Resource Centery, who will be able to help figure out what is best, and whether you should formally register with the Disability Resource Center (Goddard Health Center, Suite 166, 325-3852, TDD 325-4173,

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The opinions or statements expressed herein should not be taken as a position of or endorsement by the University of Oklahoma.