Once Upon a Time in Andalusia

By: Dr. Abdellatif Charafi

This article is intended to be a trip in time to a very special period in world history: from the ninth to the thirteenth century in Andalusia, and more specifically in Córdoba, where a million people lived in Europe's largest city, the cultural center of that period. There existed no separation between rigorous scientific study, wisdom and faith. Nor was East separated from West; nor was the Muslim from the Jew or the Christian. It was there that the European Renaissance actually began, and from where it grew.

By examining the trajectory of Islam in Andalusia, the objective is not to praise an illustrious dead, but to reintroduce in our life the affirmation of absolute and universal values of Islam without which our society will inevitably disintegrate.

The Myth of the Muslim Conquest of Spain

More than five hundreds years have elapsed since Islam was irradicated from Spain. The event was celebrated in grandeur at Expo '92 in Seville, during which the organizers tried to make us believe that Spain was formed by over seven centuries of continuous struggle against Islam. But was the defeat of the Muslims on 2 January 1492 a liberation for the Spaniards? Was the reign of the Muslims a colonization of the Iberian Peninsula?

When looking at the Muslim expansion in Spain one is struck by its speed, its generally peaceful aspect and civilizational component. It took the Muslims less than three years (from 711 to 714) and one battle (at Guadalete, near Cadiz) to spread throughout the whole of Spain. In contrast to this, it took the Prophet Muhammad twenty-two years (from 610 to 632) and nineteen expeditions to get Arabia to accept Islam. This difference in both time and effort, to gain Arabia and Spain to Islam, is due to theological affinities as well as socio-cultural and politico-economical reasons which appealed to the Spaniards.

Pre-Islamic Arabia was predominantly polytheist, with small Jewish and Christian communities. There, Islam had to fight against a 'world without law' (Jahiliyya) to make monotheism prevail. Pre-Islamic Spain was Christian with important Jewish communities. This difference, according to Roger Garaudy, not only explains the speed of the expansion, but also its type.

W. Montgomery Watt in A History of Islamic Spain states:

It is a common misapprehension that the holy war meant that the Muslims gave their opponents a choice "between Islam and the sword". This was sometimes the case, but only when the opponents were polytheist and idol-worshippers. For Jews, Christians and other "People of the Book", that is, monotheists with written scriptures - a phrase that was very liberally interpreted - there was a third possibility, they might become a "protected group", paying a tax or tribute to the Muslims but enjoying internal autonomy.

The case of Spain is therefore not exceptional and that is due to the very essence of Islam.

The Prophet Muhammad never pretended to create a new religion: 'Say: I am no bringer of a new-fangled doctrine among the Messenger' (45:9); and 'Nothing is said to thee that was not said to the messengers before thee' (41:43). He came to remind the people of the Primordial Religion: 'Say ye: We believe in God, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to all the Prophets from their Lord: we make no difference between one and another of them: and we bow to God (in Islam).' (2:136). Islam came to confirm the previous messages, to purify them from historical alterations to which they were subjected and to complete them. The Qur'an says: 'If thou wert in doubt as to what We have revealed unto thee, then ask those who have been reading the Book from before thee.' (10:94). The Muslim community was then opened, without distinction to all those who believe in the unity and transcendence of God.

Besides, in the Iberian Peninsula there raged a civil war between Trinitarian Christians, who accepted the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, and Arian Christians, who saw Jesus not as God but as a Prophet inspired by God. The Council of Nicea in 325, invoked by the emperor Constantine in order to unify ideologically his empire, imposed the dogma of Trinity and condemned the teachings of Anus of Alexandria who refused these dogmas. The conflict erupted, when in 709, the Trinitarian Christians declared Roderick as king. The archbishop of Seville opposed him and the inhabitants of present Andalusia (Bétique) revolted against his rule. When Roderick invaded Andalusia, the inhabitant of the latter looked south help. The able Berber General Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed to Algeciras and a battle in Guadalete, near Cadiz took place. The Bishop of Seville as well as that of Toledo rallied to the Muslim army.

The peasants had a very difficult time, were ill-treated and reduced to the status of slaves. Poverty, corruption, ignorance and instability were the order of the day. Even the free men felt themselves to be underprivileged. There was much discontent, and many ordinary people looked on the Muslims as liberators and gave them all the assistance they could. The Jews who have been persecuted for a long time under the Visigoth rule (e.g. a special decree in 694 enslaved all those who did not accept baptism), opened the gates of many cities. So deep and widespread was the satisfaction given to all classes that during the whole of the eight century there was not a single revolt of the subjects.

