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Islam and Society


Combining different disciplines, Leiden University researchers work together to formulate innovative solutions to societal problems. Below is an example from the field of language and culture.

Overview research dossiers


The many faces of a world religion

Knowledge of Muslim societies is essential to function in a globalised world and to fully understand our own Dutch society. Leiden researchers explore the languages, cultures, religions, legal systems and history of Muslim societies and in this way contribute to a centuries-old tradition.

There is no such thing as a single Islam

It is often said there are as many forms of Islam as there are Muslims. In Leiden Islam is seen as a dynamic, worldwide phenomenon as well as a product of its local context. In the Muslim world too, everyday and existential choices are determined by more factors than religion alone. This is why our researchers study popular Turkish soaps which reflect what goes on in modern Turkish society. Why they decipher old papyruses in order to find out what it meant to be a Muslim in the Middle Ages. Or why they follow the ways in which legislators in Muslim countries attempt to unite local traditions, modern ideas, worldly laws and religious legislation into a single legal system. To do so, they do not limit themselves to the study of legal books, but also investigate how people deal locally with justice and injustice. They also consider how Muslims relate to other religious and non-religious groups in society and they work together with Dutch Muslims to bring nuance to the debates on Islam in the Netherlands.

Centuries-old tradition

The Leiden Islam researchers are part of a centuries-old tradition. More than four hundred years ago, Leiden academics began to collect knowledge on the Arabic world and texts in Arabic in order to gain access to Arabic science. It soon became clear that Persian and Turkish were also essential for a deeper understanding of the Middle East. In the nineteenth century, this interest spread to include Islamic law and culture. This was necessary, because with the Dutch East Indies as its colony, the Netherlands had suddenly become the largest Muslim kingdom in the world. During this period and for many years Arabist Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje studied ‘lived Islam’ in the Dutch East Indies and established one of the most important expertise centres in this field in Leiden. Government officials and businesses drew on this centre’s knowledge of local customs before travelling to the Dutch East Indies.

From Western Europe to Southeast Asia

Our unique collection of primary sources, broad expertise and multidisciplinary approach to Islam allow Leiden researchers to compare today's Muslim societies with those of the past. To this end religious science scholars and regional experts work closely together with linguists, historians, cultural anthropologists, political science experts, sociologists and legal experts. Their research stretches from Western Europe through Northern Africa and the Middle East all the way to Southeast Asia. Active knowledge of Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and for example Indonesian allows our researchers to have direct contact with Muslims across the world and to gain access to sources in the original language. This is necessary to be able to understand the dynamics of the many historical and modern Muslim societies.

More information:
Leiden University Centre for the study of Islam and Society

Islam and history

Understanding the history of Islam and Muslim societies sheds a clear light on the complex and changing social structures of the Middle East, including the current trouble spots whose effect spreads all the way to Western Europe.

Formal and informal sources

What did it mean to be a Muslim in various historical periods? How were Muslim societies organised and how did people interact? And what does this mean for modern-day Muslim societies? Petra Sijpesteijn, Professor of Arabic Language and Culture, studies both official texts and ‘informal’ sources to try to find the answers to these questions.

Pilgrimage letter

Unlike legal, scientific and literary texts, informal sources such as excavated household goods, ship’s documents, petitions and love letters were not intended to be kept. When they resurface centuries later, they can tell us a lot about how social relations have evolved over time. One example is the letter that an Egyptian wrote on papyrus to a friend around the year 700, approximately 70 years after the death of Mohammed. In free translation, it says: ‘Come on, join me for a pilgrimage to Mecca. The Caliph called us to go and I think it’s important. Oh, and by the way: can you arrange the camels?’ This letter provides important information about the early days of Islam; it is a first piece of evidence that the hajj was already a duty for Muslims at the time and it teaches us about the practical matters and concerns that accompanied the hajj.

