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A Short History of Spain- Part 4: The Caliphate that Saved the World

The world before 1492....

As we move through his­to­ry, we get clos­er and clos­er to the year that would change Spain for­ev­er: 1492. It was in this year that the final Mus­lim state on the Penin­su­la, Grana­da, would fall to the armies of the Catholic Mon­archs Fer­nan­do and Isabela. It was in this year that Christo­pher Colum­bus would kneel on the beach in what is now one of the Bahami­an islands claim­ing a new world for those same Catholic Kings. It was that same year in which uncon­vert­ed Jews were expelled from the Penin­su­la has­ten­ing an intel­lec­tu­al decline that would be para­dox­i­cal to the rise in Spain’s impe­r­i­al for­tunes. It was 1492 that saw the pub­li­ca­tion of the first book of Castil­ian gram­mar, the lin­guis­tic bat­ter­ing ram that would be used to con­vert new worlds to the Chris­t­ian faith. All of these things hap­pened as the recon­quest of Spain was made com­plete, and it is for this rea­son that we tend to lav­ish all of our atten­tion on this peri­od of time. (The book to read is 1492: The Year the World Began.) The myths and truths that emerged from Spain’s Chris­t­ian recon­quest are felt today in pol­i­tics, cul­ture, and language. 

None of this dra­ma would have occurred how­ev­er, had the Mus­lims not con­quered the Penin­su­la in the first place. Fur­ther­more, long before the heady days of the Catholic Kings, Mus­lim Spain enjoyed the sta­tus of an inter­na­tion­al nexus of intel­lec­tu­al excel­lence; a sta­tus that Spain would nev­er again enjoy. This is the sto­ry that I want to briefly tell today; the sto­ry that is lost to the excite­ment of 1492. And it’s the sto­ry of how (just maybe) Spain saved the world. 

The sto­ry begins with a blitzkrieg, a remark­able 110-year expan­sion that began in Mec­ca with a sin­gle remark­able prophet in 622 CE and end­ed in France in 732 at the Bat­tle of Tours. The Umayyad Caliphate took much of what belonged to the Byzan­tine Empire, all the way to mod­ern Moroc­co, crossed the straights of Gibral­tar into mod­ern day Spain in 711, sub­dued the Visig­oths, crossed the Pyre­nees, and might have con­quered all of Europe had it not been for Charles Mar­tel. It was quite the land grab. After retreat­ing to Spain, the Mus­lim chief­tains estab­lished their rule in the por­tion of the Penin­su­la known as Al-Andalus. While its cul­tur­al heart rest­ed in the south­ern part of Spain, today known as Andalucía, it occu­pied 80% of the Penin­su­la, with the only excep­tion being the moun­tains of the north. (We’ll give them a pass on that since, as we remem­ber from a pre­vi­ous post, Augus­tus him­self was not able to make progress there.)

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Al-Andalus under the Caliphate

What cat­a­pult­ed Spain into the cen­ter of the world how­ev­er was anoth­er event. As opposed to ear­ly and medieval Chris­tian­i­ty which sub­ju­gat­ed knowl­edge and rea­son as imped­i­ments to faith, Islam­ic tra­di­tions, dri­ven by the Quran itself, placed a high val­ue on knowl­edge and intel­lect. Mus­lims val­ued intel­lec­tu­al curios­i­ty and active­ly patron­ized sci­ence, tak­ing pride in their libraries and cen­ters of learn­ing. As clas­si­cal wis­dom was slow­ly lost in the West, Islam­ic schol­ars were busy trans­lat­ing Aris­to­tle, Archimedes, Galen and oth­er great thinkers into Ara­bic. In med­i­cine, astron­o­my and math­e­mat­ics, the Arabs made great strides as medieval Europe declined into pover­ty and igno­rance. Much of this ear­ly progress took place in Bagh­dad. How­ev­er, in the year 750 CE, a revolt took place that end­ed the great Umayyad Caliphate. The only sur­viv­ing prince of the Umayyads, Abd al-Raḥmān fled Dam­as­cus and found refuge in Spain, where he would estab­lish the new Umayyad Caliphate. 

