Cultural flourishing in tenth century Muslim Spain among Muslims, Jews, and Christians
By Marilyn Penn Allen
Master’s Thesis, Georgetown University, 2008
Abstract: This thesis seeks to discover what made it possible for such an extraordinary cultural flourishing to occur among Muslims, Jews, and Christians in tenth century Muslim Spain during the reign of the Umayyad Muslim leader Abd al-Rahman III and his Jewish vizier (minister of state), Hasdai ibn Shaprut. What historical, societal, and personal factors made it possible for these two leaders to collaborate?
My analysis primarily looks at the time of Muslim rule in Medieval Spain (called al-Andalus by the Muslims and Sepharad by the Jews) from 711 to 1031 C.E. However, in order to place that time period in context, it is important to look at what was happening in Spain before the Muslim invasion as well as what was happening in the known world, in particular the Mediterranean basin, from the first to the eleventh centuries. For example, the Muslim empire spread rapidly in the seventh and eighth centuries, eventually encompassing the territories from Spain to the Indus River and controlling all the trade routes across the Mediterranean.
The discovery of the works of Aristotle and other Greeks during the eighth century by the Muslims in Baghdad was also important. The Muslims translated the Greek documents into Arabic, analyzed the ideas, provided commentary, an continued the process of discovery. The information, spread throughout the Muslim world, would have a dramatic impact on the tenth century Spain of Abd al-Rahman III and Hasdai ibn Shaprut. Most of the organized scientific activity in al-Andalus began under their patronage. Together these two built an educational structure to support scholarly and cultural advancement. They put the scholars and translation teams in place that would impact generations to come, laying much of the foundation for the later European Renaissance.
Abd al-Rahman III based his rule on the collaboration of various national/ethnic/religious groups within his kingdom: Arabs, Berbers, Jews, and Christian descendents of the Iberio-Hispanic population. For the most part, he offered these groups equal opportunity to participate in public affairs and to rise in government service. He was known for his tolerance and encouraged a spirit of coexistence. He came the closest of any of the Spanish medieval rulers, Muslim or Christian, to achieving the spirit of convivencia, the idealizing word used by historians Ramon Menendez Pidal and Americo Castro to describe the co-existence of Muslims, Jews, and Christians in Muslim Spain. This is not to say there was total harmony and peace in Medieval Spain. There were tensions within the territory as well as external threats.
The thesis challenges us to learn from the examples set by Abd al-Rahman III and Hasdai ibn Shaprut and to seek a spirit of convivencia for our own imperfect world just as they did in their imperfect world. This requires us to step outside the real and imagined boundaries of our religions and societies, to act for a larger common good, and to teach our children these values.