It is difficult to understand how a small army could cross the whole of Spain in less than three years if one imagines a military invasion. The historian Dozy, in Histoire des Musulmans d'Espagne, describes the event as 'a good thing for Spain' which produced an important social revolution, setting the country free from the chains it was groaning under for centuries. Taxes were much less compared to those imposed by previous governments. The Muslims introduced land reforms by taking land from the rich and distributing it equally among serf-peasants and slaves. The new owners worked it with zeal. Commerce was liberated from the limitations and high taxes that caused its demise. Slaves could set themselves free in return for a fair compensation, something which threw in new energies. All these measures, says Dozy, created a state of well-being which was the reason behind the welcoming of the Muslims.

The great Spanish writer Blasco Ibanez in Dans l'ombrc de la cathédrale talks about a 'civilizational expedition' coming from the south rather than a conquest. To Ibanez, it was not an invasion imposing itself by arms, it was a new society whose vigorous roots were sprouting from everywhere. Describing the conquering Muslims, he says: 'The principle of freedom of conscience, cornerstone of the greatness of nations, was dear to them. In the cities they ruled, they accepted the church of the Christian and the synagogue of the Jew.'

History, therefore makes it clear that the legend of fanatical Muslims sweeping through Spain and forcing Islam at the point of the sword is an absurd myth. The expansion of Islam in Spain was not a military conquest, but a liberation.

The Meaning of Life in Andalusia

The meaning of life and its goal in Andalusia at the time of its Islamic apogy, directed each act of day to day life, as well as scientific and technical research. The spiritual giants like the Muslims Ibn Rushd (i (1126-1198) known in the West as Averroës and Ibn Arabi (1165-1240), or the Jewish philosopher Maimonides (11351204), are some of the men who put across most brilliantly the message of Andalusia. This spirit lay behind all the scientific and technical progress of those golden centuries.

Science was not set apart from wisdom and faith, and nothing can express this fact better than Ibn Rushd when he writes:

Our philosophy would serve for nothing if it were not able to link these three things which I have tried to join in my 'Harmony of science and religion':

A Science, founded on experience and logic, to discover reasons.

A Wisdom, which reflects on the purpose of every scientific research so that it serves to make our life more beautiful.

A Revelation, that of our Qur'an, as it is only through revelation that we know the final purposes of our life and our history.

The unity of the Abrahamic tradition and the critical approach to philosophy are expressed with the same force, in the work of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who was a contemporary of Ibn Rushd. At the synagogue before the Torah, he said:

If for Ibn Rushd the Holy Book is not our Torah but the Qur'an, we both agree about the contributions of reason and of revelation. These are two manifestations of one same divine truth. There is only a contradiction when one is faithful to a literal reading of the scriptures, forgetting about their eternal meaning.

In Andalusia, Islam takes a new dimension with Ibn 'Arabi, nicknamed Muhyi al-Din (the one who gives life to faith). What interested Ibn Arabi was not what a man said about his faith, but rather what this faith makes of that man. He states:

God is unity. The unity of love, of the lover and the beloved. Every love is a wish for union. Every love consciously or unconsciously is a love for God.

Bear witness to this presence of God within yourself, of God's creation, which never ceases. The act is the exterior manifestation of faith. Islam recognizes all the Prophets as messengers of the same God. Learn to discover in each man the seed of a desire for God, even if his belief is still dim and sometime idolatrous. Help to lead him towards the fullest Light.

Ibn Rushd endeavours to bring to light the universal message of Islam overshadowed by regional traditions, when he defines the best society as, 'That where every woman, every child and every man is given the means of developing the possibilities God has given to each of them.' The power to establish it 'will not be a theocracy, like that of the Christians of Europe, a power of religious accomplices or tyrants: God says in the Qur'an, "He has breathed into man His spirit". Let us make Him live in every man!' When asked about the conditions ofsuch a society, he answers: 'A society will be free and pleasing to God, when none acts either out of fear of the Prince or of Hell, nor the wish of a reward from a Courtesan or of Paradise, and when no-one says: This is mine.'