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One of the many fountains of Arabic (Moorish) origins on the streets of Cordoba

Abd al-Raḥmān’s Spain, often referred to as the Caliphate of Cor­do­ba, was one of remark­able accom­mo­da­tion. With lim­it­ed excep­tions, both Chris­tians and Jews were free to prac­tice their faiths. Reli­gious tol­er­ance and the val­ue placed upon learn­ing, brought schol­ars of all faiths to Al-Andalus, and Cor­do­ba even­tu­al­ly eclipsed Bagh­dad as the world’s fore­most cen­ter of sci­ence and phi­los­o­phy. (The book to read is The Orna­ment of the World.) Ara­bic became the ver­nac­u­lar in much of Spain, and today’s penin­su­lar Latin-based romance lan­guages such as Castil­ian, Cata­lan, and Por­tuguese are per­me­at­ed with Ara­bisms. From meat­ball (albondi­ga), to chess (Aje­drez), and Alge­bra, Spain’s Arab past is brought to life dai­ly in its lan­guage. The Cor­do­ba Caliphate would even­tu­al­ly splin­ter into inde­pen­dent Mus­lim prin­ci­pal­i­ties known as taifas. Nev­er­the­less, the spir­it of accom­mo­da­tion and tol­er­ance con­tin­ued to be present in many parts of the Peninsula. 

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The Interior of Cordoba's beautiful Masque-Cathedral

In 1035, Alfon­so VI and his Chris­t­ian forces cap­tured the Mus­lim city of Tole­do, anoth­er great cen­ter of Islam­ic learn­ing on the Penin­su­la. Alfon­so was the right con­queror at the right time. Rather than dis­man­tling the intel­lec­tu­al infra­struc­ture, he encour­aged col­lab­o­ra­tion with the res­i­dent Jew­ish and Islam­ic schol­ars. (Keep in mind, as I will dis­cuss fur­ther in my next post, that the Chris­t­ian re-con­quest, while reli­gious in leg­end, was main­ly polit­i­cal in prac­tice.) This win­dow of peace­ful coex­is­tence allowed schol­ars from the Latinized north of Spain to gain access to the libraries of the Ara­bized south. For the first time in almost a mil­len­ni­um, clas­si­cal knowl­edge would again be made acces­si­ble to at least the lit­er­ate minor­i­ty (the cler­gy) in West­ern Europe. The ear­ly Renais­sance and the lat­er more accel­er­at­ed tran­si­tion away from medieval igno­rance was depen­dent on these trans­la­tions, with the Arabs offer­ing a bridge to the West’s her­itage. It is in this preser­va­tion of ancient knowl­edge that Islam, and specif­i­cal­ly the Islam­ic intel­lec­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty in Spain, facil­i­tat­ed the devel­op­ment of the world we now live in. 

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One of the Alhambra's many beautiful green spaces

As Chris­t­ian pow­er was con­sol­i­dat­ed, and reli­gious dog­ma became polit­i­cal­ly expe­di­ent, Spain itself would be gut­ted intel­lec­tu­al­ly, but that’s a sto­ry we will get to in the next post. The Islam­ic past is not present today through lan­guage alone. It’s in the palaces and the masques. It’s in the details of the win­dows and the door­ways, in the pools of the Alham­bra, and the icon­ic Giral­da tow­er in Sevil­la. That Arabs (or Moors as they are referred to today) had an infat­u­a­tion with water is not sur­pris­ing. Their green spaces, and hydraulic engi­neer­ing can still be expe­ri­enced in many Span­ish cities. My two favorite Islam­ic places in Spain are the Masque-Cathe­dral in Cor­do­ba and the Alham­bra in Grana­da where the US Min­is­ter to Spain, Wash­ing­ton Irv­ing, penned his famous Tales. For a remark­able first-hand expe­ri­ence, vis­i­tors today can stay on the grounds of the Alham­bra itself in the Parador de Grana­da. It’s a qui­et place where you can enjoy the sound of run­ning water and appre­ci­ate the echoes of anoth­er Spain.