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Pagans by Comparisons: Medieval Christian and Muslim Constructions of the Pagan “Other”

Busalacchi, Philip

Perspectives: A Journal of Historical Inquiry, Vol.37 (2010)

Introduction: During the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries German and Danish clergymen and knights set off on a crusade to the lands of the eastern Baltic Sea into the modern day Latvia. Henricus Lettus, a young German priest joined the mission and wrote extensively about his experiences. The goal of the crusade was to conquer and convert the local pagan population to Catholicism and create an ecclesiastical state, thereby expanding the boundaries of Christianity.

Three hundred years later and thousands of miles away, Emperor Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur led an army of Muslims from their central Asian homeland of Transoxiana into the Indian sub-continent. He planned to conquer “Hindustan” to establish his own empire and expand the lands of “Dar al-Islam” or the land of Muslims. As for the local Hindu population, Babur was indifferent to their religious beliefs and practices, so long as they did not interfere with his mission.

These seemingly unrelated events do contain a common thread. Both efforts to expand religious powers were endeavors that constructed pagans as “others.” Christian and Muslim societies of the Middle Ages have been the subject of much research, but usually standing alone or studied together in locations where they came into contact or conflict with each other, such as the Holy Land during the Crusades. This type of research, while extremely important and informative, provides a limited perspective into these two distinct cultural realms. Few scholars have studied the way Christians and Muslims viewed and constructed pagans, a group they both fought against but each in their own distinct way. A comparative analysis of Christian and Muslim constructions of pagan people as inferior “others” has the potential to help historians to understand both Christian and Muslim cultures and societies of the medieval period.

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