Once there was a place where Muslims, Jews, and Christians together created a
culture that changed the world. The Arabs who founded it called it Al-Andalus. Today it’s known as Andalucía, and it’s located in southern Spain. A caliphate was established there in the eighth century and was soon taken over by a prince who had fled Syria when the Umayyad dynasty was overthrown.
During the long period of Muslim rule in Spain, Arabic became the primary language for many, which served to shape a common culture. Jews often played a prominent part, and some achieved considerable influence. Relations with Christians were far from peaceful, but after the original caliphate fragmented, complicated and shifting alliances allowed for continuing cultural interaction.
Christians recognized that they had much to learn from the Muslims. Moorish rulers had brought with them a wealth of learning that Arab scholars had preserved from the ancient Greeks and augmented with their own advances. Until the fall of Constantinople in the fifteenth century, Andalucía was the main conduit for the reintroduction of this knowledge that would ultimately do so much to launch the Renaissance. The cities of Toledo and Seville were particularly important centers of cultural and scholarly connections.
It helped to facilitate these interchanges that there were people in all three faiths who embraced a liberal version of their religions and remained open to dialogue. Yet neither Islam nor Christianity nor Judaism is a monolith. Warriors from north Africa brought a more fundamentalist version of Islam, and Christians were pressured by the papacy to conform.
In the end, Moorish rule was reduced to the last stronghold of Granada, whose existence was indulged for a time until Queen Isabella decided it was time for Spain to unify as a Christian nation. Granada was overthrown in 1492, and a few months later the Inquisition targeted Jews and Christopher Columbus was dispatched to the New World. The wealth that was gained from Spanish colonies did much to reshape the country.
Yet in our visit to Andalucía, we saw many ways in which the area remains a beautiful blend. The agriculture and foodways retain many traces of Muslim influence. The architecture is often a literal Christian overlay on Islamic forms. We toured the Alhambra in Granada and the Alcazar in Seville and saw how Christian rulers had made Moorish palaces their own while preserving much of their original magnificence. Mosques were converted into churches and cathedrals without demolishing them entirely. Often minarets became bell towers.
The forces that brought an end to Andalucía’s golden age are very much alive today, however. They can be seen in the Israel-Gaza war. They are at work in the rise of Christian nationalism in this country and Hindu nationalism in India. Still, I return inspired by the hope that a different way is still possible. This holiday season let’s commit to find the beauty in others and embrace the richness of a shared culture.
Feliz Navidad, Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Joyous Kwanzaa, or whatever it is you celebrate.
For more information, I recommend The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, by Maria Rosa Menocal