R. Calvert Rutherford

Chit Chat Club

January 12, 2009

            In the year 1210, the Church hierarchy in Paris banned the translation and commentary on Aristotle by the Cordoban Muslim, ibn Rushd, or as we know him in his Latin name, Averroes. They did so because they feared that such study would be pouring gasoline on the flames of the conflict between reason and faith, a conflict started by the intellectual rock star of the twelfth century, Peter Abelard. By 1277 the number of banned propositions would reach the incredible total of 219, essentially banning the use of reason. Of course the genie was out of the bottle, and no number of Ecclesiastical proscriptions could stuff it back in. We all also know that the intellectual ferment of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Paris and elsewhere touched off the colossal burgeoning of the arts and sciences that we call the Renaissance.

            However, most of us do not know, or are barely cognizant of, the high scholarship and intellectual and religious freedom of the Andalusian culture of the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries. Salma Khadra Jayyusi, in her anthology, The Legacy of Muslim Spain, calls the omission of Islam from the West’s story of civilization a “historical crime.” (Hence the title of this paper.) In fact, I intend to make a case that the civilizing movements of mainland Europe had their roots in Muslim Iberia. So what I would like to do tonight is to explore Andalusian culture, see how it influenced the rest of Europe, and perhaps see if that far-off culture from a thousand years ago has any relevance for our current position in the ongoing human experiment.

            The story of the spread of Islam is one of incredible expansion. Within eighty years after the Hegira, Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina in 632, the Arab Muslims had conquered all of North Africa, and their empire stretched from the Iberian Peninsula in the west to the borders of China in the east. Sister Hroswitha, a nun in the far-off Holy Roman Empire, in what would be Germany today, when she was told of the splendors of Cordoba, said that it must surely be “the ornament of the world.”

The story of how a distant outpost of the Islamic world became the “ornament of the world” starts with the escape of a young lad, Abd al-Rahman, from the massacre of his family, the Ummayad caliphate, by the rival Abbasids. The young prince fled across North Africa and into al Andalus, arriving in the capital city of Cordoba in 755, five years after his entire family had been murdered.

Al-Rahman was the son of an Arab father and a Berber woman brought back to Damascus from North Africa to strengthen the family strain, and that heritage enabled him to exploit the rifts between the Arabs and Berbers in Cordoba. He overthrew the ruling emir and took over the position, maintaining his legitimacy as heir to the Caliphate, while acknowledging the over lordship of the Abbasid regime, which had moved from Damascus to Baghdad, where they recreated the high culture of the Umayyad court in Damascus. Al-Rahman was determined that Cordoba would know the cultural advantages he enjoyed as a youth in Damascus, and therefore the Andalusians were the recipients of much of the glittering culture created by the Abbasid dynasty in their new capital city.

Prior to the Islamic invasion by the Berbers of North Africa, Iberia had been ruled by the Visigoths, who had converted to Christianity, and who took advantage of the crumbling Roman Empire to invade Iberia, but who proved themselves woefully inadequate in the arts of governance. Also in Cordoba there was at the time a strong community of Sephardic Jews, the westernmost of the great Diaspora.  So al-Rahman found himself with a constituency of the three Abrahamic religions with all their animosities and differences. And out of those unique demographics a brilliant culture was born. The tolerance that allowed such diversity was a major factor in the cultural and material success of Andalusia, which reached its peak under the long and relatively peaceful regime of Abd al-Rahman, III, who reigned from 912 to 961.

By 929 the position of Cordoba and Andalusia was strong enough, and his reign illustrious enough, for Abd al-Rahman to claim his heritage, and on a Friday in January of that year every mosque in the land proclaimed him Commander of the Faithful, successor to the Prophet, caliph of the vast Islamic Empire. Hasdai ibn Shaprut, son of a wealthy and publicly active Jewish family, and who was a lad of fourteen at the time al-Rahman made his claim to the Islamic caliphate, was to become his vizier.

As well as choosing a Jew for the position of vizier, one of al-Rahman’s most trusted ambassadors was the Christian bishop of Elvira, Racemundo. He represented the caliph to Constantinople and later was envoy to Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor. In fact, it was Racemundo’s glowing description of Cordoba as a rival to Baghdad for the distinction of being the most civilized place on Earth that inspired the nun, Hroswitha, to dub it the “ornament of the world.”

Thus two of the most powerful men in the farflung Islamic Empire were a Jew and a Christian bishop. And Hasdai was not only vizier in the court of al-Rahman; he was at the same time the nasi, which translates best as prince, of the Jewish community, and he emulated his Muslim ruler by rejecting the authority of the chief Rabbi in Baghdad. Without in any way relinquishing their religious affiliations, or even their mutual antagonisms, the Christians, the Jews and the Muslims in Andalusia together created a common culture, and they shared a common pride on the heights to which Andalusia had risen – in architecture and intellectual wealth, as well as political and military might.

