What Happened to ‘Tolerant’ Islam?

Alhambra Palace Granada

I wrote this piece in 2004.  After the events of this week culminating in the monstrous murder of James Foley at the hands of militant Islamists who hope to recapture the great Caliphates of ancient times, I can’t help but wonder:  What happened to the Islam of ancient Andalusia, Baghdad, and Syria, and why are Muslims today allowing Islam to be dragged through the mud by a bunch of thugs purporting to represent true Sharia law?



Culture of Tolerance

By Michele Remy Keith


            In Western Europe during the Dark Ages, there existed a small pocket of illumination in the south of Spain called Andalusia.  There, from the eighth century through the eleventh century, under Muslim rule, knowledge flourished in an atmosphere of cooperation among Muslims, Christians, and Jews that would not only predate the Renaissance by some 400 years, but would serve as its foundation.  The collective effort of these three groups in the translation, assimilation, and dissemination of the works of Aristotle, Plato, Hippocrates, Galen, and Euclid enabled these works to receive new life and wider applications in the fields of philosophy, medicine, astronomy, theology, and mathematics.1  The influence of two Islamic dynasties, the Abbasids in the east and Umayyads in Spain, led to an exciting period of cultural growth; a “golden age” of learning that would ultimately kick-start the renaissance in Europe.

            For most of the period under Islamic rule, Andalusia (al-Andalus in Arabic) was that portion of southern Spain which included the cities of Cadiz, Seville, Cordoba, and Granada.  It was bordered in the west by the Atlantic Ocean, in the east by the Mediterranean Sea, and in the north by the Morena Mountains.  Its southern border, the Strait of Gibraltar, was all that separated Europe from Africa.It was a land which, between the second millennium B.C. and the seventh century A.D. had seen the arrival of the Phoenicians, the Israelites under Solomon who were associated with Hiram of Tyre, the Carthaginians, the Greeks and finally, the Romans who held it from 206 B.C. until the seventh century A.D., becoming Christian along the way in the fourth century.3  This constant stream of invading forces made the people of Andalusia open to assimilation and cultural absorption.  In the fifth century, the Roman Empire gradually gave way to a new wave of Christian invaders from the north.  The Germanic Vandal and Visigoth tribes swept through Spain, the former through Northern Spain and the latter through Andalusia.  The population they found there, for all of its culturally diverse roots, nevertheless were, by this time largely Romanized.  As such, a good portion of the population had adopted both the Roman Catholic faith and Latin as their official language.4 The Visigoths were of the Arian faith, a Christian sect that did not conform with the ideology of the Roman Church.  After a period in which they sought to convert the peoples of Andalusia through the use of force, and in so doing created nothing but discord and rebellion in the land, the Visigoth King Recared, having a disdain for disunity, chose the religion of the majority and abandoned Arianism in favor of Roman Catholicism in the latter part of the seventh century.5 The indigenous population of Jews present in Andalusia did not find favor either under Christianized Rome or Visgothic rule.  Theirs was a life dominated by separatist laws, forced conversion, threat of expulsion, and persecution.6 The Christian peasantry fared little better, with oppressive taxation and serfdom making their existence one of poverty and misery.  As a consequence, the peoples of Andalusia were ripe for a change.7

            In 711 A.D. another invader set its sights on the Iberian Peninsula.  A Muslim army, composed of Berber converts to Islam and led by a warrior named Tariq, was sent by Musa ibn Nusayr, governor of North Africa under the banner of the Umayyad Caliphate, across the straits to Spain to engage the Visigoth King Rodrigo.  Within a year the king was slain and the Umayyads had taken the capital city of Toledo.  Before the year was out, Musa ibn Nusayr was recalled to Damascus, the Umayyad capital, leaving his son, ‘abd al-Aziz as governor.  Over the next three years, Aziz had extended Muslim rule throughout the Iberian Peninsula.8  That there was little resistance to the Muslim advance is attributed to the fact that the Visigoths’ oppressive policies found no favor among the common peoples inhabiting the land.  In fact, it has been suggested that the Berber armies were aided in their conquest not only by the Jews, for whom Muslim rule would be far preferable, but also by the Christian peasantry who sought to improve their lot as well.9

