By Mark R. Cohen
Paper given at Children of Abraham: Trialogue of Civilizations (2007)
Introduction: The notion of “convicencia” was invented by Spanish historians to describe Christians, Jews, and Muslims living together more or less peacefully in medieval Christian Spain. But the concept, if not the word itself, has equally been applied to Jewish-Muslim coexistence in the medieval Arabic-speaking Islamic world. Also commonly known as the “Golden Age” of Jewish-Muslim harmony, the idea especially pertains to Islamic Spain, from the mid-10th to mid-12th centuries, but it extends to the Judaeo-Arabic symbiosis in the entire Islamic world. The convivencia of the Islamic world and Reconquista Spain, taken together, is traditionally contrasted with the far less harmonious and culturally less integrated era of Jewish-Christian relations in the Ashkenazic lands of northern Europe.
To be sure, many Spanish historians today would distance themselves from the rosy picture of convivencia in Catholic Iberia, just as many Jewish writers have done for the Islamic-Jewish experience. The most recent statement in this mood comes from a Spanish literary scholar, Darío Fernández-Morera, writing about “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise” (2006). The opposite pole has been reiterated in recent years in the encomium for the Spanish convivencia by Maria Rosa Menocal in her book Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (2002).
The debate about the convivencia of Jews and Muslims in Muslim Spain and elsewhere in the medieval Islamic world stems from opposing political motives. One side portrays Islamic-Jewish relations as utter harmony, a veritable “interfaith utopia.” This viewpoint originated among nineteenth-century central European Jewish historians, who had their own political axe to grind, living with the unfulfilled promise of emancipation and yearning, nostalgically, for the “freedom” and “tolerance” they thought they saw in Spanish Islam. The claim of Islamic tolerance has more recently been taken up by Arabs and pro-Arab western writers, who blame Zionism for undermining the harmony of the past. The other side, responding to the first, is represented by Jewish and Zionist writers, who see Jewish life under Islam in the Middle Ages as utter suffering and disaster and assert that Arab antisemitism of the twentieth century is firmly rooted in a congenital, endemic Muslim/Arab Jew-hatred. Both claims, however, are based on historical myths.
The truth lies somewhere in between. The convivencia of Jews and Muslims in Muslim Spain and elsewhere in the medieval Islamic world was real, but its harmony had limits. It was marked by a legally-prescribed regime of discrimination and even witnessed periodic outbursts of violence. Nonetheless, the cultural achievement of Arabic-speaking Jewry; the political influence that some Jews attained in Muslim courts and Muslim intellectual circles; and the substantial security Jews experienced living among Muslims cannot be denied.