Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Musings on Al-Andalus

I have just come back from a remarkable vacation in southern Spain and Morocco. Sometimes for vacation I just want to relax, get away from it all on a beach or in the countryside. But other times, I want to indulge my mind, experience another piece of the world. That's what I decided to do this time, so I spent the last few months more or less giving myself a mini-phd in the history of Al-Andalus (medieval Islamic Spain). I read a half a dozen or more wonderful books so that I would know what I was going to see and try to really understand the historical background of it all. I was not disappointed and will try to post some pictures. But I thought I would post just a few random thoughts on some of the surprising things I learned as I studied and visited places. In no particular order:
  • I've never really understood much about the Maghreb (Islamic North Africa west of Egypt or west of Libya depending on where you want to draw the line). I always assumed Morocco was the heart from which Islamic culture and arts spread into Al-Andalus. What I found was quite the opposite. While the armies and some of the rulers did pass from Morocco (or points further east) into Spain, Morocco for the first few centuries was not as developed a civilization or culture. It took a couple centuries after the initial conquest of Spain in 711 for high culture to really start developing in Al-Andalus, but once it did, the civilization of Spain far outstripped that of the relatively rough-and-tumble life of Morocco. As Al-Andalus steadily fell to the Castilians and the Portugese in the Reconquista, that Andalusian culture then fed back into Morocco. The wonderful culture and arts of Morocco are thus heavily in the debt of the Andalusians. I don't want to take the point too far, the Moroccan dynasties and cities certainly built much of their own high culture, but the contribution of Al-Andalus did in many instances precede that of Morocco and greatly enriched it.
  • One of the great romantic notions of medieval Spain is that of the Convivencia or supposed peaceful coexistence of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. There is a great degree of truth to this, but the more I read and the more I saw, the less I am convinced of the truthfulness of the idealized myth. One cannot of course ignore the many beautiful fruits of the mixing of cultures and the many examples of coexistence and cross-polination in the arts and other forms of high culture. Mudajar and Mozarabic architecture and art, the theological and scientific achievements of men like Maimonides and Averroes, the poetic achievements in Hebrew and Arabic, and on and on all bear witness. But at the same time, deep undercurrents of intolerance were always present and perhaps made the ethnic cleansing first of the Jews and then of the Muslims eventually inevitable. When Jews were seen as having become too powerful (such as following the years of the poet-warrior Samuel Ha-Nagid in Granada), they became easy scapegoats when things went wrong and anti-Jewish riots, executions, and crucifixions did occur (though it should be noted that crucifixion remained a not uncommon form of execution for folks of all religions). The great Maimonides himself eventually had to flee to Egypt because of persecution (where he fared quite well as the personal physician of Saladin it should be added). Christian priests and Muslim Fuqaha alike encouraged emmigration from lands where they did not rule (though they were not entirely obeyed, they were certainly seen by most as at least correct in principle). The Alcazar of Peter the Cruel in Seville/Ishbiliya is certainly one of the finest examples of Islamic-style art in the world right alongside the Alhambra, but it also provided easy propaganda fodder to his rivals for power who accused him of being a Moor-lover and thus played a part in his eventual downfall and murder by his half brother (who stabbed him in the face). On the whole, Christians did fare better under Muslim rule than Muslims eventually did under Christian rule, but in both cases examples and periods of discrimination were common through various forms of taxation or limitations on religious practice. Certainly something remarkable and beatiful was created, but problems between religions and cultures were also prevalent and eventually culminated in the Christians ethnically cleansing all the Jews and Muslims from Spain. The Muslims would not likely have ever done such a thing to the Christians or Jews, but they certainly were not sinless in those times and places they ruled either. The idealized myth is useful and not totally false in order to present a vision of what might be, but we shouldn't pretend it represented the full reality. Mutual respect and tolerance existed on one level, but it was also fragile and not always upheld.
  • Al-Andalus (by which I mean Muslim-ruled Spain) strikes me as a place whose existence was always more fragile than it was likely perceived to be at the time by it's inhabitants. The initial conquest of roughly 2/3 to 3/4 of the Iberian Peninsula was largely the result of Visigothic weakness. The Arab and Berber armies were surprised in many ways at their success, but rapidly consolidated their gains and took posession of the lands, setting about creating an Arab and Berber country in the process which was to be quite unique. But in failing to conquer the entire peninsula, they created the seeds of their own eventual defeat. They were at the fringes of the Islamic world and had failed to fully take over their land and as such to become the sole inheritors of the prior Roman/Visigothic legacy of Spain. In Egypt, Iran and other countries the Islamic ruling classes became the new possessors of the old order and set about constructing their new cultural and political edifice on the foundation of the old. In Spain they started to do the same, but a competing narrative survived in the northwest and the foothills of the Pyrenees -- a narrative which was deeply aggrieved and felt as if it were the true original inhabitants who had been unjustly pushed into a cold, dark corner of the land by foreign usurpers who were of an infidel faith in their eyes. If the Amirs, Caliphs, and Kings had gone on to complete the conquest of the peninsula, then those original inhabitants would as in Egypt and elsewhere steadily have become part of the new culture -- unique in some ways as a minority, but ultimately a part of a shared social fabric. Instead two opposing forces were set