            Under Muslim rule and in Accordance with Qur’an, Christians and Jews, as “peoples of the book” were protected under Muslim law.  This protection extended to both their persons as well as their possessions.  These dhimma (protected peoples) could practice their religion freely, work in any enterprise that did not involve authority or influence over Muslims; were given freedom of movement and dwelling and were allowed to oversee their own religious communities.  They were required to pay a poll tax, jizya, and were restricted from marriage to Muslims or employment in the higher ranks of government.  No new houses of worship could be built, though existing ones could remain.  For the oppressed Jewish community, Muslim rule was emancipation sent from on high, and so began a relationship that would flourish in the years to come.  The Christian governing elite however, as rulers now ruled, saw their status fall, and were far less enthusiastic about the new conquistadors than the Jews.10 Many feudal lords had their land stripped from them to be divided up among the Arabs, Berbers, and the peasants.  They no longer enjoyed the favor of the king and were reduced to a second-class status.  Those who did not accept this status either converted to Islam and were thus allowed entry into the lower levels of civil service, or fled to the Christian strongholds in the north to fight another day.11

            The Muslims, as a ruling minority, established their sovereignty through the use of treaties made with the existing lords of towns and provinces.  The terms of the treaty gave religious freedom and protection to the Christian lords in return for which they agreed not to “give aid to deserters from or enemies of the conquerors.”  Thus, provided there was no armed resistance, there was no cause for forced subjugation.12

            Arab rule of Andalusia was only marginally under the control of the Umayyad dynasty in Damascus.  Instead, control was maintained by the Arab governing body in North Africa.  The Berbers, whose armies had conquered the land, did not rule it.  They themselves were a conquered nation, and though Muslim converts, were nevertheless non-Arab, and so were not accorded the same status as the ruling Arabs.   When distributing land in the conquered territory, Arabs allotted themselves the best land, creating discontent and fierce rivalries between the two groups.  A period of chaos ensued which erupted in outright rebellion by the Berbers in 740.  Any attempt by the Umayyads in Damascus to control the fighting in Spain met with resistance by the ruling forces in North Africa resulting in a “period of endemic civil war.”13

            Meanwhile, back in the capital city of Damascus, Syria, the Umayyad Caliphate was having problems of its own.  The same rejection of second-class status among non-Arab Muslims that was wreaking havoc in Andalusia was creating disturbances throughout the empire; particularly in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Persia.  Widely varying opinions concerning the right of succession and the nature of its authority led to a split in the empire resulting in a rival dynasty descending from Muhammed’s uncle Abbas laying claim to the Caliphate.14 In the ensuing overthrow, the Abbasid Caliph annihilated the Umayyad family in Damascus leaving one remaining member, Abd al-Rahman to escape west across the Maghrib to settle in al-Andalus.15

                        Rahman was a young man in his late teens or early twenties at the time of the massacre, which occurred in the year 750.  The fact that his mother had been a Berber captive, brought back to Damascus as a concubine from the early Muslim conquests of Morocco, put him in good stead with the Berber armies and immigrants living in Andalusia at the time of his arrival.  This enabled him to assemble an army and effect a coup over the existing Emir, thus setting the stage for a separate dynasty in Spain that would have far reaching effects on the future of Europe.16 The appearance of Abd al-Rahman in al-Andalus was not in itself earth-shattering and was probably not perceived as anything more than just another faction vying for power in a country that had witnessed much the same for 40 years.  Yet, it would be Rahman’s legacy that would make al-Andalus the “ornament of the World,” the description given of Cordoba by Hroswitha, a tenth century nun and Saxon writer.17

