Paul Powers

Associate Professor of Religious Studies

John R. Howard Hall 222, MSC: 45

Paul Powers teaches a range of courses about Islam and Religious Studies. His courses include “Islamic Origins,” “Islam in the Modern World,” “Religion and Violence,” “Religious Fundamentalism,” “Mysticism and Religious Experience,” and a seminar on Islamic law. Many of these courses explore theoretical and methodological questions about the nature and study of religion, as well as gender-related issues and questions about the nature of “modernity.”

Academic Credentials

PhD 2001 University of Chicago Divinity School, History of Religions/Islamic Studies

M.A. 1992 University of Chicago Divinity School, BA 1990 Carleton College


Fall 2021 Courses:

RELS 201 History and Theory
MWF 12:40PM - 1:40PM

History of the field. Psychological, literary, anthropological, sociological, and historical approaches to the study of religion. Readings by major theorists. Should normally be taken no later than the junior year.

Prerequisites: None.

RELS 273 Islamic Origins
TTH 1:50PM - 3:20PM

Major religious and sociohistorical developments in the Islamic world from circa 600 to 1300 C.E. Focus on the Qur’an, Muhammad, early Islamic expansions and dynasties, and interactions with non-Muslims. Examination of the formation of orthodox beliefs and practices (e.g., theology, ritual, law), contestation over religious ideals and political power, and the emergence of Shiite and Sufi Islam.

Prerequisites: None.

RELS 358/458 Mysticism
TTH 9:40AM - 11:10AM

A comparative and theoretical exploration of the various manifestations of mysticism and religious experience in different contexts and traditions. Includes classical and current theories of the nature of mysticism and its relation to asceticism and other aspects of religious belief and practice, drawing on sociology, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science. Interrogation of the nature and epistemological status of experience. Numerous case studies, including sustained attention to Sufism, the Islamic mystical tradition. This course is cross-listed with RELS 458. Students taking the 300-level version of this course will complete a guided research project, identifying and mastering the range of scholarly positions on a theme, critical issue, or essential primary text, and will produce a technically sound research paper. The course can only be taken once and cannot be repeated at the 400 level.

Prerequisites: One religious studies course.

Restrictions: Sophomore standing required.


Prof. Powers’ research interests have focused on pre-modern Islam, especially Islamic law. He has published articles in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the Journal of Religion and Violence, and Islamic Law and Society, and has contributed chapters to several volumes in Islamic legal studies. He has traveled extensively in the Muslim world, including Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, and India.

His first book, Intent in Islamic law: Motive and Meaning in Medieval Sunni Fiqh (Brill, 2006), explores how Islamic law deals with subjective states and the legal and moral implications of the intentions that partly shape human actions.

More recently, Prof. Powers has been researching the topic of religion and violence, and his second book, Religion and Violence: A Religious Studies Approach was just published by Routledge (2021). This project explores the relevance of classic religious studies theories (e.g., Marx, Durkheim, Weber) for increasing our understanding of the relationship between religion and violence. A central argument of the book is that we need to overcome a long-standing, overly-simplistic tendency to think of religion as a cause of violence and instead recognize the complex and varied ways that religious beliefs, practices, and traditions contribute to the multifaceted management of violence. 

Location: J.R. Howard Hall