Al-Andalus: Multiculturalism, Tolerance and Convivencia

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By Dr. Mohamed Chtatou


Settled in the Iberian Peninsula since the eighth century, the Arabs have developed a plural civilization that has left in the Christian memory contradictory accounts and appraising, but seeing, nevertheless, as a high time of positive multiculturalism and insightful tolerance.

Is the idyllic vision of a peaceful cohabitation between the three religions of the Book in medieval Spain a myth or a reality? This question has fed all kinds of fantasies through the centuries and still does today.

In medieval Spain, Muslims, Jews and Christians knew how to invent tolerance. The Andalusian culture of this period is that of a prosperous society rich in splendor, where dialogue and circulation of ideas, texts, in languages was rife for the benefit of knowledge and advance of science.

Al-Andalus: rarely has history taken on the features of a myth as much as with these two words, symbols in the Arab memory of a golden age of tolerance and reason, seen alternately on the European side as a cursed parenthesis of which Christian Spain will try to eliminate all traces or as a blessed moment – and lost – of dialogue between cultures. The seven centuries of Muslim presence in the Iberian Peninsula (711-1492) have been the source of a great deal of ink and an equally great number of divergent interpretations.

Emergence of a brilliant and tolerant Arab-Islamic civilization

Marked by nearly eight centuries of Muslim presence, Spain has witnessed the emergence of a brilliant Arab-Muslim civilization impregnated, undoubtedly, by Jewish and Christian flavors, a civilization whose legacy still testifies to its splendor today that of eternal land of al-Andalus. Although it was reconquered in 1492, Arab poets and writers since will follow one another to profess its greatness: The Lost Paradise, al Jannah al mafqudah.

Thus, in view of the impact left in the minds, it seemed necessary to understand the remarkable place that this civilization holds in the Arab culture: al-Andalus restored in all its immensity still marked by the coexistence of the three great monotheistic religions is always central in Arab imagination. E. Levi Provençal illustrates well this reality when he writes:

“If there were Christians in Muslim Spain at all times, it would be a long time before the memories of reconquered Spain would tolerate the presence of organized Muslim communities in their possessions. There will not be Muslims living freely, permanently, in Christian lands until the end of the eleventh century or the beginning of the twelfth, when groups of Moriscos will be attested for the first time. On the other hand, one will always meet, until the end of the Middle Ages, on each side of the border marches of Spain, relatively numerous and often prosperous, in any case always very active, Jewish communities. “

In the X th century, the high point of Andalusian civilization was knowledge, the only thing that mattered. Under the reign of Andalusian great caliphs, the importance of science and the role of knowledge were paramount and Cordoba, capital of the Caliphate, was a city so developed, both socially and economically and scientifically, that at that time few cities could compare to it. Actually, only two cities could, Byzantium and Baghdad. Cordoba had numerous universities and libraries with books from all over the world. All these public places, which are commonplace today, revealed the great wealth of Cordoba’s cultural and scientific scene.

Less than a century after the Hegira, the Arab armies came to conquer, with great difficulty, the Maghreb. They won to their side many converted Berbers/Amazighs who accompanied them in their conquests. In 711, one of them, Tariq Ibn Ziyad, crossed with his men the Strait of Gibraltar to which he would give his name: Jabal (mountain) Tariq. The Muslim cavalrymen entered the Iberian Peninsula without hindrance, aided by the collapse of the Visigoth power and, most likely, by the support of the Jewish communities, which had been facing persecution since the kingdom had joined Roman Catholicism a century earlier. In 732, the conquering forces reached Poitiers, where their momentum was broken. However, they remained in Narbonne for twenty years.

The state they established on the other side of the Pyrenees was more durable. Organized on the model developed in the East of putting under Muslim law local populations left, initially at least, to their religion, ahl adh-dhimma, their culture and, often, their land. It is grouped from 756, around Cordoba, where the last representative of the Umayyad dynasty, Abd ar-Rahman I (731- 788 ), overthrown in Damascus, had withdrawn.

Christians and Jews were free to practice their religion, provided they paid a special tax jizyah  and recognized the dominance of the Muslims. At the beginning, the former were most likely in the majority, but they slowly melted into an Arabic-speaking and Muslim culture where the two communities finally found a place for themselves that was quite different.

