Friday, February 08, 2008

A new book on the Muslim conquest of Spain and Al-Andalus

Last week's New Yorker has a nice long review of David Levering Lewis's God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215 (if you have time, please read the full review). Apart from analyzing the book (she has some quibbles, but likes it overall), the review does a great job of summarizing some key aspects of Islamic Al-Andalus years in southern Spain:
In any case, however much Muhammad’s immediate successors may have struggled with their souls, they also, in the eighty-some years following his death, conquered Syria, Egypt, North Africa, Anatolia, Iraq, and Persia. By the beginning of the eighth century, Muslim forces stood at the northwest corner of Africa. There, only the Strait of Gibraltar, nine miles wide, separated them from the Iberian Peninsula. Iberia at that time was ruled by the Visigoths, a Christian people who did their best to wipe out other religions within their territory—Judaism, for example. There is some evidence that the Iberian Jews invited the Muslims to invade. In 711, they did so. The state that they established in Iberia, and maintained for almost four centuries, is the subject of David Levering Lewis’s “God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215”
Lewis actually claims that Muslim armies did a favor to Europe by invading the continent:
The Muslims came to Europe, he writes, as “the forward wave of civilization that was, by comparison with that of its enemies, an organic marvel of coordinated kingdoms, cultures, and technologies in service of a politico-cultural agenda incomparably superior” to that of the primitive people they encountered there. They did Europe a favor by invading. This is not a new idea, but Lewis takes it further: he clearly regrets that the Arabs did not go on to conquer the rest of Europe. The halting of their advance was instrumental, he writes, in creating “an economically retarded, balkanized, and fratricidal Europe that . . . made virtues out of hereditary aristocracy, persecutory religious intolerance, cultural particularism, and perpetual war.” It was “one of the most significant losses in world history and certainly the most consequential since the fall of the Roman Empire.” This is a bold hypothesis.
She sets the book in the context of post colonial writing and a reaction to anti-Islam sentiment after 9/11. Thus, she says, Lewis focuses on the multi-culti component of Spain under Islamic rule, especially under the reign of Abd al Rehman I who took over in 756:
Rahman was the founder of Muslim Spain’s famous convivencia. Translated literally, the word means “living together,” in spite of differences, and this idea is the burning center of “God’s Crucible.” I think it is the reason that Lewis chose to write about Muslim Spain. He is not an Arabist. He is best known for a two-volume biography of W. E. B. Du Bois (1993 and 2000), which won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for each volume. But that book, if it is not about Arabs, is about racial justice, and it is for the furtherance of such justice that Lewis so admires Rahman. Nevertheless, as he points out, the convivencia had its limits. It was not just a humane policy—an act of obedience to the Koran (“There shall be no compulsion in religion”) and a way of being civilized—but also a matter of Realpolitik. Iberia was a ragbag of religious and ethnic groups. Tolerance, what we would now call multiculturalism, was more likely to hold them together than forced conversion. Furthermore, the convivencia never involved complete equality. In the early years, a number of restrictions were placed on Jews and Christians. They had to wear identification badges. They could not proselytize, and they were required to pray quietly. Their houses could not be taller than Muslims’ houses. Most important, they had to pay a heavy tax, called the jizya. In time, many of these rules (not including the tax) fell away. Jews, especially, were allowed to enter public service, as scribes, clerks, advisers. They taught the Muslims how to run a government, Lewis writes. The golden age of Al Andalus, he says, was also the golden age of Sefarad, the Sephardic Jews. But even those who did not have brilliant careers no doubt found badges and taxes preferable to forced conversion or death. Eventually, many Jews and Christians did convert—probably, in many cases, to avoid the tax. At the end of the eighth century, the vast majority of people in Iberia were Christians. Two hundred years later, the majority were Muslims.
After talking about Charlemagne and the later fall of the Franks, the review returns to the intellectual and artistic contributions of Al-Andalus. I like the connection of Averroes and Maimonides to Thomas Aquinas and to the development of Greek thought in western Europe:
Instead, he turns to Muslim Spain’s contributions to learning, which peaked as its political situation was declining. Architecture continued to flourish (the Alhambra, in Granada, was begun in the thirteenth century), as did music, poetry, science, and mathematics. It is thanks to Muslim Spain that we no longer have to cope with Roman numerals. Paper-making technology was imported from China. The central library of Córdoba housed four hundred thousand volumes. But Al Andalus’s most lasting cultural achievement was its translation and elaboration of ancient Greek texts. In the tenth century, the physician Hasdai ibn Shaprut supervised an Arabic translation of the Greek De Materia Medica, by Dioscorides, a surgeon to the Roman army in the first century. Retranslated into Latin, this treatise was a standard medical reference until the Enlightenment. In the twelfth century, Averroës (Ibn Rushd) wrote his commentaries on Aristotle, and Moses Maimonides (Musa ibn Mayum) produced his Aristotle-inflected “Guide to the Perplexed.” Both these Córdoban philosophers took on the task of reconciling reason with faith, of proving that there was a God. For the Christian world, that job would be done by the Scholastics, above all by St. Thomas Aquinas, whose writings were the basis of European philosophy from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. But Aquinas relied heavily on Averroës’s reading of Aristotle. Insofar as Western culture grew out of Greek culture, and became “classical,” it did so because the scholars of Al Andalus transmitted Greek thought to western Europe.

By the twelfth century, though, such thought was dangerous in Spain. (Averroës’s books were burned; some were lost permanently.) It was more dangerous on the part of Jews, like Maimonides. He died in exile, bitterly reproaching his homeland for its abandonment of liberal ideas. (Here one thinks of the European Jews of the nineteen-thirties.) With the deaths of those two men, the lights go out in “God’s Crucible.”
This is an excellent review. I have only extracted out aspects that are relevant to the blog. But if you have time, read the full article and you will get a nice historical perspective of the time period and (obviously) a fuller critique of the book.