Al-Andalus: From Convivencia to Limpieza de Sangre

The Rock of Gibraltar, the name of which is derived from
the Arabic Jabal Tariq, “Mount of Tariq,” in honor of
Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Berber Muslim conqueror
of ancient Iberia, and essentially the founder of al-Andalus.

In 711 CE, a force of Berber Muslims under the command of Tariq ibn Ziyad landed on the southern shores of the Iberian Peninsula and engaged in a campaign of rapid conquest that culminated in the displacement of Visigoth rule in all but the northernmost parts of Iberia.  The Visigoth controlled areas in the north later served as the launching point for the Reconquista, the ‘taking back’ of the Iberian peninsula from the Muslim invaders.  Muslim rule in Iberia officially ended with the surrender of the Emirate of Granada to King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile in 1492, but for nearly eight-hundred years Muslims retained governance over at least a portion of the peninsula and created a glowing civilization that set an example that unfortunately would not be followed.

Ferdinand and Isabella; Image from:
Convent of the Augustinian Nuns, Avila

Under Islamic rule, the Iberian Peninsula was marked by a level of religious toleration that was unheard of at the time and Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in relative peace.  There were tensions between the groups, and instances where violence seemed unavoidable, but by and large, the people of al-Andalus not only held their diverse nation together, they caused it to blossom into a society that still draws admiration today for its level of comparative advancement and toleration.  Toleration for ethnic diversity and religious differences were the keys to success for al-Andalus, but after Granada fell in 1492 and the Reconquista was complete, one of the first actions taken by the Christian monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, was to decree the expulsion of the Jews.  That was the same year the monarchs decided to fund Christopher Columbus’ voyage to what he hoped would be Asia.  Ferdinand and Isabella wasted no time in establishing themselves as a powerful monarchy, but the example of intolerance they set was in direct contradiction to the legacy that had been left to them by Islamic Spain.

The Muslim’s initial conquest of the peninsula met with little resistance, largely due to the fact that the Visigoth rulers had managed to alienate their supporters (Lowney 31 – 32).  The Iberians willingly submitted to the Muslims, since they were no harsher than the Visigoths had been.  In the case of the Jews, Muslim rule was a vast improvement (Lea 1).  The Jews were highly oppressed under the Visigoth rulers, who “forbade Jews from marrying Christians or owning Christian slaves, proscribed circumcision, outlawed observance of Jewish holy days, and ultimately offered Jews the stark choice of conversion, exile, or slavery” (Lowney 29).  It also helped that the Muslims offered their newly conquered subjects favorable surrender treaties, such as the treaty offered to the Christian Prince Theodomir of Murcia, which says:

The latter [Theodomir] receives peace and the promise, under the guarantee of Allah and of his Prophet, that there will not be any change in his situation nor in that of his people; that his right of sovereignty will not be contested; that his subjects will not be injured nor reduced to captivity; nor separated from their children nor their wives; that they will not be disturbed in the practice of their religion; that their churches will not be burned, nor despoiled of the objects of the cult found in them… (Lowney 38)

The tolerant treaties the Muslims offered their defeated opponents was in keeping with the traditions of the Qur’an and helped set the stage for later peaceful relations between the three faiths in Islamic Spain.

In Islam, Jews and Christians are known as ′Ahl al-Kitāb, People of the Book who are protected, albeit with a second-class status.  This protection, known as dhimmitude, is based on surah 29, aya 46 of the Qur’an, which says, “And dispute ye not with the People of the Book… but say, ‘We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; our God and your God is One’” (Lowney 38).  Non-Muslim subjects of Muslim regimes were considered to be autonomous but dependent groups who were responsible for organizing their own internal affairs, including social, religious and communal matters.  These minorities had leaders, appointed by the Muslim rulers, who were responsible for their group’s “ecclesiastical matters, internal disputes, and fines and taxes” (Lapidus 265).  The leaders of these minority groups had such a level of independence that in legal cases involving two members of the same faith, their judges could inflict the death penalty without consulting the Muslim rulers (Khadduri, Liebesny and Jackson 340).  So, Jews and Christians under Muslim rule had the ability to continue to practice and develop their faith, as well as practice their own legal system, within some limits.

The ability of subject faiths to practice their legal system had some restrictions.  When cases involved serious crimes that constituted a threat to public order, Islamic law always took precedence.  These included crimes such as murder, theft, or highway robbery (Khadduri et al., 340).  There were also problems with how non-Muslims and Muslims related to each other legally.  In legal cases that involved Muslims or a member of another subject faith, dhimmis were required to appear in Shari’ah courts, which took precedence over Christian or Jewish law.  Appearing in Muslim courts was likely problematic for dhimmis, since their testimony was considered invalid under Shari’ah law, though exceptions were probably made in cases involving two members of subject religions, as qadis(Islamic judges) would need some form of information to settle a lawsuit or legal case.  Another issue faced by dhimmis was that there were lesser penalties involved for a Muslim guilty of committing a crime against a dhimmi (Khadduri et al., 337).  Dhimmis also could not inherit from a Muslim, based on the Qur’anic rule which says, “God will by no means make a way for the unbelievers over the believers” and a hadith which says, “The Muslim will not inherit from the unbeliever nor the unbeliever from the Muslim” (Khadduri et al., 343).  So, a dhimmi was fully protected as a subject of the Muslim state, but suffered from certain drawbacks that relegated him to the status of a second-class citizen (Bennett 163).  However unbalanced, dhimmitude offered the Jews and Christians of al-Andalus legal recourse and protection under the law.  It gave them a legal place in the society, creating a state of convivencia, a coexistence where Muslims, Jews and Christians worked and lived together, if not as equals then at least as fellow citizens of the same nation (Rosser-Owen 77).