Judaism, actively involved in commercial and even political life, was to have an important influence. The intellectuals who marked this development – Ibn Gabirol, Maimonides were the most well-known – often wrote in Arabic; their thought was nourished by the discussions which took place among the Muslim religious scholars ulema, notably around the Greek philosophical heritage, and their work inspired both Islamic thinkers and Christian scholasticism. But they were no less unambiguously part of the Jewish tradition, which they helped to enrich and develop tremendously.

Ramin Jahanbegloo argues:

“One might try to find the philosophical core of Islamic nonviolence in the civilizational dynamism of the Andalusian experience. We must emphasize that Andalusia established a connection between the Orient and the Occident and between Antiquity and the Renaissance. Al-Andalus in particular, but also the Islamic civilization in general, served as both the repository of ancient Greek knowledge and science, and a crucial transmission point in its journey to the Christian-dominated West. The cultural legacy of Cordoba is impressive in its scale and splendor, encompassing on the one hand the Arab-Islamic tradition of Ibn Tufayl and Averroes (Ibn Rushd), and on the other hand the Judaeo-Arab heritage of Ibn Gabirol and Maimonides (Ibn Maymun), thinkers who used Arabic as their medium of expression. Comparisons have often been drawn between the Summa Contra Gentiles of St. Thomas Aquinas, Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed, and Averroes’s The Incoherence of the Incoherence. Cultural coexistence of this kind was made possible by religious and legal principles that were far-reaching in their implications. This is why the Andalusian experience is an exceptional moment in history, probably unique in its own time and rarely matched in any other. “

True mixture of styles and emblem of the multitude of ethnicities present, the Andalusian heritage linked to the religious architecture, the music or the poetry in a unique fashion. Never elsewhere will you find art like this. The monuments do nothing more than tell the story of Spain, a Spain that was a meeting place of many civilizations. The calligraphy, represented harmoniously on the walls, the poems and the repetition of the motifs are still admired today.

It will be in al-Andalus that also the Greek philosophers will resurface by the translation of their works for the first time in Arabic, and will even be improved there. The study of certain sciences such as astronomy or mathematics will be able to develop and spread throughout Andalusia without hindrance. The botany, reached a level whose brilliance remained throughout history difficult to match. The scientists came from all over Europe to Toledo, and the works of the greatest, such as Averroes (1126- 1198) or Maimonides (1138- 1204), themselves based on the works of Aristotle, would be the initiators of the Renaissance: al-Andalus constituted a real window open to the Muslim East and Byzantine East. The Muslim presence left, thus, an enormous heritage of much scientific and cultural importance.

During the reign of Abd ar-Rahman II (792- 852), the capital of Cordoba alone had at least four churches and chapels in operation, as well as nine monasteries and convents in which “their rites took place before the eyes of Muslims. “One of these churches, Santa Maria, apparently even attracted pilgrims from distant countries who held it in high veneration. In return, the loyalty of the Mozarabs to the Umayyad house never wavered. If Abd ar-Rahman I and al-Hakam I (771-822) had to fight against all the Arab or Berber/Amazigh clan chiefs and warlords in the country, they hardly had to worry about a stab in the back of their dhimmis. Better still, along the border, it was not uncommon for Christians to serve in the garrisons, to participate in seasonal raids and to volunteer in the defense of al-Andalus against their co-religionists in the north – even though the dhimma regime normally exempted them from military service. It should also be remembered that Charlemagne’s famous expedition south of the Pyrenees had failed miserably thanks to the loyalty of the Mozarabs of Saragossa, who had refused to betray the Muslim garrison and open the gates of their city to the Frankish emperor.

Development of science

This consecration of an ancient political rupture did not prevent the civilization whose development was favored by the newfound order from being fully integrated into the exceptionally vast universe that was Dâr al-Islâm, a territory that stretched from the Atlantic to the Indus, from the confines of the Holy Roman Empire to the steppes of Central Asia, and in which people, inventions – such as paper, borrowed from the Chinese – and ideas circulated.

Estatua de Ibn Rochd.

The scholars, or ulema, of Andalusia, willingly combined the interpretation of sacred texts and legal customs with a curiosity for astronomy, medicine or botany, almost all traveled. They traveled to Fez, Kairouan, Cairo or Baghdad to study or to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, sometimes taking advantage of the opportunity to engage in trade. This was epitomized by the travels of the great Andalusian explorer Ibn Jubayr (1145-1217). The ulema constituted an influential body, active in the administration, and encouraged the contribution of knowledge and ideas developed elsewhere in the Muslim world.

