Science in Al-Andalus…Para Saber Mas (To Learn More)

7 08 2010

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Flamenco and the (surprising) Muslim Connection

7 08 2010

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There are few things as emblematic of and as unique to Spain as flamenco. The distinct guitar, passionately sung songs, and the heart pounding, rapid and emotionally expressive dance amount to a national treasure of Spain.   This style of dance began in Al-Andalus in the Middle Ages when Muslim rule was in decline, but had existed for centuries.   While the specific origins of flamenco are lost to history, it is clear that there are Arab influences, especially in the style performed in the Gypsy caves in Granada.

I went to a flamenco performance completely unaware of the history or of the Muslim connection (it was just one of those things that I wanted to do while I was in Spain, although it had nothing to do with my fellowship).  On my walk up to the gypsy caves in Sacromonte, I got into a conversation with a local man and I told him why I was in Spain.  He explained to me that there was in fact a connection between the centuries of Muslim rule and flamenco and that many Spaniards were beginning to recognize it as well.  This was surprising to me because I had always thought of flamenco as a sultry style of dance–hardly a style associated with the stereotypical modesty required of Muslim women.  I kept it in the back of my mind throughout the performance though and, although I am no expert on the origins or style of dance, by the end I could definitely Muslim influences.

My own experiences intrigued me enough that when I returned to the Albaicin, I did some research on the subject and found an article from Saudi Aramco World about the very connection that the man I met on the way to the gypsy caves was talking about. (A side note:  Saudi Aramco World is a publication by one of the largest oil producers in the world, based in Saudi Arabia.  The purpose of the magazine is to publicize the positive aspects and history of the Muslim world.)  In the article titled “Exploring flamenco’s Arab roots” from the November/December 1994 issue it states “the Arab roots of flamenco run deep. Some scholars believe the word flamenco… is a corruption of the colloquial Arabic felag mangu, meaning “fugitive peasant” and derived from a root meaning “to flee.” The term came into use in the 14th century, and was first applied to the Andalusian Gypsies themselves, who were called either gitanos or flamencos.”

What I have found most interesting about this connection though is the fact that Spaniards are beginning to embrace their Arab roots as well.  If they are willing to concede that one of their unique national treasures is derived from the period of Muslim rule, then perhaps they are open to the idea of re-connecting with people whom they share such a history with just across the Straits of Gibraltar.  As it is many Americans inclination to resent the  influx of immigrants from Latin America, it is also the inclination of many Spaniards to resent the influx of immigrants from the Muslim world.  While I do not think for a second that the acknowledgment of flamenco’s roots will solve this resentment, it may just be one way to build a much-needed bridge between the cultures that share some common history.





Las Alpujarras

5 08 2010

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The Ruins of Madinat Al-Zahra and Buried History

29 07 2010

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Madinat Al-Zahra is considered to be one of the most important medieval archeological sites in all of Europe because of  its enormous size and historical significance as the seat of power for Abr ar-Rahman III.  It was built beginning in 936 as a symbol of his strength and wealth, as well as a way to consolidate his palace with the headquarters for his administration. Described in Arabic texts from the period for its splendor and opulence–it was abandoned and looted when Al-Mansur overthrew the Umayyad Caliphate in the 11th century.  By the time of the Catholic re-conquest, the name had even been lost to history. It was simply called “the old city” and left to be buried by time.  It was not discovered buried beneath the hills outside of Cordoba until 1911 and as of today, only one tenth of the massive palace-city complex have been excavated.  During my visit there, I kept thinking that the hidden ruins of Madinat Al-Zahra are a metaphor for the hidden contributions  that the Muslims of Al-Andalus made to Western civilization.  Both have been largely ignored and almost forgotten through the centuries, but just beneath the surface, they clearly still exist.

