A Distinguished Sphere of Tolerance; Al-Andalus in the Middle Ages, Akif Coskun

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The development of Islamic jurisprudence and approach to science played a major role in Islam’s influence on Medieval Spain’s interfaith environment. Highlighting the historical and religious background of this region will help illustrate the Muslim’s interfaith context.

Particularly in the 7th-13th centuries C.E., the Islamic world, including Muslim Spain (Al-Andalus), was in the midst of a golden age.  Islam came into the world at the beginning of the 7th century A.D. and spread over all of the Middle East, North Africa, and Spain by the end of that century. The advances of the Muslim conquerors were undeniably fast—they were not gradual but rather by a series of leaps.

Muslim interest in al-Andalus began during the reign of the Caliph Umar (634-44), but the conquest of al-Andalus did not happen until 711. The Muslim conquerors entered al-Andalus through North Africa, which they had conquered by the end of the 7th century, and which proved to be a strategic location for further conquests, as it opened the way for the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula. North Africa proved to be an important bridge between al-Andalus and the Muslim world to the east, over which intellectual, religious, economic, technical, and commercial influences passed. Lombard defined the conquest of al-Andalus as: “The advent of the Muslim Empire, in fact, meant a widening of the commercial horizon and the elaboration of an economic domain which was more extensive, more varied, and more powerful than anything which had preceded it.”

 Indeed, a large movement came from North Africa to al-Andalus.  Hell stated: “with a thriving trade which Cordova carried on with the North African coast, nay with the very interior of Africa as far as Sudan; with its silk industry, which at the time of its highest bloom, engaged 130,000 men to work it; poetry, arts, sciences, not only kept pace, but became the ruling passion of Andalusians.”

In Watt’s view, the overrunning of al-Andalusia was a long process of expansion. During the long struggle, Muslims in the area built an oriental culture which took root in the West and evoked many magnificent cultural, religious, intellectual, and scientific developments. Although Spain had a number of distinctive features, such as its close contact with the West more than other Muslim countries at that time, Muslim Spain was also part of the Muslim area governed from within the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa. Additionally, Islamic Spain shared the same religious and intellectual background with the rest of the Muslim countries. Therefore it is important to note that Islamic Spain must be looked at in its special position, but it should also be seen as part of the Islamic world.

a)  The Religious Experience of Encounters in Spain

If the sources of Muslim faith influenced all Muslims in Spain, then they also influenced such persons as scientists who likely interacted with people of many different religious backgrounds. With regard to this Islamic background and the continuity of Islamic tradition and understanding even in Medieval Spain, certain points should be recognized.  The primary dimension in the Muslim community is its religiosity. This measure was valid in al-Andalus as well as in the rest of the Islamic world at that time. If Muslim Spain was part of the Islamic World at that time, it should be described by its Islamic essentials and background, and these are based on Islamic knowledge. In other words, contrary to some Western scholars, al-Andalus should be seen as a part of the East which extended to the West. The outstanding figures who were in the sphere of Muslim Spain inherited and used the same measures of religious life as did their  Muslim ancestors and those pioneers who were growing up in the Muslim  East.

From Islam’s early stabilization, the theoretical outlook of Islam extended also to the type of person who embodied it.  The intellectual leadership, a role played by the lay scientist who was the central figure in Islam, has remained almost unchanged. He is the religious scholar who encompasses within himself some or all of these several aspects of the sage: ordinary religious man, worship-prayer leader in the Mosque, scholar in the university, and spiritual guide in the community. If he happens to be a wise merchant that also falls into the picture, for he is traditionally an itinerant person. Specialists have existed in the Islamic community throughout the history of Islam, but they started their journey from the religious essentials which are the Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). These two essentials shaped the Muslim people as well as the Muslim community in the Islamic world, even in al-Andalus. Hitti asserted this role regarding the intellectual history of medieval Europe: “Muslim Spain wrote one of the brightest chapters in the intellectual history of medieval Europe. Between the middle of the eight and the beginning of the thirteenth centuries, the Arabic-speaking people were the main bearers of the torch of culture and civilization throughout the world.” Hitti is not alone in this idea; Western scholars always emphasize the rapid Islamic development of the Muslim culture and its influence upon European culture and civilization. Burke notes the development towards the great civilization and the unity of moral and human values:

“The rapid development of Muslim culture, no less than of Muslim power, is one of the marvels of history. All of the Muslim kingdoms of the world none was more distinguished by moral and material excellence, by learning and culture, by enlightenment and liberality, by the generous patronage of all that was useful and beautiful and good, than the Moslem Caliphate of Spain.”