The Caliph Al-Mamun (833- 786), who reigned from 813 to 833, protected the Mutazilite movement, a rationalism current that bordered on free thought. He also actively encouraged the translation of Greek authors, often entrusted to Syriac Christians before being transcribed into Arabic. Although Mutazilism did not survive the subsequent political tensions, the study of the “science of the ancients” –philosophy– continued to develop in Baghdad, Samarra and Khorassan. Al-Farabi (872-950) earned for his commentaries on Aristotle the uncontested title of “second master” (after the Greek philosopher), while a century later, Ibn Sina (980-1037), through his works in medicine and philosophy, gained a fame that would distinguish him even in Christianity under the name of Avicenna. To mention only two of the scholars whose writings are discussed from one end of Dâr-al-Islâm to the other.

Their ideas reached al-Andalus, where they made their own translations, especially of Pedanius Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica, enriched on the basis of local botanical species. Ptolemy’s Almagest was also studied and the Andalusian astronomer Al-Zarkali (Azarquiel) (1029- 1087) completed and corrected it. Applied sciences such as agronomy and medicine, at first in Christian hands, were also honored, as was genealogy, fueled by the tendency of Berbers/Amazighs and Christians to invent Arab ancestry. Knowledge was disseminated, sometimes in rhyming form, in the adabs, treatises on the customs and knowledge indispensable to an honest man. Biographies of scholars were compiled to show the extent of Andalusian knowledge.

At the center of all this activity is the study of sacred texts and law. In the second field, Andalusia was linked to the Malikite school, which for a long time gave precedence to a meticulous codification of custom over reference to the Qur’an and the hadith. As for the former, its articulation with intellectual activity in all fields undoubtedly forms the most sensitive and controversial point, then as now, of Muslim thought.

The Andalusian culture of this period is that of a prosperous society rich in splendor, where dialogue and circulation of ideas, texts, in languages was rife for the benefit of knowledge and advance of science.

The Qur’anic revelation is a given that no one thinks of questioning, or rather, that all research, scientific as well as philosophical, aims to confirm. But the framework it provides for these activities can be quite broad: studying creation in all its aspects, or even exploring the springs of human thought, is this not a way of celebrating a god whose very great abstraction can leave an important place for speculation?

From one school or period to another, the answer to this question varies, as does the freedom left to intellectual activity. Very broad under the second caliph, the protector of sciences Al-Hakam II (915-976), the latter was restricted whenever popular religious sentiment was mobilized to question the excesses of the powerful, as for example when power passed, in 981, into the hands of the mayor of the palace, Al-Mansur (938—1002), who burned the library of Al-Hakam II.

The dissolution of the Caliphate of Cordoba into a constellation of small rival kingdoms, the Taifas, at the beginning of the eleventh century, created just as many local situations, but overall gave rise to a rivalry between courts that was favorable to artists and scholars. However, another development jeopardized the breadth of vision of al-Andalus: the rise in power of the Christian kings of Aragon, Castile, and Leon, who nibbled ever more effectively at its territory, feeding the mistrust of the Andalusians towards their religious minorities.

At the end of the century, the Taifas, some of whom were allied with Christian princes, bowed to the Berber/Amazigh dynasty of the Almoravids (1056 – 1147), who established an austere power over what was left of Andalusia, which was further strengthened some fifty years later by their successors, the Almohads (1130–1269). The Jews were forced to apostasy. From then on, it was in Toledo, which became Castilian in 1085, that the scholars of the three religions lived side by side in a model inspired by that of the Umayyads.

A land of tolerance and opportunity, al-Andalus was also a melting pot of cultures where Jewish communities, cosmopolitan to a fault, were enriched by the contributions of the various traditions imported by their immigrant co-religionists and opened up to the intellectual effervescence of the Islamic civilization of the time. Although few of them seem to have converted to Islam, the Jews adopted the language of the conquerors so well that by the end of the reign of Abd ar-Rahman II, even their religious texts were written in Arabic. It was also in this language that they strengthened their ties with their eastern colleagues in the Talmudic academies of Babylon, which compiled Jewish law not far from Baghdad, under the equally tolerant reign of the Abbasids (750-1517). Their scholars studied the subtleties of Halakha, the very demanding Jewish Law, the exegesis of the Torah, the Hebrew language, but also, increasingly, philosophy, science, mathematics or literature and philology – under the influence, no doubt, of the fervent passion of the Arabs of al-Andalus for grammar.

