A Glimpse of Muslim Spain
Writtenby Dr. Ragheb Elsergany.. When you think of Europeanculture, one of the first things that may come to your mind is therenaissance. Many of the roots of European culture can be tracedback to that glorious time of art, science, commerce andarchitecture. But did you know that long before the renaissancethere was a place of humanistic beauty in Muslim Spain? Not only wasit artistic, scientific and commercial, but it also exhibitedincredible tolerance, imagination and poetry. Muslims, as theSpaniards call the Muslims, populated Spain for nearly 700 years. Asyou’ll see, it was their civilization that enlightened Europe andbrought it out of the dark ages to usher in the renaissance. Many oftheir cultural and intellectual influences still live with us today.
Wayback during the eighth century, Europe was still knee-deep in theMedieval period. That’s not the only thing they were knee-deep in. In his book, “The Day The Universe Changed,” the historian JamesBurke describes how the typical European townspeople lived:
“Theinhabitants threw all their refuse into the drains in the center ofthe narrow streets. The stench must have been overwhelming, thoughit appears to have gone virtually unnoticed. Mixed with excrementand urine would be the soiled reeds and straw used to cover the dirtfloors. (p. 32).
Thissqualid society was organized under a feudal system and had littlethat would resemble a commercial economy. Along with otherrestrictions, the Catholic Church forbade the lending of money -which didn’t help get things booming much. “Anti-Semitism,previously rare, began to increase. Money lending, which wasforbidden by the Church, was permitted under Jewish law.” (Burke,1985, p. 32) Jews worked to develop a currency although they wereheavily persecuted for it. Medieval Europe was a miserable lot,which ran high in illiteracy, superstition, barbarism and filth.
Duringthis same time, Muslims entered Europe from the South. Abd al-RahmanI, a survivor of a family of caliphs of the Muslim empire, reachedSpain in the mid-700’s. He became the first Caliph of Al-Andalus,the Muslim part of Spain, which occupied most of the IberianPeninsula. He also set up the Umayyad Dynasty that ruled Al-Andalusfor over three-hundred years. (Grolier, History of Spain). AlAndalus means, “the land of the vandals,” from which comes themodern name Andalusia.
Atfirst, the land resembled the rest of Europe in all its squalor. Butwithin two-hundred years the Muslims had turned Al-Andalus into abastion of culture, commerce and beauty.
“Irrigationsystems imported from Syria and Muslimia turned the dry plains... into an agricultural cornucopia. Olives and wheat had always grownthere. The Muslims added pomegranates, oranges, lemons, aubergines,artichokes, cumin, coriander, bananas, almonds, pams, henna, woad,madder, saffron, sugar-cane, cotton, rice, figs, grapes, peaches,apricots and rice.” (Burke, 1985, p. 37).
Bythe beginning of the ninth century, Muslim Spain was the gem ofEurope with its capital city, Cordova. With the establishment of Abdal-Rahman III - “the great caliphate of Cordova” - came thegolden age of Al-Andalus. Cordova, in southern Spain, was theintellectual center of Europe.
Ata time when London was a tiny mud-hut village that “could not boastof a single streetlamp” (Digest, 1973, p. 622), in Cordova.
“…therewere half a million inhabitants, living in 113,000 houses. Therewere 700 mosques and 300 public baths spread throughout the city andits twenty-one suburbs. The streets were paved and lit.” (Burke,1985, p. 38).
“Thehouses had marble balconies for summer and hot-air ducts under themosaic floors for the winter. They were adorned with gardens withartificial fountains and orchards”. (Digest, 1973, p. 622) “Paper,a material still unknown to the west, was everywhere. There werebookshops and more than seventy libraries.” (Burke, 1985, p. 38).
Inhis book titled, “Spain In The Modern World,” James Cleugeexplains the significance of Cordova in Medieval Europe:
“Forthere was nothing like it, at that epoch, in the rest of Europe. Thebest minds in that continent looked to Spain for everything whichmost clearly differentiates a human being from a tiger.” (Cleugh,1953, p. 70).
Duringthe end of the first millennium, Cordova was the intellectual wellfrom which European humanity came to drink. Students from France andEngland traveled there to sit at the feet of Muslim, Christian andJewish scholars, to learn philosophy, science and medicine (Digest,1973, p. 622). In the great library of Cordova alone, there weresome 600,000 manuscripts (Burke, 1978, p. 122).