Islam in Andalusia gave birth to a number of spiritual giants who have shown that humanity has no future without the warmth and the spiritual values that emanate from the belief in the transcendence and oneness of God. Men such as Ibn Massara of Córdoba (883-931), for whom man was responsible of his own history; Ibn Hazm of Córdoba (994-1064) who was a pioneer of the comparative history of religions; Ibn Gabirol of Malaga (1020-1070) whose fundamental work was the synthesis of the Jewish faith and the philosophy of Ibn Massara; Ibn Bajja (1090-1139) with whom the Islamic philosophy xvas presented in a systematic way with its own direction; Ibn Tufayl from Cádiz (1100-1185) whose central theme was the relation between reason and faith.

All these men of knowledge, wisdom and faith stand as memories to a glorious past when true Islam was preached and practised; a time when the beautiful example of the Muslims won them fame and respect; a time when these peace-loving people would rise simply because injustice was being practised and would fight in the name of God with a strength that led handfuls of believers to victory over armies of non-believers.

The Style of Life in Andalusia

Andalusia was unique in terms of its tangible accomplishments in all spheres of life. Learning was emphasized, marked by a fascination with science, the Arabic literature and the philosophical discourse on reason and faith. In the world created in the land of Andalusia, there was commercial wealth, wealth in terms of consumption, and wealth of productivity and exchange. There was also a wealth of information, thanks to the libraries of Córdoba and a wealth of thinking about the meaning of life, God, and material things. And there were even poets who sang to all the ways of wealth.

We will restrict ourselves to a brief description of the scientific and technical achievement, and a more detailed account of the Mosque of Córdoba as it is one of the first monumental expressions of Muslim rule, and arguably the building that most fully embodied an image of the Muslim hegemony in Andalusia.

Scientific and Technical Achievement

When discussing the scientific development in Andalusia, one cannot separate it either from the contributions of the other great civilizations, nor from the wisdom and faith that inspired the efforts of all researchers in Andalusia: science is One because the world is One, the world is One because God is One. This principle of tawhid commanded all aspects of scientific research in Andalusia as well as in other parts of the Islamic world, at its period of apogy. The following are some of the achievements of such a philosophy of life.

The first attempt to fly was in Córdoba by Abu Abbas al-Fernass. Al-Zahrawi, born near Córdoba in 936, was one of the greatest surgeon of all times. His encyclopedia of surgery was used as a standard reference work in the subject in all universities of Europe for over five hundred years. Al-Zarqalli, who was born in Córdoba, devised the astrolabe: an instrument which is used to measure the distance of the stars above the horizon. The astrolabe made it possible to determine one s position in space and the hours of the day, to navigate and to call the faithful to prayer at the given time.

Al-Idrisi, who was born in Ceuta in 1099 and studied at Córdoba, drew maps for the King Roger II of Sicily in which he used methods of projection to pass from the spherical shape of the earth to the planisphere that were very similar to those used by Mercator four centuries later.

The agricultural and irrigation methods of the Muslims of Spain were revealed by the great Italian engineer Juanello Turriano, who came to Andalusia to study the hydraulic and agricultural techniques of eleventh century Muslim Spain to solve his problems of the sixteenth century in Italy.

The Great Mosque of Córdoba

Córdoba deserves its titles of the 'bride of the cities' and the 'jewel of the tenth century'. A city of factories and workshops, which attracted many scholars and produced her own. It was the first city with street lights in Europe. It rose to eminence as the torch of learning and civilization at a time when the Normans had savaged Paris and England had been ransacked by the Danes and Vikings. Its showpiece was its magnificent mosque, which is the most famous building of Spain after the Alhambra palace in Granada.

The foundations of the mosque were laid by Abd al-Rahman I in 785 on the site of an old Christian church. Since the time of the conquest in 711, the church had been used by both Muslims and Christians. The Muslims bought the church because of the growth of the population at that time, and not because of religious intolerance. It had been enlarged between 832-848, then in 912, and mainly in 961, by al-Hakam II, with its splendid mihrab. Al-Mansur, in 987, doubled the prayer hall which then contained 600 columns. It had already been perturbated in 1236, when Córdoba fell to Ferdinard III of Castille and chapels were inserted, and further in 1523 when a cathedral was built in the heart of the mosque. King Charles V is recorded to have remarked upon seeing the new cathedral: 'Had I known what this was, I would not have given permission to touch the old, because you are making what exists in many other places and you have unmade what was unique in the world.' As we can see it today, despite the opposition of the Spanish government to a UNESCO project to move the cathedral as it is without omitting the least detail (as the temple of Abu Simbal in Egypt was moved), the Mosque of Córdoba still reflects the image of the Muslim art at its best.

