Tag Archives: Primers

So you have a research project – where to start?

When you’re beginning a research project from scratch and you don’t have enough background information, the best place to start are the well-known reference and introductory works on the subject.

These types of work have many titles: encyclopedias, companions, textbooks, dictionaries, bibliographies, lexicons, introductions, primers, handbooks, key to… etc.

Encyclopedias are usually the best place to start, as they have the most detailed level of research among reference works. Articles within them are supposed to be “a repository of all known facts,” i.e. a current overview of everything known on a given topic. They distill vast bodies of secondary research into a small space to make it easier for you to see the big picture.

Encyclopedias tend to range from very broad (i.e. Encyclopedia of Islam) to more specialized and specific (i.e. Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World). If you don’t know a lot already, you want to begin with the general topics and work your way into more specific materials. Imagine you are trying to find a little café in New York City. First, you might need to look at a map of the whole city, then at a map of Manhattan, then of a map of Uptown, and then a map of the subway. Same thing with encyclopedias and references.

While encyclopedias ought to be neutral, scholarship often advances from a relative viewpoint. You might notice that some encyclopedias lean towards various positions. That’s why it’s always a good idea to refer to multiple reference sources.

Sometimes the field of scholarship advances quickly and a new work appears at the time the reference encyclopedia was published. Keep in mind that recently published sources might not account for a year or two of secondary literature published after its writing. Even old encyclopedias have value as you can trace the intellectual history of a concept.

Take note, however, that reference works are usually not cited in academic papers. They’re mostly used for getting you up to speed on a topic.

Today, the most important references are online. My particular favorite is Oxford Islamic Studies, but all of them are generally good resources. Here are some of the go-to references in Islamic Studies:

Take a look at our Middle East Studies Research Guide for even more!

All about Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam

Rumi SufismSufism is the mystical and spiritual branch of Islam with roots in early Islamic history and it is widely practiced today in many countries. Our faculty previously hosted Zachary Wright from Northwestern University in Qatar to talk about the Tariqa Muhammadiyya, a Sufi movement in the 18th century Islamic world.

Would you like to know more?

You can start with some primers like Sufism: The Essentials by Mark Sedgwick and The Cambridge Companion to Sufism, or check out the articles on Sufism in The Encyclopedia of Islam and Oxford Islamic Studies Online.

Need something more advanced?

We have texts on Sufism practiced in different areas such as Sufism in Europe and North America, specific types of Sufism like the Shambhala Guide to Sufism, and much more.

In particular, you can look for primary sources like Principles of Sufism by Aishah bint Yusuf Ba’uniyah published in translation with Arabic text by NYU press, a great bilingual reader if you want to learn some classical Arabic!