Nov 17th, 2008 by ravi
From the NYRB: How Muslims Made Europe

Anthony Appiah’s NYRB article:

How Muslims Made Europe – The New York Review of Books


Later Christian historians assigned to the Battle of Poitiers an epochal significance. Gibbon remarked that if the Moors had covered again the distance they had traveled from Gibraltar, they could have reached Poland or the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps, he thought, if ‘Abd al-Rahman had won, “the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.” For him, the fate of Christian Europe hung in the balance. After a week of battle, he wrote, “the Orientals were oppressed by the strength and stature of the Germans, who…asserted the civil and religious freedom of their posterity.”[2]

At the time, though, it would have been odd to regard Charles Martel’s victory as guaranteeing religious freedom. The small but influential Jewish community in Iberia had been tolerated in Spain when their Visigothic overlords were still Arian heretics ruling Catholic and Jewish subjects; but Jews began to be persecuted in 589, when the Visigoths converted to Catholicism. For the Jews, then, the Muslim Conquest, bringing rulers who practiced toleration toward them as well as toward Christians and Zoroastrians, was not unwelcome. During the first period of Muslim domination, Christians, too, discovered that they would have religious freedom, so long as they (like the Jews) did not seek to convert Muslims or criticize Islam. The contrast with Frankish rule could hardly have been more striking. The obsession of Catholic rulers with religious orthodoxy was one of the things that made the Dark Ages—as Petrarch was to dub the period from the fifth to the tenth centuries—so dark.


The original core of the Great Mosque at Córdoba, which stands to this day, was built for ‘Abd al-Rahman in an astonishing burst of architectural fervor, apparently between 785 and 786. With 152 columns, arranged in eleven aisles, it consisted of two parts: a large prayer hall, some two thirds of an acre in area, and an adjoining piazza of the same size, filled with rows of orange trees, which together made up a square whose sides measured about 240 feet. The results, added onto over the centuries, still amaze. Lewis writes:

Its builders devised the art and science of transmuting matter into light and form that medieval Christendom was the poorer for its general inability to comprehend…. The unprecedented innovation of the Great Mosque’s master builder was to loft the coffered ceiling to a height of forty feet by means of an upper tier of semicircular arches that appeared to be clamped to the bottom tier of horseshoe arches supported by columns…. Structurally ingenious, the visual effect of the double arches has been from the moment of completion one of the world’s distinctively edifying aesthetic experiences.

If the Great Mosque was the most evident material embodiment of the civilization of the Arabs in Spain, their intellectual achievements were even more astonishing. Starting in ‘Abd al-Rahman’s time, the Umayyads sought to compete with their Abbasid rivals in Baghdad for cultural bravura. Over the next few centuries, Córdoba alone acquired hundreds of mosques, thousands of palaces, scores of libraries. By the tenth century, those libraries had hundreds of thousands of manuscripts, dwarfing the largest libraries of Christian Europe. The university of Córdoba predated Bologna, the first European university, by more than a century. And al-Andalus was a world of cities, not, like Europe, a world of country estates and small towns. By the end of the millennium, Córdoba’s population was 90,000, more than three times the size of any town in the territory once occupied by Charlemagne. In those cities, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Arabs, Berbers, Visigoths, Slavs, and countless others created the kind of cultural goulash—a spicy mixture of a variety of distinct components—that would generate a genuine cosmopolitanism.

There were no recognized rabbis or Muslim scholars at the court of Charlemagne; in the cities of al-Andalus there were bishops and synagogues. Racemondo, Catholic bishop of Elvira, was Córdoba’s ambassador to Constantinople and Aachen. Hasdai ibn Shaprut, leader of Córdoba’s Jewish community in the middle of the tenth century, was not only a great medical scholar but was also the chairman of the caliph’s medical council; and when the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII sent the caliph a copy of Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, the caliph sent for a Greek monk to help translate it into Arabic. The knowledge that the caliph’s doctors acquired made Córdoba one of the great centers of medical expertise in Europe. By the time of ‘Abd al-Rahman’s successor and namesake, ‘Abd al-Rahman III, in the tenth century, the emir of al-Andalus had the confidence to declare himself caliph, successor or representative of the Prophet and, implicitly, leader of the Muslim world.

Like Charlemagne’s, the emir’s position was partly religious; he was supposed to be (and often was) pious. But piety for the emirs did not mean—as it did for the Holy Roman Emperor—imposing one’s religion on others. From the earliest times, the emirs of al-Andalus accepted conversion but did not demand it. There were, naturally, some pressures to convert: non-Muslim subjects—the so-called dhimmi—were required to pay special taxes; and non-Muslims could be enslaved while, at least in theory, Muslims could not. Still, it probably took about two centuries after ‘Abd al-Rahman’s death in 788 for Muslims to become a majority in al-Andalus.[4] In the cities of al-Andalus, scholars of all three faiths, with access to the learning of the classical world that the Arabs had inherited and brought to the West, gathered and transmitted the learning whose recovery in Europe created the Renaissance.


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