The practical problem faced by the architect of the Córdoba Mosque for the construction of a huge room for a big community, was to raise the roof of the oratory to a height proportionate to the extent of the building, so that a feeling of depression-like the one we feel when we get into an underground parking can be dispelled. The antique columns, or the building-spoils which were available, were insufficient. It was therefore necessary to supplement them, and the example of Damascus suggested arcades on two levels. But the model of Córdoba has a very surprising feature: the lower and upper arcades are no longer part of a wall, but are reduced to their pillars and arches without any intermediate masonry. The upper arches which support the roof, rest on the same pillars as the lower arches. Such a concept, without precedent in the history of architecture and unique to the Córdoba Mosque, is a real defiance to the weight and inertia of stones.

Let us say, to give a better picture of the image evoked by this architecture, that the curves of both series of arches soar like palm-
fronds from the same trunk, which rests upon a relatively slender column, without the feeling of being too heavy for it. The arches with their many-coloured and fan-shaped wedge-stones have such expansive strength that they dispel any suggestion of weight. This expression in static terms of a reality which goes beyond the material plane, is due to the outline of the arches. The lower ones are drawn out beyond the shape of a pure semicircle, whereas the upper ones are more open and purely semicircular.

Many archaeologists have suggested that the composition of the arcs used by the architect of Córdoba was inspired by the Roman aqueduct in Merida. However, there is a fundamental difference between the two compositions. The Roman architect had respected the logic of the gravity, a building's support must be proportionate to the weight, thus the upper arcs must be lighter than the supporting elements. For the Córdovan architect-and more generally for all Islamic architecture-this rule does not work. Why?

To answer this question we have to move from the technical considerations, to the symbolic expression of space in the Muslim prayer, which was the most important factor preoccupying the 'Master' of Córdoba. The purpose was not to achieve an architectural exploit, but rather to create a new type of space-one that seems to be breathing and expanding outwards from an omnipresent centre. The limits of space play no role at all; the walls of the prayer hall disappear beyond a forest of arcades. Their sheer repetition (there were 900 of them in the original mosque) giving an impression of endless extension. Space is qualified here not by its boundaries but by the movement of the arcades, if one may describe it as movement. This expansion which is both powerful yet in reality immobile. Titus Burckhardt describes this as being 'a logical art, objectively static but never anthropomorphic.'

It is to al-Hakam II that we owe the marvellous mihrab, the master piece of Córdovan art, as well as the various copulas which stand before it, including their substructures, of interlacing arcades. The niche of this mihrab, which is very deep, is surrounded in its upper part by an arch, that is like an apparition and a source of light, of which the very curve seems to dilate, like a chest breathing in the air of infinity. According to the highest Muslim spirituality, beauty is one of the 'signs' which evokes the Divine Presence. The inscription above the symphony of colours, in severe Kufi script, proclaims the Oneness of God.

The Mosque of Córdoba is the embodiment of the universal message of Islam. Muhammad Iqbal in his poem A Ia mosquée de Cordoue wrote:

Oh! Holy Mosque of Córdoba
Shrine for all lovers of art
Pearl of the one true faith
Sanctifying Andalusia's soil
Like Holy Mecca itself
Such a glorious beauty
Will be found on earth
Only in a true Muslim's heart

Who Killed Islam in Andalusia

The scientific and philosophical learning of the Andalusians was channelled off beyond the Pyrenees, to irrigate the dry pastures of European intellectual life. Students from Western Europe flocked to the libraries and universities set up by the Muslims in Spain. This decisively changed the European mind, and it is no exaggeration to say that Western civilization owes its regeneration to the intellectual energy released by the dynamo that was Islam. The period of regeneration, which started in Florence in sixteenth century Italy, is referred to by the West as the Renaissance. It was a direct result of another European Renaissance which began at the university of Córdoba in ninth century Spain. This profound truth of our common history becomes clear when we know how to listen to the music of the stones of Córdoba. There is, however, a fundamental difference between the two 'renaissances': the one which started in Córdoba was based on faith and was conscious of the universality of the divine; the one which began in Florence was made against God with its essential project of secularising all aspects of life.

The reasons leading to the death of the Córdovan-type renaissance generated by Islam, can be understood best by reference to the causes of its success. Islam owed its spectacular success entirely to the teachings of the Qur'an and the example (Sunna) of the Prophet Muhammad (s). The active vigour of the system was neutralized as soon as the Muslims relegated the Qur'an to the status of a treatise on dogmas, and the Sunna became a mere system of laws and a hollow shell without any living meaning. In his Muqaddima, Ibn Khaldun condemns the methods of education practised by some of the fuqaha' of Andalusia when, he says that, instead of helping the student to 'understand the content of the book on which he is working', they force him 'to learn it by heart'.