            Under Rahman and his successors, Andalusia would see phenomenal improvement.  The Visigoths had left the country in disarray, and it was for these last remaining Umayyads to salvage what was left and build a civilization worthy of the one left behind in Damascus.  To do this roads and bridges were restored which had been built by the Romans and left to decay under the Visigoths.  Irrigation was improved allowing for the cultivation of new types of crops.  Policies were put in place in the hope of ending the strife between Berber and Arab which would eliminate the “second-class status” given to non-Arab Muslims.  Buildings were erected in Cordoba (the new capital) in the style of architecture reminiscent of Syria.18 The greatest of these architectural achievements would come near the end of Rahman I’s reign when he would begin building the Cordoba mosque.  It would be built on the site of the old San Vicente church which had been until then a shared house of worship in Cordoba between Christians in one half of the structure and Muslims in the other.   Rahman bought out the Christian half and proceeded to build upon the site a “Friday Mosque,” (the term applied to the mosque at which the entire Muslim community worships on Fridays) worthy of his Syrian roots.  Yet, he would take great pains to preserve the “multiethnic and pluralistic” flavor of Andalusia in its construction.  One historian describes it thus:

The aesthetics of the new Cordoban mosque to which Muslims from far and wide throughout history would forever write odes, was typically Andalusian from the start:  part adaptation of local, vernacular forms and part homage to Umayyad Syria, forever the source of hereditary legitimacy.  Even the most mysterious idiosyncrasy of the great building is best understood in terms of that yearning to remake in the new land what was lost in the old: the qibla of the mosque—the orientation that in all mosques points the faithful toward Mecca when they pray—is not in the direction of Mecca but something more like due south, as it would be if the mosque were indeed in Damascus.19

                        The Rahman dynasty brought with it great Muslim expansion in Andalusia, not only from an influx of immigrants from the Arab world loyal to the Umayyads, but Berber and Jewish immigration as well.   Mass conversions among Christians and, to a lesser extent, Jews also added to the Muslim population.  Conversion to Islam was easy—one needed only to recite the Shahada (the Muslim profession of faith) to be accepted—and provided the convert with certain advantages, not the least of which included civil service jobs.  However, for many, conversion was based on the merits of Islam itself, and required no inducement.  The removal of second-class status for non-Arab Muslims meant that converts to Islam would be able to participate in all aspects of Islamic life, including high rank in government service.  Mixed marriages involving Christian women and Muslim men were not only allowed, but were quite common, with the children being brought up Muslim, even in cases where the mothers remained Christian, owing to Islamic law through which the religion passed from the father.20  A new word was coined by the Christian clergy for the Christian converts:  Mozarab, “wanna-be Arab.”  Originally a derogatory term applied to those who abandoned their faith in favor of Islam, it would later be applied to all Christians living in Spain under Muslim rule.21

            More disturbing to the clergy was the increasing willingness on the part of Christians to adopt the Arabic language.  Arabic was not only used in the religious expression of Islam, but was also the language of an entire body of secular writings as well; in particular poetry.  Alvarus, an outspoken critic of Christian conversion said of the Christian love for the language of Islam and its secular works:  “Alas!  All talented young Christians read and study with enthusiasm the Arab books; they gather immense libraries at great expense; they despise the Christian literature as unworthy of attention.  They have forgotten their own language.”22 Latin, the language of the church, offered little to the people in the way of secular writing.  In Arabic, however, there existed a vast body of poetic works which could be applied to every aspect of life, from the ordinary to the sensual.  For example, a poem about a summer storm:

The sky darkens:

Flowers open their mouths

And search for the udders

Of the nurturing rain


As battalions of black

Water-laden clouds

Parade majestically past

Flashing their golden swords.23


                        Or, a poem about passionate love:

How I wish I could split my heart

With a knife

Put you inside

Then close up my chest


So that you would be in my heart

And not in another’s

Until the resurrection

And the day of judgment.