In other words, tenth century Andalusia created a culture in which religion was not at the core of how people identified themselves. Certainly, the caliphs did not regard their governance as secular; Christians and Jews, as “people of the book,” were allowed to practice their religions, but they paid a tax for the privilege, and they had to abide by certain other restrictions, such as not proselytizing, and yet it was still a pluralistic society, and the glue that held it together was the Arabic language, for it was not only the sacred language of Islam, it was also the access to an extraordinary literary heritage that attracted young Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars alike.

Arabic was important to the Jewish and Christian communities, not only because it was the language of the conquerors, as for instance, English in India. It was much more                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             elegant and expressive than the debased Latin of the day. But the real magnet drawing people to Arabic was a thirst for knowledge, and scholars of all religions were drawn to the magnificent libraries created by the Cordoban caliphate. Perhaps an indicator of the importance of language and learning to the Andalusians is the fact that Cordoba had as many as seventy libraries, including the caliphal library, reputed to possess a collection of some four hundred thousand volumes, including translations of the ancient Greeks. This was at a time when the largest library in Christian Europe contained perhaps four hundred volumes. It was through the Arab translations that Christian Europe became acquainted with Aristotle and Plato and the other seminal Greek thinkers of antiquity.

 In her book titled after Sister Hroswitha’s sobriquet, The Ornament of the world, Maria Rosa Menocal attributes the importance of letters in Andalusia as the result of an Arab tradition of being “in love with its own language.” She goes on to point out that love of language was a dominant feature of pre-Islamic Bedouin culture. We think of the Bedouins as warriors, and so they were. But they were also poets of extraordinary delicacy and sentimentality. In fact, that early poesy was canonized by Islam’s first scholars as providing a key to understanding the linguistic treasures of the Quran. Thus it is not surprising that Abd al-Rahman, warrior and religious leader who conquered Cordoba, also wrote exquisite poetry. Of course, because of the absolute ban on any representational art, Islamic art of necessity was channeled into architecture, calligraphy and letters, of which poetry was accorded the highest honor.

Some Christians resisted the Arabization of the Christian community. In the mid-ninth century, Paul Alvarus, a prominent Christian layman wrote scathingly of the Arabizing of the Christian community. In his book, The Unmistakable Sign, he complains, “Christians love to read the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the Arab theologians and philosophers, not to refute them, but to form a correct and eloquent Arabic . . . They despise Christian literature as unworthy of attention. For every one who can write a letter in Latin to a friend there are a thousand who can express themselves in Arabic with elegance.”

But Alvarus was a voice crying in the wilderness, for not long after his diatribe against the Christians adopting Arabic, the Christian Mass began to be celebrated in Arabic. When the Cluniac reforms of the Mass were instituted in 1085, the Mozarabs, as Arabaphone Christians were called, resisted the foreign-imposed practice of using Latin as the liturgical language, and tensions between the two groups of Christians, Mozarabs and Romans, were to last for centuries.

Early in the eleventh century Cordoba was overrun and destroyed by the Almoravids, a particularly virulent anti-intellectual strain of Islamic Berbers from North Africa, but the Andalusian culture created in Cordoba continued. In the power vacuum following Cordoba’s downfall, a number of city states, called taifas, vied for military and cultural supremacy. There were as many as sixty of these taifas competing for leadership, but they were soon winnowed down to a few imposing cities, Seville, Granada, Toledo, among them, and each of them attempted to create a court to rival that of Cordoba.

In 1041, the grand vizier of Granada, in celebrating a victory over Seville wrote a victory poem comparing himself to David, for he was a Jew, Samuel ibn Nagrila. He knew he wrote beautiful poetry. In fact, he knew that was really why he was vizier, not because he was an able warrior and counselor, but because he was a cosmopolitan figure who had mastered Arabic poetry and philosophy, and he wrote elegant and learned letters. I thought perhaps he should have dubbed himself a new Joseph rather than a David, since powerful though he was, he was acting for his king, as Joseph did for the Pharaoh.

Another product of the Arabic love of language was a prodigious effort in translating the Greek scientists and philosophers. In the year 800, when Charlemagne was being crowned Holy Roman Emperor in a degraded Latin, the Abbasid caliphs were well along in their monumental project of translating the entire body of Greek philosophical and scientific literature into Arabic, and many of those ancient works became a part of the Andalusian heritage. And of course, that was the appeal of Arabic and the Andalusian culture to scholars of all religions, an opportunity to become acquainted with the great Greek civilization.

