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“Al-Andalus: The World of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Spain”

Francisco J. González

(text of speech presented at the

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship,
Mankato, Summer 2008)

An often repeated quote from the philosopher George Santayana is that “Those who do
not learn from the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them." Today I want to talk
about the flip-side of that sobering statement. I want to talk to you about learning from
the successes of history so were able to repeat them. I want to talk to you about the
legacy of Al-Andalus, the name that the Arabs gave to the Iberian Peninsula, whose
territory is now shared by the modern European countries of Spain and Portugal. For a
few brief centuries three great religions and many cultures lived together and created
Europe’s greatest civilization since the fall of the Roman Empire.

However, I promise that this will NOT be a history lecture, but rather a sharing of ideas
and hopefully a conversation on interfaith collaboration, on tolerance, on how people
with opposing world views can also work in harmony.

My interest in this ancient period started many years ago due to my family history. My
mother is from Spain, from the region of Extremadura. During my visits I would marvel
at the magnificently preserved Arab palaces, mosques and fortresses, tried to decipher the
intricate Arabic calligraphy that you can still see on walls and long abandoned ruins. I
eventually decided to learn Arabic, and I am glad that now, while still a student of the
language, I can actually read the words that my Arab ancestors wrote so long ago.

What was Al-Andalus

In the year 711 A.D. a Muslim army comprised mostly of North African tribesmen under
the command of Tarik ibn Ziyad invaded the Christian Kingdom of Spain as allies of a
disaffected group of Spanish noblemen. Due to the internal dissent amongst the
Christians, and counting on the support of the oppressed Jewish minority, the conquest
was quickly completed. Only a few poor and isolated Christian redoubts in the forests
and mountains of northern Spain managed to resist the invader, but these holdouts began
the slow process of reclaiming the land from Islam. However, for the next 800 years,
until 1492, the Islamic and Arabic worlds were present in Spain. Despite periods of war,
intolerance and persecution, for several centuries Muslims, Jews and Christians managed
to live together, work together and create together.

Inventions from India, China and from all across the Islamic world arrived in Arab-ruled
Spain, and from there on to Western Europe. Thanks to Al-Andalus Medieval Europeans
learned, amongst other things, how to make paper and how to use indo-arabic numbers

instead of the cumbersome Roman numerals. Scholars from all over Europe and the
Middle East went to Al-Andalus to work as advisors, as translators, as teachers for the
many madrassas or academies set by enlightened Arab rulers. Important scientific and
philosophical works from ancient Rome and Greece, from India and Persia, were copied,
translated, debated and exported. Muslim, Christian and Jewish scholars worked together
and learned from each other, resulting in great advances in mathematics, engineering,
chemistry, agriculture, medicine, architecture and astronomy.

The Arabic language of Al-Andalus also left its mark on Europe. In modern Spanish,
which descends from Latin, about 20 % of its words are of Arabic origin.

Even the English language is influenced by Arabic loan words for Andalusian products
and inventions. Everyone in this room is already a speaker of Andalusian Arabic. Let me
show you what I mean: let me ask you this:

--who can tell me the name of that kind of fabric, which many of us may be wearing right
now. It is not silk, not polyester (so 70’s!), it is cotton, from the Arabic al-khattan…

-- who can tell us the name of this ingredient, that many of us use on a daily basis, to add
flavor to our coffee, that makes cake and doughnuts taste so sweet….sugar, from the
Arabic al zukr...

a couple more...

-- who can tell me the name of that subject taught in mathematics class, that makes
parents crazy when trying to help our kids do their homework? It is not geometry, it is not
calculus, it is instead…algebra, which comes for the title of the Al-Kitāb al-mukhtaṣar
fī hīsāb al-ğabr wa’l-muqābala, arabic for "The Compendious Book on
Calculation by Completion and Balancing by Al-Kwarzimi, the inventor of this
process of mathematical calculations.

-- last but not least, -- who can tell me the name of that magic ingredient, found in wine,
in beer and whiskey, which makes feel warm and fuzzy when we have our favorite drink?
Alcohol…in Arabic is al-gowal…or the “spirit” of a liquid.

Now we can all say: I understand a little Arabic!

Why this tolerance in Al-Andalus?

The Muslims of al-Andalus were striking in their ethnic diversity. The leadership and
much of their sometimes imaginary ancestry were Syrian; most of the foot-soldiers were
first-generation, immigrant Berbers; and the inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula, from
whom within a few generations the majority of the Muslims descended, in part or in

whole, were ethnically no different from those who remained Christian: Celto-Iberians
and Romans and Visigoths.