One of the oldest Quran fragments found in the Leiden University collection

One of the oldest Quran fragments found in the Leiden University collection

Religious freedom

Papyruses – the e-mails of the time – show that Muslims and non-Muslims lived in peace for long periods of time. They were each other’s neighbours, business partners and friends, and they sometimes inter-married. Contrary to what is often suggested today, Islam was not imposed with fire and sword during the expansion of the Arab Empire. ‘A lot changed in the Middle East as a result of the arrival of the Arabs. They introduced their language and new rules of law. But this did not mean that everyone had to become a Muslim,’ emphasises Sijpesteijn. In the Middle Ages there was more freedom for religious minorities in the Middle East than in Europe.

Islam comes in many forms

Historical research on Islam makes it clear that the last 1500 years have witnessed countless variations on lived Islam. For Petra Sijpesteijn this is a very important fact. ‘There is no such thing as ‘the Muslims’ or ‘a single Islam’. It is precisely the pluriformity and the human changeability of Muslim societies that I want to emphasise in my research. In this way I hope to contribute to reducing the fixation on religion in the current tensions in the Middle East and in Western Europe. It would be much more useful to focus on the many factors that may be at the root of problems in the here and now, because ultimately that is where the solutions can be found.’

Islam and culture

Thanks to its early civilisation and continuous mix of influences, the Muslim world has a rich and varied culture. The study of material culture, books, stories, films and increasingly television series teaches us about the structure of modern-day Muslim societies.

Culture as a powerful weapon

Classical and modern-day culture reflects the society that created it. But culture is also a powerful weapon. Researchers Petra de Bruijn and Gabrielle van den Berg show that popular soaps and classical epics not only offer a clear image of the times, but are also used strategically by the authorities.

Influential television

Every year, Turkey produces approximately eighty soaps that are avidly watched, have an incredible influence, and form an important export product. According to Turkey expert Petra de Bruijn, the growing religiousness characteristic of modern Turkish society is reflected in the popular soaps of religious and pro-government television channels. For example, the sympathetic characters have in the past few years all become pious Muslims, while the villains are shown to indulge in alcohol and other inappropriate pleasures.

Promotional image of the Turkish soap opera Sefkat Tepe (Compassion Hill) © Samanyolu TV

Promotional image of the Turkish soap opera Sefkat Tepe (Compassion Hill) © Samanyolu TV

In addition, topics that were previously unmentionable are now addressed in these soaps, says De Bruijn. In one of the soap series a secular military officer falls in love with a girl who wears a headscarf. The series thus brings to light the dubious role played in the late 1990s by the army in excluding girls wearing a headscarf from university. The officer experiences how the army and the bureaucracy prevent these girls, who only dream of studying at a university, from realising this dream.

Soap power

Turkish soap series are also interesting if you want to study how the authorities and other powerful parties in Turkey appropriate popular culture. In the strongly politicised Turkish media world, the various television channels use soaps to make their ideological points, concludes De Bruijn. Until recently, one of the most famous series showed Turkish soldiers valiantly fighting Kurdish villains. But since the Turkish government has been trying to sign a treaty with the Kurdish resistance movement PKK, the Kurds have suddenly disappeared from the programme. The action has now moved to Syria.

The sovereign as a hero

In the past, the authorities also used culture to strengthen their position and propagate their ideology. For example sovereigns had themselves included in the Shahnameh, a famous epic from the early eleventh century that tells the history of Persia (modern-day Iran). It begins at the creation of the world and continues until the annexation of Persia by the Arab Empire in the seventh century. Islamic sovereigns added their own illustrations and story elements in beautiful new manuscripts of the work, critical editions of which first appeared in the nineteenth century.

Strategic approach to heritage

Persia expert Gabrielle van den Berg is primarily interested in the many stories surrounding the Shahnameh that did not make it into the official editions, but that appear repeatedly in the manuscript tradition of Islamic sovereigns. She visits libraries all over the world to identify the

Page from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, the second Shah of the Safavid dynasty. In the 16th century he ruled over what is nowadays Iran.

