Paul Powers

Professor of Religious Studies

John R. Howard Hall 222, MSC: 45
Office Hours:

Tuesday 11:30 am - 12:30 pm; Wednesday 3 - 3:45 pm; Thursday 3:30 - 4 pm; or by appointment 

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,” “So You Think You’re Secular?” “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

MA 1992 University of Chicago Divinity School, BA 1990 Carleton College


Spring 2024 Courses:

RELS 104 Religion and Violence
MWF 11:30am - 12:30pm
Investigation of the oft-made claim that “religion causes much of the world’s violence,” exploring the best arguments for and against this
proposition framed by maximalist claims that religion is inherently prone to inspiring violence, and minimalist claims that religion is either peaceful or subordinated to other (e.g., economic or political) concerns. Consideration of various definitions of “religion” to see how it might motivate a range of behaviors both peaceful and violent. Attention given to pervasive religious phenomena (such as sacrifice, conversion, holy/just war, and apocalypticism) that might inspire violence, as well as theological and ethical frameworks that may counteract violence. In a multi-stage, guided research project, students will pursue case studies of specific instances of violence apparently related to religion, thereby testing and employing the analytical lenses developed in the course.

RELS 458 Mysticism 
TTH 1:50pm - 3:20pm
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.

RELS 358 Mysticism
TTH 1:50pm - 3:20pm
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.


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 edited volumes in Islamic legal studies, including The Ashgate Research Companion to Islamic Law. 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 published his second book, Religion and Violence: A Religious Studies Approach (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. 

Prof. Powers has begun work on a new project, a book intended to introduce readers to the foundational concepts of Islamic legal discourses. After some 25 years of studying and teaching about Islamic law, this book addresses “the things I wish I had known when I started.” Various chapters will explicate pre-modern Muslim jurists’ understandings of human nature, their basic philosophy of language, legal agency (who is subject to the law), the nature of actions, and the constituent elements of a legal judgment (hukm/ahkam).

Location: J.R. Howard Hall