The status of dhimmis as being legal members of the state is part of Islamic religious law, but “there was no Scriptural basis for the legal status of Jews and Muslims under Christian rule; they were subject to the whims of rulers, the prejudices of the populace and the objections of the clergy” (Boase 22).  It stands to reason that there were Muslims among the early invaders who would have preferred cultural and religious homogeneity, as the later Reconquista Christian Spaniards would, but in the case of the Muslims, religious law dictated that they must respect dhimmis, at least insofar as the law dictated.  This religious legal requirement that offered Jews and Christians a place in Islamic society, which didn’t have a counterpart in their own societies, must have created a feeling of stability, safety and most importantly, belonging.

A sense of nationhood, of common standing with their fellow countrymen, could have inspired them to excel, and al-Andalus certainly excelled in many areas.  The mix of cultures stimulated the intellectual pursuits of academics that produced advanced knowledge of mathematics, medicine, spirituality, astronomy, philosophy, and theology, and gave birth to some of the greatest thinkers of the age, such as the Jewish kabbalist Moses de Leon, the Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, the Jewish Moses Maimonides and the Muslim Averroes (Lowney 8 – 9).  The common thread that held the people of al-Andalus together and produced such remarkable figures as those mentioned above wasn’t ethnicity or religion; it was toleration for the beliefs of others and a commitment to Andalusian society as a whole, based on a sense of belonging and nationhood.

There were people who rejected the idea of Islamic rule or any form of nationhood under the power of another religion.  A good example is that of Eulogius, a traveling cleric from Córdoba.  In approximately 850 CE, Eulogius discovered one of the earliest Latin copies of a version of the biography of the prophet Muhammad in the monastery of Leyre near Pamplona in northern Spain.  The biography is titled simply, Istoria de Mahomet and, unfortunately, is an example of “the repositories of misconceptions about Islam that would be drawn upon over and over again by Christians trying to explain, or more appropriately, explain away the success of Islam” (Wolf 89).  Eulogius didn’t use it just to explain away the success of Islam.  He used the text to create a political movement, an early form of peaceful disobedience, to challenge established Muslim rule through a series of martyrdoms in the hopes of inciting a popular Christian revolt.

Shortly after Eulogius returned to Córdoba, a steady procession of Christians approached Muslim qadis and denounced the prophet Muhammad, eager to become martyrs:  “Now hand down the sentence, multiply your cruelty, be kindled with complete fury in vengeance for your prophet.  We profess Christ to be truly God and your prophet to be a precursor of antichrist” (Lowney 58).  These denunciations resulted in the execution of the offenders.  Over the course of a decade, approximately fifty Christians were killed executed.  Shortly after Eulogius’ death, the number of offenses and executions petered out, which paints him as the likely ringleader (Lowney 59).

Eulogius, later canonized by the Catholic church, suffering execution for following in the footsteps of
the other Cordoban martyrs and being executed for intentionally blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad.

A notable point in the incidents of deliberate martyrdom was the lack of reaction from the public.  The executions failed to have the effect that Eulogius had hoped for.  The martyrs enjoyed support from distant monastic communities, where most of the martyrs were from, but in Córdoba itself, the opinion was little better than mixed.  According to Kenneth Wolf, the Christians who rejected the martyrs’ actions had assumed a new perspective of Islam as a different, but valid version of their own faith.  Wolf says that Christians adopted this idea from the Muslims, who in turn accepted the Christians as “monotheists and recipients of a revealed law” (Wolf 93).  In other words, they had assimilated the idea implied by dhimmitude, that all three religions worship the same God, with some differences.

Just 150 years into Islamic rule in Iberia, the people had come to accept and respect one another.  That may sound odd, considering the fact that Christians were being executed for blaspheming a religious figure, but consider the words of a Muslim court official who tried to persuade Eulogius into recanting his defamation of the prophet Muhammad:

If stupid and idiotic individuals have been carried away to such lamentable ruin, what is it that compels you…to commit yourself to this deadly ruin, suppressing the natural love of life?  Hear me, I beseech you, I beg you, lest you fall headlong to destruction.  Say something in this the hour of your need, so that afterward you may be able to practice your faith.” (Lowney 59)

The implication in this statement is that the court officials were following the letter of the law for the sake of maintaining the legal system, as well as for the sake of preserving the respectability of Islam, but even by the year 859, when Eulogius was executed, Andalusian Muslims in general had probably developed a strong sense of tolerance for the Christians and the Jews who worshipped the same God as them.  This sense of community may have been based on physical proximity and a sense of belonging to a certain physical location, rather than being drawn purely along theological lines.  The reality of people struggling to survive and coming to rely on the people around them sometimes gets lost in religious debate.