The reign of the first Caliph of Cordoba also saw, at the same time, the beginning of the first great Golden Age of the Jews of al-Andalus, closely linked to the figure of one of the closest advisors of Abd ar-Rahman, Hasdai ibn Shaprut. Initially introduced to the court as a physician, the man quickly gained the affection of the sovereign to the point of wearing several hats: appointed minister in charge of customs and international trade, he was also a diplomat and maintained an ongoing correspondence with the distant kingdom of Khazars, this steppe empire between the Volga and the Black Sea whose rulers and elites had converted to Judaism. He also took advantage of his position to intercede on behalf of his co-religionists who were being persecuted elsewhere in the world; thus a letter he wrote with a certain aplomb to Byzantium to demand the protection of his brothers living in The Eastern Roman Empire, asserting that the very favorable terms granted to the Christians of al-Andalus were conditional on the good treatment of the Jews of Constantinople. He was not just another civil servant:

The king’s income from the many merchants who come here from various countries and islands amounts to one hundred thousand florins per year,” he boasted, “and all their trade and business must be subject to my direction. Praise be to the Almighty, who thus grants me His mercy! No sooner have the kings of the world perceived the greatness of my monarch than they hasten to send him gifts in abundance; it is I who am charged with the reception of these gifts and the delivery of the rewards granted to them.

Doctor, diplomat and high dignitary, himself inclined towards belles-lettres and eloquence, Hasdâi ibn Shaprût was also a patron of the arts and maintained at his own expense a veritable community of scholars, poets and rabbis who came from afar to take advantage of his hospitality and generosity. Under his leadership and thanks to his almost unlimited financial resources, the Jewish quarter of Cordoba experienced an unprecedented intellectual and cultural blossoming in this highly favorable environment for scholarly work.

Intellectual influence and vivre-ensemble

The intellectual influence of Andalusia did not dry up – on the contrary, it was at this time that two of its most famous figures, Ibn Rushd (or Averroes) (1126- 1198) and Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), were born. The former was actively protected by the Almohad conqueror of al-Andalus, Abd-al-Mumin. Like his predecessor Ibn Tumart, the latter advocated a return to an uncompromising monotheism (Almohad means “one who proclaims the divine unity“), rationalist and puritanical, marked by the influence of the Kharidjite movement, a rigorous secession from Shiism.

Iluminación retratando a Ibn Arabi.

A jurist committed against Malikite traditionalism, a medical scholar, a commentator on Aristotle, Ibn Rushd believed, like Ibn Tumart (and, in his own way, Maimonides), in a search for God through reason, which led him to attack the Persian mystic al-Ghazali (1058-1111), author of a violent attack on philosophy in the previous century. Ibn Arabi, for his part, followed the line advocated by al-Ghazali of the pursuit of an intuitive knowledge of God through asceticism and spiritual quest. Considered as one of the main mystics of the Muslim world, his posterity is not comparable to that of Averroes, whose influence was mainly exerted on the Christian world of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

For, like Norman Sicily, the Christian kingdoms that occupied almost the entire Iberian Peninsula at the end of the 13th century served as a bridge for European clerics who had already been interested in Arab translations and knowledge for a century and had come to seek in the ruins of al-Andalus the elements of an intellectual renaissance that was less well known but perhaps no less brilliant than that of the 15th and 16th centuries.

The contacts will continue more or less as long as the rump emirate of Granada, now vassal of the king of Castile, lasts. When the union of the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile allowed it to fall in 1492, the Muslim parenthesis was closed with brutality – expulsion of the Jews, forced conversion of the Muslims, who would be expelled in turn, although Christianized, a century later. Oblivion sets in, for a while.

The great mosque of Cordoba, built between the end of the eighth and the end of the tenth century, thus illustrates the affirmation of the new power and the formation of a cultural identity. In the middle of the ninth century, the case of the martyrs of Cordoba highlights the crisis caused by the Arabization and Islamization of Christians. A century later, the figure of Hasdai ibn Shaprut, Jewish secretary to Abd ar-Rahman III, attests to the integration of the Jewish community of al-Andalus, and to the influence of the caliphate-he went on an embassy to the Byzantine emperor. At the same time, the construction of the palace of Madinat al-Zahra, destroyed by the Berbers during the troubles of 1009, represented both a political manifesto and a cultural achievement that was truly Andalusian. Andalusia of the Taifas remained a fertile cultural ground in the 11th century: Samuel ibn Nagrela, the Jewish vizier of the king of Granada, had for the first time the idea of composing poems in the sacred language, Hebrew. Ibn Hazm’s Necklace of the Dove  shows that Arabic love poetry was at its peak. The Normans who conquered Barbastro in 1064 and appropriated the music of the Arab notables transmitted this poetic sensitivity to the Latin world.