up. Demography clearly was big here: Islamic settlement of the lands of the Center, North, and West ceased to expand while Christian populations grew and settlement expanded. There are too many reasons for that to get into here, but needless to say, a static or shrinking population country is at a disadvantage versus a country with an expanding population. Societal organization also played a role: The Castilians and other Christian kingdoms as time went by were able to field large armies made up of a large segment of their adult male population. But in Al-Andalus the rulers came to rely heavily on professional militaries of foreign Berbers. Native Andalusis (who originally may have come from Arab, Iberian convert, or Berber stock but then settled down to become "locals") certainly played a military role, but again, they were professionals who were a relatively small piece of the population. When the survival of cities, kingdoms, and ultimately Al-Andalus itself was on the line, the natives may have been full of zeal to defend their lives, families, homes, and freedom of worship, but they had virtually no weapons or military skills to do it with. Those things had been delegated to professional armies who were extremely divided internally and then divided further by an increasingly unstable and incapable political ruling class. At times when the political class was strong and capable (such as the golden eras between the Caliph Abdal Rahman III and Al-Mansur or the Granadan kings Yusuf I and Muhammad V), the professional militaries were generally up to the job, but when (as inevitably happened) the politics broke down or the divided military elements became unmanageable, defeat at the hands of the Christians could be sudden and disastrous. Of course the Christian kingdoms had plenty of their own internal schisms, but as time went on, they solved them better and had greater unity and greater ability to call on effective outside resources, while Muslim unity steadily disintegrated along with the availability of reliable Muslim allies from North Africa or further afield. Finally, agriculture and the economic base. Al-Andalus had an enviable and effective agricultural system and a diverse economic base with good irrigated land for a variety of crops which produced surplus wealth which in turn allowed the development of other industries. Exporting goods to the wider Islamic world (and later to Europe) brought wealth and prosperity, as did the gold trade from Sub-Saharan Africa. But as political divisions and military disasters grew over time, and as demographic stasis and eventually drains took hold, agriculture and economic activity suffered and went into terminal decline. Crops and farmland were destroyed, the population dwindled and couldn't get it back running again in many cases (The rich farmlands around Cordoba may well have been more intensively and effectively utilized in the 10th century than they are even today). Then the Christian kings extortion of wealth, while it greatly enriched them and even other parts of Western Europe to which the gold flowed, drained away more and more of the economic surplus. At the end of the day, all of these pressures - demographic, military, political, economic, and others - combined to mean that perhaps Al-Andalus was always meant to be a flower that would bloom in great glory, but eventually wilt away. It didn't necessarily have to be that way, but the choices and mistakes made meant that is what happened.
  • The sadness of the fall of Al-Andalus in stages and then in a final tragic episode with the fall of Gharnata/Granada is hard to over-estimate. It was a sobering (though magical) moment to read the story of the fall of Granada from the top tower of the Alcazaba in the Alhambra, the very place the cross and flags of Castille were raised in January 1492. But perhaps even more sobering was to read of the fall of Malaga a few years before. The last viable major port city of the kingdom of Granada which could have served as a lifeline for the city of Granada fell in an epic battle which truly could have been something out of the Lord of the Rings or any great medieval epic which I had always thought of as trumped up modern fantasies. In Malaga the Andalusis and their Berber allies from North Africa who had come to defend the faith fought valiantly in a massive fortress for their lives, families, homes, and religion. Siege towers, cavalry, knights, early cannons, crossbows, sapping tunnels, holy men, warriors, foot soldiers, ordinary citizens, kings, clerics and other elements all participated. Starvation ran rampant in the city, assasinations were attempted, bodies were hacked to pieces, city walls crumbled, a valiant last defense was made. But in the end the sad tale was that the Christian attackers not only defeated the natives of Malaga, and not only did they dispossess them of their homes, but they sold them into slavery for resisting. And from that moment on, it was clear, Granada was doomed, and with it the last jewel in the crown of Al-Andalus. For the Christians, the sacred mission to retake that which they felt had been usurped in 711 was nearly at hand almost 800 years later. A zero sum game.
  • In reality, it was not entirely zero sum. The Christians defeated the Muslims, the Jews and then the Muslims were forcibly expelled from all of Spain, but despite the best efforts to bury it, something survived and is bearing fruits again today. After the Reconquista and the ethnic cleansing was completed, a cultural legacy remained. It was buried and ignored for centuries, but piece by piece, it has begun to come to light again. The art and architecture never fully disappeared, nor did the tales of the past. The poetry has begun to come to light again to Spaniards, and even the religion of Islam has begun to gain a new foothold, aided by the modern Spanish Constiution which establishes freedom of religion in a way which neither Catholics or Muslims of medieval Spain or Al-Andalus would have dreamed of. Immigrants from North Africa are again coming (where the cultural legacy of Al-Andalus greatly enriched the local cultures which now feed back in some measure to Spain), but also significantly, some Spaniards are themselves converting to Islam. Even those who do not increasingly recognize the rich Islamic past and have internalized a part of it, such as the poets of the generation of 27 who were inspired in part by a collection of re-discovered great Islamic poets of Al-Andalus who had been translated into Spanish in the early part of the 20th century.