The medieval history of Spain shows little evidence of any conflicts being based solely on either race or religion (Lea 1).  Four-hundred and fifty years after Eulogius, as territory changed hands during the Reconquista, the people continued to coexist peacefully with their neighbors.  Rather than a stark black and white, the reality of conflict on the Iberian Peninsula was far more complex.  Alliances were often made between Christians and Muslims for the sake of pursuing similar goals, or for some gain.  For example, the thirteenth-century Christian king Alfonso X used religious rhetoric when it suited his self-interests and ignored it for the same reasons.  He was an avid supporter of Jewish translators in his court because of the wisdom they could make available to his subjects, but at the same time he mandated a death sentence for any Christian who was “so unfortunate as” to convert to Judaism (Lowney 10).  Additionally, he waged war against a Muslim kingdom only to later create an alliance with them for the purpose of waging war against a rebellious son.  His actions weren’t indicative of a monolithic Christianity versus a monolithic Islam; these were the actions of a man engaged in maintaining and building the prosperity of his own kingdom using whatever means he had available to him.  Race and religion were not factors in his decisions, which is a testament to the integration of Jews, Christians and Muslims into one cohesive Andalusian society.

As Muslim control in al-Andalus came to its conclusion in 1492, they left behind a society of three fully integrated faiths that had developed a unique character unlike any other place in the world.  Tolerance for religious diversity in al-Andalus did not, of course, meet modern standards, but it was a major advancement for its day that would lead a Christian nun from Europe named Hroswitha of Gandersheim to call Córdoba, the capital of the Ummayad Islamic Caliphate of al-Andalus, the “Ornament of the World” (Shedinger 81).  From the initial conquest in 711 to the surrender of Granada, relations between the three monotheistic faiths continually developed until al-Andalus was transformed into an integrated society where religion stopped playing a major part in the average affairs of rulers, except as a political tool.

The Alhambra palace at Granada.

Despite the success of convivencia, a multicultural and integrated al-Andalus, the Catholic Monarchs King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I took a radically different approach to religion and society: limieza de sangre, purity of blood.  After they completed their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, they undertook a program that would ensure the eventual religious homogeneity of the Iberian Peninsula.  In 1492, immediately after the fall of Granada, they decreed the conversion, expulsion or execution of the Jews.  In 1502, a similar proclamation was made regarding Muslims.  Out of necessity, many chose to be baptized.  These two groups, known respectively as conversosand moriscos, continued to secretly practice the rituals of their own faiths while maintaining the outward appearance of Catholic Christianity until they were eventually weeded out through the institution of the Inquisition and a final expulsion in 1609 by decree of King Philip III.

The Court of Lions at Alhambra palace.

In the face of a long history of a successful and integrated culture, what was the purpose of Ferdinand and Isabella’s deviation from a model that had proven to be successful?  It is possible that Ferdinand and Isabella’s decision to expel the Jews and Muslims was merely a continuation of the evolution of religion in the peninsula: they were using it as a political tool.  Ferdinand and Isabella may have felt that, as Christians, their loyalties lay firmly with Europe and the rest of Christendom.  As rulers of a territory that had been part of the Islamic world for centuries, they may have felt that drastic measures were necessary to change public opinion of Spain.  Even today, 500 years after the expulsion of the Muslims and Jews, Spain is an off-color patch in the greater European fabric, with obvious reminders of its Islamic past buried in the architecture, art, and even the language.  Given how firmly Islamic culture was entrenched in Iberia, Ferdinand and Isabella may have felt that it would take drastic actions to change public perception of Spain in Europe, hence the expulsions or forced conversions of the Jews and Muslims.  It would also explain their petition to the Pope for the title “Catholic Monarchs.”  The total effect of expulsions and the gaining of a title affirming the Catholicism of the monarchy would have firmly put Spain in the European camp.  The definite causes of Ferdinand and Isabella’s change in policy would be an interesting topic for further research, but the level of tolerance and cooperation between religious groups in al-Andalus is a lesson that many parts of the world could still learn from today.

Works Cited

<!–[if supportFields]> BIBLIOGRAPHY <![endif]–>Bennett, Clinton. Muslims and modernity: an introduction to the issues and debates. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005.
Boase, Roger. “The Muslim Expulsion From Spain.” History Today 52.4 (2002): 21-28.
Khadduri, Majid, Herbert J. Liebesny and Robert H. Jackson. Origin and Development of Islamic Law. Clark: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2010.
Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies. 2nd. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Lea, Henry Charles. The Moriscos of Spain: Their Conversion and Expulsion. Philadelphia: Lea Brothers & Co., 1901.
Lowney, Chris. A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Medieval Spain. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2006.
Rosser-Owen, Mariam. Islamic Arts From Spain. London: V & A Publishing, 2010.
Shedinger, Robert F. Was Jesus a Muslim?: questioning categories in the study of religion. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.
Wolf, Kenneth B. “The Earliest Latin Lives of Muhammad.” Gervers, Michael, Ramzi Jibran Bikhazi and Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. Conversion and continuity: indigenous Christian communities in Islamic lands eighth to eighteenth centuries. Vol. 9. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1990. 89 – 102.