There you would stay while I lived

And after my death

You would remain buried deep in my heart

In the darkness of the tomb.24


            The Jews of Andalusia, too, were quick to adopt the Arabic language.  Arabic works of poetry inspired them to write poetry of their own, in Hebrew, in the Arabic style, for use in their synagogues.  For example, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, a renowned Jewish writer of Andalusia writes in the Arabic style of humility before God:

With lowly spirit, lowered knee and head

In fear I come; I offer Thee my dread.

But once with Thee I seem to have now worth

More than a little worm upon the earth.

O Fullness of the World, Infinity—

What praise can come, if any can, from me?

Thy splendor is not contained by the hosts on high,

And how much less capacity have I!

Infinite Thou, and infinite Thy ways;

Therefore the soul expands to sing thy praise.25


                        Arabic verse was not the only influence which Muslim culture had on the Jews of Andalusia.  Muslim study of the Qur’an and the hadith (the traditions of the prophet, Muhammed), as well as the debates among the interpreters of the Sharia (Muslim Law), inspired Jewish scholars to more intensely study their own Bible, Talmud, and halakhah (Jewish law).  Muslim study of the Arabic language as that best suited to poetry and religion would lead Jewish scholars to more closely examine their own language of Hebrew as the language of the Bible, and explore ways to create with it new forms of secular poetry.  This spirited sense of competition would later lead to competing philosophical treatises concerning the relation of man and God, which would then become the basis for later Christian theological philosophy.26

           Tolerance, being a relative term, does not describe the attitude perceived by all members of the population of Andalusia under Muslim rule.  For the Jews, accustomed to separation, forced conversion, and severe persecution under their former Christian rulers, the infliction of a poll tax for the purposes of practicing their religion freely was a small enough price to pay and an example of great tolerance for their faith.  Among the Christians, however, accustomed to being allowed not only to practice their own faith freely, but also to preach it publicly, and spread the word to all unbelievers, Muslim policy was not perceived as tolerance, but rather as intolerance.  Consequently, some church leaders sought to create unrest among the Christians, and active persecution was conducted against those Christians who converted.  Some other Christians chose to martyr themselves by openly criticizing Muhammed, an act that was not tolerated by the Muslim leadership and which resulted in death to the perpetrator.  Nevertheless, despite such demonstrations, mostly peaceful relations did exist among the three groups in Andalusia.28

            In the North of Spain, however, the Christians gradually began to take back the territory won by the Berber armies in the early days of Muslim rule.  Christian states arose in Aragon, Leon, Navarre, Castile, and Portugal confining Muslim rule to the Southern region of Spain.28 However, constant rivalries and infighting among the Christian states allowed Andalusia to exist in relative peace throughout the Umayyad period.

           In 793, the paper industry found its way to Baghdad from China, and spread throughout the Abbasid empire and ultimately to Jativa, Spain near Valencia.  Its easier and less expensive production over either papyrus or parchment meant that reading rooms and Libraries could be expanded throughout the Abbasid empire and in Andalusia.  Cordoba alone contained some seventy libraries housing hundreds of thousands of volumes.29 Works received from Byzantium through trade by Mamoun, son of the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, were brought back to Baghdad to be translated from the Greek into Arabic and made available to all through these libraries.30

          Travel between the two cities of Baghdad and Cordoba meant that studies in the fields inspired by the texts could be shared and expanded.  Works by Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Euclid, and Ptolemy, which were translated in Baghdad from the Greek into Arabic eventually found their way to Andalusia via the numerous travelers and immigrants, where they were then translated from the Arabic into Latin and Hebrew.  Exposure to these works opened up new fields of study.  Two great Aristotelians of Andalusia, Ibn Rushd (Averroes), a Muslim and Moses Maimonides, a Jew, sought to reconcile the faith of Abraham with the philosophy of reason as put forth by Aristotle.  Building upon the works of another Muslim philosopher, Ibn Sina (Avicenna) of Persia, they produced extensive commentaries which would later become the foundation for the works of the Christian philosophers, Albertus Magnus and St. Thomas Aquinas.31

