VIEW: The irony of Iberian Islam — Saleem H Ali
Over the past two decades the willingness in Spain to reconnect with the past to heal old wounds and promote tolerance and cultural pluralism has been exemplary. There are long waiting lists for Spaniards eager to enrol in Arabic classes. Even the Madrid bombings in March 2004 did not decelerate the momentum towards pluralism
The Spanish city of Seville recently hosted a unique gathering of imams and rabbis from around the world to find common ground on theological tenets and to combat the rising tide of antagonism between Jews and Muslims. Sponsored by the French Hommes de Parole (Men of Honour) Foundation, the gathering was a masculine affair — orthodox strains of both faiths discourage women in positions of leadership.
Spain was chosen as the venue because of its legacy of good relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims from the eighth to the fifteenth centuries. Intermittent skirmishes aside, during the turbulent dark ages of Europe Spain was in many ways a model of tolerance. In the words of Yale professor, Maria Rosa Menocal, Iberian Islam was the “ornament of the world” (also the title of her book).
Contemporary Muslims usually point to this period as a golden age, often reminding Jews of how rabbis and scholars such as Maimonides flourished under Muslim rule. The irony of Iberian Islam is that the tolerance for which the Moors are celebrated today by even the most radical Muslims, was the cause of many schisms in Islam. The egalitarian Muslim rulers of Spain were constantly threatened by militant jihadist forces, which ultimately prevailed in the form of the Al Muwahhid dynasty. Once the Al Muwahhid rulers took control of Cordoba from their more tolerant Umayyad predecessors, Maimonides and his family were given the dire choice of either converting to Islam, being killed or exile. They decided on exile in Morocco.
The Umayyads had been more tolerant perhaps because of their own dark experiences with fanaticism when the victorious Abassid caliph had killed most of their forefathers in Damascus and moved the caliphate to Baghdad in 750 AD. Abd ar Rahman, the only surviving prince, had escaped to Spain to establish what became the Muslim caliphate in Iberia based on conquests by Tariq bin Ziad and Musa bin Nusair a few decades earlier.
Last year, I directed a six-week conflict resolution programme between Arabs and Israelis in which we used environmental education as a common means of bridging differences between these groups. It was held in the Spanish city of Toledo, which also prides itself as the city of three cultures and still has a few mosques and synagogues. The most prominent building in the city is of course the cathedral built on the ruins of a mosque. The Arab participants in our programme were quick to point this out to some of our Spanish hosts and of course also to the Israeli participants. They, in turn, pointed out that there were also many examples in Spain of mosques built on the ruins of churches. Perhaps the most famous example of a church being converted to a mosque is the Byzantine Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.
Claiming tolerance on architectural merits is always very case-specific and all religions can claim adherence and be accused of violation of such norms. From the Somnath temples of Gujarat to the mosque in Ayodhya monuments can always move some people to madness.
What moved me most during my visits to various Moorish monuments in Spain was not the celebrated Alhambra or the grand mosque of Cordoba that had inspired Allama Iqbal’s famous poem, but some little known ruins about 10 miles from the city of Cordoba. Visually, these ruins are not stunning. Excavation continues to this day. However, they are a poignant reminder of what can happen when intolerance takes root in societies. These are the ruins of the fabled city of Madinat uz Zehra — built by Abd ar Rahman III.
The city took 40 years to build and at the time of its completion was considered the most splendid in Europe. It included some 400 buildings — inns, schools and workshops, even a zoo. According to some accounts 1,200 loaves of bread a day were fed to the fish in the ornamental ponds. There was also an ornamental pool of mercury at the entrance that charmed daytime visitors with a chromatic reflection of sunlight. However, the extravagant splendour of this marvellous complex was short lived. In the year 1010 the invading forces destroyed and burnt it to the ground. In this case the invaders were Berber Kharijites Muslims.
While King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the Christian conquerors Granada, maintained the buildings and gardens of the Alhambra, the Berber completely destroyed Madinat uz Zehra. For the next 900 years the ruins remained unexplored.
The Cordoban dynasties that built Madinat uz Zehra were moderate, tolerant Muslims who encouraged disagreement and critical thought. I might disagree, as an environmentalist, with a pool of toxic mercury as an ornament, but I would not have been beheaded for blasphemy. The fanatics equated the Umayyad tolerance with waywardness that had to be stopped. Many Christian rulers too succumbed to the same purist urge. This led to an almost complete ethnocide of Muslims and Jews on the Iberian peninsula.
Over the past two decades however the willingness in Spain to reconnect with the past to heal old wounds and promote tolerance and cultural pluralism has been exemplary. There are long waiting lists for Spaniards eager to enrol in Arabic classes. Even the Madrid bombings in March 2004 did not decelerate the momentum towards pluralism. This is perhaps best exemplified in contemporary Spanish politics by the declaration last week of a permanent ceasefire by the Basque separatists. The Basques and the Spanish government are both predominantly Catholic Christians. The campaign of terror spanning half a century in their case was spurred by separate cultural identities. The greater tolerance in the polity for Basque cultural identity has diminished the need for a separate homeland and the Basque have realised the futility of their terrorist campaign. Perhaps the Baloch separatists and other militant elements in Pakistan will follow the Basque example once we have a more pluralist system.
We must not forget the lesson of Iberian Islam: intolerance must not be allowed to take root.
Dr Saleem H Ali teaches environmental planning at the University of Vermont. He can be reached via email at email@example.com