We in the West have always been taught that our historical lineage goes back to ancient Greece and Rome.  When Rome fell in 476,  we learned that Europe fell into the “Dark Ages” where the political, scientific and philosophical lessons of the ancients were forgotten, only to be “re-discovered” during the Renaissance.  What is often left out though is how the work of such thinkers as Aristotle, Socrates, Ptolemy  and Plato (as well as others) was preserved so it could be found almost a millenium later.  The truth is that it was the Muslims in Al-Andalus, as well as across the Middle East and Asia, who were the bearers of the ancient intellectual torch.  They translated all of the Greek and Latin texts (and texts from India and China) into Arabic.  Not only did the Muslims translate, they also greatly expanded on ancient ideas of geography, mathematics, medicine, astronomy and philosophy.  According to Jonathan Lyons in The House of Wisdom, “For centuries following the fall of Rome, medieval Europe was a benighted backwater, a world of subsistence farming, minimal literacy, and violent conflict.  Meanwhile, from Persia to Spain…Muslim philosophers, mathematicians, and astronomers were steadily advancing the frontiers of knowledge, as well as exploring ancient works forgotten in the West.”

So how specifically did the power of the Cordoba Caliphate, exemplified by the massive splendor of Madinat Al-Zahra, help foster this culture of learning and exploration?  The Umayyads, forever in competition with the Abbasids who had driven them from Damascus, wanted to create a society that rivaled that of Abbasid Baghdad. There was an investment in the creation of libraries, scientific research facilities and hospitals to attract the great Muslim scholars of the age.  Beginning under Abr-ar Rahman II and continuing until the overthrown of the Umayyads, Cordoba became one of the major centers of learning in the world.  There was nowhere in Europe that could compare.  For example, there were over 500,000 books in Cordoba’s largest library, while the largest collection of books in Christian Europe was 36 at the monastery of St. Gall.  The culture of learning led to Muslim innovations that made such incredible building projects like Madinat Al-Zahra possible.

It seems to me that we never fully learn about the Muslim contribution to Western civilization because of an idea outlined in Destiny Disrupted.  Tamim Ansary discusses the idea that, in 2010, it is the Western narrative that dominates over the Islamic narrative.  This domination does not erase the history of Islamic civilization, it merely buries it under the Western point of view.  Just as the ruins of Madinat Al-Zahra lay just beneath the surface of the hills outside of Cordoba, Islam’s positive contributions to Western civilization are still there.  As a teacher, I must show my students how there are layers of history that need to be uncovered to discover the truth.





The Juderia (Jewish Quarter) in Cordoba

29 07 2010

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The very first thing that I did in Cordoba, even before the Great Mosque, was to wander through the Juderia (the Jewish Quarter) that possibly dates back to even pre-Islamic times.  The winding streets initially seemed no different from the historic Albaicin in Granada with the cobblestones and whitewashed buildings, but there were distinctly Jewish details in the Islamic architecture.  For example, there were stars of David and Hebrew writing side by side with Islamic tile work and Arabic script.  Today, when we think of Judaism and Islam together, images of conflict and war come to mind.  But this was not true during Islam’s Golden Age in Cordoba.  Jews were offered an incredible amount of religious freedom and allowed to participate in intellectual and political life.  This openness toward Jews was unheard of in any other part of medieval Europe where they were often the subject of violent persecution.   So what made the Muslim rulers of Al-Andalus so tolerant for the time period?

