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Al-Andalus, Islamic World in Medieval Spain - 2004-05-20


After crossing from North Africa in the early seven-hundreds, Muslims ruled in southern Spain for almost eight centuries, interacting with the populations they found there. VOA's Zlatica Hoke reports today analysts study the golden age of al-Andalus as a possible model for a modern pluralist society.

Many medieval Spanish songs combine Jewish, Christian European and Arabic music traditions. A convergence of three distinct cultures marked almost every aspect of life in Islamic Spain: from economy, technology, science and medicine to philosophy, literature, art and architecture.

Al-Andalus, or Andalusia, originated in 711, when an army of Arabs and Berbers crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to depose Visigothic ruler Roderic. They came as liberators, but became conquerors. Jews supported and welcomed Muslims in Spain because initially they prospered better under Islamic rule than Christian. Osman bin Bakar, a visiting professor of science from Malaysia, says in contrast to the rest of Europe, at the time Andalusia was enlightened and tolerant.

“Andalusia was perhaps the only place in Europe then where followers of the three Abrahamic faiths - Muslims, Christian 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 fertile mixing of cultures on the Iberian peninsula was partly the result of a moderate kind of Islam practiced by the first ruling dynasty of the Umayyads. Their reign ended in the early years of the eleventh century. As the poetry from their time indicates, the Umayyads reveled in the pleasures of the body as well as the mind. They also appreciated other cultures, for example, Greek philosophy and science, which they helped spread to the rest of Europe.

By the tenth century, Andalusia reached what was called a golden age in terms of cultural and political development, prosperity and power. Its capital city of Cordoba had some 200-thousand houses, 600 mosques, 900 public baths, 50 hospitals, and lighted and paved streets. Libraries and research institutions spread rapidly in Muslim Spain, while the rest of Europe remained largely illiterate.

But some analysts warn against idealizing Andalusian “convivencia,” Spanish term for religious and cultural tolerance of the era. Conversion to Islam was encouraged and sometimes compelled, and the Arabic language was dominant in all aspects of life. Some philosophers were banned, their books burned. Uprisings were answered with mass executions. Jane Gerber, professor of history at the City University of New York, says by the 12th century, religious tolerance was on the wane.

“When we speak about the science of 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 Berger.

Significant changes began during the 11th century. British historian Richard Fletcher says al-Andalus, once centrally ruled, 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 Christian rulers to the north of al-Andalus were willing to supply arms for cash, spurring political and business interaction on all levels and enabling individual rise to power: “The most famous Spaniard of all time, Rodrigo Diaz, known as El Cid, “the boss,” was a Castilian nobleman who became an exceptionally skillful and lucky mercenary soldier who sold his skills to a variety of pay masters, Christian and Muslim and ended his career as the independent ruler of his own little principality of Valencia on the eastern Mediterranean coast of Spain.”

Divisions like these weakened Islamic rulers of Andalusia, paving the way for Christian forces to gain control of the peninsula in the 13th century. Granada, last of the Muslim outposts, finally surrendered to Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in 1492. Crusader nobles and clerics from the north, who helped local Christian rulers defeat their Muslim rivals, also put an end to multiculturalism. Within three months of Granada’s fall, unconverted Jews were expelled and Islamic practices banned. Professor Fletcher notes legend would soon turn El Cid into a Christian hero, a loyal Castilian patriot, who was supposed to have spent his life fighting to expel Muslims from Spain.

The legacy of the golden age of al-Andalus is widespread and lasting: from advances in agriculture, science, medicine, astronomy, cartography and navigation to the beauty of architecture, music, poetry, silk weaving, ceramics and marble carving. Some Andalusian products are still today hallmarks of quality: Toledo steel, Cordoban leather, Granada silk and Seville oranges.

Malaysian professor of science Osman bin Bakar says this golden age offers some important lessons: “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 internationalization and globalization of science.”

Analysts say the Islamic world flourished through contact and cooperation with other cultures. Its creativity declined with the onset of ethnic and religious conflict.

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