Thisrich and sophisticated society took a tolerant view towards otherfaiths. Tolerance was unheard of in the rest of Europe. But inMuslim Spain, “thousands of Jews and Christians lived in peace andharmony with their Muslim overlords.” (Burke, 1985, p. 38).
Unfortunately,this period of intellectual and economic prosperity began to decline. Shifting away from the rule of law, there began to be internal riftsin the Muslim power structure. The Muslim harmony began to break upinto warring factions. Finally, the caliphs were eliminated andCordova fell to other Muslim forces. “In 1013 the great library inCordova was destroyed. True to their Islamic traditions however, thenew rulers permitted the books to be dispersed, together with theCordovan scholars to the capital towns of small emirates.” (Burke,1985, p. 40) The intellectual properties of the once great Al-Andaluswere divided among small towns.
theChristians to the North were doing just the opposite. In NorthernSpain the various Christian kingdoms united to expel the Muslims fromthe European continent. (Grolier, History of Spain) This set thestage for the final act of the Medieval period.
Inanother of James Burke’s works titled “Connections,” hedescribes how the Muslims thawed out Europe from the Dark Ages. “Butthe event that must have done more for the intellectual andscientific revival of Europe was the fall of Toledo in Spain to theChristians, in 1105.” In Toledo the Muslims had huge librariescontaining the lost (to Christian Europe) works of the Greeks andRomans along with Muslim philosophy and mathematics. “The Spanishlibraries were opened, revealing a store of classics and Muslim worksthat staggered Christian Europeans.” (Burke, 1978, p. 123).
Theintellectual plunder of Toledo brought the scholars of northernEurope like moths to a candle. The Christians set up a gianttranslating program in Toledo. Using the Jews as interpreters, theytranslated the Muslim books into Latin. These books included “mostof the major works of Greek science and philosophy... along withmany original Muslim works of scholarship.” (Digest, p. 622).
“Theintellectual community which the northern scholars found in Spain wasso far superior to what they had at home that it left a lastingjealousy of Muslim culture, which was to color Western opinions forcenturies” (Burke, 1985, p. 41).
“Thesubjects covered by the texts included medicine, astrology, astronomypharmacology, psychology, physiology, zoology, biology, botany,mineralogy, optics, chemistry, physics, mathematics, algebra,geometry, trigonometry, music, meteorology, geography, mechanics,hydrostatics, navigation and history.” (Burke, 1985, p. 42).
Theseworks alone however, didn’t kindle the fire that would lead to therenaissance. They added to Europe’s knowledge, but much of it wasunappreciated without a change in the way Europeans viewed the world.
Remember,Medieval Europe was superstitious and irrational. “What caused theintellectual bombshell to explode, however, was the philosophy thatcame with (the books).” (Burke, 1985, p. 42).
Christianscontinued to re-conquer Spain, leaving a wake of death anddestruction in their path. The books were spared, but Moor culturewas destroyed and their civilization disintegrated. Ironically, itwasn’t just the strength of the Christians that defeated theMuslims but the disharmony among the Muslims’ own ranks. LikeGreece and Rome that proceeded them, the Muslims of Al-Andalus fellinto moral decay and wandered from the intellect that had madethem great.
Thetranslations continued as each Muslim haven fell to the Christians. In 1492, the same year Columbus discovered the New World, Granada,the last Muslim enclave, was taken. Captors of the knowledge werenot keepers of its wisdom. Sadly, all Jews and Muslims that wouldnot abandon their beliefs were either killed or exiled (Grolier,History of Spain). Thus ended an epoch of tolerance and all thatwould remain of the Muslims would be their books.
It’sfascinating to realize just how much Europe learned from the Muslimtexts and even greater to see how much that knowledge has endured. Because of the flood of knowledge, the first Universities started toappear. College and University degrees were developed (Burke, 1985,p. 48). Directly from the Muslims came the numerals we use today. Even the concept of Zero (a Muslim word) came from the translations(Castillo & Bond, 1987, p. 27). It’s also fair to say thatrenaissance architectural concepts came from the Muslim libraries. Mathematics and architecture explained in the Muslim texts along withMuslim works on optics led to the perspective paintings of therenaissance period (Burke, 1985 p. 72). The first lawyers begantheir craft using the new translated knowledge as their guide. Eventhe food utensils we use today come from the Cordova kitchen! (Burke,1985 p. 44) All of these examples show just some of the ways Europetransformed from the Muslims.
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