Christians and Muslims in Times Past

Posted on January 1, 2011


Christians and Muslims haven’t always been at war, although it sometimes seems so. Leaving today’s relations aside for the moment, let’s take a look back in time.

You may be unfamiliar with the term Moors. It was what Spanish Christians called Muslims who crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 711 A.D. and invaded Iberia, the Roman name for Spain and Portugal.

That invasion set off a centuries-long struggle for control of the Iberian peninsula. The Moorish armies, led by Tarik ibin Ziyad, pushed all the way north to the Pyrenees, and even crossed into Gaul (modern France) before being stopped in a celebrated battle at Tours in 732 by Charles the Hammer, a Christian prince.

Around 1000, a number of small Christian kingdoms in the far north of Iberia along the Bay of Biscay who had survived the Moorish invasion and maintained their freedom launched some raids and incursions. This marked the beginning of the long “Reconquest” of Spain for Christianity that culminated in 1492.

During this long struggle for the domination of Spain, Christians, Moors and Jews, a small but important segment of the religious landscape, lived—perhaps surprisingly—at peace with each other, even while occasionally Moors and Christians fought the battles and campaigns of the Reconquest.

The Caliphate of Córdoba, a city in the southern Iberian province of Al Andalus (Andalucia), emerged as one of the two great poles of Muslim civilization, the other being Damascus, in Syria.

The flowering of Muslim civilization in Spain from about the eighth century to the twelfth century was in fact a spectacular moment in history, marked by a dazzling display of highlights in medicine, philosophy, theology, architecture, and agriculture for example that drew not only upon the new Muslims of Spain, but upon Christians and Jews living under them.

While the rest of Europe was deep into the Middle Ages, chivalrous, fractious, and feuding following the disintegration of the Roman Empire and the invasion of the barbarians (your ancestors and mine for the most part), the Moorish empire of Al-Andalus shone like a beacon of civilization.

The enlightened culture of the Caliphate of Córdoba produced some of the Middle Ages’ greatest philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, translators and physicians, of which two stand out.

One was ibn Rushd, known as Averroes in our Western tradition, and the second was a Jewish scholar and physician, Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonedes. Both lived in the twelfth century, were born in Córdoba, but traveled across the Muslim world, from Egypt to Morocco.

Averroes distinguished himself in many fields, including medicine, philosophy, and law, and is perhaps best known for his preservation and commentaries on Aristotle.

Many of Aristotle’s works were lost to Europeans but reentered Western European civilization through Averroes’s works, composed in Arabic and later translated into Hebrew and Latin, thus entering the mainstream of Western Christian culture. And Aristotle is arguably the most influential philosopher in Western civilization.

Maimonedes was equally distinguished as a physician and philosopher. It is hard to capture his influence on Judaic, Muslim and Christian theology and philosophy in a few sentences, so wide ranging was his work.

His studies of Jewish law still reverberate through the modern Jewish world, he published at least ten works on medicine in Arabic, was the physician to the Sultan of Egypt at one time, and his theological works influenced some of the greatest Christian theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas.

How did all this come to happen in the world of the caliphate of Córdoba?

Like so much in history, the answer is both complex and simple.

Basically it arises from the simple fact that all three of the great faiths to rise out of the Mediterranean world—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—were religions “of the same book,” the Bible. Jews and Christians were not to be forcibly converted to Islam but deserved a special treatment, the dhimma, which guaranteed to Jews and Christians their life, property, and religious toleration.

On the other hand, the dhimmi (or “protected” ones), paid a special tax and were second class citizens in many regards.

This period of convivencia as the Spanish call it (or, roughly, peaceful co-existence) came to end around 1086 when a new dynasty of Moors, the Almohades, came to power. Much more intolerant and narrow in their interpretation of Islam, they began to drive Christians and Jews away and insisted on the purity of the faith.

That is another story. For almost 400 years however, the lambs slept with the lions, proving, one must suppose, that not all history is marked by war and conflict.

Published as Religions of the Same Book by The Tuscaloosa News, Nov. 21, 2010

Posted in: History