Burke also talks about the influence of the Muslim scientists who grew up in al-Andalus during that time: “Astronomy and mathematics, chemistry and botany, medicine and surgery, intelligent agriculture and scientific irrigation, architecture and poetry, music, and all the minor arts and refinements of life, were studied and practiced with success.”  The culture of Muslim Spain reflected the continuity of the Islamic world in religious matters, and in the community related with the world around it. 

The period of the Middle Ages has been described in a number of ways; for example “dark” for the state of its intellectual development and scientific perspectives. Historians have often agreed on the Middle Ages as being the darkest period of history. Nevertheless, Jurji speaks differently about the Islamic world in that time. According to him, this way of speaking is not valid for the Islamic world of this time: “The unbiased verdict of history decrees that from the second half of the eighth century to the end of the eleventh century, Arabic was the scientific language of mankind. During that period, anyone with ambition to be highly cultured had to study Arabic, just as today whoever desires intellectual advancement must start by mastering one of the great Western languages.” Clearly, a large amount of original works were composed in Arabic by Muslim scholars. Although some historians state that the decline had started in the second half of the eleventh century which was referred by Western scholars as the golden age of Arab science, the influences of Muslim thought upon the Western world continued. Jurji wrote:

By that time the scientific primacy of the Arabs had lasted more than four centuries- a period of sufficient duration to breed a civilization. There was nowhere else in the world, in those days, a philosopher who could at all compare with Ghazzali (1058-1111), an astronomer like al-Zarqali nor mathematician like Umar al-Khayyam.

b) Muslim Scholars in the Islamic Context in al-Andalus

It is generally accepted in the history of Islamic philosophy that the careers of Muslim scholars in the West took an explicitly different form from that in the East. There are many references to Muslim scholars in terms of the Renaissance, enlightenment, and philosophical contribution in the medieval West, even in Muslim Spain. Furthermore, some of them are identified as key figures in these European movements during the Middle Ages. For instance, Kurtz deals with the famous scholar Ibn Rushd and pointed out that, “Indeed, one can make the case that Ibn Rushd (1126-1196), or Averroes, his Latinized name, was one of the key figures in the development of the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; at the very least he was a precursor of the modern scientific outlook.” Other European historians asserted that Averroes’s death becomes the turning point for European as well as Islamic intellectual history, and he became the symbol of the rise of European culture. In fact, Ibn Rushd was not alone in this sphere; he had many pioneers and peers as regards to the Islamic intellectual tradition. Al-Farabi (873-950) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980-1037) were well-known Muslim figures in the West in addition to Ibn Rushd. Their most important role was to save and transmit the ancient Greek classics, especially Aristotle, when this common philosophical heritage was in danger of being lost. It is not surprising that Ibn Rushd and other thinkers who are well-known in the West played a pivotal role in developing rationalism and the enlightenment along with other Muslim thinkers like al-Farabi, Avicenna, and Ghazali.

As it can be seen in the pattern of Ibn Rushd, his identity and ideas were abstract from his own Islamic framework, beliefs, and background, and not from other identities in Muslim Spain. In general, many Muslim scholars eventually lost their religious framework and background which were strongly related with the two Islamic essentials, namely the Qur’an and the tradition of the Prophet (PBUH). This posed no threat to their other philosophical and intellectual skills, but was a fact of identity among Islamic scholars. In relation to this, the fact that Muslim scholars were philosophers, theologians, and thinkers did not prevent their relating to pure Islamic sciences, and being Ulama, Fuqaha, Kadis and Lawyers in an Islamic context, especially in the broad sense of Fiqh, and their view of Muslim society.

