Saturday, March 12, 2005

Islāmic Spain: Al-Andalus

Since we've just had the first anniversary of the 11-M (March 11) terrorist attack in Madrid, I thought I would take the occasion to provide some background on the Islamic past of Spain.

Spain has a different status in the eyes of today's jihadists than, say, France or Germany, because most of present-day Spain was once the Muslim emirate (later caliphate) of Al-Andalus. At least in Osama bin Ladin's ideology, today's Spain is rightfully part of the former Muslim caliphate that must be restored to Islāmic control in a reconstituted caliphate.

But, like everything about Islām, the history of al-Andalus should not primarily be understood in terms of present-day jihadist ideology. Outside the violent fringe, restoring the emirate of al-Andalus is not a goal for Muslims. The Spanish Islāmic Commission has just issued a "fatwa" condemning Bin Ladin and his extremist interpretation of Islam, condemning him and his followers as "apostates." See Spain Muslims Issue Fatwa Against Bin Laden (AP) 03/10/05 and Muslims issue fatwa against bin Laden byDavid Sharrock Times of London Online 03/11/05.

Traditional European history viewed the presence of Islamic rule in the Iberian peninsula as a dangerous threat. The Reconquista (reconquest), the military efforts by Christian rulers over centuries to retake al-Andalus from the Muslims was completed late in the 15th century by the "Catholic Monarchs" of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella. This was accompanied by official promotion of Christian zealotry that produced, among other things, the Spanish Inquisition and the colonization of the New World. This is not to suggest that more secular concerns, such as lust for the gold of the Americas, were not also important.

Richard Fletcher in his essay in Spain: A History (2000) calls the traditional European view of the Reconquista a "radical simplification." And he notes, "Moralizing followed hard on the heels of simplifying." It was during the period of Muslim rule in al-Andalus that the three Christian monarchies of Aragon, Castile and Portugal emerged as the dominantforces on the borders of al-Andalus. St James was held to be a champion of Christians making war against Islām.

Al-Andalus and European multiculturalism

Developments in recent decades, not least of them the growth and strengthening of the European Union, have led historians to take a fresh look at many elements of European history. Among them has been an emphasis on "multicultural" moments in the European past. The story of al-Andalus is a rather more plausible example of the latter than, say, the Habsburg empire, which is also cited in that regard; the Habsburgs presided over a form of multiculturalism that was distinctly dysfunctional in many way, though I'm happy to see people find the positive sides of it, as well. In the case of Spain, the traditional view of the Reconquista of al-Andalus as being the triumph of Christianity and goodness over Islamic darkness and evil will only serve for the most moralistic and bigoted today.

It has long been recognized that the classical learning of Greece and Rome was re-introduced to western Europe through the Islamic world, where the classical heritage of the Byzantine empire had been embraced and further developed. In particular, the philosophers Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna; 980-1037) and Ibn Rušd (Averroës; 1126-1198) were important figures in this process, both greatly influencing Christian scholastic thinking. Ibn Sīnā's medical writing also became widely known and used in western Europe.

And much of this transmission to the Christian West took place via al-Andalus. As Hans Küng writes in Der Islam (2004), "Nowhere did the Christian Occident stand in such close contact with the Arab cultural world as in Spain [al-Andalus]."

In fact, Küng calls the latter thinker, Abū l-Walīd Muhammad Ibn Rušd, "Spain's most significant philosopher." W. Montgomery Watt in A History of Islamic Spain (1965) calls him "in some ways the greatest philosopher of all who wrote in Arabic." Ibn Rušd found himself in conflict with the religious authorities because of his insistence on the centrality of reason, even in theology. As Küng describes his position:

Ibn Rušd separates revelation and philosophy in order to remove the contradictions between the two. The thesis of a "double truth" is therefore unjustly ascribed to him, as though for him the truth of revelation and the truth of reason were in conflict. Much more is it for him that the truth of faith and the truth of reason - even if they sometimes produce contradictory statements - are in principle the same. One must - as already indicated in the Qur'ān - precisely differentiate hierarchically three categories of thinking: philosophical, theological and simple belief. In order to minimize conflict, each should observe its own borders and not try to rise into the higher category; much better that they should respect each other.