In al-Andalus, the Arab culture became stronger, thanks to the debate of ideas that enriched the visions of everyone, and nuanced the convictions, making fanaticism recede. Soon, Cordoba became the second city in the world after Baghdad, the place from which the light shone in Europe, and the obligatory crossroads of every great philosopher and scholar. Jewish and Christian Mozarabic scholars enriched Arab culture and developed their own cultural heritage. Arabic is the language of all. Protected by emirs and caliphs and developed by enlightened rabbis, Judaism lived its golden age. In fact, it is a unique moment in the history of the world where each community participated fully in the development of the surrounding culture without losing any of its religious integrity. And this, despite a total acculturation.

The Christian Western world was fascinated as much as frightened by this new religion which made the culture of al-Andalus an art of living. Thus, at the beginning, the West led a policy of closure, and the influence is momentarily contained. But it could not do so for long, and the attraction is irresistible. Translators set out from Italy and from all over Europe to transpose Arabic works into Latin. Italy was hit hard, Averroes, who had brought religion and philosophy back into line, was on the minds of every learned Westerner. The West was reborn, the light returned, and it is of this light that still shines over Europe today and by which it lives.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on twitter: @Ayurinu

Primary Sources

Constable, Olivia Remie, Medieval Iberia, Readings from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Sources (Philadelphia, 1997), 47, ‘The Legal Status of Jews and Muslims in Castile’, pp. 269-275.

Core readings
Fuch, B, Exotic Nation: Maurophilia and the Construction of Early Modern Spain, introduction and chapter one (Philadelphia, 2001) (E book available)

Glick, Thomas, F., and Orio Pi-Sunyer, ‘Acculturation as an explanatory concept in Spanish History’, Comparatice Studeis in Society and History, 11:2 (1969): 136-54.

Soifer, Maya, ‘Beyond convivencia: critical reflections on the historiography of interfaith relations in Christian Spain, Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies, Vol. 1, No. 1, January 2009, pp. 19–35.

Said, E., “Orientalism Reconsidered, “Cultural Critiques, 1 (1985), pp. 89-107

Further Reading

Mann, Vivian B., Glick, Thomas F., Dodds, Jerrilyn D., eds, Convivencia, Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain (New York, 1992).

Amelang, James, Parallel Histories: Muslims and Jews in Inquisitorial Spain (Louisiana, 2013), Introduction, Parallel Histories; 1, The Decline of Coexistence; 9. Creating Conversos 1391-1492

Harris, K., From Muslim to Christian Granada: Inventing a City’s Past in Early Modern Spain (Baltimore, 2007).

Fernández-Morera, Darío, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (Wilmington, 2016), Chapter 3, ‘The Daily Realities of Al-Andalus’, pp. 83-118.

Said, E. Orientalism. London, 1978.

References in Spanish :

Ayaso Martínez, José R., 2000, “Antigüedad y excelencia de la diáspora judía en la Península Ibérica”, Miscelánea de Estudios Árabes y Hebraicos, sección Hebreo 49, 233-259.

Barrios Aguilera, Manuel. La convivencia negada: historia de los moriscos del Reino de Granada. Granada: Comares, 2008.

Cano Pérez, María José & Espinosa Villegas, Miguel Ángel. Historia y Cultura del Pueblo Judío. Granada: eug, 2007.

Chalmeta, P. Invasión e islamización: la sumisión de Hispania y la formación de al-Andalus. Jaén: Universidad de Jaén, 2003.

Guichard, Pierre. De la expansión árabe a la reconquista: esplendor y fragilidad de al-Andalus. Granada: El legado andalusí, 2002.

Navarro Peiró, Ángeles. Literatura Hispanohebrea. Madrid: Laberinto, 2006.

Valdeón Baruque, Julio. Cristianos, judíos y musulmanes. Barcelona: Crítica, 2007.

Sobh, Mahmud. Historia de la Literatura Árabe Clásica. Madrid: Cátedra, 2002.