Interfaith Relations in World History Syllabus
This syllabus explores interfaith work across space and time.
Shared with Permission1
In 2016, Dr. Douglas Howard participated in a Teaching Interfaith Understanding faculty development seminar, run in partnership between the Council of Independent Colleges and Interfaith America, and generously funded by the Henry Luce Foundation. For information on future seminars, and to access more resources created by seminar alumni, visit The Council of Independent Colleges.
In Acts of Faith, Eboo Patel quotes his friend Brother Wayne, who was “convinced that we were experiencing the interspiritual moment in human history, a time when the great religions of the world would come together to affirm their common values.” “Interfaith Relations in World History” (HST 153) being a topical world history course, this section of the course on interfaith relations offers an opportunity to explore Brother Wayne’s insight and to try to give it some historical context.
Although conflict and confrontation might be the first thing that comes to mind in the history of interfaith relations (as in the crusades or the missionary movement, for example), this course will instead emphasize encounters made through trade and travel, activities motivated typically by curiosity and mutual interest. We will study this in three broad eras of world history—the era of the Silk Road network (200 BCE – 800 CE), the era of the great Afro-Eurasian Muslim empires (1200 – 1800 CE), and the modern era that began with the first world parliament of religions (1893). It might be that the location of this latter event (Chicago) was no coincidence but an indication of the importance of America in the “interspiritual moment.” The course is thus also designed to examine Brother Wayne’s conviction, and Patel’s themes, in the awareness that this year (2018) marks the fiftieth anniversary of the epic year of student activism (1968), and the death not just of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, but also of a great American figure in the history of interfaith relations, Thomas Merton.
Student Learning Outcomes
HIST 153 is a history course, and uses that term in three interrelated senses: History is what happened in the past; history is the way what happened in the past is reported or recorded; and history is an academic discipline that develops tools to identify and interpret evidence of what happened in the past.
Like all the courses in the Historical Foundations core category, this course challenges the notion that studying history means simply uncovering facts, putting them in chronological order, and arriving at truth. To the contrary, this course helps you use evidence to arrive at interpretations; interpretations always show a perspective, and perspectives are built out of human experience. As a result of taking the course students will be able to:
- Analyze historical events or experiences by connecting them to local and global patterns.
- Demonstrate historical thinking, including an understanding of continuity and change; complex causality; and the significance of context.
- Distinguish primary from secondary sources and critically evaluate those sources, making judgments about their usefulness and limitations.
- Articulate and defend an evidence-based historical argument.
- Display Christian empathy, charity, and humility in interpreting the lives of people past and present.
The following books are required for the course. Additionally, some required readings will be made available in electronic form on Moodle.
- Dunn, Ross E. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
- Foltz, Richard C. Religions of the Silk Road: Overland Trade and Cultural Exchange from Antiquity to the Fifteenth Century. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999.
- Merton, Thomas. The Asian Journal of Thomas Merton. Ed. Naomi Burton, et al. New York: New Directions, 1968.
- Patel, Eboo. Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation. Boston: Beacon, 2007.
- Haywood, John. The New Atlas of World History: Global Events at a Glance. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, n.d. . (Recommended)
Attendance: Come to every class meeting, prepared and ready to participate. Do the readings and bring them with you to class.
Midterm test: A midterm test will cover vocabulary, geography, and chronology, and will include an essay question. If for any reason you miss the midterm test, you may take a makeup test without penalty or prejudice.
Homework assignments: Six homework assignments will be given, up to five of which will be awarded points (i.e., you may skip one of the six). The day each assignment is to be given is marked on the course itinerary with an asterisk (*). Attending and reporting on a history-related campus lecture may substitute for a missed homework assignment.
Term papers: Two term papers are required. The first will be about interpretive issues in a work of secondary historical literature, Richard C. Foltz’s Religions of the Silk Road. The second will be about local and global factors in the two primary sources we will read, Eboo Patel’s memoir and Thomas Merton’s journal. Detailed specifications for the papers will be distributed in class.
Final exam: The final examination for the course is indicated below, in the course calendar.
Grading: The course grade will be based on the quality of your work, weighted approximately as follows: homework assignments = 10 percent (i.e., 2 percent each); midterm test = 20 percent; first term paper = 20 percent; second term paper = 25 percent; final examination = 25 percent.
Class meets 3 times per week for 16 weeks.
Unit 1: Our Situation
- Topic: The journey* (all asterisks indicate that a homework assignment will be given in class)
- Topic: Our situation
- Reading: Patel, XI-36
- Topic: Deep time and history
- Reading: Patel 37-77
- Topic: Waves of migration
- Reading: Patel, 77-123
- Topic: 1968 and youth activism
- Reading: Patel, 125-50
- Topic: Interfaith in Grand Rapids
- Reading: Patel, 151-188
Unit 2: The Era of the Silk Roads
- Topic: The human past
- Reading: Foltz, 1-21
- Topic: Language vs. writing
- Reading: Foltz, 23-36
- Topic: The Hebrews*
- Topic: Hebrew religion into Judaism
- Topic: Monotheism and dualism
- Topic: Life of Buddha*
- Reading: Foltz, 37-59
- Topic: Buddhism and Hinduism
- Topic: Quest of the historical Jesus
- Reading: Foltz, 61-87
- Topic: Early Christianity
- Topic: The Arab conquests
- Reading: Foltz, 89-109
- Topic: Tang culture
- Reading: Foltz, 111-134
- Topic: Indian summer of the Silk Road?
- Reading: Foltz, 135-144
- Midterm test
Unit 3: The Era of the Great Afro-Eurasian Empires
- Topic: Forgotten empires
- Reading: Dunn, 1-40
- Topic: Mecca and Islam
- Reading: Dunn, 41-80
- First term paper due
- Spring break – No class
- Topic: Ibn Battuta’s Africa*
- Reading: Dunn, 106-136
- Topic: The Holy City
- Good Friday – No Class
- Easter Monday – No class
- Topic: Ottoman Anatola
- Reading: Dunn, 137-158
- Topic: Discoveries
- Reading: Dunn, 266-289
Unit 4: Modern Times
- Topic: Parliament of world religions
- Topic: Who was Thomas Merton?
- Reading: Merton, xx-22
- Topic: What is mysticism?
- Reading: Merton, 23-76
- Topic: The British Empire
- Reading: Merton, 78-190
- Topic: Ghandi and Merton
- Reading: Merton, 78-190
- Topic: India 1947
- Topic: Mandalas*
- Advising recess – No class
- Topic: Tibet
- Topic: Merton on interfaith relations
- Reading: Merton 191-245
- Topic: Orientalism
- Topic: Marxism and Monasticism*
- Reading: Merton, 248-259 & 326-347
- Topic: Exclusivism, Inclusivism, Pluralism
- Reading: Hick, TBD
- Topic: The reality of difference
- Topic: Our situation
- Second term paper due
- Final Exam
1In consultation with the author, this syllabus has been edited for length, removing details particular to the author’s context such as office hours and location, absence policies, honor codes, and other instructor-specific (or institution-specific) details.