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Fourth Annual Marco Symposium

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For those interested, the symposium runs February 24-25

"I grew up in Kentucky," Stewart said. "When I studied
the Crusades, the Christians always won. But when you
really study the history, that's not always the case.
History looks very different once you know who won."

UT symposium focuses on knowledge that stemmed from
early cooperation between Christians, Muslims and Jews

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By PAM STRICKLAND, Special to the News Sentinel February 19, 2005

For University of Tennessee history professor Dr.
Thomas Burman, the popular belief that for Christians
and Muslims, Muslims and Jews "the only state of
affairs is a state of hostility" is myth at the
highest level.
A specialist in the relationship between the three
religions during the Middle Ages, Burman acknowledges
great conflict - there is the matter of the Crusades -
"But the other side of the relationship between the
religions was very dynamic and tremendously fruitful,"
he said.
Burman, who researches the period by reading Christian
and Islamic texts in Classical Arabic, discusses
medieval Spain as the time and place when the world's
three great religions had "astonishing periods of
amicable interactions. Muslim musicians performed in
Christian services. They attended one another's
funerals and festivals. There were marriages between
people of different faiths. They read and studied one
another's scriptures."
It is with this ancient relationship in mind,
contrasted with the strife between the three religions
in our modern world, that Burman proposed the topic of
the fourth annual Symposium of UT's Marco Institute
for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Titled
"Interactions & Images: Cultural Contacts across
Eurasia 600-1600," the symposium brings together some
of the leading medieval scholars in North America to
examine an array of medieval-era relationships, not
only between Jews, Christians and Muslims but also
involving the myriad of religions in China, India and
South Asia.
While many people think of the period before the
Renaissance as the Dark Ages, Burman described it as
the "Great Scholastic Age," and both he and other
medieval scholars attribute that period of learning to
the Muslims, who had the texts from deserted Roman
Empire libraries translated from the original Greek to
Arabic "long before they were ever translated into
The Arab Muslims conquered much of the Mediterranean
rim countries and "learned as much as they could from
the cultures they conquered," he said. They also
allowed the Christians and Jews they encountered along
the way to live "in peaceful coexistence," Burman
Dr. Gregory Kaplan is a UT Spanish professor whose
literary studies concentrate on 13th-century Spain.
One course he teaches concentrates on Jews and their
relationships during that period.
"Cordova had a million people in 1300. London had
25,000. It was the center of the world," Kaplan said,
describing the Spanish city that was a metropolitan
center for Islam.
Kaplan said that "all of the world's knowledge passed
through Muslim hands, and they improved everything
from algebra to zoology. Our culture is not
Judeo-Christian. It's Judeo-Christian-Islamic. To not
say that is not fair."
The idyllic period during which the three religions
lived together, particularly in Spain, came to an end
because, Burman said, "The Arabs became confident and
complacent" at the same time that Christians came to
believe that Muslims and Jews "were no longer
necessary for economics." At that point, Christianity
"would no longer allow for minorities, so the Muslims
and Jews became a danger to the religion," which led
to the Crusades.
So the religions became more orthodox, and the
stricter religions "don't teach you how to be
tolerant," Kaplan said.
Neither Burman nor Kaplan will present lectures at the
symposium, but Dr. Palmira Brummett, also a UT history
professor, will present a paper on the Ottomans, the
Turkish empire that began in the Middle Ages and
continued until its defeat by the Allies in World War
The Ottomans represented a myriad of religions, going
completely against the stereotype that many have of
the Middle East as "primarily motivated by religion."
Brummett concentrates much of her studies in the
rhetoric of the people. "I look at the ways people
identify themselves," she said. "Religion was
important, but not the only thing. They did interact
over religion, but also over literature and politics,
music and art."
Like others who will participate in the symposium,
Brummett said her students are "generally naive about
other areas of the world. Their knowledge of world
history is not very good."
In discussing religions in her classes, when faced
with generalizations that students make about Muslims,
she responds with this question: "Are all Christians
the same? Are all Christians equally pious?" The
students usually laugh at the thought.
What Brummett and the others repeat in very similar
terms is that their goal in their classes is to expose
students "to some of the nuances, so they will view
culture and societies beyond our own in a more
sophisticated way, so they will see that complexities
exist in all areas."
She added that studying the histories of places,
societies and cultures makes us better capable of
evaluating the rhetoric by which people identify
Dr. Jaroslav Folda, the N. Ferebee Taylor Professor of
Art History at the University of North Carolina,
examines a much different aspect of the medieval
years: He studies interactions between the Crusaders
and the Mongols. Crusaders in the Middle East went to
Mongolia to seek an alliance to help fight the
uprisings of Muslims that were beginning.
"The East, whether it is Near Middle or Far, is a
culture of otherness," Folda said. "We don't
understand because we don't have access to their
culture, religions or politics."
What his studies and those of others in the symposium
do is "show the complexities" in those cultures, Folda
said. The 13th century was a time when "Christianity
was aspiring to become the great world religion, and
they failed. The result was Islam became the great
world religion," he said, noting that while
Christianity is the dominant religion in Western
culture, Islam is the primary religion in the
non-Western world.
Dr. Tony K. Stewart, director of the North Carolina
Center for South Asia Studies at the North Carolina
State University, said that much of his studies
examines the belief that religions are like "oil and
vinegar; they are a solution that does not mix. If you
put them together, they will always fall apart." But,
Stewart said, "History doesn't bear that out."
Providing agreement with that observation, Burman
noted that Coptic Christians living among Muslims
began in their writings to refer to Jesus with the
Arabic name that translates "Lord of the World," a
phrase which is specific to the Koran.
Stewart and Kaplan both said part of the problem is
that education reflects the interest of the state, and
history, essentially, belongs to the victors.
"I grew up in Kentucky," Stewart said. "When I studied
the Crusades, the Christians always won. But when you
really study the history, that's not always the case.
History looks very different once you know who won."
Pam Strickland can be reached at pamstrickland@mac.com

Related Link: Link to Symposium

Posted by dbuck
Feb. 22, 2005