This field seeks to train specialists in Islamic Studies. The program is designed to prepare students to teach and do research in the history, cultures, languages and literatures, doctrines and ritual practices, as well as the social and political articulations of Islam. A particular emphasis is paid to fostering an appreciation of the great diversity of the Islamic tradition, the numerous manifestations of Islamic religiosity and their interactions with other religious traditions, historically and in the contemporary world.

Aside from courses offered in the Department of Religion on these subjects, students may take a wide array of courses in other departments including MESAAS, Anthropology, History, and Art History.  In addition to the plentiful resources available at Columbia and Barnard, students are encouraged to take advantage of the tri-state consortium at CUNY, NYU, Princeton, and Yale. 

Because students enter upon the study of Islam with different interests and backgrounds, no one trajectory or timetable can be specified for all graduate students in the field. The general pattern, however, is as follows:

Year 1: coursework

Year 2: coursework

Year 3: field exams & dissertation research

Year 4: dissertation research

Year 5: dissertation writing

Upon entering the program, students are expected to design a schedule of courses with their advisor and/or an appropriate faculty member in the field. Students are required to take at least four graduate seminars in Islamic history, in addition to the course work required by the department. Upon finishing their course work and passing their field exams, students are encouraged, but not required, to spend a couple of semesters abroad to carry out dissertation research.

Language Requirements

By the time of the completion of the second field exam, students are expected to have achieved competency in at least one European language (German or French) and two languages of the Islamic world (Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu or other, depending on the student’s research interests and needs). The student is free to choose any combination of languages.

No student may proceed beyond the second field exam without having demonstrated a research-level competence in the primary language (or languages) on which his or her dissertation will be based. Students must achieve at least fourth-year competency in the language(s) in question.  Proficiency (in a primary research language) is evaluated through a special competency exam arranged by the advisor. Competence in a student’s secondary “Islamic” language requires successful completion of at least two years of language study.

Furthermore, students must demonstrate competency in at least one European language pertinent to their research. This will usually be German or French, but another European language (e.g., Spanish, Russian, etc) may be substituted depending on the student’s research interests and needs. Proficiency in the European language(s) is evaluated through an exam arranged by the advisor.

First Field Exam

The first field exam should be taken at no later than the third year after matriculation in the program.  Students are strongly recommended to take their exams at the start of the third year.


The purpose of the exam is to show that the student has a basic grasp of the major issues and methodological approaches of Islamic studies. In terms of content, a student should demonstrate a grasp of the key scholarly debates/controversies in contemporary Islamic studies including (but not limited to) historiography, theology, law, and political history.  In the course of the exam, the student should exhibit a preparedness to design and teach an introductory course on Islam at the undergraduate level.  In terms of methodology, a student is expected to achieve a mastery of those sources necessary for the development and execution of a focused research project or dissertation.

Format and Procedures

The exam consists of four individual components (three subject-based assessments and one evaluation of research methods) followed by an oral examination.

Subject Evaluations:

Each student is required to develop three subject reading lists in consultation with faculty examiner(s).  Reading lists must be approved by both the student and the examiner (at least) one semester prior to the administration of the exam.  The student’s examination committee must include (at least) one member of the Columbia/Barnard Religion Department.  A student is permitted (upon request) one examiner from outside the Columbia/Barnard academic community.

There is considerable latitude in the selection of these subjects.  Topics may include: early Islamic history, Islamic Law, theology, Sufism, Islamic thought in the modern period, etc.  Students are strongly advised to include at least one subject from the formative or classical periods, especially if they have little previous background in these areas.

Each exam is set by the examiner to be answered (closed-book) in a four-hour period.  All three subject exams must be administered within a two-week period.  The format of these exams is at the discretion of the examiner but should be determined at an earlier date in consultation with the student.

Methodology Evaluation:

Each student is expected to complete a methodology evaluation set by their potential dissertation advisor.  This evaluation will focus specifically on a student’s familiarity and expertise in the research methods and source materials central to their proposed field of study.  The examiner will have the option of a one-day or three-day format in consultation with the student.

Oral Examination:

Within a month after the exam has been read and evaluated by the examiner(s), an oral discussion should be scheduled to allow students to elaborate and further develop the ideas presented in their written exams.  The oral exam also allows students to explore issues for future investigation. If both the written and oral exams are deemed satisfactory, the student will be credited with a pass. If not, the student may be asked to repeat the written exam or provide a supplement to show that weaknesses have been overcome.

Final Assessment:

The examination committee may decide on one of three courses of action:  (a) pass a student, (b) terminate a student from the program, or (c) allow a student to retake the exams.

Second Field Exam

The second field exam should be taken no later than a semester following the completion of the First Field Exam.  It should consist of an oral examination by a faculty committee (presumably the eventual dissertation committee) of a dissertation prospectus.  The student should consult with members of the field to define a topic, frame both central and secondary questions that will guide the research, outline a methodological approach, and provide an annotated bibliography of primary and secondary sources.

The written document must be submitted (at least) two weeks prior to the date of the oral exam.