81963 - Narratives of Others and the Self in Arab Culture (1) (LM)

Course Unit Page


This teaching activity contributes to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda.

Quality education Gender equality Reduced inequalities

Academic Year 2021/2022

Learning outcomes

At the end of the course students will have acquired a varied set of tools for proper linguistic analysis, historical contextualisation and critical deconstruction of narratives and representations connected to the issues of « identity » and « otherness » produced within the Arab World. Students will be able do demonstrate awareness of inner diversity and multiplicity of the complex cultural construction usually referred to as « the Arab World », thus fighting stereotyped and oversimplified representations from both « outside » and « inside » that world ; moreover they will acquire awareness of the ideological implications of notions of « other » and « self » and of the rhetorical strategies put in motion in order to affirm a certain « version » of such notions in a certain social and cultural context.

Course contents

The Shaykh and the Others: Medieval Sufi Attitudes Towards Jews and Christians

This course will focus on Muslim representations of Jews and Christians in Medieval (Ayyubid and Mamluk) Egypt (12th to 16th century) as reflected in Muslim mystical and hagiographic literature of the time. This will provide students with fresh insights into interfaith relations in a society where Jews and Christians lived under Islamic rule in the condition of ahl al-dhimma (lit. “protected people”), implying juridical and social differentation on the grounds of religious belonging. With this in mind, works by four prominent Sufi authors will be used as main sources:

1) al-Risāla by Shaykh Ṣafī l-Dīn ibn Abī l-Manṣūr (d. 1283);

2) alKitāb al-waḥīd by Shaykh Ibn Nūḥ al-Qūṣī (d. 1308);

3) Laṭāʾif al-minan by Ibn ʿAṭāʾ Allāh alIskandarī (d. 1309);

4) Durrat al-asrār by Ibn al-Ṣabbāgh (fl. 1320s).

The teacher will provide students with (mostly first-hand) English translations of the above mentioned source material. A wide variety of attitudes towards Jews and Christians will be detected and analyzed in these sources, ranging from interreligious violence to dialogue for converting and also to mutual respect, while adhering to the principles of dhimma and maintaining hierarchical relationships between Islam and other religions.

Students will be provided with elements for proper historical contextualisation of the source material, and will be introduced to different analytical perspectives that are confronting in the current scientific debates on such issues.

An historical outline of the development of "Sufi studies", especially in Western and Eastern Europe, will also be provided.

In addition to this, Students may agree with the teacher on a personalized program, provided that it is compatible with the geo-historical and methodological framework of the course.


Week 1:

a) General Presentation of the Course

b) Context Analysis (Survey of the Students' preliminary knowledge concerning the main topics of the course, in order to assess specific individual educational needs as weel as to discuss each student's potential contribution in shared activities)

c) Theoretical introduction 1 : "Representing Others, Defining Self and Making History". 

Week 2

a) Theoretical introduction 2: "Others and Self in Medieval Arab Culture" . Some general Remarks.

b) Theoretical Introduction 3: "The notion of Dhimma"

c) Theoretical Introduction 4: "The notion of Moral Regulation"

Week 3:

Sufism : definitions and historiographical problems

(Suggested Preliminary Readings : KNYSH 2006, SVIRI 2012)

Medieval Sufi Attitudes Towards Jews and Christians: an Introduction

Week 4:

Case Studies:

1) al-Risāla by Shaykh Ṣafī l-Dīn ibn Abī l-Manṣūr (d. 1283);

2) alKitāb al-waḥīd by Shaykh Ibn Nūḥ al-Qūṣī (d. 1308);

Week 5:

Case Studies:

3) Laṭāʾif al-minan by Ibn ʿAṭāʾ Allāh alIskandarī (d. 1309);

4) Durrat al-asrār by Ibn al-Ṣabbāgh (fl. 1320s).

  b) Some Final Remarks


1) Compulsory Readings for both Attending and Non-Attending Students:

Section A (both readings are mandatory):

A1. KNYSH, Alexander, 1999. Islamic Mysticism: A Short History. Leiden-Boston: Brill (Selected Sections) 

A2. CECERE, Giuseppe, 2018. The Shaykh and the Others - Sufi Perspectives on Jews and Christians in Late Ayyubid and Early Mamluk Egypt, «ENTANGLED RELIGIONS», 2018, 6, pp. 34 - 94

Section B. One of the following texts:

B1. FENTON, Paul B., 2003. “Judaism and Sufism.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Jewish Philosophy, edited by Daniel H. Frank, and Oliver Leaman, 201–217. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

B2. EL-LEITHY, Tamer. 2006. “Sufis, Copts and the Politics of Piety: Moral regulation in Fourteenth-Century Upper Egypt.” In Le développement du soufisme en Égypte à l’époque mamelouke, edited by Richard McGregor, and Adam Sabra, 75–119. Cairo: Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale.