Note: This was a research paper turned in for a 100-level college course.  It received an A+, and the note: “A lively and interesting paper.”  I imagine it was checked more for consistency, style and obvious errors rather than having any deep fact checking done.  I would have liked a few more weeks to research and fine tune it, but I think it turned out well enough for the time I put into it, considering it’s a paper for an entry level course.

Faith and Unity: The ‘Ummah’ as the New Kinship Group

The Quran and prayer beads.

In approximately 610 CE, a man named Muhammad ibn Abdallah went to a cave in the hills above Mecca to meditate, as he was accustomed to do. There, he had a powerful religious experience and began reciting verses of what would become known as the Quran, the holy book of Islam. While reciting the surahs of the Quran in Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad would find both converts and enemies. His message would inspire both devotion and enmity. The Quran appealed to people for its beauty and its insistence on returning to principles of equity, but this would place the Prophet in confrontation with his tribe and create tension between converts and their families. The conflict between the new Muslims and the Meccan community escalated to a point that it caused the Prophet to commit the Muslim community to something unthinkable by contemporary standards: an emigration based not on blood ties, but on communal faith and unity. This event was so significant that it would become known as the Hijra and set the date for the first year of the Islamic calendar in 622 CE.

In pre-Islamic Arabian society, status, position and even personal well-being were all based on membership in kinship groups. Society was divided into a series of (usually[1]) blood-related groups organized in a hierarchical structure. The family group was the smallest organizational unit and was subordinate to a clan, which in turn was subordinate to a tribe. In these kinship groups, there was essentially no individual identity.[2] A man was a member of his family, clan and tribe. All acts between individual members of tribes assumed collective responsibility, sometimes leading to vendettas where the victim’s tribe would seek redress against any member of the offending party’s tribe.[3] This created situations in which a person was victimized based on the actions of another member of the tribe, though it wasn’t seen as wrong, because honor and responsibility were attributed to the group, rather than the individual. The more powerful the tribe one belonged to, the surer one could be that their family would be safe and prosperous.

In Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time, Karen Armstrong details the loyalty of a man to his tribe using a quote from a Ghazziyya poet: “I am of Ghazziyya. If she be in error, I will be in error; and if Ghazziya be guided right, I will go with her.”[4] Tribal loyalties were so important that even if a man’s tribesman was in the wrong, he was obliged to help him for the sake of tribal solidarity. The concept of tribal solidarity would be both a boon and a problem for the Prophet Muhammad. Religion was not unknown to pre-Islamic Arab society, but it was tied to individual kinship groups. Each tribe had a deity, represented by an idol in the Ka’aba at Mecca, which was already an established pilgrimage site. Loyalty to the tribe also included loyalty to the tribal deity. This presented two problems to the success of the Prophet’s message. Converting to Islam meant forsaking the tribal deity and betraying the tribe, a violation of the tribal solidarity that is evidenced by the quote from the Ghazziya poet. More practically, the Prophet Muhammad’s message was an attack on the economic structure of Mecca, which relied on annual pilgrimages to the Ka’aba to remain viable. If people stopped worshipping the idols then they would no longer have a reason to visit Mecca. The Quraysh, the Prophet’s own tribe, would lose their source of income. In one stroke, the Prophet was insulting the tribe’s sense of community and attacking the economic foundation its prosperity depended on. The Quraysh were obligated to persecute the fledgling Muslim community.

The Prophet Muhammad’s attack on Meccan social norms was met first with resistance and then with violence, including a narrowly avoided assassination attempt. The Muslims initially benefited from the protection of the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, Abu Talib, who was the head of the Banu Hashim, a respected clan in the Quraysh tribe. However, after his uncle died, the Prophet and his followers were left to fend for themselves, leaving them in a difficult position where they were open to violent retaliation from the Qurayshi families who felt both threatened and insulted by a perceived theft of family member loyalties.

This dilemma was resolved by a revolutionary idea, built on the foundation of the message that the Prophet preached in Mecca. The Muslims abandoned the idea of kinship groups based on blood and instead formed a new ‘tribe’ based on faith, known as the ummah. Membership in the ummah (as well as being a Muslim) required no family relation, no social status, and no prerequisite level of income; it only required acceptance of Allah as the one true God and of Muhammad as his Messenger. The ummah was a new community that offered the Muslims the protection and security they had previously received from their kinship groups.[5] The moment that defined the creation of this community is the Hijra, the emigration of Muslims to Yathrib. Prior to this, the Muslims had still considered themselves to be members of their own families, just with a different set of beliefs. Breaking away from their families and creating a new community based on faith rather than blood was an incredible social innovation, and clearly marks the birth of the Muslim community as an independent and functional social system, as well as a system of belief.