Page from the Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp, the second Shah of the Safavid dynasty. In the 16th century he ruled over what is nowadays Iran.

many story lines that were not considered to be authoritative. It is precisely these story lines that provide us with insight into how the rulers of the time used cultural heritage strategically, while also teaching us something about modern-day rulers. For instance, in modern-day Central Asian Uzbekistan, the fourteenth century conqueror Tamerlane – whose life was immortalised according to the Shahnameh model – is presented as the icon of the new Uzbek national identity. This shows that modern-day rulers also use stories to turn history to their advantage.

Islam and law

Systematic investigations into religious precepts, worldly rules of law and legal practices in the Muslim world show clearly how these societies deal with justice and injustice. Sharia, the Islamic ‘legal system’, plays an important role in this context.

Codes and villages

Which religious rules apply in a Muslim society? Are these rules included in national legislation? And how are they applied by judges and administrators? Researchers try to answer these questions by studying legislation and jurisdiction, but also by focusing on the practice. They interview citizens in remote villages and busy urban areas, from Northern Africa and Europe to Indonesia, about how conflicts and crime are dealt with in practice.

Libyan constitution

This cumulative knowledge is of course valuable to Dutch politicians and policy makers, but it is also used beyond our borders, for example in Libya, where in the midst of political chaos, an elected commission is working on formulating a new constitution. Leiden and Libyan researchers are advising on this emerging constitution. This project also allows Leiden University to further build its expertise in the field of legal processes in the Muslim world.


Professor Jan Michiel Otto sees that most Muslim countries are struggling to find a balance between deep-rooted traditions and modern requirements, worldly and religious laws, conservative and modern inter-

pretations of the Sharia. Governments are under pressure from conservative spiritual leaders on the one hand and women’s groups on the other. In Tunisia, where Islamists and nationalists formed a joint government. In Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabi spiritual leaders try to oppose women’s rights. In Iran, where some aspects of Khomeini’s Islamic revolution have been reversed. This shows that the call for a stronger role for the Sharia in Muslim countries has led to diverse reactions. ‘Our research refutes the prevailing impression of an entirely conservative turn of events,’ says Otto. ‘Countries such as Egypt and Morocco have modernised

The Koran, one of the most important sources of Islamic law

The Koran, one of the most important sources of Islamic law

their marriage laws by giving the Sharia a modern interpretation. This is of course not the case everywhere. In areas ruled by the so-called Islamic State or Boko Haram, fear and destruction are used to try to turn the clock back,’ he adds.


Sharia may represent an ideal for most Muslims, but it does not have an equally good reputation in all quarters. In the West, the Islamic legal system is often associated with rigidity and the undermining of women’s rights. The reality is more nuanced, argues Otto. For instance, many Muslims feel free to interpret Sharia – ‘God’s Will’ – in their own way. There have also been many cases where the Sharia was used to correct a more repressive customary law, for example in Tanzania and Nigeria where according to local customs women had no inheritance rights whatsoever; Sharia offers them more. Research on legal systems in Muslim societies helps to clarify these kinds of developments.

Islam in the West

Muslims have lived in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe for centuries. Their arrival in Western Europe, the two Americas and Australia is however relatively recent. Studying how Muslims relate to their Western environment (and vice versa) and the mutual influences of Western and Islamic philosophies can bring us a step closer to a truly open and inclusive society.

Action and reaction

How do Muslims try to maintain their identity in Western societies? How much space are they given to do so? What obstacles do they face, and how do they react to them? These action and reaction chains are the focus of the work of Professor Maurits Berger. His research focuses not only on Muslim immigrants in Western countries but also on the influence that Western ideas have on Muslims in the rest of the world.