Section C. One of the following texts:

C1. CECERE, Giuseppe, 2016. «Tarfīq versus Tazyīq. On a Rare Sufi Term in Ibn Baṭṭūṭā and Jewish-Muslim Interactions in Medieval Egypt », Quaderni di Linguistica e Studi Orientali, 2016, 2, pp. 256 - 290

C2. CECERE, Giuseppe, 2020 « A Coptic Historian and 'the Caliph of the Armenians': Cross-cultural Dynamics and Rhetorical Strategies in al-Mufaḍḍal Ibn abī l-Faḍā’il » . In Arevelyan Aghbyuragitut'yun 2 ("Oriental Sources Studies 2), Erevan, NAS of the Republic of Armenia. Institute of Oriental Studies, Matenadaran, Mesrop Masthots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts,  pp. 209 - 256

Section D. One of the following texts:

D1. KNYSH, Alexander. 2006. “Historiography of Sufi Studies in the West and Russia.” Written Monuments of the Orient 1/4 : 206–208.

D2. SVIRI, Sara. 2012. “Sufism: Reconsidering Terms, Definitions and Processes in the Formative Period of Islamic Mysticism.” In Les maîtres soufis et leur disciples: iii-v siècle de l’hégire (ix–xi s.). Enseignement, formation et transmission, edited by Geneviève Gobillot, and Jean-Jacques Thibon, 17–34. Beirut: Institut Français du Proche-Orient.

2) Compulsory Additional Readings for Non-Attending Students: 

Non Attending Students are required to read all texts indicated in sections A to E (A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2, D1, D2)

3) Suggested Preliminary Readings for Students Intending to Attend the Course:

FARIAS, Paulo Fernando de Moraes,1985. "Models of the World and Categorial Models: The 'Enslavable Barbarian' as a Mobile Classificatory Label". In Slaves and Slavery in Muslim Africa.Volume I. Islam and the Ideology of Enslavement, Edited with an Introduction by John Ralph Willis, Princenton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985, p. 27-46.

FiERRO Maribel, and John TOLAN, eds. 2013. The Legal Status of ḏimmī-s in the Islamic West (Second/Eighth-Ninth/Fifteenth centuries). Turnhout: Brepols

CECERE, Giuseppe, 2019. « Lo shaykh Ḥasan al-Ṭawīl e “la chiesa costruita sulla moschea”: autorità spirituale e dinamiche socio-politiche nell’Egitto di età ayyubide » , Rivista di Studi Indo-Mediterranei X (2020), pp. 1 - 27.

Teaching methods

Although mostly consisting of lectures, the course follows a fully fledged student-centered approach.

1) First of all, a “context analysis” will be conducted, aiming to identify each student's individual educational needs, as well as their previous knowledge and skills related to Middle Eastern studies, known languages (included in languages other than Arabic) their own favored learning style. This will be done in order to build didactic projects as individualized as possible.

2) Each lecture will stimulate students' interaction with the teacher and with each other,

3) A substantial part of the course will be specially devoted to individual or group presentation by students concerning some specific historical and ideological issues and / or translation of texts previously agreed upon with the teacher

Assessment methods

Students who attend at least 75% of the lessons are considered to be attending.

The final exam consists of an oral test. The activities that students will carry out during the course (either in class or individually) will also be evaluated and they will matter for the formation of the final judgment.

Also, those students who agree with the teacher on a personalized program, can submit, within two weeks before the exam, a paper on the topic of their research (between 12,000 and 20,000 characters in length). In this case, the interview will mainly focus on the topic of the paper.

In both cases (general course program or personalized program), the oral exam will assess the student's command of the material studied. The student will be judged on his/her ability to summarise and critically discuss the main topics raised in the general course or in their personalized research program, making use of the bibliography agreed upon and of the other tools provided.


The assessment will thus consider the student's:
- competence in commenting on sources and contextualizing them;
- knowledge and understanding of the topics covered;
- ability to summarise and analyse themes and concepts;
- familiarity with the terminology associated with the subject and his ability to use it effectively.

Top marks will be awarded to a student displaying an overall understanding of the topics discussed during the lectures, combined with a critical approach to the material and a confident and effective use of the appropriate terminology

Average marks will be awarded to a student who has memorized the main points of the material and is able to summarise them satisfactorily and provide an effective critical commentary, while failing to display a complete command of the appropriate terminology.

A student will be deemed to have failed the exam if he/she displays significant errors in his understanding and failure to grasp the overall outlines of the subject, together with a poor command of the appropriate terminology.


Teaching tools

References provided in the Course Bibliography will be integrated with a wide range of other tools, mostly relying on Arabic sources (audiovisual, press, literary texts, as well as religious, legal, economic and political texts).

Office hours

See the website of Giuseppe Cecere