Eventually, the ummah would encompass all of Arabia, creating a new problem that challenged the traditional means of supplementing tribal income: raiding, which was known as ghazu. In times of scarcity, tribes would launch raids against each other to capture camels, cattle or slaves. Raids were carried out with precision and care, to prevent injuries or deaths that might result in blood fueds. These raids were an accepted fact of life and were not in any way morally reprehensible. They were instead a necessary means of redistributing wealth in an area of the world where there was often not enough to go around.[6] Unfortunately, this tradition conflicted with the new Muslim morality as defined by the Quran and the Prophet. Surah 3, ayah 103 of the Quran says, “Hold fast to God’s rope all together; do not split into factions. Remember God’s favour to you: you were enemies and then He brought your hearts together and you became brothers by His grace: you were about to fall into a pit of Fire and He saved you from it…”[7] Also, in his book, A History of the Arab Peoples, Hourani says that when the Prophet Muhammad made his last visit to Mecca in 632, he gave a speech and said, “…know that every Muslim is a Muslim’s brother, and that the Muslims are brethren.” He said that violence between Muslims should be avoided and old blood debts should be forgotten.[8]

As essentially members of one tribe, the ummah would have to reassess their society and find a new means of supporting themselves. Internal conflicts were no longer permitted under Islam, so the Arabs instead spread outward, taking their culture and religion with them. The outward spread of Arabs into the Middle East began as raiding parties in Syria and Palestine in the 630s,[9] but soon developed into full scale battle with the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires. The conquering Arabs would be victorious, creating a vast Islamic empire. The leap from pre-Islamic Bedouin society to Islamic Imperialism would again fundamentally alter Arab society.

Because of the principles of unity found in the Quran, the nomadic peoples of Arabia created a new social identity that revolved around faith. This was a clear break from the past and returned a sense of equity to the Muslim community. However, this new unity came with new problems. The Arabs had to find a new economic model to sustain their society. The Arabs solved this problem using traditional tactics. Since the tribe was replaced by the ummah, the push outward into the Middle East was a continuation of the tradition of ghazu, simply on a larger scale. Intentionally or not, a relatively simple people from the Arabian Peninsula quickly became a world power that would greatly influence world history, and continues to influence world history.

[1] On page 38 of The Great Arab Conquests, Kennedy states that membership in a tribe might increase or decrease based on the tribe’s level of success. New arrivals would claim that they “must have been in some way part of that kin all along,” maintaining the façade of biological kinship groups.
[2] Lapidus, page 13.
[3] Lapidus, pages 12.
[4] Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time, pages 12 – 14.
[5] Kennedy, page 38.
[6] Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time, page 11.
[7] The Qur’an; M.A.S. Abdel Haleem translation; Oxford World’s Classics version.
[8] Hourani, page 19.
[9] Kennedy, page 70.


Armstrong, K. (2007). Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time. New York: HarperCollins.
Armstrong, K. (2009). Islam: A Short History. London: Phoenix Press.
The Qur’an. (2010). (M. A. Haleem, Trans.) New York: Oxford University Press.
Hourani, A. (1991). A History Of The Arab Peoples. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Kennedy, H. (2008). The Great Arab Conquests: How The Spread of Islam Changed The World We Live In. Philadelphia: Ca Capo Press.
Lapidus, I. M. (2002). A History of Islamic Societies (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.
This was a paper written for a college course titled “Middle East Under Islam.”  The final grade was 15/15, 100%.

The Power of Religious Texts in History

This is something I wrote for a World Civilizations: Pre-History to 1500 (101) class.  The task was to pick a piece of literature, from religious texts to epic poems to economic records found at archaeological sites, and then describe how that work affected history.  I suppose you could say I took the easy way out and chose to write about the Bible and how it has affected history.  If you’re curious, this paper received an A.  Footnotes will be appended to the bottom of the post, along with the bibliography.


(Image via

Literature has always played an important role in recorded history. It is a method of preservation of the moment. It captures the ideas, the problems, the aspirations and dreams of a society and, when read from a historical perspective it can offer an open window into the world of the writer. No form of literature has as much impact on history as religious texts. Perhaps the most influential religious work of all time, the Bible[1] has impacted the lives of countless people throughout history. In this paper, the impact of the Bible will be briefly explored to demonstrate the importance it has played in shaping, stabilizing, and sometimes disrupting society.

When Christianity first appeared in the Middle East it was a revolutionary movement with no specific set of religious texts. Various gospels and epistles were being circulated, but there was no accepted canon of scripture until perhaps the late 4th century AD.[2] The result of this is that there was a wide array of Christian sects, all with varying beliefs. There was no structure to the religion, which could cause confusion about what was and wasn’t ‘true’. Through the work of early church figures, like Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, that changed. Bishop Athanasius worked to consolidate which scriptures would be regarded as canonical and which were, according to him, heretical.[3] Coming at about the same time that Theodosius I declared Catholic Christianity as the official and only permissible religion of the Roman Empire (380 AD), this acted as a strong unifying force that would have an enduring effect on history, European history most especially. The Catholic Church claimed its authority based on the newly standardized canon gospel of Matthew, citing chapter 16, verse 18, which says, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,” as the source of its legitimacy.[4] The acceptance of the canonicity of the gospel, what we know as the Bible today, is what allowed the Catholic Church to hold power over the people, as well as to stamp out opposition. The Church also used its divine authority to control the rulers of the people throughout Europe up until the French Revolution of 1789-99. With the Bible as its basis, the Papacy of the Catholic Church bestowed divine authority on the monarchies of the developing European nations, allowing for the formation of governments and modern nation states. Most of the countries in Europe today exist due to monarchical legitimization by the Catholic Church, which derived its religious authority from the Bible. These nations have played major roles in the development of the rest of the world and, in most cases, continue to be major world powers today. These nations that are shaping the world today were themselves shaped by Christianity and the Bible.

