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Islamic Spain:  Lessons For Today

After crossing from North Africa in the early seven-hundreds, Muslims ruled southern Spain, Andalusia, for almost eight centuries, interacting with the people they found there - mostly Sephardic Jews and Christians. A convergence of Islamic, Christian and Jewish cultures marked almost every aspect of life in Medieval Spain: from the economy and science to literature and art. The age of Al-Andalus began in 711, when an army of Arabs and Berbers crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula.

Osman bin Bakar of Georgetown University, says that in contrast to the rest of Europe, medieval Islamic Spain was enlightened and tolerant.

“Andalusia was perhaps the only place in Europe where followers of the three Abrahamic faiths -- Muslims, Christians and Jews -- lived together in relative peace to produce a common culture and civilization over such a long period of time,” says Professor Bakar.

The mixing of cultures on the Iberian Peninsula was partly the result of a moderate form of Islam practiced by the first ruling dynasty of the Umayyads. Within two centuries, Andalusia reached the peak of its cultural and political development, prosperity and power. Its capital Cordoba, had some 200-thousand homes, 600 mosques, 900 public baths, 50 hospitals, and lighted and paved streets. Libraries and research institutions flourished in Muslim Spain, while the rest of Europe remained largely illiterate. But some analysts warn against idealizing Andalusian “convivencia,” the Spanish term for religious and cultural tolerance. Conversion to Islam was encouraged and sometimes compelled, and Arabic dominated all aspects of life. Rebels as well as some intellectuals often were executed. According to the late British historian Richard Fletcher, one of the world’s leading authorities on medieval Spain, after three hundred years, the region became divided into smaller states, centered around cities such as Seville, Granada, Malaga and Cordoba.

“These little statelets of 11th century al-Andalus were individually small and vulnerable. They could only survive among their predatory neighbors by adroit diplomacy and warfare.”

Professor Fletcher says the divisions weakened the Islamic rulers of Andalusia and they became more repressive. Jane Gerber, professor of history at the City University of New York, says that by the 12th century, religious tolerance was on the wane.

“When we speak about the 12th and 13th centuries, we are already talking about a period in which Jews no longer lived in the realm of Islam in Spain. They had in fact been forced to flee or convert,” says Professor Gerber.

The discord allowed Christian forces from the North to assert themselves, beginning in the 13th century. Granada, the last of the Muslim outposts, surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in 1492. Within three months of Granada’s fall, unconverted Jews were expelled and Islamic practices were banned.

The legacy of the Golden Age of al-Andalus is widespread and lasting, from advances in agriculture and science to music and poetry. Analysts say the Islamic world flourished through contact and cooperation with other cultures and that its creativity declined with the onset of ethnic and religious conflict. Georgetown University’s Osman bin Bakar says Islamic Spain offers important lessons for Muslims today.

“Fraternization! For scientific progress, you have to have fraternization. And the other one is universalism. I think the (Andalusian) emphasis on the universal aspects of Islam should be imitated by Muslims today, rather than going to sectarian thinking. I think universalism is the way to scientific progress, and certainly the internationalization and globalization of science.”

According to the latest U-N Human Development Report, Arabs today lag behind the rest of the world in almost every area, including science, education and economic development. Professor Bakar says it’s no wonder many Muslims today proudly recall al-Andalus as the Golden Age of their history. He urges them to make good use of the lessons it offers.

This story was broadcast on the VOA Focus program. To hear more Focus stories click here.