The miracle of al-Andalus



WE are so used to thinking of modernity as an outcome of the European Enlightenment, that we forget where its true origins lie: in that dazzling kaleidoscope of philosophical, literary, artistic and scientific impulses known to history as al-Andalus. It is important to remind ourselves of the miracle of al-Andalus, at a time when the West Asian crisis has hardened ideological positions on every side, and when it seems impossible to conceive of a time and place in which Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in harmony and mutual enrichment, in a convivencia established by an Islamic polity. The reductive label, "Moorish Spain", misrepresents the interweaving of cultural histories during these eight centuries, when people of diverse faiths collaborated to produce those conceptions of freedom, tolerance, justice and the scope of human possibility, which we claim as our birthright today (and which we credit to that narrow circle of literati, philosophes and princes in whose salons the lamps of the Enlightenment burnt bright, while the peasants and workers drudged in squalid darkness below).

Between the Eighth and 15th Centuries, while Christian Europe sank into the Dark Ages, the Iberian peninsula was a headland of free thought, inquiry and experiment. Before the advent of Islam, it had been a backwater of the declining Roman imperium, held by the Visigoths. Christianity, no longer a gospel of compassion, was the instrument of a state far more repressive than that which had crucified its founder; here, as elsewhere in Christian Europe, society was cruelly hierarchical, and the despised Jewish minority was relegated to its lowest stratum.

All this changed when the Arabs and Berbers, personifying the transformative energy of Islam, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 712 CE. Al-Andalus flourished through the Caliphate of Cordoba and later, through successive dynasties and contending principalities, until 1492, when the Nasrid emirate of Granada fell to the assault of Castile (the exile of the emir Abu-Abdul/Boabdel from his homeland inspired the haunting lament known as the "Moor's Last Sigh"). During the eight centuries of al-Andalus, the invaders merged with the local population; the splendour of this confluential civilisation attracted philosophers, artisans, physicians and storytellers from Africa, Asia and Europe; and here, Islam, Judaism and Christianity embarked on a fruitful journey of understanding that should serve as a model of inter-faith dialogue today.

The habit of reducing Islam's richly variegated tradition to the bigotry of Wahabbism, or to picture it as a breeding-ground for ayatollahs and kamikaze martyrs, obscures the fact that, for nearly a millennium, Islam was a vibrant framework linking West Asia, North Africa and West Europe, synthesising Arab, Greek, Persian and Indian influences. During this millennium, civilisation was embodied by the House of Islam (with its emphasis on the illumination of learning, urbane sophistication, social and geographical mobility, and a mercantile economy), and barbarism by Christian Europe (a wilderness of illiteracy and superstition, an inertial feudal economy worked by serfs, driven by brutish chieftains and desiccated clerics). Indeed, so dazzled were the intelligentsia of Christendom by the universities and libraries of al-Andalus, that by the 13th Century, Toledo, once the citadel of the Visigoth barbarians, had become the centre of a booming translation industry. Christian monks, scholars and poets queued up to partake of the intellectual feast available in Arabic; prominent doctors of the church cited such Muslim thinkers as Ibn-Rushd/Averroes and Ibn-Sina/Avicenna as authorities in their theological debates.

Above all, al-Andalus was a triumph of the imagination over circumstance, the first ecumene in Western history, a public sphere that included its minorities in an unfolding efflorescence — and the Jewish community was one of its greatest beneficiaries. As a "people of the book", they were emancipated from the strictures of Christendom and received all the rights accorded to them by the Prophet Muhammad: they were free to practise their religion, and to participate in public life. Thus empowered, they came to play a vital role in the new polity and culture, serving as viziers and military commanders. Encouraged to enjoy the riches of the Arabic language and literature, the Jewish intellectuals of al-Andalus re-invented Hebrew poetry and revitalised Judaism.

Samuel ha-Nagid's was a typical Andalusian success story. This 11th-Century rabbi was appointed vizier of Granada: as such, he led his largely Muslim soldiers into battle, composing prayers of thanksgiving for their victory.

Such was the tolerance of the Islamic polity, that this high state functionary was free to promote his religion, endowing Judaic institutions and maintaining shrines in Jerusalem. The Jewish vizier was a luminary of the Hebrew renaissance: taking Arabic as his model, he brought Hebrew to life as a language of speech and literary expression, after centuries of liturgical somnolence. Similarly, the celebrated 12th-Century Andalusian philosopher, Maimonides, wrote the masterpiece of Judaic thought, Dalalat al'Hayirin (A Guide to the Perplexed), in Arabic. Although he held the sensitive position of court physician to Sultan Salah ad-Din al-Ayyubi in Cairo (the Saladin of Crusader lore, the Defender of Islam), Maimonides was permitted to publish his arguments against Islam's official view of Judaism and Christianity as traditions that had betrayed the divine revelation; he was also allowed to codify Jewish religious law in the Mishne Torah, a foundational text of diasporic Judaism.

To Andalusian Jewish intellectuals such as Samuel ha-Nagid and Maimonides, who spoke Arabic as their native language, the Arab heritage was their own, quicker and closer to their concerns than the sonorous, but distant, cadences of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Their Promised Land lay on the banks, not of the Jordan, but of the Guadalquivir: Cordoba, Saragossa and Toledo were the gardens of pluralism where Jewish culture had flowered again. To sum it up in a provocative, but accurate, sentence — and difficult as this is to believe, in the era of Ariel Sharon — classical Hebrew literature was the child of Arabic literary models, and the Judaic religious renaissance a blessing made possible by Islam's framework of tolerance. This thought should give pause to the forces intent on a war of annihilation in West Asia.

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