In addition to shaping nations, Christianity has played a role in creating social stability through Christian morality and Christian value based legal systems. Mircea Eliade wrote that “The manifestation of the sacred ontologically founds the world. In the homogenous and infinite expanse, in which no point of reference is possible and hence no orientation can be established, the hierophany[5] reveals an absolute fixed point, a center.” Or, in other words, religion creates a stable center for people to start from, a check to balance their view of the world and define their existence. The religion revealed through the Bible served this purpose for Christians. The Bible affects the lives of those who read and believe in it by influencing them to conform to a lifestyle that is in accordance to its teachings. John 14:6[6] tells believers that Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” It is impossible to come to Jesus without repentance and living according to the teachings of the Bible. Getting into Heaven is a strong incentive to develop and maintain a Christian, Biblical lifestyle, which regulated everything from birth (baptism) to marriage (holy vows) to death (Christian funeral rites), and most things in between. As mentioned earlier, this belief in the Bible and Biblical living created the monarchies and modern nations which, along with creating common customs, stabilized society, but it also went a step further in creating social stability through later legal systems. The values established by Christianity were converted into the foundations of Western legal systems. Christian values have persisted in our Western legal systems and institutions up until the modern time. John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the United States (1789-95) once wrote in a letter that “The Bible is the best of all Books, for it is the Word of God, and teaches us the way to be happy in this world and the next. Continue therefore to read it, and to regulate your life by its precepts.”[7] While not expressed outright in the US Constitution or legal system, the values that Americans inherited from Christianity have influenced and continue to influence the workings of government. A good modern example is the current debate on the legality of homosexual marriage, which is undeniably being opposed on wholly religious grounds.

Using the same example, the Bible has been so influential that it has also caused disruptions in societies throughout history, including Christian societies and modern societies. As a sacred text, the meaning of the words it contains is open to constant interpretation based on who reads it. Those interpretations haven’t always had a positive effect. During the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, the Roman Catholic Church used its Biblical authority to declare religious wars on neighboring nations. The effects of the Crusades continue to be felt today by Islamist terrorists using the concept of Crusades as a justification for violent and lethal actions against Western, ‘Christian’ nations. The Bible has also been used as a justification for the violent suppression of minorities throughout history. Well known examples are the Medieval Inquisitions, the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. The Bible has been used to oppress women through selective quotation and reading out of context, with 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 being a prime example:

“Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church.”[8]

The Bible was used to justify slavery in the United States, either arguing its morality through the omission of its condemnation in the Bible or by making a broad claim that God created slavery and so it must be good, as Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America did. He said, “Slavery was established by the decree of Almighty God…. It is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…. It has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in the nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.”[9] Today, the Bible is used as a source of justification for the suppression of the right to equality that homosexuals should enjoy under the secular government in the United States. It is still used by fringe groups to support destructive beliefs. The Bible is just as strong a force for disruption of society as it is for good.

Throughout history, the Bible has been used extensively to justify both positive and negative actions. It has been used to stabilize and homogenize society. It has been used as the basis for customs, holidays, and the building of nations. It has also been used to destroy enemies, suppress minorities and justify violence. Without a doubt, the Bible is an epic piece of religious literature that has had a profound effect on our world, exemplifying the power of the written word to influence history.

[1] The general concept of a canonical written Bible as accepted by branches of Christianity, without considering the differences between accepted canon and apocryphal works in various traditions.

[2] According to the Columbia Apologetics Toolkit, adapted from the materials of Professor Paul Hahn of the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas.

[3] According to the National Geographic special, The Gospel of Judas.

[4] King James Version

[5] Mircea Eliade defines “hierophany” as the sum of its etymological content, “something sacred shows itself to us.”

[6] The Book of John, Chapter 14, Verse 6 of the King James Version of the Bible.

[7] John Jay to Peter Jay, April 8, 1784.

[8] King James Version.

[9] From the antebellum slavery debates in America, quoted in a book by Mason Lowance.


National Geographic: The Gospel of Judas. Directed by James Barrat. Performed by Peter Coyote. 2006.

“Development of the Biblical Canon.” Columbia: Apologetics Toolkit. 1995. (accessed July 9, 2011).

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and The Profane: The Nature of Religion. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1959.

Hutson, James H. The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations. Princeton University Press, 2007.

Lowance, Mason I. A house divided: the antebellum slavery debates in America, 1776-1865. Princeton Univeristy Press, 2003.

Thomas Nelson Bibles. The Holy Bible; Containing the Old and New Testaments; Authorized King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2001.


The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary: Opening a New Door on History

This is a writing assignment I did for a World Civ 100 class I’m currently taking.  Expect more regular updates soon.

The question:

First you should summarize the article, then give your thoughts about it and tell how it might be useful in our class and to the scholarly world in general. You can certainly include negative andpositive thoughts about the article.