          Abbasid involvement in India led to the discovery of Hindi numerals, and particularly the number zero.  These numerals would come to be known as Arabic numerals to future generations and continue to be used today.  Without these numerals, calculation in complex mathematics would be impossible.  Their discovery led ultimately to the creation of a system of mathematics which the Arabs called al-jabra, (reduction of an equation through “restoration,” al-jabr, and “compensation”) and which its author would call Algebra.  The book, by al-Khwarizmi, a scholar working Baghdad in the ninth century, was discovered in a Toledo library by Robert of Ketton, an English translator whose credits would include the first authorized translation of the Qur’an.  Al-Khwarizmi, would be referred to in Ketton’s translation as algoritmi, from which the term algorithm was derived.32

          The greatest Andalusian astronomer to achieve renown was Maslama al-Madjriti, whose many accomplishments included adapting al-Khwarizmi’s astronomical tables to the meridian of Cordoba based on observations made in the year 979, authoring a textbook on arithmetic for purposes of commerce, and a treatise on the astrolabe, as well as translating Ptolemy’s Planisphere into Arabic.33

            Andalusian culture and fame reached its peak under the rule of Abd al-Rahman III, (912-961), first as Emir, and then as the self-proclaimed Caliph of Cordoba.  Cordoba in this period compared favorably to Constantinople among Mediterranean cities and with Baghdad in sheer opulence.  Boasting as many as 3,000 mosques, and over 100,000 shops and houses, a bustling seaport, booming agriculture, and a vital textile industry, she was easily among the largest and richest cities in Europe.34 With Rahman as Emir and a Jewish physician named Hasdai ibn Shaprut at his side, who arose in the ranks of government from court physician to become a kind of foreign relations minister, a near frenzied atmosphere of learning existed.  Shaprut invited scholars, philosophers, scientists, and poets to come and study in Andalusia.35

           In 949, the Byzantine ambassador gave to Andalusia the gift of the works of Dioscorides, the first century Greek botanist and most famous ancient pharmacologist, who was the first scientist to study the medicinal properties of plants.  Unable to read these works, as there existed in Andalusia at that time no one who could read Greek, Rahman III sent an appeal to Constantinople for a translator.  One arrived in the person of a Greek monk, Nicholas.  Hasdai ibn Shaprut, meanwhile, secured the service of a Sicilian Arab who could speak Greek, and a group of Muslim scholars to aid in the translation.  In addition, Shaprut himself, whose expertise in the field of medicine would be useful, also participated in the endeavor.  This work serves as a clear illustration the excitement generated in Andalusia regarding the works of the ancient Greeks.  Under the patronage of Rahman III, no length was considered too extreme to bring these works to light.36

           In the years following Rahman III’s claim to the Caliphate of Cordoba, Andalusia showed signs of decline.  The resentments and ideological differences among the Berber peoples that were never really put to rest led to civil unrest and rebellion until the year 1031 when the dynasty was overthrown and Andalusia fell under the subsequent rules of: the party kings, the Almoravids, and finally the Almohads.  Neither the Almoravids nor the Almohads were inclined to patronize the arts and sciences, but instead instituted rule based upon strict adherence to Islamic law.  No longer would philosophical discussions take place at court, nor would Jews any longer find favor in the palace.  Christian hostilities increased.  Books by such philosophers as al-Ghazali were burned, and men like Maimonides were forced to flee Andalusia for safety from the Almoravids.  Nevertheless, the people continued to read, study, and write and some great works were produced, though to a far lesser extent than before.  During this time, too, the re-conquest of al-Andalus by the Christians continued in earnest and Muslim territory became smaller and smaller, eventually confined to the small state of Granada until 1492, when the Christian crusade would be complete.

