Fictionalizing Identity: Race and Religion in Muslim and Christian Scholarship of the Seventeenth Century

Morgan Peltier

Authors:  Morgan Peltier

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Florin Curta

College:  College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


Racism is variable, often devastating from and returning to its origins over the course of several centuries. Race is perceived as a western creation, but emerged through contact with ‘others’ who were frequently non-western. To better understand modern race and racism, it is important to comprehend how different cultures interpreted and practiced race. Religion, due to its unique intersection with early forms of race, serves as a strong basis for comparative analysis. This research compares the development of racial theories in Christianity and Islam through historian Ahmed Mohammed ibn al-Maqqari and friar Francisco de Torrejoncillo, two 17th century scholars who were emblematic of the intersection of race and religion. Not only is there a comparison between religions, but also a comparison through time. Both al-Maqqari and Torrejoncillo adopted racial – some would posit the existence of proto-racial – thinking of the Middle Ages. These instances of continuity are reflective of the enduring characteristics of race and why race and racism persist today.

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11 Responses
  1. Elisabeth Rios-Brooks

    Hi Morgan,

    I really appreciate the research you are conducting – it takes on an often forgotten, yet important part of literature related to race and race relations. There is a lack of research on transnational perspectives related to issues of racism. This forces many of us to draw our conclusions from solely Western perspectives. My question to you is: Have you considered comparing Christianity and Islam to other religions found in Africa and Latin America like Yoruba or Candomblé? These are often overlooked and I think could provide another lens to your research.

    1. Morgan

      Hello Elisabeth, thank you for your response. As for transnational perspectives, I would consider doing a comparison with the Yoruba religion, but not so much Candomblé. This is mostly because I am a medievalist and the Candomblé is a little past my area of focus. Furthermore, I am interested in aspects of race and racism that are pervasive throughout multiple cultures. The reason I chose Islam and Christianity is that there is greater access to resources and stronger influence. Not to delegitimize the beliefs and concepts of the Yoruba or Candomblé religions, but Islam and Christianity arguably had a greater influence on modern-day race and racism.

  2. Hope Scheff

    Hi Morgan!
    Your poster breaks down your topic very nicely, however I was wondering if you could explain a few terms for me:
    1. What is the difference between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism?
    2. Could you expand on what color theory is and what its implications are regarding your research?

    1. Morgan

      Hello Hope!

      Anti-judaism is the opposition to Judaic beliefs and practices. Typically to be anti-Judaic, one must belong to a competing or similar belief system such as the other two Abrahamic religions. Conversely, anti-Semitism is the opposition of the Jew people, not so much their religion. The key distinction is that anti-Semitism marks a shift away from religious-based opposition towards a racialized opposition. However, as I argue in my research, anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism are not mutually exclusive. Often there is an intersection between the two as many saw the Jews as a distinct race while simultaneously holding an opposition to Judaic beliefs.

      To make it short and simple, however, anti-Judaism is opposition to the tenets and beliefs of Judaism while anti-Semitism is the racialization of the Jews as a separate and inferior race.

    2. Morgan

      Hi again Hope,

      I forgot to respond to your second question. Color theory, or as I call it color symbolism in my research, is the association with certain colors with certain emotions, beliefs, and concepts. For example, white is almost used universally throughout the world as a symbol of purity. However, color symbolism is not always standardized. Take the phenomenon of black beads in African cultures and in the archaeology of African American slave burials. Black was used as a symbol of life because it is the color of their skin.

      In my research, I use color symbolism as evidence of intellectual inheritance. Color symbolism can be traced back to Antiquity, yet emerged in both Islamic and Christian world views. Most importantly,color symbolism is associated with the biblical narrative, the Curse of Ham. The original text makes no reference to color, but by the Middle Ages, the curse was believed to be black skin on the descendants of Ham. In this context, black became associated with sin, death, and eventually enslavement.

      Toni Morrison, a famous American author who recently passed, commented that it was the color of African skin that made their otherness so pervasive. It was the belief that this color meant something, symbolized difference, that created a difference between color based racism and other forms of hierarchical systems such as class or nationality.

  3. Josh Steele

    HI Morgan– what an interesting topic and one that I hope you continue to explore! It’s important to look at these historical arguments. I sometimes wonder if the “race is a modern social construction” assertion is used to make it seem more temporary or ephemeral? From your research perhaps the 17th Century still qualifies as “modern,” but I don’t know if that is what is meant. You’re uncovering the deeper legacies of these conversations, and it’s such important work!

    1. Morgan

      Hello Josh,

      I definitely do not consider the seventeenth century as modern. In fact, I am attempting to challenge the narrative that race is a singularly modern concept. Unfortunately, I believe that by defining race as modern, we are erasing certain historical truths that may not necessarily be easy to contemplate. Some historians are even arguing that proto-racial thinking can be traced as far back as Antiquity. I myself do not follow that school of thought, but I would be remiss if I did to acknowledge some of our modern racial thinking can be traced back centuries.

      Most notably, Aristotle’s work on environmental determinism was widely influential in the development of climate theory and the categorization of humans. Does this mean Aristotle was racist? No, I do not believe so. But his writings, which were transmitted to the West through Arab conquerors, did provide a foundation on which to expand racial theories. This is just one case that I believe forces the history of race centuries before the modern age.

  4. Morgan

    Fascinating concepts that I would love to expand on are color symbolism, environmental determinism, and the Curse of Ham!

  5. Excellent job Morgan. I met you when you did research on slavery with Dr. Sensbach. Are you planning to further pursue this topic in graduate school? I hope so!!

    1. Morgan

      Hello Dr. Austin! I remember your help with our research project with Dr. Sensbach. As for grad school, I was accepted into Western Michigan’s master’s program and do plan on continuing this topic. Although I hope to expand it more and perhaps include a more Judaic perspective as well.