Saturday, June 24, 2006

Andalusian Lessons

During these times of a much hyped clash of civilizations, it is perhaps instructive to look back at another such encounter. For several centuries, medieval Spain was the fault line that bore the brunt of the colliding tectonic plates of the Muslim East and Western Christianity. Yet this border zone of competing empires, under largely Muslim rule for over seven centuries, managed to flourish and develop to unparalleled heights of culture and scientific advancement.

My interest in al-Andalus was ignited after reading Leon L'Africain (Leo Africanus in the English translation), a carefully researched epic historical novel by the inimitable Amin Maalouf. It is the story of Hassan al Wazzan , a Granadan by birth who flees Spain to Fes with his family in the waning years of Moorish presence. Later, as a diplomat and explorer, he is captured and brought to Rome, baptized and becomes an adviser to the Pope. Most helpful however, has been the very readable historical narrative by Maria Rosa Menocal: Ornament of the World (see previous post) which provides an excellent description of the inner workings of Moorish Spain. The book provides a clear-eyed and objective analysis of what made al-Andalus work, warts and all. A friend thought that the book gave too much credit to non-Muslims for the achievements of al-Andalus. But that is exactly the point, is it not? The genius of the Muslim rulers of al-Andalus is that, in their tolerance and their love of knowledge, they allowed the different religious communities to thrive and contribute to the Andalusian culture and civilization.

To many Arabs and Muslims, mired in political and cultural stagnation, al-Andalus evokes deep sentiments of nostalgia for a mythologized world. To some, it also represents hope for the future. If our culture and religion were capable of helping create al-Andalus, the thinking goes, then we should be able to pull ourselves out of our quagmire. What redeeming values represented by the history of al-Andalus are best suited for this rescue operation depends on where on the Arab political spectrum you fall.

When fanatical fundamentalists speak of al-Andalus, it is to boast of conquest and empire. The irony is that, had the early Andalusian rulers been of that same mindset, al-Andalus would never have become an "ornament of the world". In fact during the centuries of Muslim rule, fanatic hordes would occasionally invade from North Africa, undoing what the more enlightened rulers had achieved. The end of Moorish Spain also came at the hands of fanatical hordes, this time Christians from the North bringing with them the horrors of the Inquisition.

The lessons learned from al-Andalus are that civilizational clashes need not be destructive provided that some modicum of mutual respect exists and that each side is secure enough to learn from the other. It is perhaps not by accident that the first rulers of al-Andalus were Umayyads from Damascus, a cosmopolitan city with its multiplicity of ethnic and religious groups. Who better than a Damascene to communicate with and engage the Christian and Jewish communities of the Iberian peninsula.

  • Note: Another book of interest on the same topic: Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree. Another carefully researched work of historical fiction by Tariq Ali, a British, secular, leftist writer of South Asian descent. It is the saga of an Andalusian family in the last years of Moorish Spain. Also of interest from the same author: A Sultan in Palermo, a novel about another civilizational fault line. It is the story of the cartographer al-Idrissi in 12th century in the waning years of Arab Sicily during the Norman conquest.


Fares said...

Great Post and points Abu Kareem, I am really impressed by the originality of the post.

Indeed the Andalous has been a bright spot in the history of civilization. There is another novel by Girgi Zidan? that I remember reading when I was younger, I think it was called "The Great Abdel Rahman" or "Abdel Rahman the 3rd/Al Nasser?" which details and describes the quality of life and how advanced and developped the civilization was.

I was very impressed visting Andalucia in Spain few years ago and marvelling at the architecture and greatness of all the remaining castles and palaces and gardens there in Granada, Cordoba and Sevilla from Alhambra Palace (with its lions hall) to el Mesquita (in Cordoba) to Plaza Espana (in Sevilla). What I was impressed with most however was the architecture and style of the old houses and walls (I felt like it was in Syria) with fountains in the middle of the house and the brilliant styles coming from our areas). It was like 120 F in July during the day but the narrow streeets and the ventillation in the old cities made it much more bearable.

I was also impressed by how Spain was proud of this heritage (despite dark spots surrounding the exit at the end) and how friendly the people are and how beautiful the girls were in that area (my eyes were very satisfied at Granada university). They also had some outdoor clubs on the river in Sevilla for socializing and dancing...

Even the terrosim there is civilized and very light, I remember reading about some bombings in the newspaper few days after we left by basque separatists and I felt enraged but luckily nothing happened (no damages, very minor), unlike what happens when bombs explode in our countries...

All tourists and backpackers from all kind of backgrounds (Christians, Muslims, Jews and others) that we met afterwards were very delighted and impressed by what they saw in Andaloucia.

Indeed it was and still is a great civilization lesson that we need in these days specially for combating ignorance and fanatisism.

I would also add that Syria and Lebanon along with other countries (don't want to exclude anyone) if given the right circumstances and conditions, freedoms would play major roles in dialogue and communications between the west and the middle East, so the area would be a new Andaloucia toward another great civilization (just like Andaloucia and Sicily was a great factor in European Renaissance)

Freedom for Michel Kilo and the others
Fares for a better Syria

The Syrian Brit said...

As well as all the positive sentiments that you have referred to in this delightful post, I am afraid that the Andalus evokes in me a much darker and more cynical emotion.. The history of the Arab conquest of Andalousia and the way it ended can also be seen as a vivid example of what happens when a Nation becomes divided and its leaders lose sight of what is important.. The loss of that priceless jewell was the inevitable result of the selfishness, the in-fighting, and sheer greed of the leaders of the various factions.. You might even say history has in fact repeated itself, when the divied Arab nation, with its corrupt greedy leaders, and disenfranchised and disinterested population became an easy prey at the latter half of the 20th Century..

Fares said...

my new article:

adding logic into the Arab/Israeli conflict and arab leaders

Fares said...

Thanks to Zenobia for her inspirational story...
Syrian Dead Canaries

Comments are welcome...Abu Kareem are you away? missing your wise is a viscous war out here and I need some support.

Philip I said...

From Philip I []

Thank you Abu Kareem for shining the spotlight on a fascinating and enlightened part of our history. A dose of Andalusian nostaligia is just what we need to lift the spirit at these ugly times.

Abu Kareem said...

Philip I,

Now if we could only learn the lessons of our own history.