The unconverted Christians and Jews, called the dhimmi, were thus not very different
ethnically from their brothers and neighbors who did convert; and soon enough they were
not very different in other crucial ways, since Christians and Jews were thoroughly and
mostly enthusiastically Arabized within a relatively short period of time. The Andalusian
Christians were even called the Mozarabs or must'arab, or "wanna-be-Arabs" and there is
a wonderful Latin lamentation from Alvarus, a ninth-century churchman of Cordoba,
complaining that young Christian men can barely write decent letters in Latin but are so
in love with Arabic poetry that they can recite it better than the Muslims themselves.

On the other hand, we also have the letter sent by a straight-laced Muslim cleric from the
city of Madrid (now capital of modern Spain) to the Caliph or king complaining that
during their festivities honoring Saint John and Saint Peter, many Christians go around
drinking, dancing, singing loudly on the streets, with their women running around
without veils...and are joined by many Muslims who also participate in the festivities.

Identity, here as in the rest of medieval Europe, was a very complex thing and many
people did not shy away from embracing what would seem impossibly contradictory to
others. However, clearly it was Islam’s explicit calls for tolerance that allowed for these
personal expressions of tolerance.

The Islamic Holy Book, the Quran, mandates that non-Muslims Jews and Christians who
live under Islamic rule are entitled to protection. The Quran itself recognizes Moses,
Abraham and Jesus as prophets of God, and honor them accordingly:

“Of the people of Moses there is a section who guide and do justice in the light of truth.
(Quran 7:159)”

“And We caused Jesus, the son of Mary, to follow in the footsteps of those (earlier
prophets), confirming the truth of whatever there still remained of the Torah; and We sent
him the Gospel, wherein there was guidance and light, confirming the truth of whatever
there still remained of the Torah, and as a guidance and admonition unto the God-
conscious. (Quran 5:46)”

“Verily, those who have attained to faith [Muslims], as well as those who follow the
Jewish faith, and the Christians...all who believe in God and the Last Day and do
righteous deeds-shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have,
and neither shall they grieve. (Quran 2:62)”

Destroyed Harmony

The demise of tolerance in Al-Andalus came as a result of the greater political and
demographic changes coming mainly from outside the Iberian Peninsula. The Christian

Kingdoms in northern Spain, Castile, Leon and Aragon, took advantage of internal power
struggles amongst the Muslims to advance their military conquests. Islamic
fundamentalism from Africa and Christian crusaders from France and Germany began to
equate accommodation and tolerance with lack of faith and even treason to God. War,
economic dislocation and outside concepts of jihad and crusade begat fanaticism and

In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella, rules of a united Christian Spain, captured Granada, the
last independent Arab state in the Iberian Peninsula. This political conquest, however,
was followed by the expulsion of all the Jews and eventually all Muslims that refused to
convert to Christianity. Al-Andalus was no more.

Most Jews and Muslims left, taking their culture with them. The Muslims went on to
Morocco, to Algeria and to Tunisia in North Africa, where they helped to set the
foundations of these modern states. The Jews also settled for the most part in Muslim
lands, especially in Turkish-ruled Eastern Europe. To this day, the descendants of the
Jews of Spain, known as Sephardim, maintain their separate identity and culture, many
still speaking Ladino, a form of Spanish maintained across the centuries.

Al- Andalus Today

The legacy of Al-Andalus is still debated today, in ways that are surprisingly relevant for
all of us. In the Arab and Muslim world, in both intellectual circles and popular culture
this period is looked up as a shining example of what Arabs can achieve in terms of
economic and cultural progress, in peace with peoples of other faiths while still living up
to the commandments of Islam.

However, Arabs and Muslims are also mindful of another lesson, of how internal turmoil
and military weakness led to the end Al-Andalus and the expulsion of tens of thousands
of Muslims from the lands where they had lived for centuries. Osama bin Laden himself
has mentioned “the loss of Al-Andalus” and compared this disaster to the expulsion and
oppression of Palestinians at the hands of Jews supported by the US and Western Europe.

Even here in Minnesota we have a link to the Al-Andalus of knowledge and culture: the
Tarik ibn Ziyad Academy, a public charter school located in Inver Grove Heights that has
a majority Muslim immigrant student body. This school is named after the leader of the
Muslim army that conquered Spain, Tarik, who was also a noted poet and scholar.

The Lessons of Al-Andalus

Allow me to conclude by sharing with you some final thoughts on what can we learn for
 That cultural assimilation and forced uniformed identity are not needed to
create a successful society. For many Americans, the idea of our society
being melting pot in which people of all origins fuse into one culture is a
lynchpin of our national identity. I submit to you that a better analogy
would be the Andalusian model of a mosaic of distinct and, yes, separate

cultures that come together to create a better whole while maintaining
their individuality.

