PhD in Islam

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. 

Students are required to take at least four graduate seminars pertaining to Islamic studies, in addition to the course work required by the department. 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.  A recommended potential course of study might take the following form:

Year 1: In addition to beginning their coursework, students should complete departmental course requirements in "theory and method" and consider study of a “zone of inquiry.”  At this point, students should also focus on language study.   take additional courses to develop area and theoretical expertise, including gaining broad familiarity with the world’s major religious traditions.

Summer after year 1:  Intensive language study and/or study abroad

Year 2: Complete course requirements with an eye towardsfurther developing their research interests both within the department and in related disciplines. At this point, students should begin planning for their M. Phil. Exam by identifying relevant subjects, approaching potential examiners, and considering  dissertation topics.  Beginning in the second year, students serve as teaching fellows for religion department courses.

Summer after year 2: Some students might further develop their language skills, pursue study abroad, devote time for M. Phil Exam preparation, or conduct preliminary dissertation research in preparation for writing grant applications.

Year 3: It is important to note that most grant proposals to fund dissertation research have early fall deadlines.  This year is often devoted to preparation for  the M. Phil exam, which are taken in the middle or near the end of the spring semester.  Note that a complete dissertation prospectus is usually defended by the end of spring semester.

Year 4: This year is spent in dissertation research and writing.   

Year 5: In theory, students complete the writing of  their dissertation in the fifth year. For students who receive external funding for their fourth-year research, the five years of GSAS funding can extend through the sixth year.  (Serve as teaching assistant in fall and spring semesters.)

Language Requirements

By the time of the completion of the second field exam, students are expected to have achieved competency in at least two languages of the Islamic world (Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu or other, depending on the student’s research interests and needs. Students are free to choose any combination of languages.  When relevant for their research, students may also be expected to gain reading competence in a European language which is left to the discretion of the dissertation advisor (in consultation with the student). 

No student may proceed beyond the second field exam without having demonstrated a research-level competence in the language (or languages) required for the successful completion of his/her dissertation. 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 three years of language study. 

The M. Phil Exam

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. 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.  

Before a student takes their M. Phil Exam, they must demonstrate a mastery of the sources and methods necessary for the development and execution of a focused research project of dissertation.  The means for making this determination are left to the discretion of the advisor in consultation with the student.

The exam consists of three subject-based assessments followed by an oral examination which should take place no later than two weeks after the completion of the final written exam

Each student is required to develop three reading lists.  This is done in consultation with the primary advisor and other faculty examiners.   Reading lists must be approved and finalized by both the student and the examination committee (at least) one semester prior to the administration of the exam. 

There is considerable latitude in the selection of the subjects on which the student is to be examined

Topics for the subject exams may include: early Islamic history, Islamic Law, theology, Sufism, Islamic thought in the modern period, the anthropology of Islam, 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.

Format and Procedures

Part 1: Written exam (9-11 double spaced pages) on the state of the Field of Islamic Studies, focused on problems of method and perspective/theory.  This exam is intended to set a broad context for dissertation research and teaching in the student’s primary area of scholarship (up to 50 titles).

Part 2: Written subject exam (9-11 double spaced pages) (30 titles).

Part 3: Second written subject exam (9-11 double spaced pages). Parts 2 and 3 should draw upon different titles and address different themes or methodologies.

Normally, each exam is to be answered (closed-book) in a four-hour period, though the format of these exams is at the discretion of the primary advisor and should be determined in consultation with the student well in advance of the exam (see other alternatives in the general departmental guidelines for the M. Phil exam).   All three parts of the exam must be administered within a seven-day period.  

Oral M. Phil. Examination:

Within two weeks of the written exam, 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 committee may ask the student to provide a written supplement to show that weaknesses have been overcome before receiving a Pass.  Alternatively, the committee may choose to assign the mark of “Low Pass” (see departmental guidelines).

The Dissertation prospectus and oral defense:

Within 6 weeks of completing the M Phil exam (or over the following summer), in preparation for the dissertation prospectus oral defense, the student should submit to their committee members the following:

  1. The dissertation prospectus.  The prospectus should be approximately 25 double-spaced pages long and should include a chapter outline with brief chapter summaries, as well as a detailed bibliography of relevant sources.
  1. It is optional for a student to also submit a portfolio of seminar papers written during the student’s coursework in the program to give committee members an overall sense of the student’s intellectual trajectory.   Students are not expected to revise these papers for inclusion in the portfolio.

The oral defense should be scheduled no later than a semester following the completion of the M. Phil. Exam. (To remain in good standing with GSAS, the defense must be completed within 6 months of the M. Phil.)   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 defense.