The 800-long history of Muslim Spain weaves in and out of glorious civilizations and bitter rivalries, artistic blossoming and terrible plagues, cooperation between religious groups and bloody conflicts. Yet for such a long period of time, especially in medieval Europe, it is extraordinary that Al-Andalus experienced so many extended periods of peace, prosperity and partnership.
‘Convivencia’ is the Spanish word used to describe the general atmosphere of mutual respect, cooperation and neighbourliness that existed between the three Abrahamic communities, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, during the ‘Golden Era’ of al-Andalus: the Cordoban Caliphate, spanning almost a hundred years, from 929 CE (311 AH) to 1031 CE (413 AH).
So what did convivencia mean in practical terms?
At its peak, in around 1000 CE, about 80% of the population of the Caliphate of Cordoba – which covered most of the Iberian Peninsula – were Muslim. The vast majority of these were converts to Islam from Judaism, or Visigothic Christianity, who did not wish to leave their original Unitarian doctrine for the new Nicean Trinitarianism. Only about 10% of these were actually of foreign origin, mostly Berbers, with a smattering of Yemenis, Egyptians and Syrians.
The remaining 20% of the population were either Christians (who were often called Mozarabes, meaning that they were culturally Arabised but retained their Christian beliefs and practices) or Jews, who shared many customs and beliefs with their new Muslim neighbours, such as honouring the Biblical prophets, sacrificing animals by bleeding them, eschewing pork, and so on. Culturally, these minority communities adopted many aspects of the Islamic culture that surrounded them, especially in the fields of art and architecture.
As ‘people of the book’, Christians and Jews were accorded ‘dhimmi’ status, which gave them protection of life and wealth and the right to practice their religion in exchange for a special tax, called the ‘jizya’. This tax may have encouraged a certain number of conversions, although ‘dhimmi’ peoples were also exempt from paying the obligatory Islamic charity ‘sadaqa’, so it is unclear how many conversions genuinely occurred in order to escape the this tax.
Jews continued to build synagogues under Muslim rule. What is fascinating is the style that evolved among Spanish or Sephardic Jews for decorating their place of worship: among Hebrew inscriptions are intricate Mudéjar stucco carvings, prayer spaces are defined by domes with geometric wooden beams, and holding up the traditional women’s gallery are horseshoe or foliate arches – all features that can also be found in Islamic architecture.
The Golden Rule
Even though the three Abrahamic faiths share a great number of tenets, it is rare to find an entire civilization in which the common ethical motto ‘Do unto others as you would have done unto you’ holds true even on a governmental level. Yet Shari’ah law forbids Muslims from prohibiting Christians living under Muslim rule from continuing their religious practices, or even from making wine or rearing pigs for food. Scattered all over the Cordoba province there were dozens of Christian villages, and new churches and monasteries were built during the Muslim period to serve these protected communities.
The town of Toledo has a fascinating history with regard to Jewish-Muslim relations: when the first wave of North African conquerors reached Toledo, with a small band of warriors and a huge swathe of land to govern, they apparently left the ruling of the newly-dubbed al-Andalus in the hands of the Jewish elders of the city while they pressed northwards. Their attitude of trust and respect kindled an intellectual interest in other faiths that lasted even into the Christian period: after recapturing Toledo in 1085 CE, Alfonso VI (despite lambasting Islam) encouraged the translation of important texts from Greek, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew into Spanish, working alongside Jewish and Muslim scholars.
Jews often found important roles in Muslim courts as doctors, diplomats, advisers, accountants and viziers. Having been persecuted by Visigothic Christian rulers, and before them the Romans, Muslim rule was a positive advance for Spanish Jews. Muslim courts gave patronage to scholars from all walks of life, including many Jewish intellectuals and artists, as well as offering positions of administrative power to learned Sephardic Jews (from Spain or North Africa).
For instance, the father of Hebrew linguistics, Judah ben Hayyuj, moved from his birthplace in Fez to Córdoba, where he worked and died, around 1000 CE. Another famous Jew from the Andalusi period was Isaac Ben Ezra, a wealthy rabbi based in Jaén in the early 10th century CE who built an exquisitely decorated synagogue in Córdoba.
End of an Era
However, the idyll was not to last. By now a decadent, spoilt lot, the Caliphate fell prey to a succession of poor rulers, hordes of unpaid Berber and Slavic mercenaries, and unfair distribution of wealth. Discontent led the mercenaries (who constituted most of the armies) to ransack the Cordoban royal city Madinat az-Zahra, toppling caliphal rule and shattering al-Andalus into dozens of city-states. These were each grabbed by a local strong man, mostly generals from Almanzor’s army, who converted themselves into petty kings.
The fall of the Caliphate ushered in the second Taifa period, in which each city-state presented a mixed bag of religious and cultural environments. At this point, most Christians in al-Andalus began to flee north and join the Christian kingdoms waging a war that became known as the ‘Reconquista’. The poet Samuel ibn Naghrillah (or Samuel HaNagid), fleeing the new, intolerant rulers of Córdoba, led a brilliant career as a poet, scholar and vizier in the Ziridi kingdom of Granada in the 11th century, remaining a key historical figure in Jewish-Muslim relations. Astonishingly, he even rose to the ranks of an army general, leading Muslim soldiers in battle.
The Almoravids, brought in by the petty kings to fight their battles against the Christians, were quite unlike their predecessors. A rough bunch of puritanical warriors from the deserts of Morocco, they seized control of al-Andalus in 1131 CE in an effort to purge the land of decadence. Arriving in animal skins, described as ‘barbarians’ (hence our term ‘Berber’) by the locals, they were horrified at the lives of luxury that the petty kings. They began a crusade that targeted not only Jews and Christians but also Muslim mystics. The intellectual ambience of al-Andalus ground to a halt, and Jewish-Muslim relations began to hit the rocks.
One of the most celebrated philosophers of Jewish history is Maimonides. A polymath, like many of the big names of Andalusian history, Moshe ben Maimon (his Hebrew name) was also a physician, astronomer, rabbi and Torah scholar, born in Almoravid Cordoba in 1135 CE. Although the Almoravids banished Moshe ben Maimon’s aristocratic family, Moshe seems to have faked a conversion to Islam and continued living in Spain for some years, before decamping to Fez, where he wrote his most famous commentary on the Mishnah. Finally, he left for Egypt, where he rose to be the head of the Jewish community of Cairo.
Looking back on this golden period, when Jews, Muslims and Christians had a brief glimpse of how they could cohabit politically and practically, sharing their knowledge in a mutually respectful environment and trading together in a flourishing civilization, it is easy to be nostalgic. But as with all of history, which we only experience through the lens of our own experiences (not to mention our sources, which are notoriously difficult to interpret), what we learn is not only what the world used to look like, but what humans beings are capable of.
Al-Andalus was certainly not a perfect place or time, but it shone with gems like ‘convivencia’ that give us a glimmer of hope for a future in which all people live together in respect and harmony.
If you are planning a trip to Spain, Al-Andalus Experience can arrange for a dedicated ‘Three Cultures’ tour of cities such as Toledo, Cordoba and Granada, taking in all the most important sites, places of worship, and museums of this amazing age. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.