After the overthrow of Cordoba, the translation of the ancients continued apace. Toledo, particularly, became a center for Greek translations, and after the city was conquered by King Alfonso of Castile and made the archiepiscopal see of the Iberian Peninsula, it became the door through which northern Europeans came into contact with the literary treasures of the Ancient World. Visitors from Europe were astounded at the culture they found there; in fact, Peter the Venerable, Abbot of the powerful Cluniac monasteries, was so impressed that he undertook a project of his own – the translation of the Quran into Latin. Parenthetically, it was Peter who thwarted his rival monastic, the formidable head of the Cistercians, Bernard of Clairvaux, by providing refuge for Peter Abelard, as well as providing a living for the son born of the most notorious romance of the century, and perhaps of all times, that of Abelard and Heloise. That son was given the high tech name of Astrolabe, reflecting his parents’ avant garde attitude toward science.

Finally, the story of Petrus Alfonsi, a Jew who converted to Christianity in 1106, demonstrates the elevated status of translators. He emigrated from Aragon to England and became a celebrity, simply because he was able to translate Greek into Arabic and Latin. He was still famous some two centuries later when Chaucer referred to him as the scientist pioneer, Piers Alphonse.

No account of eleventh century Iberia would be complete without a mention of Rodrigo Diaz, known by all as El Cid, an Arabic term roughly meaning lord. Instead of the Charlton Heston version of the Christian warrior who was instrumental in the reconquest of Spain by the Christians, Diaz’ story actually confirms the marginal place of religion in Andalusian politics. He fought with the Christians against the Islamic taifas, and then with the Muslim taifas against the Christians. He even fought with one Muslim taifa against another in the continuing conflicts between the city states after the fall of Cordoba. Many of the Muslim states preferred the Christian kings to the Taliban-like rule of the Berber Muslims from North Africa, and the alliances between taifas had little to do with religion.

The success of the Christian city states increased contacts with northern Europeans, and as was The Cluniac abbot, they were astounded by what they saw. It also caused a reaction from the more rigid of the Church hierarchy, an example being the ban on Averroes’ translation of Aristotle. Averroes was one of two men born a few years apart in Cordoba in the twelfth century. The other was a Jew named Maimonides, and they both were influential defenders of the place of reason in human discourse, and they both were instrumental in the thirteenth century clash between faith and reason. Though Averroes and Maimonides were both born after the downfall of the “ornament of the world,” their world view was shaped by the classics that were still accessible in the remarkable libraries of Cordoba. The intellectual ferment of the university in Paris was fueled by the efforts of these towering thinkers of Andalusia and the fortunate combination of a long history of intellectual freedom and the tremendous resources of the ancient texts translated into Arabic.

But perhaps the account of the conquest of the city of Barbastro, in foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees, will best demonstrate the seductive nature of Andalusian culture and how pervasive was its influence in the enlightenment of northern Europe. Just two years before William the Conqueror invaded England he led an army from their home in Normandy to the first Iberian city south of the Pyrenees, and he was accompanied by an armed escort from Aquitaine. The Normans fell in love with the civilized life of the Andalusians, in fact so much so that they stayed there and lived the soft life.

The Aquitainians were intent on loot to carry back to their land across the Pyrenees, and among the loads and loads of plunder, the most prized were the qiyan, young and attractive women who sang for a living. Estimates vary from the hundreds to the thousands, but the point is that of all the loot that the Aquitanians brought back from Andalusia, the Andalusian singers were most to be desired. Now the leader of the Aquitaine contingent was William VIII, and his son, who grew up in a court filled with the singing of the Andalusian women, became known as the first of the troubadours of Languedoc, William IX of Aquitaine, and his granddaughter was the iconic Eleanor, patron saint of the troubadour movement.

David Levering Lewis in his book, God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, points out that had the three religions not worked together, borrowing from the pagan traditions of Greece and Rome, what we call the West would have been utterly different. That the excellence and the influence of Andalusian culture has been neglected by histories of European culture is unfortunate, but it is not a crime of history. Or if it is, it is only a misdemeanor. The real crime in the story of Andalusia is that an open and diverse society, rich in literature and scholarship, was destroyed by religious zealots, first the fanatical Berbers and then the equally fanatic Christians. And it is a crime that is being repeated in our own enlightened twenty first century. My wife is fond of reminding her Jewish friends that their religion has spawned two most vicious and unruly daughters, Islam and the Christian Church, and today, as was true a thousand years in the past, some perceive a struggle between the heirs of Christendom and of the Caliphate to be the defining conflict of the world. Particularly at such a time it is important to recognize that it was a past history of fruitful cooperation among the religions that led to the creation of a great civilization.