 That if we only practice tolerance of others we are missing the possibilities

arising from embracing and learning from others. We should be like the
young Christian men of Córdoba, who loved to read Arabic love poems
instead of the classical Latin texts; or like the merry Muslims from
Madrid, who joined in the extravagant religious celebrations of their
Christian neighbors.

 That we must also be willing to openly criticize our co-religionists when

they engage in extremism and intolerance. Thus Muslim religious leaders
around the world condemned the 9/11 terror attacks by Al-Qaeda. Thus
many Christian ministers in the US denounced the bigoted attacks on
Islam by Reverends Pat Robertson, Jerry Fallwell and Franklin Graham
(all friends of the current Bush administration). And thus many Jews, have
for decades supported the right of the Palestinian people to an independent
state and condemned Israel's brutal occupation.

In Al-Andalus we can find both knowledge and inspiration regarding some of the greatest
issues confronting us at the beginning of this new century: the relationship between
religion and the state, between faith and science, between reason and revelation; the
dangers of political extremism; and the courage it often takes to oppose injustice and
search for truth.

Gracias, y Que la Paz Esté Con Vosotros

Shukram wa Salaam Aleikum

Toda Raba Shalom

Thank you, and May Peace Be With You


Additional Resources on Al-Andalus

Science in Al-Andalus
Islam, with its tolerance and encouragement of both secular and religious learning,
created the necessary climate for the exchange of ideas. The court of Córdoba, like that of
Baghdad, was open to Muslims, Jews and Christians alike, and one prominent bishop
complained that young Christian men were devoting themselves to the study of Arabic,

rather than Latin—a reflection of the fact that Arabic, in a surprisingly short time, had
become the international language of science, as English has today

Review of the book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians
Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
by Maria Rosa Menocal
Bringing to life a time and place largely overlooked in Western histories, "The Ornament
of the World" describes an era in medieval Spain from 750 to 1492 when the three
monotheistic faiths clashed, intermingled, and produced a rich, tolerant culture. Arabic
was the lingua franca, and Jews and Christians held prominent positions in Muslim
government and society. So great was the flourishing of the arts, philosophy, and science
that Andalusia was seen by Christians in northern Europe as the intellectual center of the
Religious tolerance before it was hip

Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain, a documentary that takes viewers on
an epic journey back into one of the most fascinating and important periods of world
history. For more than three centuries in Medieval Spain, Muslims, Jews and Christians
lived together and prospered in a thriving multicultural civilization. Here, remarkable
individuals of different faiths made lasting contributions in such areas as poetry, art,
architecture, music, dining etiquette, science, agriculture, medicine, engineering,
navigation, textiles, and even hydraulic technology.

The two-hour television event highlights the triumphs and achievements of diverse
cultures that co-exist and thrive together. But it also depicts the tragedy that ensues when
religious extremism begins to rise.

The Jews of Al-Andalus

In the first three centuries of the Muslim domination the Jews enjoyed great influence and
prosperity. Jews frequently served the government in official capacities and played an
active role in political and financial affairs. Hasdai ibn Shaprut (fl. 915-975) was
counselor to the caliphs of Córdoba, the Ibn Nagrelas were viziers of Granada, the Ibn
Ezras, Ibn Megashs, and Ibn Albalias were high officials in Granada and Seville. The
Sephardim were also engaged in considerable social and intellectual intercourse with
influential circles of the Muslim population. Solomon ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra, and
Judah ha-Levi were but the acknowledged supreme geniuses of a form of expression. The
period 1000-1148 disserved to be named the Golden Age of Hebrew literature

The Jews in Islamic Spain: Al Andalus

Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) language web page. In English.

Al-Andalus in Today’s World

Spain and al-Qa'eda

Osama bin Laden has repeatedly called on followers to fight to restore al-Andalus, the
Arabic name for Spain when it was under Islamic rule before the Christian reconquest of
the 15th century.

Blues Al Andalus: Caliphate of Al-Andalus in SecondLife

Second Life® is a 3-D virtual world created by its Residents. Since opening to the public
in 2003, it has grown explosively and today is inhabited by millions of Residents from
around the globe.

Al-Andalus and Minnesota

Are taxpayers footing bill for Islamic school in Minnesota?

By Katherine Kersten Star Tribune
Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy (TIZA) -- named for the Muslim general who conquered
medieval Spain -- is a K-8 charter school in Inver Grove Heights

Charter school getting threats for Islamic ties

Harassment came after questions were raised about whether Tarek ibn Ziyad Academy
promotes Islam, violating church-state separation.

Arab-American Center for the arts in Minneapolis. Also offer Arabic and Farsi (Persian)
language classes.