Firstly, the Muslims from the time of Muhammad had an appreciation for the other members of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism and Christianity).  Muslims also recognize that there is only one God and that all of the prophets before Muhammad were in fact channels for the word of God (they also consider Jesus to be a prophet, but not the son of God as Christians believed).  Where Islam differs is in the belief that Muhammad is the final prophet and his words chronicled in the Qu’ran and Hadith provide a guide to living for all members of the Muslim umma (or community).  As Islam spread rapidly in the 0ne hundred years after Muhammad’s death, the Arabs encountered people of various faith, some of whom chose to convert to Islam and others who chose to retain their beliefs.  The main reason for this tolerance comes from the words of Muhammad himself: “…There is no compulsion in religion…” (Quran 2:256).  Muslims rulers, if they were true to their faith, did not force any conversions to Islam because faith was a matter of personal choice.  Secondly, outside of faith, it was good business to allow other faiths to practice freely.  The expulsion of “non-believers” from a conquered areas always left the place with a diminished economy and huge gap in the tax base (As the Catholics would later find out after the expulsion of the Jews and Muslims from Spain in the 16th century).  During the reign of Abr-ar Rahman III, the Ummayad Caliphate in Cordoba had grown wealthy enough to rival the Abbasids in Baghdad and the Fatamids in Cairo.  Tolerance of other faiths was part of the reason for this.

One more bit of information about the Muslim tolerance of the other Abrahamic faiths–it was not absolute freedom and it did not last throughout the entire period of Islamic rule in Al-Andalus.  The non-Muslims, called dhimmis were required to pay a tax, called the jizya to receive the benefits and protection offered by the Muslims.  This tax was significantly more that Muslims had to pay and I have read that some people chose conversion to Islam in Spain to avoid paying it.  In addition, the real pinnacle of tolerance was achieved during the 400 years of moderate rule under the Ummayads.  Beginning in the middle of the 12th century, Jews (as well as Christians) suffered persecution that, while not as bad as in Christian ruled lands, still seems hardly tolerant. For example, under the more fanatical Almoravids and Almohads, Jews were banned from political life and forced to wear a yellow turban to indicate that they were not Muslim. What exactly did the time of open-minded and liberal (for the time) Muslim rule in Cordoba help Jews accomplish though?

Jews in Spain were able to flourish and build a strong community, tradtions and distinct style of worship and became known as the Sephardim (Sephardic Jews include those who come from Spain, Portugal and North Africa while Ashkenazi Jews come from France, Germany and Eastern Europe).  I learned a great deal about Sephardim when, during my morning in the Jewish Quarter, I found a small museum.  Called Casa Sefarad, it dedicated to the history of Jews in Cordoba.  It had an enormous amount of information, relics and even a small concert of Sephardic music on the day I visited.  It was there that I got a sense of the richness of Jewish life in Cordoba during the 10th century as well as before and after.  I was especially amazed by an exhibit on powerful and respected Jewish women during the Golden Age.  Women held positions as scholars, translators and even poets in the Muslim court, which is yet another example of the open-minded attitude the Ummayad Caliphate held during the 10th century.

One of the greatest testaments to the tolerance during the Golden Age of Islam is the life and work of Moses ben Maimon, more commonly known as Maimonides.  He was born in Cordoba and it was there that he grew into one of the most respected rabbinical scholars and philosophers of not only his time, but of all time.  His work, which was very “modern” for his time has had influence beyond Judaism.  For example, he is one of the first philosophers to openly criticize those who translated the Bible literally.  Maimonides was heavily influenced by his life in Cordoba and wrote his works in Arabic, which was the language of learning at the time.  Unfortunately, Maimonides and his entire family were forced out of Al-Andalus by the repression of the Almohads. He fled to Morocco, then Cairo where he became the leader of the Jewish community there as well as the personal physician to the sultan of Cairo.  There is a statue and a small plaque dedicated to him in the Jewish Quarter in Cordoba and while there I paused for a moment to reflect on the fact that had Maimonides been born in a different part of Europe, perhaps the world would’ve been deprived of his legacy.

After the Catholic re-conquest and the horrors of the Inquisition, the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492.  When the Sephardim dispersed throughout the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East, Spain was left a less vibrant place.  One of the lasting images that I have in my mind from my time in the Jewish Quarter is of the hamsa–which literally translate as “five” in arabic.  According to what I learned in the Casa Sefarad, this amulet that protects against misfortune is symbolized as a hand and it is a very popular object in both Islamic and Jewish culture.  I can’t help but think that these two groups, who often seem so at odds with each other would be wise to look back at their shared history to find common ground.





