Building the past through the eyes of the present: Were the Kingdoms of Medieval Spain a model of tolerance?

16th century map of IberiaBuilding the past through the eyes of the present: Were the Kingdoms of Medieval Spain a model of tolerance?

By María Jesús Fuente

Paper given at the 3rd Global Conference (2009)

Abstract: Confrontation between Western societies and Islamic societies, and between Muslims and Jews, has led many people to try to build harmony among these communities. This calls attention to look back to the interactions between Christians, Jews and Muslims in medieval Spain. After the terrorist attacks to the trains in Madrid (March 2004), Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero pointed out that Spain has a long history of interaction among the three religious groups, which might bear on contemporary problems. More recently, US President Barak Obama remembered in his speech at the University of El Cairo that “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition”. Obama saw the history of medieval Spain as a model of tolerance.


In this paper I am going to look at the ways in which contemporary concerns have shaped historians’ depictions of Medieval Iberian societies, and how that distant past is now used by politicians. Despite debates about the role of pluralism in forming Iberian identities, pluralism provides models, whether of convivencia or conflict, that now dominate discussions of western medieval culture in general. The paper traces the roots of this debate back through the centuries. I will focus on how medieval society in Spain dealt with many of the same issues facing us today, such as cultural and ethnic diversity or linguistic difference. Finally I will refer to the scholars, in particular American scholars very interested in the topic, who have helped to spread the knowledge of the Spanish multicultural society, and especially the idea of harmony of a “culture of tolerance”. They are building the past according to the interest of the present.

Introduction: Over the last ten years, several famous and infamous figures, have referred to Medieval Spain in noteworthy ways. The first of them was Osama Bin Laden, who, in October 2001, the day that the bombing of Afghanistan by the American troops started, said: “The world must know that we will not allow in Palestine a repetition of the tragedy of Al Ándalus”. Bin Laden went along with the path followed recently by Arab scholars of idealizing the Arabic past, in particular the culture of Al Andalus.

Three years later, after the attacks on the trains in Madrid in March 2004, President of the Spanish government, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, proposed the alliance of civilizations. In a speech he pointed out:


I represent a country, Spain, that has always been a crossroads and point of encounter of cultures, traditions and religions. We have a multiple and diverse identity, with strong Mediterranean roots, and we work on it because we know and appreciate its wealth. We aspire, as we did in the famous Toledo School of translators and at other times of our history, to be introducers, translators and facilitators of encounters and dialogues.

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