This essay is dedicated to Professor Monica Ringer of Amherst College. It may also be reprinted in Interreligious Insight.
Contemporary interfaith leaders and organizations often disdain the Middle Ages as a time of interreligious strife and an example of the political and religious climate we should work to avoid. Indeed, it would be hard to argue that as a whole the period was otherwise. However, the oft “dark” ages also contained a number of important examples of religious tolerance that tend to be overlooked. Al-andalus, the portion of the Iberian Peninsula controlled by a Muslim government (commonly referred to as “Muslim Spain” or “Moorish Spain”) was renowned for its tolerance towards both Christians and Jews. The questions remains, however, why al-Andalus succeeded – at least relatively speaking – while other societies remained shrouded in prejudice and intolerance. Though this essay does not purport to answer such a complex question in full, it will point to some potential factors in hopes that we may use the history of al-Andalus to inform present interfaith activities.
First, it must be understood that al-Andalus did not simply become tolerant overnight. A number of preconditions compelled its rulers to accept its many non-Muslim inhabitants. Foremost among these pre-existing factors were two major divisions that existed between the different groups of Muslims that settled al-Andalus following its conquest. One divide was between Arabs and North African Berbers, while the other was between the two major Berber tribes that settled in Iberia, the Qaysites and the Kalbites. Following the initial Muslim invasion of 711 C.E. and the end to offensive military operations in 716, monarchs were unable to establish a lasting dynasty for nearly forty years because of constant internal upheaval. Outright civil war might have broken out had it not been for Abd al-Rahman, a prince of the Umayyad Empire (based in Damascus), who fled his disintegrating domain and sought refuge in North Africa. A shrewd tactician, al-Rahman claimed his mother’s ancestry as a Kalbite and began assembling an army of fellow tribesmen with which to gain control of al-Andalus. Offering assistance to the Kalbites living in the in the Iberian Peninsula, who at the time were politically marginalized, he crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 756 and quickly gained control of the kingdom and its seat of power in Cordoba. He then crowned himself ruler of al-Andalus and began what would be a 32-year rule.
Unlike other realms in which members of the non-majority religion were considered a potential threat – or at least a nuisance – to the dynasty, Abd al-Rahman viewed Jews and Christians as natural allies. The major challenge to his rule was the opposing Berber tribe, the Qaysites, while the Christians and Jews remained neutral and, if won over, could bolster his regime. Coupled with the compulsory poll tax mandated under Sharia for dhimmis (non-Muslims who practiced an Abrahamic religious tradition), Abd al-Rahman had every reason to reach out to them – and so he did. Al-Andalus quickly became a haven for non-Muslims, particularly Jews, since Christendom still offered the best opportunities for Christians while Jews remained stateless.
Al-Rahman’s reign brought stability, and with it a prolonged economic boom. With the common language of Arabic, ideas flowed freely across Muslim empires, which by the start of al-Rahman’s rule stretched from the edge of Africa to Northwest India. The resultant intellectual exchange furthered science, literature, and even religious discourse in al-Andalus for centuries to come. Though still second-class citizens, a number of non-Muslims were able to rise to prominence within the government, financially, and intellectually. In fact, this period of ascent for the Jewish community in al-Andalus is still widely regarded as a “Golden Age” within the Diaspora.
From the enduring political stability and economic growth of al-Andalus emerged a remarkable culture of learning and scholarship. While some debate persists about why al-Andalus became one of – if not the – premier center of learning in the Muslim world, it appears that political leadership once again played a prominent role. Abd al-Rahman II, who governed from 822 until 852, sponsored poets and scholars and commissioned architects to build mosques, palaces, and an impressive library. His patronage not only beautified al-Andalus and its capital in Cordoba but set new guidelines for his realm’s elite. An aristocrat’s prominence would no longer solely be judged based on his power or wealth, but also on the quality of the art and scholarship that he commissioned. The result was an outpouring of poetry, song, literature, architecture, and philosophy. Within a century of Abd al-Rahman II’s reign, Cordoba “boasted 1,600 mosques, 900 public baths, lighted streets, beautiful villas, and numerous libraries.” The royal library alone held a remarkable 400,000 books.
Once formed, the culture of learning endured until the middle of the twelfth century. Elite students of all religions studied the secular disciplines of philosophy and science with teachers and students of other backgrounds, while remaining returning to their own communities for religious instruction and practice. Religious crosspollination took place, as philosophy and new methods of exegesis enriched all three Abrahamic religions and compelled them to reconcile faith and philosophy.
Clearly al-Andalus was an island of stability and coexistence in the midst of the turbulent Middle Ages. But what can we glean from its remarkable history and use towards the betterment of current movements to increase interreligious understanding?
The first lesson is that interfaith organizations should not merely establish programs that bring together members of different religious communities but work to create incentives for the different communities to interact. Had Abd al-Rahman not needed the Jews and Christians of al-Andalus as political allies, it is unclear that he would have tolerated them, much less actively courted them. Yet because of his political needs, al-Andalus evolved into a haven of tolerance. Interfaith leaders – and for that matter politicians – may work to establish similar dynamics within a given region or locale. If money from either grants or public allocations is made contingent upon interreligious cooperation, positive relations between religious groups may more readily take root. Sometimes a relationship of necessity can provide a basis for true camaraderie between groups.
Second, it is important to define areas of commonality and differences between religious communities. The distinction made between the pursuit of secular knowledge and religious study was an important adaptation of al-Andalus. Members of different religious groups could come together for a common purpose but then returned to their distinct communities. As many interfaith leaders are already discovering, increasing coexistence may not be contingent upon a high degree of commonality between groups so much as a clear delineation of where both commonalities and differences lie.
While for the most part the Middle Ages were certainly not a paragon of coexistence, certain domains, such as al-Andalus, stood out for their tolerance. Learning from these examples may prove important to the ongoing efforts to improve relations between religious traditions, not only to frame the issues at hand in a broader context but to understand how other societies became – and remained – pluralistic. For if kingdoms such as al-Andalus remained ecumenical in an age of intolerance, there is substantial hope that religious tolerance can flourish in our more peaceful era.
Joshua Stanton is a Founding Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™ and a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College. He is also a founding co-Director of Lessons of a Lifetime™, a nursing home-based project designed to improve intergenerational relations and convey leadership skills to youth. A graduate of Amherst College, he is the recipient of numerous leadership awards, including the Volunteer Hero Award from the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, the Hyman P. Moldover Scholarship for Communal Service, and a place within the Fellows Alliance of the Interfaith Youth Core.