The Great Mosque of Cordoba (and the Cathedral in the middle of it…)

29 07 2010

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It has taken me a day or two to process all that I saw in Cordoba–the amount of history (and historical trauma) that occurred there is sort of overwhelming.  It was in Cordoba that I had hoped to be able to reflect on the power of religious tolerance.  During the most powerful years of the Cordoba Caliphate ( mostly during the 10th and 11th centuries), the Muslim rulers not only allowed, but encouraged participation of both Christians (all Catholic at the time) and Jews in politics, philosophy, medicine and other scholarly and artistic pursuits.  While I certainly saw examples of the historic religious tolerance in Cordoba, I now recognize that it is more complicated that I first thought. Also, the religious intolerance that came after Islam’s Golden Age almost casts a pall over all of the cultural cooperation that came before it.

Throughout my fellowship, I have wanted to keep a positive view on history. I want my students to see the good things that have happened because of Islam to counter-balance the negativity that they receive elsewhere.  That is not to say that Islamic empires are not responsible for horrible events in history, but today, it seems like Islam is only judged based on horrible events. The truth is that religious empires, not just Islam, have created an enormous amount of war and misery in the past and this must be acknowledged.   I want to be clear though that in my mind, there is a distinct difference between religious faiths and religious empires. Faith (of ALL kinds–Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist etc.) is an incredible source of inspiration and kindness. Empires, while sometimes based on religious faith originally, are really about the acquisition and consolidation of power. My sort of gloomy impressions of the history in Cordoba have nothing to do with religious faith, but everything to do with religious empires.  I can explain it all by discussing my time in the Mezquita (The Great Mosque/Catherdral):

The Great Mosque, like so many other ancient buildings, was completed in stages. It began on the site of the Church St. Vincent after Abr ar-Rahman I purchased half of it for Friday prayers in the middle of the 8th century. Because the Muslim community grew so rapidly, he purchased the other half in 784 and commissioned a new mosque to be built. That is the story that the Muslims tell. The Catholics instead say that the Abr ar-Rahman I demolished the church and built a mosque in its place (no payment involved) as a symbol of the defeat of the Christians in Spain. I’m sure the truth is somewhere in between. Regardless of how the land was acquired, what was built and added onto until the 10th century is an incredible work of art, and structurally speaking, revolutionary for it’s time.

Of course, I had seen about a million photos of the mosque, especially since I began planning my fellowship. The endless rows of columns (which had been re-used from Roman ruins in the region) and terra-cotta and white striped arches are incredibly symbolic of Islamic Spain. When I first entered though, I was really overwhelmed by the space and simplicity of the design. What makes it so beautiful is the absence of complication. It was supposed to mimic the open desert that was so familiar to the Arabs who had moved to Cordoba when the Ummayads came to power. It was the space that allowed Muslims to sense and communicate with God freely. I honestly was amazed by the impact that that architecture has as my eyes wandered across this vast space. That is until my line of sight was interrupted (almost rudely so) by the massive Catholic Cathedral smack in the middle of the Great Mosque.

In 1236, the Catholics re-conquered Cordoba and many of the Muslims fled toward the Islamic stronghold of Granada. For almost three centuries, the beauty of the Great Mosque was largely left alone, but in the 16th century, the Catholic king Carlos I had the center of the mosque ripped out and commissioned the construction of a cathedral. When it was completed though, the king expressed his regret at this major alteration to the mosque when he told the architect: “You have built what you or others might have built anywhere, but you have destroyed something that was unique in the world.” The king was right. The Cathedral of Cordoba, while impressive in size, looks just like the Cathedral of Granada (which I visited the other day), or any other cathedral for that matter. What I noticed most about it though was the fact that it spoiled the intended beauty of the mosque.