Though Ibn Rušd held fast to the Islamic faith, the authorities eventually rejected his work as heretical. The Christian Reconquista was already pressuring the rulers of al-Andalus to look to the Muslim faith to inspire military resistance. Though they decided Ibn Rušd's philosophy was inconvenient for that goal, his influence long outlasted him.

Historical sketch of al-Andalus

William Montgomery Watt's 1965 A History of Islamic Spain provides a good sketch of the history of al-Andalus. The conquest of Spain by the Muslims began in 711 with a mostly Berber force under Tāriq ibn-Ziyād. "Berber" is the source of the name of the Barbary Pirates, the first Islamic foreign power with which the US came into opposition. Tāriq's name is preserved in the name of Gibralter, "a corruption of 'Jabal Tāriq,' the mountain of Tāriq," says Watt.

Tāriq defeated the Visogothic King Roderick, which essentially wrecked the Visogothic empire. Tāriq's forces were then supplemented by a separate attack under Mūsā ibn-Nusayr, the governor of northwest Africa. The Muslim advance reached into present-day France. The famous battle in which Frankish prince Charles Martel halted the Muslim advance at the Battle of Poitiers, also known as the Battle of Tours, in October 732.

This event has been remembered in European history as an historic turning point at which the Muslim advance into Europe was halted and later contained. Watt speculates that European historians may have exaggerated the significance of Charles Martel's victory, because the Muslim army was not destroyed or Muslim rule shaken by the defeat. He thinks the Muslims may have found the climate in that region inhospitable and the booty less plentiful than in most of Spain. "The Muslims were chiefly interested in regions where much plunder was to be had easily. They were prepared to fight, and to fight fiercely, but only to a limited extent."

During the early years, al-Andalus was ruled by a governor. ‛Abd-ar-Rahmān was proclaimed as the first emir in 756, founding the Umayyad dynasty in al-Andalus. The Umayyad dynasty in the central caliphate of Kufa lasted from 661 to 750, after which it was displaced by the Abassid dynasty. In al-Andalus, on the other hand, the local Umayyad dynasty lasted from 756-1009. The Umayyad emirate included the following:

‛Abd-ar-Rahmān I (756-788)
Hishām I (788-796)
Al-Hakam I (760-822)
‛Abd-ar-Rahmān II (822-852)
‛Abd-ar-Rahmān III (912-961)
Al-Hakam II (961-978)

After al-Hakam II, the Umayyad dynasty in Spain which had already far outlasted the one in the central caliphate, began to decline. Hishām II ruled from 976-1013, and six others in the 1009-1031 period. The end date of the al-Andalus Umayyad dynasty could be taken as 1031, I suppose; more on the later period in a moment.

The fact that the Umayyad dynasty maintained itself longer in al-Andalus reflected the fact that al-Andalus was in practice largely independent of the central caliphate, although during much of the Umayyad period the emirs of al-Andalus nominally recognized the authority of the caliphs in Kufa and later Baghdad.

Hishām II was 11 years old when he came to power. A man named Ib-Abī-‛Āmir became his chamberlain (chief administrator) in 976. He essentially sidelined the caliph and effectively ruled in his stead. He later took the name al-Mansūr (Almanzor). Watt writes:

The period from 981 to the death of al-Mansūr's son al-Muzaffar in 1008 is thus justifiably referred to as the ‛Āmrid dictatorship, but apart from the fact that al-Mansūr was both strong and efficient his rule was no more autocratic than that of most other Muslim regimes of the time.

Watt considers the reign of al-Hakam II to be the zenith of al-Andalus as a Muslim area. From 1008-1031, al-Andalus fell into a kind of civil war, with a great deal of political fragmentation. "By 1031 thirty towns of any size had a more or less independent ruler." The period from 1009-1031 (or 1031-91) is known as the time of the "party kings." ("Party" in the "partisan" sense.)

The turmoil in the time of the "party kings" provided an opportunity for the Christian powers to the north to move in. Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile (1065-1109) took direct control of Toledo in 1085, which remained in Christian hands thereafter. The Reconquista can be meaningfully dated from this time, though some European historians have taken the entire period of Muslim rule in al-Andalus as the period of the Reconquista.