The article:  After 90 Years, A Dictionary of an Ancient World (NYTimes)

My response:

The Chicago Assyrian Dictionary: Opening a New Door on History

After 90 years of effort on the part of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago, a project titled the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary has finally been completed. This 21 volume dictionary compiles the definitions and usage explanations of words from the ancient Mesopotamian language, including its Babylonian and Assyrian dialects. This monumental achievement has opened a new door for all scholars interested in researching the Mesopotamian people and their culture.

According to a New York Times article published online (footnote was inserted here), this dictionary covers the language as it was used from roughly 2500 B.C. to 100 A.D. The project was initially started by Dr. James Henry Breasted in 1921, but didn’t make too much progress until after World War II, when the project was reorganized. The first volume of the set was published in 1956, with 20 following volumes being published over a 55 year period under the editorship of A. Leo Oppenheim, Erica Reiner and Dr. Martha Roth, the current dean of humanities at the University of Chicago. The dictionary is comprehensive, covering word usage and nuances, as well as cultural material available that relates to the word being defined.

The best way to understand any culture is by examining primary sources. The best primary source is a set of written records, but those records are meaningless if a scholar cannot completely understand the language. By unlocking the Assyrian language and making it accessible to scholars everywhere, the team at the University of Chicago has opened a door to new and hopefully more insightful studies of the Mesopotamian civilizations. Having a reviewed and reputable resource to draw from, scholars can now make better informed translations of the material they’re working with, whether it is a cuneiform tablet of a contract, or a literary work. The effort the team made in defining the nuances and various usages of the word, rather than giving simple definitions, added immense value to the work as a whole. The meaning of a text can sometimes change drastically based on a misinterpretation of one word. With a new standard to build from, scholars and translators can hopefully render the Assyrian language into English with greater efficiency and accuracy. Additionally, currently existing translations can now be vetted against this dictionary to check for accuracy.

This accomplishment can also greatly benefit classroom study. A common misconception among people today is that people from ancient civilizations were inherently less intelligent than modern people. By presenting examples of the Assyrian language (from entries in the Chicago University’s Assyrian Dictionary) to students today, a professor could demonstrate the complexity and depth not only of their language, but of their society as a whole. When discussing literature from Mesopotamia, the professor could introduce printouts of key terms from the work for classroom study so that students will have a greater understanding of the social constructs present in the work. As Gil Stein, the director of Chicago University’s Oriental Institute said in the New York Times article, this dictionary “is an indispensable research tool for any scholar anywhere who seeks to explore the written record of the Mesopotamian civilization.”

The compilation and publication of the Assyrian Dictionary by the University of Chicago will have a lasting and profound impact on the study of Mesopotamia. It is a vital and robust tool that can be used by professionals and scholars to make more accurate translations of the Assyrian language. For students, the dictionary will be an excellent tool for expanding their knowledge of the Mesopotamian world and ancient civilizations in general. The Assyrian Dictionary is a work of immense value that sheds new light on an ancient civilization and it will be used as a basis for research and study far into the future.


Wilford, John Noble. “After 90 Years, a Dictionary of an Ancient World.” The New York Times: Science. June 6, 2011. (accessed July 7, 2011).

This paper received an A, but I don’t think it was graded too critically.

The Effects of “Strange Fruit”

The following is a main outline for a speech I wrote for my Speech Foundations class.  The information presented is true and includes a works cited section at the end of the blog post.  However, the information was presented in a fictional setting, with myself as a Professor of History at UGA speaking at the Jazz Education Network annual conference, which is a real conference.  Three other people presented speeches on the social impact of Jazz, besides myself.  The first person talked about the birth of Jazz in New Orleans.  The second person talked about the Harlem Renaissance.  I gave my speech, and then the last person spoke about how Jazz has spread to other countries, and about how it’s empowering.  The purpose of the assignment was to determine our ability to give an informative speech, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to do this research and presentation.  It gave me a new appreciation of Jazz music.

At the top of the speech text I’ve embedded the PowerPoint slides I used during my presentation.  Cues for changing the slides are in the text.  I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed learning and speaking about it.

Title:  The Effects of “Strange Fruit”

Speaker:  Professor of US History, University of Georgia

Specific Purpose:  Recognizing the cultural influence of Strange Fruit, a Jazz song, at the third annual Jazz Education Network (JEN) conference.

Thesis Statement:  The Jazz song, Strange Fruit, played an important role in raising public awareness regarding the horrors of lynching and the necessity of ensuring civil rights.


I.  Introduction

1)      Attention Getter:  In 2009, a group of Caucasian and Latino firemen sued New Haven, Connecticut, for racial discrimination when a promotion test was thrown out, simply because no African Americans were able to pass (Tedford).  The fight to find equality between the races is far from over, but these days conflicts are usually resolved in court.  That wasn’t always the case.  There was a time when the answer to race conflict usually ended with a public lynching.  (slide 2)

2)      Establishment of Ethos:  As a professor of American history, I have been studying and teaching civil rights issues and how they have affected US History for almost 10 years.  What I’ve discovered is that…

3)      Thematic Statement:  … Jazz music, through Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Strange Fruit”, played a significant role in raising public awareness of civil rights issues.