My musings for tonight. I have many other thoughts on these topics, in particular the linkages and what-ifs between Islamic Spain and the European discovery of the Americas (it is not so inconceivable with a slight twist of history that there could have been Arabic or Turkish speaking Muslim countries in the Americas), on the experience of Muslims under Christian rule in medieval Spain and the theological and legal implications for today's world, and general lessons to be learned for the modern world's politics and cultures. But no more time tonight, maybe another time.


At 8:13 AM, Blogger Charles D said...

I don't have the mini-phd, but have been twice to Al-Andalus and marveled at the beauty of the place, especially the great Moorish buildings that escaped becoming churches.

I also just finished James Reston's Dogs of God which tells the story of the Inquisition, Reconquista and voyage of Columbus. There were indeed many implications and echoes in today's world in those tales.

At 4:29 PM, Blogger NonArab-Arab said...

Thanks for the book recommendation, I'll probably order it but it may be a long time til I get the chance to read as my past few months of reading for pleasure now need to give way to a greater work focus. I did not read much from the Spanish Christian/Castilian perspective, so reading up on that in a few different books is something I'd like to do now to complete the picture. You can see most of the books (and others) that I read here:

At 5:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This was a very interesting read. I just got back from Spain last week, and it took me this whole week to recover from the whole mystical experience. I just happened to stumble upon your blog (for those who believe in coincidences) while searching for Andalucian poets from the past...and I am not having much luck; either in Spanish or English. While in Barcelona, I also searched for a poetry reading location to go hear poetry live...but to no avil.
Blessings to you and yours.


At 11:46 PM, Blogger NonArab-Arab said...

Hi Barbara, glad you enjoyed the post. For all my more overtly political writings, much of my heart remains in culture and history. While my lack of Spanish means I probably can't be of much use for the poetry I imagine you are looking for, I would highly recommend "Poems of Arab Andalusia", a wonderful little translation of selected medieval Andalusian poets.

All the best to you and yours!


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