The Maliki school of thought (madhhab) was so dominant in Andalusia to the point that no other madhahib were taught, and knowing by heart the Muwatta' of Imam Malik and its commentaries was enough to make a faqih a renowned scholar. This closure of the door of ijtihad (independent judgement), which would have been condemned by Imam Malik himself were he to witness it, was encouraged by most of the rulers of Andalusia for it implies an unconditional obedience to the established power. It led to an intellectual degeneration, the treatment to those spiritual giants mentioned before illustrates this best. Ibn Massara was forced to exile; Ibn Hazm was evicted from Majorca; al-Ghazali's books were burned; the universal library of al-Hakam II was thrown into the river; Ibn Tufayl and Ibn Rushd were expelled; and Ibn Arabi evicted. All these acts were not performed by Christians, but by fellow Muslims! These were but signs that this grand structure represented by Islam which had weathered many a storm, had reached a stage when its inner vitality had been slowly sapped away and one powerful blast might well uproot it from the soil on which it has been thriving for centuries.

The early Muslim conquerors in Spain had a mission which made it impossible for them to be selfish, cruel or intolerant. The moment this was lost on their successors, their clannish spirit replaced their unity of purpose. At one time there were as many as twelve Muslim dynasties. That was a signal for collapse. The Muslim society came to represent a decadent social order incapable of dynamic growth and with no capacity for effective resistance. Under such circumstances, it is difficult for any society to survive a serious external threat. The Muslim rule over the Iberian Peninsula started to shrink on account of the treachery of the different Muslim Princes until Granada fell to the hands of the Crusades on 2 January 1492.

When Abu Abdullah the last king of Granada, looked at the Alhambra for the last time, tears came into his eyes. At this, his aged mother Aisha said: 'Abu Abdullah Cry like a women for a kingdom you could not defend as a man.' But our history should play a more inspiring and guiding function than to reminisce about the past. When one sees all these marvels, and all these palaces left in Andalusia-one wonders: Surely, there must have been injustice, there must have been oppression. As Abu Dharr said to Mu'awiya: '0 Mu'awiya! If you are building this palace with your own money, it is extravagance and if with the money of the people, it is treason'. We should not glorify our past and our ancestors regardless of their mistakes. Our study of the history of Islam should be more objective, and not a mere justification of all acts by our predecessors.


We must aim to ensure that the tragedy of Andalusia is not repeated. To do that we must not address our children: Once upon a time in Palestine... Once upon a time in Bosnia... We need a true Islamic Renaissance that will lead us to the eternal and universal Islam. An Islam that is the constant appeal for resisting all oppression because it excludes any submission other than to the will of God and holds man responsible for the accomplishment of the divine order on earth. An Islam, in the words of Roger Garaudy, whose principles are:

in the economical field: God alone possesses,
in the political field: God alone commands,
in the cultural field: God alone knows.

It is for us to respond to this eternally living call: without imitating the West and without imitating the Past.


The Holy Qur'an, Translated and Commented by Abdullah Yusuf Ali.

Ibn Rushd, On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy, trans. by George F. Hourani, 1960.

Roger Garaudy, 'For an Islam of the XXth Century', Report presented at the 1st International Conference of Muslims of Europe, Seville, 18-21 July, 1985.

Roger Garaudy, L' Islam, en Occident, Editions l'Harmattan, 1987.

Khola Hassan, The Crumbling Minaret of Spain, Ta- Ha Publishers, London, 1988.

Pamphlet about the Calahora Tower in Cordoba, 1988.

Ali Shariati, And Once Again Abu Dharr, trans. by Laleh Bakhtiar and Hussain Salih, The Abu Dharr Foundation, Tehran, I 985.

Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam, World of Islam Festival Trust, London, 1976.

J. D. Dodds (ed), Al-Andalus, The Art of Islamic Spain, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1992.

W. Montgomery Watt, A History of Islamic Spain, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1967.

Dr. Abdellatif Charafi

[Currently, he is a Research Associate at the School of Mathematical Studies, University of Portsmouth. He obtained his PhD in Computational Mathematics from Wessex Institute of Technology, Southampton, and a BSc in Pure Mathematics from the Ecole Normale Supérieure of Rabat, Morocco.]

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