           Allen Josephs, an historian, said of Andalusia today:

           “How many tourists leave Cordoba aware that St. Thomas of Aquinas could probably never have begun to solve the eternally vexing problem of faith and reason with the philosophical commentaries of two of her sons, Maimonides, a Jew, and Averroes, a Moslem?  And how many understand that the so-called Renaissance began in Andalucia long before it did in Italy?”37

          The answer, unfortunately is “not enough.”  History books tend to overlook Andalusia when discussing the history of the Arab peoples.  At most, a couple of pages, maybe a chapter is devoted to the “other dynasty” that coincided with the Abbasid period.  Much more is made of the glory of Baghdad, without acknowledging that it was Cordoba, whose existence in Europe would have the more profound effect on the West that would enable the Christians to have their Renaissance.  Cordoba, under the rule of Rahman III entertained dignitaries from all over Europe.  Her libraries attracted scholars throughout Christendom; scholars who would expound on the work done by the peoples of Andalusia.  Jews, forced to flee the Christian re-conquest, settled throughout Europe, taking with them the knowledge acquired in Cordoba.  Yet, even in Spain, the tendency is to diminish Muslim influence.  Josephs writes:  “many Spaniards, embarrassed by the ‘exotic’ image of their country, and ashamed at their lack of ‘progress,’ ignore or deny the complex cultural heritage—the oldest in the Western world—that lies beneath the glittering exterior, and thus do little to explain it or understand it themselves.”38

               Here, now, in the current century, in a time when the “civilized” peoples of the world consider themselves to be so much more enlightened than their ancestors; religious tolerance is more elusive than ever, and the lesson of Al-Andalus is ignored or forgotten.



 1Farrington, Karen.  Historical Atlas of Empires.  New York:  Checkmark Books, 2002. 70

2”Andalusia.”  The New Encyclopedia Britannica:  Micropædia. 15th Ed. 1992. 379-380

3 Josephs, Allen.  White Wall of Spain: the Mysteries of Andalusian Culture.  Pensacola:  UWF, 1990. 10-13.

4 Menocal, Maria Rosa.  The Ornament of the World.  Boston:  Little, Brown and Co., 2002.  24-25.

5 La Tourette, Kenneth Scott.  A History of Christianity:  Volume I:  Beginnings to 1500.  San Francisco:  Harper,    

  1. 331.

6 Gampel, Benjamin R.  “Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Medieval Iberia:  Convivencia through the Eyes of

                Sephardic Jews.”  Convivencia:  Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain.  Ed. Vivien Mann,

                Thomas F. Glick, and Jerrilynn D. Dodds.  New York:  George Braziller, Inc., 1972. 11-14.

7 Smith, Rhea Marsh. Spain. Ann Arbor:  UMP, 1965. 21-22.

8 Fletcher, Richard.  Moorish Spain.  New York:  Henry Holt and Co., 1992.  19-17

9 Ibid. 24

10 Gampel 14-15.

11 Menocal 27.

12 Fletcher 18.

13 Ibid. 27

14 Hourani, Albert.  A History of the Arab Peoples.  New York:  Warner, 1992. 30.

15 Fletcher 28.

16 Menocal 5-8.

17 Ibid. 12.

18 Ibid. 53-54.

19 Ibid. 58-59.

20 Ibid. 28-30.

21 Ibid. 69.

22 Ibid. 66.

23 Shuhayd, Ibn.  “Summer Storm”.  Poems of Arab Andalusia.  Trans. Cola Franzen.  San Francisco:  City Lights,

  1. 26.

24 Hazm, Ibn.  “Split My Heart”.  Poems of Arab Andalusia.  Ibid. 18.

25 Scheindlin, Raymond P.  “Hebrew Poetry in Medieval Iberia.”  Convivencia:  Jews, Muslims, and Christians in

                Medieval Spain.  Ibid. 47-48.

26 Gampel 17.

27 Menocal 70-71.

28 La Tourette 396.

29 Menocal 33.

30 Farrington 69-70.

31 Menocal 210-215.

32 Ibid. 180.

33 Fletcher 71.

34 Smith 42-43.

35 Glick, Thomas F.  “Science in Medieval Spain:  The Jewish Contribution in the Context of Convivencia”.

                Convivencia:  Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain.  Ibid. 84.

36 Fletcher 69-71.

37 Josephs 9.

38 Ibid.








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