Mevlana Mosque, Rotterdam © Ruud Zwart

Mevlana Mosque, Rotterdam © Ruud Zwart

Guest workers

Contacts between the West and the Muslim world go back centuries, but it is only in the last fifty years that Muslims have really become part of Dutch society. Compared to countries such as Great Britain and the United States, the Netherlands is a relatively young immigration country. The arrival of guest workers from Morocco and Turkey in the 1960s and the subsequent family reunifications meant that Dutch citizens for the first time had to deal with Muslims as their fellow citizens.


The Netherlands is on paper an open society. Our laws and political

system do not make any distinctions on the basis of country of origin or religion. But in daily practice, this ideal is not yet a reality. Not every Dutch person is able to embrace the ethnic, religious and cultural diversity that characterises the Netherlands today. And vice versa, many Muslims struggle with typically Dutch customs. This may lead to discrimination, political resentment and religious radicalisation.


One of the centres of friction is Sharia. Maurits Berger, who is both an Arabist and a legal expert, studies the interaction between on the one hand the ways in which Muslims in Western countries try to express their Islamic precepts and adjust them to a Western context, and on the other hand the reactions of Western societies to these attempts. This interaction is complex; far from being simply a legal issue, it also touches on identity-building, theology, politics and social relations.

Vision for the future

Maurits Berger is worried by what he sees and hears. ‘I notice that second and third-generation Muslims feel that the Dutch state fails to represent them. That double standards are the norm. Clergymen and priests can make inflammatory speeches, but Islamic spiritual leaders are quickly excluded as ‘hate imams’. Anti-Semitism is a very sensitive issue, but Muslims are constantly being insulted. They feel like second-rate citizens. Irrespective of whether this feeling is justified, I think it represents a dangerous development.’

Arabic chocolate letter in Dutch shop © Saskia Tielens

Arabic chocolate letter in Dutch shop © Saskia Tielens


Scientists working in this multidisciplinary research area

  • Prof. dr. Petra Sijpesteijn
  • Prof. dr. mr. Maurits Berger
  • Prof. dr. Léon Buskens
  • Dr. Bart Barendregt
  • Dr. Gabrielle van den Berg
  • Dr. Petra de Bruijn
  • Dr. Nathal Dessing
  • Dr. Crystal Ennis
  • Prof. dr. Jos Gommans
  • Dr. Ahmad Al-Jallad
  • Dr. Nico Kaptein
  • Mahmood Kooriadathodi MA
  • Arshad Muradin MA
  • Dr. Tsolin Nalbantian
  • Prof. dr. Jan Michiel Otto
  • Marcela Garcia Probert MA
  • Dr. José van Santen
  • Dr. Jan Schmidt
  • Dr. Asghar Seyed-Gohrab
  • Dr. Hans Theunissen
  • Dr. Maaike Warnaar
  • Dr. Corey Williams
  • Prof. dr. Erik-Jan Zürcher

Prof. dr. Petra Sijpesteijn Professor of Arabic Language and Culture

Topics: history of the islam, Arabic papyrology, historiography

+31 (0)71 527 2027

Prof. dr. mr. Maurits BergerProfessor Islam and the West

Topics: islamic law, political islam, sharia in the West, freedom of religion

+31 (0)71 527 1684

Prof. dr. Léon BuskensProfessor of Law and Culture in Muslim Societies

Topics: culture, law and islam in contemporary Middle Eastern societies

+31 (0)71 527 2013

Dr. Bart BarendregtAssociate Professor Cultural Anthropology and Sociology

Topics: digital anthropology, popular culture, performing arts, South- East Asia

+31 (0)71 527 3475

Dr. Gabrielle van den Berg Assistant Professor in the Cultural History of Central Asia and Iran

Topics: Persian language and literature, Persian epic tradition, Shanama (Book of Kings)

+31 (0)71 527 2023

Dr. Petra de Bruijn Assistant Professor of Turkish Studies

Topics: Turkish literature, performing arts, popular culture, soap series

+31 (0)71 527 2592

Dr. Nathal DessingAssistant Professor Anthropology of Islam

Topics: Islam in Europe, Muslim women’s organizations, rituals

+31 (0)71 527 1690

Dr. Crystal EnnisAssistant Professor, Economies of the Modern Middle East

Topics: political economy, entrepreneurship, labour market reform, unemployment Gulf

