History is my second love, right after my wife. So how is it, then, that my history teachers managed to omit a fact so breathtaking and so relevant to this broken world of ours rife with multicultural religious conflict? How did I get short-changed in the historical knowledge department?
I’m not alone. Chances are you missed the boat, too!
It all began with my simple question: Is it possible for Muslims, Jews and Christians to live together in peace? You know, get along? Hang out? Play together? Party together? Fall in love? Marry one another? Share languages and customs, that sort of thing?
Well, 90% of the responses come in the form of a knee-jerk retort of, “Are you CRAZY?! Look around, open your eyes!” This is often chased by a derisive laugh, maybe even a kick in the rear.
Let me break it to you gently. Here’s what my teachers didn’t tell me. Not only did Muslims, Jews, and Christians find a way to live together in peace (shocker #1), but they lived together in peace for a couple of hundred years (shocker #2). Who knew? I didn’t. Bet you didn’t either!
When and where? In medieval Muslim Spain (a.k.a. al-Andalus), under the enlightened, tolerant rule of the Umayyad Muslim Caliphs in Córdoba, Spain, beginning in the 10th century. This was smack in the middle of The Dark Ages, a time when my teachers told me civilization ground to halt.
Guess what? It didn’t.
A Little Reminder:
Córdoba in the mid-10th century was a truly remarkable place, a place almost impossible to exaggerate. Córdoba was the largest city in Europe, the richest, the cleanest, with the largest library in the world (over 400,000 volumes!), running water, indoor toilets, lighted streets, public paths, and public hospitals. One of the largest mosques in the world (the Mesquita – pic below). All this, plus an unprecedented intellectual flowering as the lost books of the ancient Greeks and others in the Near East were rediscovered and translated (into Arabic), setting the stage for major breakthroughs in medicine, philosophy, mathematics, poetry, agriculture, art, architecture and science. As I said, breathtaking! 10th century Córdoba was a city of song and dance, of poetry and book, of recitals and discourse.
This exuberant civilization blossomed in an embracive Umayyad Muslim culture that welcomed Christians and Jews into their ranks and encouraged their churches and synagogues. Here was a society with a progressive social mobility for minorities, and an intentional intermingling of languages, cultures and customs. This remarkable period is known today as convivencia (coexistence), a time still recognized by Jews as their “Golden Age.” Oh, and it occurred within the bounds of a Muslim-ruled society! Imagine.
That is not to say that life between the three Abrahamic faith traditions in al-Andalus was all a bed of roses; it wasn’t. Jews and Christians paid a tax to live there, and Christians were forbidden to ring their church bells or try to convert Muslims, but all in all, these three found a way to make it work over an exceptionally long period, and work well it did.
The Moral to the Story:
Here, then, is a singular existence proof of a lasting peace achieved within the obvious constraints imposed by a diverse multicultural, multireligious, multiethnic society. If it happened once, why not again?
Let me not be too harsh on my teachers. There was no conspiracy. To be sure, the fact of convivencia and the marvels of al-Andalus are out there, but somehow they tend to get glossed over, hidden within dense history texts, neatly squirreled away and tucked out of sight. Why? Perhaps in our post 9/11 world, it is just too easy to embrace the simple-minded view that peace among Muslims, Christians and Jews is a patently absurd idea.
But now you know. Peace did happen. Let’s join together and make this the year we reawaken a lost world that can help reshape our collective memory as a global community. Let’s dream a different ending, a world centered on tolerance and peace between we three. Convivencia.