Watt dates the Almoravid period from 1090, when Yūsuf ibn-Tāshufīn of north Africa captured Cordoba and Seville, though it could also be dated from 1086 when Yūsuf defeated Alfonzo VI's armies.

The Almoravids were ousted from power by the Almohads in 1145. Both the Amoravids and Almohads were competing Berber groups. The Almohads ruled until 1223. From 1223-1248, the Reconquista had put all of Spain under Christian control except the southern kingdom of Grenada under the Nasrid dynasty. Grenada remained a Muslim kingdom until 1492, when the Reconquista was completed.

Of the Umayyads, ‛Abd-al-Rahmān III and al-Hakam II were historically the most important. ‛Abd-al-Rahmān III was the first al-Andalusian emir to declare himself caliph. Watt says, "In making this claim [to the title of caliph] what was asserted was not a universal right to rule all Muslims but the independence of the ruler of al-Andalus of all higher Muslim political authority." It was connected in particular to the potential threat to the power of the emirate from the Fatimid dynasty in north Africa.

Christians and Jews in al-Andalus

Muslims regarded Christians and Jews in their realms as "people of the book" who deserved special protection. This does not mean they had full rights equal to Muslim citizens. But it does mean they were not actively persecuted as a rule, and their religious cultures could thrive under Muslim rule.

Christians in al-Andalus became known as Mozarabs (Spanish "Mozárabe" from the Arabic "musta‛rib"), or "arabized" Christians. Most Christians in al-Andalus converted to Islam, so that Christians were a distinct minority. The Mozarab tradition integrated some Arabic themes into their architecture and into their church liturgy and church songs. Mozarab theology was mostly orthodox. But Küng mentions the interesting fact that a "heterodox" Christology also arose among al-Andalusian Christians, which defended an "adoptionist" position on Jesus' divinity. It argued that Jesus was not the Son of God from eternity, but rather that he was adopted as such, that he became the Son of God in the course of his life and ministry. Küng speculates that this position developed in response to Muslim theology, which held that God is one and that Jesus was a prophet, not one of the three Persons of God.

Küng notes that in north Africa, there was no such distinctive Arabic Christian development, and the Christian church there more or less withered on the vine - "died out," he says - in contrast to Judaism in that same area, which flourished.

Judaism in al-Andalus fared much better than it had under the Roman and Visigothic empires there. Küng believes that this was not only due to Muslim tolerance for Judaism in contrast to Christian hostility. He also sees a positive, fruitful interaction between Islām and Judaism there in several aspects:

(1) Islamic law explicitly protected the Jews' freedom to worship, in contrast to the legal structure in the western and eastern Roman empires.

(2) The Jews were useful to the Muslim rulers (not just in al-Andalus) by being active in trade in the east and in the Mediterranean area, an activity facilitated by the similarity of the Hebrew and Arabic languages.

(3) Quote from Küng, speaking of this period in the present tense:

Jews also stand closer to the Muslims religiously than the Christians because of their unambiguous monotheism without all the mysterious dogmas [of the Christians] and because of similar hygenic and dietary requirements. Due to the now fully developed Hellenistic-Latin teachings on the Trinity and the Incarnation, Jews as well as Muslims are now even more starkly separated from the Christians than they were by the original Palestinian dispute over law and circumcision.

(The latter is a big theme in the Book of Acts in the Bible.)

(4) In the Islamic areas, the Jews engaged in an active dialogue with Muslim philosophy, while Muslim theology and its practical manifestations were not so oriented toward confrontation with Judaism as that of the Christians.

Richard Fletcher argues that Muslim toleration for Christians and Jews was limited in practice, and at times active persecution took place. "It is a myth of the modern liberal imagination that medieval Islamic Spain was, in any sense that we would recognize today, a tolerant society." But he notes that the same was true of Christian ruler during this time, giving as an example Ferdinand III's expulsion of non-Christians from Seville in 1248.

One of the most important Jewish philosophers, Moshe ben Maimon (1135-1204), known in the West as Moses Maimonides (Arabic: Mūsā ibn Maimūn)was from Córdoba. Küng takes him as an important symbol of al-Andalusian Judaism, though he notes that most of his work was actually done in Morocco and Egypt.

See also Index to Posts on Hans Küng's Der Islam

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