+31 (0)71 527 5635

Prof. dr. Jos GommansProfessor of Colonial and Global History

Topics: South-Asian history and islam, colonial history, Dutch orientalism, diaspora

+31 (0)71 527 2167

Dr. Ahmad Al-Jallad Assistant Professor of Arabic Language and Linguistics

Topics: early Arabic and North-Arabic language, inscriptions, historic Semitic linguistics

+31 (0)71 527 2223

Dr. Nico KapteinAssistant Professor Islam

Topics: islam and local culture in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, islam in Indonesia, Dutch islam policy in the East Indies

+31 (0)71 527 2281

Mahmood Kooriadathodi MAPhD candidate South and Southeast Asian Islam

Topics: Ulama networks in India, Middle East and Southeast Asia, Islamic law

+31 (0)71 527 1288

Arshad Muradin MAPhD candidate Islam in the West

Topics: Islam in Europe, Islamic family law, Alternative Dispute Resolution, Dutch civil law, private international law

+31 (0)71 527 8998

Dr. Tsolin Nalbantian Assistant Professor Social and Cultural History of the Modern Middle East

Topics: Syria, Lebanon, minority groups, diaspora groups, nationalism

+31 (0)71 527 2985

Prof. dr. Jan Michiel Otto Professor of Law and Governance in Developing Countries

Topics: law, governance and development, sharia and national law

+31 (0)71 527 7290

Marcela Garcia Probert MAPhD candidate Middle Eastern Studies

Topics: development of popular religiosity in the Muslim world, magic and divination, women in islam

+31 (0)71 527 2727

Dr. José van SantenSenior lecturer and researcher Islamic Fundamentalism

Topics: gender and conversion in islam, migration, islam in Africa, fundamentalism and gender

+31 (0)71 527 2727

Dr. Jan SchmidtAssistant Professor Turkish

Topics: Historiography and literature of the Ottoman Empire

+31 (0)71 527 2021

Dr. Asghar Seyed-Gohrab Associate professor Persian literature and Islamic mysticism

Topics: history of Iran, Persian literature and politics, Islamic mysticism (Sufism) and philosophy, Persian scripts, Iranian film and visual culture

+31 (0)71 527 2287

Dr. Hans TheunissenAssistant Professor Turkish Studies

Topics: Ottoman architecture, Islamic art, Turkish history and culture

+31 (0)71 527 6480

Dr. Maaike WarnaarAssistant Professor International Studies

Topics: Iran, Iranian foreign policy, politics of the Middle East

+31 (0)71 527 7665

Dr. Corey Williams Assistant Professor Christianity in the Modern World

Topics: religion in Africa, new religious movements, religious migration, violence and religion

+31 (0)71 527 6903

Prof. dr. Erik-Jan ZürcherProfessor of Turkish Studies

Topics: emergence of modern Turkey, Young Turk movement/revolution

+31 (0)71 527 2026


Students learn directly from researchers

Leiden University students can focus on studying Islam and Muslim societies within the Middle Eastern Studies and Religious Studies programmes. But students of linguistics, law, literary studies and history can also follow courses given by Leiden experts on Islam and Society. In the context of the Middle Eastern Studies programme, the largest programme of this kind in the Netherlands and one of the largest in Europe, students are also required to learn a language: Arabic, Persian, Turkish or Hebrew. Graduates possess specific knowledge of a particular religion, region, language and culture, and are able to place this specialised knowledge in a global framework. They find work in government organisa-tions, companies, the diplomatic service, the media sector and cultural organisations, or they become researchers themselves.

Petra Sijpesteijn in conversation with her students © Marc de Haan Petra Sijpesteijn in conversation with her students © Marc de Haan

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