Western scholars generally do not mention the background of Muslim religious scholars. Nevertheless, Watt dealt with Abu Ali Ibn Sina (980-1037), well-known in the West as Avicenna, by using a common Muslim illustration, even as scholars in the Muslim community do: “He grew up in Bukhara, and began his education by memorizing the Qu’an…” This was a first common step in the Muslim community. Watt added that he was also a good Muslim: “To begin with the latter, he was brought up as a good Muslim, he memorized the Qur’an and he studied the Shari’a or revealed law.” Of course, it is quite clear that Ibn Sina (Avicenna) did not live in al-Andalus, but this case reflects a pattern among Western scholars to dismiss the deep impact Islam had on these Muslim thinkers and on their work. Ibn Rushd was aware of Avicenna’s works at that time. However, it is interesting to note that although Watt gave a concise description of many Muslim scholars such as Ibn Hazm, Ibn Bajja, Ibn Tufayl, and Ibn Rushd in terms of their philosophical contributions in Spain, he did not mention their religious identity or philosophical thought. It is known, however, that some of them such as Ibn Rushd, Ibn Hazm, Ibn Tufayl, and Ibn Bajja were  Qadis or had such duties in the ruling government in their time, as well as being philosophers and theologions. For instance, Ibn Rushd adminisrated the office of Grand Qadi of Cordova for a period; Ibn Tufayl was minister of the governor of Granada; Ibn Hazm was a vizier for the last nominal Umayyad Caliph in Granada, and Ibn Bajja also served for about twenty years as vizir of the Almoravid Governor of Granada. It is very important to note that, there is no doubt that they must have influnced the ruling governers, even their social achievements, with their Islamic identity  and Islamic foundations. For instance, Goodman noticed Ibn Tufayl’s various interests about intellectual issues: “He was eager to reconcile religion and philosophy and gave great weight to revelation, not only the literal, but also at the more profound level.” In the meantime, Goodman spoke of Ibn Tufayl’s prestige and influence upon the Governor, the Sultan Abu Yaqub, even though Ibn Tufayl could have introduced his peers and his friends who were also scholars at that time, to the ruler. Goodman insisted on this and quotes from an Arabian historian:

“Ibn Tufeyl’s duties presumably included giving advice on political questions as well as medical ones; and whether formly or informly, he seems to have performed the role of a minister of culture. Marrakushi writes: ‘Ibn Tufeyl made it his practice to gather scholars from all over the world and saw to it that they obtained the interest and favor of the ruler. It was he who recommended, to Sultan, Ibn Rushd who first became known and appreciated as a result.”

What is essential to note is that while the Qur’an is not, in any direct literal sense, a science textbook, it  nevertheless, in its verses and words, directly awakens a scientific curiosity about natural phenomena. Therefore, the religious scholars, the Fukaha, Ulama, Qadis, Lawyers and others of Islam encouraged its study, thus paving the way for the growth of modern sciences. Scientific inquiry was widespread, and some of the greatest scholars and scientists of the world made wondrous discoveries and inventions.  Muslims led the world in the study of medicine, astronomy, mathematics, geography, botany, and physics.  They transmitted their studies to the West, where their work was built upon and further disseminated. There were also many Islamic writers, including Muslim thinkers of Spain (Al-Andalus) such as Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126-1198), Ibn Bajja (Avempace) (d.1138) Ibn Tufayl (1185), and Ibn Hazm (994-1064) who possessed knowledge of several disciplines, and in whom two or more levels of this hierarchy of knowledge may be found.  Hence, both intellectual achievements and religious experiences always flourished upon the model of the religious framework. For this reason, a model of the pure philosopher, theologian, and scientist is not ideal for Muslims. Rather, Muslims respect diversity of intellectual endeavors; however, they are more interested in the religious scholar today, as in the past.

Akif Coskun


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