4)      Preview of Main Points:

a)      Despite efforts and progress made during Reconstruction, racism increased dramatically, to the point it became publically acceptable and a source of pride among Caucasians.

b)      Racial tensions were running so high that Billie Holiday didn’t even want to sing “Strange Fruit” initially, but after agreeing, it became a huge success.

c)       Billie Holiday’s song, “Strange Fruit”, became an important reminder to the public of the horrors of lynching and a reminder to African Americans of what they were fighting against.

(Transition:  (Open image of lynching).  To get an idea of the social climate when “Strange Fruit” was first sung, let’s take a look at this photo of a lynching.)

II. Body

1)      If you look at this photo, you can see how widespread and publically acceptable it was to lynch African Americans during the years following Reconstruction.  If you look closely, (point to man pointing at bodies) you can see that for many people, it was even a source of pride.  This man definitely wants his peers to know he approves of what’s being done.  After the Reconstruction Era, race relations quickly degraded.  Gone With the Wind, first published in 1936 and often considered one of the best books ever written (Loewen 144), even “suggests that slavery was an ideal social structure whose passing is to be lamented” (Loewen 137).  (slide 3)  A passage from that book reads:  “The former field hands found themselves suddenly elevated to the seats of the mighty.  There they conducted themselves as creatures of small intelligence might naturally be expected to do.  Like monkeys or small children turned loose among treasured objects whose value is beyond their comprehension, they ran wild – either from perverse pleasure in destruction or simply because of their ignorance” (Loewen 144).  (slide 4, I added this after writing the speech, at the last minute, and spoke about how lynching was so publically acceptable that it developed into an industry like modern day tourism) With so much positive social reinforcement for keeping blacks in their ‘place’, is it any wonder that whites engaged in lynching or that they were in fact proud of their participation, even posing in lynching photos like this one?

2)      A picture very much like the one above prompted Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher from the Bronx, to write “Strange Fruit”, which was originally a poem (Strange Fruit: The Film).  (Pass out lyrics to class).  Billie Holiday was first approached to sing the song while working at an establishment called Café Society.  When she read the lyrics, she was reluctant to commit to singing it. (slide 5, emphasize the climate of fear in the late 30s)  She later said, “I was scared that people would hate it” (White 49-50).  The café manager, Barney Josephson, insisted that she perform the song and turned it into a dramatic production.  When she sang, all service would stop and the lights would be turned off, with only a spotlight on Billie’s face.  Josephson said, “People had to remember Strange Fruit, get their insides burned with it” (White 50).  People did remember it.

3)      “Strange Fruit” climbed to #16 (Kolodzey) on the US Billboard Chart and, according to a PBS documentary, “made it impossible for white Americans and politicians to continue to ignore the Southern campaign of racist terror” (Strange Fruit: The Film).  According to Caryl Phillips, who wrote a stage play called “Strange Fruit”, based on themes in Billie Holiday’s song, “Those who heard “Strange Fruit” in the late 30s were shocked, for the true barbarity of southern violence was generally only discussed in black newspapers.  To be introduced to such realities by a song was unprecedented…” (Phillips).  What was truly revolutionary about this song was that it broke the traditional role of the café singer, which was to entertain (Phillips).  Instead, Billie Holiday was able to use this song to promote an idea to her audience, to educate them and leave them unable, as PBS said, to ignore the problems of racism.  Because of its high popularity, “Strange Fruit” is credited with a major role in increasing Caucasian social awareness of the fledgling civil rights movement (Kolodzey).  When she performed the song for an African American audience at the Apollo, the end of her song was followed by a moment of heavy silence and then a rustling noise as 2000 African American patrons collectively sighed, perhaps after mentally reliving horrors in their minds that they had themselves witnessed (White 55).  To Billie herself, the song came to symbolize “all the cruelties, all the deaths, from the quick snap of the neck to the slow dying from all kinds of starvation” (White 55).

(Transition:  You’ve heard about the social atmosphere during the 1930s.  You’ve heard about how the song was created and initially introduced to the public.  You’ve heard about the impact it had on American culture.  Now, I’d like to give you an opportunity to hear the song for yourself. )

(Slide 6, Play video. Note: Video doesn’t work in the embedded slideshow, so I’ve inserted it below)


III. Conclusion

1)      (slide 7)  Music is powerful.  Billie Holiday’s use of “Strange Fruit” to excite the public imagination regarding the horrors of lynching and the need for equality prove that.  In an atmosphere of fear, she was brave enough to sing it.  Because of her passion, she turned it into a powerful call to action that affected Caucasian Americans across the country.

2)     So, when you think of Billie Holiday, don’t just remember her for being an entertainer.  Remember her for using Jazz music as a platform for promoting the necessity of one of the greatest accomplishments in our nation’s history, the establishment of civil rights.

Works Cited

Kolodzey, Jody. “Stranger Than Fiction.” 24 March 2003. In These Times. 17 June 2011 .

Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: Touchstone, 2007.

Phillips, Caryl. “Blood at the root.” 18 August 2007. 17 June 2011 .

“Strange Fruit: The Film.” n.d. PBS: Independent Lens. 17 June 2011 .

Tedford, Deborah. Ruling on Firefighters Tests Tensions In New Haven. 1 July 2009. 15 June 2011 .

White, John. Billie Holiday: Her Life & Times. New York: Universe Books, 1987.