I must say a word about judging historic decisions by modern standards. We can look at King Carlos I’s idea to build the cathedral in the middle of the mosque and say that it was an incredibly insulting and culturally insensitive thing to do. But, the truth is that people in the middle ages didn’t think that way. There were wars for land and power and there were winners and losers. The winners got to do what ever they wanted and the Muslims had lost Cordoba. In fact, it seems miraculous that the mosque wasn’t destroyed altogether. This is not to say that I approve of all of the horrible things that were done throughout history, but taking a holier than thou attitude about what was done in the past does not help us to understand the people or their decisions.

Where I can be judgmental though is about how the past is preserved and presented today in the Great Mosque/Cathedral of Cordoba. The building is still under the control of the Catholic Church and once I began to look around that fact became painfully obvious. It is not only the cathedral that oozes Christianity, there are paintings, relics, statues, and crosses ALL OVER the place. Even the literature that is distributed stresses the Christian origins of the place and downplays the Muslim contributions made in Cordoba. One pamphlet says: “It is a historical fact that the basilica of San Vicente was destroyed in order to build what would become the Mosque, a reality that questions the theme of tolerance and was supposedly cultivated in the Cordoba of the moment.”

To me, this all just seems wrong. I understand that the Muslims lost Cordoba almost a thousand years ago, but the Catholic Church’s insistence on dominating the unique beauty of the Great Mosque today seems purposefully divisive. It would have such greater meaning if the Catholic Church treated this amazing building as an example of inter-faith cooperation. Perhaps they could invite the Islamic community to display some of their relics and art. I understand that they don’t have to–they are after all the “winners”. But in 2010, with so much animosity between religious faiths, it would be an enormous gesture of peace and good-will.  Doing so would remind the world that Christianity is less about empire and more about religion today.





The Beauty of the Alhambra & the Generalife Gardens

26 07 2010

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In the past, when I read about the incredible beauty of the Alhambra, it always left me with nagging questions:  How was it that a culture that created such exquisite and delicate artistry in the world be largely only thought of now as a violent and destructive force in the West?  And what was I doing as a history teacher to help my students see Islam as a great contributor to world civilization instead of a destroyer of one?  Seeing the Alhambra today in person was such an amazing experience that only further deepened my resolve to teach a more complete history of Islamic civilization–one that focuses on the positive impact it has had throughout history.

First, a little history of the Alhambra–which is a fortress-palace complex (as well as ruins of a town) surrounded by massive, unadorned walls on a high cliff across the Darro River from the Albaicin.  It was begun in the 11th century by a local sultan, but reached it full glory under the Nasrid emirate in the 13th and 14th century when Granada was the final bastion of Islamic rule in the region.  After the Christian re-conquest that occurred in 1492, King Ferndinand and Queen Isabel ruled from the Alhambra. Their grandson, Carlos V, destroyed a large section of the original Islamic architecture to build a large Renaissance style palace. By the 17th century, Granada had become less important to the monarchy and was used to house soldiers during Napoleon’s occupation of Spain.  In 1828, the American writer, Washington Irving moved into part of the largely abandoned palace where he wrote Tales from the Alhambra in 1832.  This created a tourist boom for the Alhambra and began a long process to restore its magnificent beauty.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and is considered one of the most important examples of Islamic architecture in the world.

So why is it that so many people view Islam as a culture of violence and repression today and fail to recognize the beauty, exemplified by the Alhambra, that Islam has brought into the world?  Simply stated, most people in the West are completely ignorant of Islamic history.  It is just not presented to students in school–where the vast majority of people learn their history.  Without the background knowledge, it is not easy to correct the negative view of Islam.  It is especially difficult when there are fanatics who perpetrate atrocious acts in the name of Islam and a media who insists on reporting the most extreme and violent news to keep people tuned in.  It takes work to see beyond the headlines and people are just content to believe that the one small representation of Islamic culture that they see in the media is the “truth”.  I want to help my students understand that there is always more to the past and the present than obviously meets the eye and that they can and should dig deeper.