Searching for “La Convivencia” in Spain

If we can rediscover the spirit of convivencia, both Europe and the world will be a more peaceful and productive place.

Searching for “La Convivencia” in Spain

“Their first aim was how to acquire more knowledge and wisdom.” I was in the spectacular Grand Mosque of Cordoba, which was subsequently turned into a cathedral, and my Spanish guide, Imma Fernandez, an anthropologist, was talking about Muslim Spain a thousand years ago. She had a faraway look in her eye and seemed transported back to that time. “The best present you could give to a Caliph was a book, not material presents or gold or silver.” Muslim Spain, she said, was defined by the “respect of religious minorities, harmony, and peace.” “Unfortunately,” she sighed with a hint of sorrow, “we are far away from that, and I am considered a dreamer.”

With an Islamic presence that began in the eighth century, Spain provided one of the most significant poles of Islamic influence in Europe. It gave the world the term “La Convivencia,” or coexistence, which the Spanish use to discuss that period of time when Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together and created a civilisation that reached the heights of philosophy, art, architecture, agriculture, and science. A building from that time, the Alhambra palace, built by the Muslim rulers of Granada, is Spain’s toptourist attraction.

My trip to the southern Spain region of Andalusia presented an opportunity to learn more about that period in history and how the present-day Andalusians remember it. The visit was part of a pan-European project I was conducting along with a research team to investigate the place of Islam in European history and civilisation that will result in the forthcoming book, Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity. Our aim was to illustrate Islam’s great contributions to world civilisation and learning and find ways different communities could live together. These were urgent issues as terrorism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and attacks on immigrants caused tension and conflict across the continent.

Andalusia a thousand years ago, as the historian María Rosa Menocal writes in her book The Ornament of the World, was “an astonishing place” of “astounding wealth,” with “nine hundred baths and tens of thousands of shops, then the hundreds or perhaps thousands of mosques, then the running water from aqueducts, and the paved and well-lit streets.” The main library of Cordoba was said to have 600,000 books and manuscripts at a time when the biggest library in Christian Europe, in Switzerland, had some 400. There were seventy other libraries in Cordoba alone.

Islamic Spain produced such illustrious figures as Ibn Firnas, the first man to attempt flight, and Averroes, or Ibn Rushd, whose project of balancing faith with reason and Greek philosophy was subsequently taken up by Thomas Aquinas and others who applied Averroes’ method to Christianity.

Upon arriving in beautiful, sunny Cordoba, the seat of the old caliphate, we discovered that the memory of that time had not dissipated. In fact, many Spaniards we met, like Imma, were proud of this history and told us that their identity consisted of many different cultures and religions. José Escudero Aranda, the Director of the Madinat al-Zahara Archeological Site, the spectacular palace built outside Cordoba by Muslim Spain’s greatest and most famous ruler, Abdur Rahman III, said that Muslim Spain was a time of “religious tolerance and cultural tolerance.” “We are ourselves,” he said, “the sons, the inheritors of this mixing together. I think that fortunately we are not pure.”

The mayor of Cordoba, José Antonio Nieto Ballesteros, affirmed this belief. When I asked him in his office what message he had for Muslims, he said, “The first message I would like to give to the Muslim world is ‘thank you,’ because we owe them a culture and much of our character.” In the tenth century, he said,“Cordoba was the great city of the world,” with “the best writers, the best musicians, philosophers, physicians. This was all thanks to an expansive vision which was not restricted.”The mayor also issued an invitation to Muslims: “Cordoba is a home for Muslims as well. We don’t perceive you as a threat and are ready to receive you, that you should feel comfortable in this city.”

The foundation of this stunning civilisation based on learning and coexistence was laid by the Umayyad Prince Abdur Rahman I, who fled a coup by the Abbasids in Damascus and settled in Spain some four decades after Muslims first arrived on the Iberian Peninsula. The greatest achievement of Abdur Rahman, who had a love of architecture and poetry, was the Grand Mosque of Cordoba, which contained a thousand marble columns in shape suggestive of palm fronds. Being inside the mosque gave one the feeling of being in a forest. Matching them, just outside, was a grove of actual date palms, a tree Abdur Rahman is thought to have introduced to Spain. Inspired by the sight of a palm tree in Rusafa, his palace that he named after his Syrian birthplace, Abdur Rahman wrote a poem that captured his sensitivity and is indicative of the poetic and artistic culture of the Andalusia of that time:

“A palm tree stands in the middle of Rusafa,

Born in the West, far from the land of palms.

I said to it: How like me you are, far away and in exile,

In long separation from family and friends.

You have sprung from soil in which you are a stranger;

And I, like you, am far from home.”

In the sixteenth century, a cathedral was built in the centre of the Grand Mosque, and the Catholic Church still runs the building. We called on the Bishopric in their offices just next to the Mosque/Cathedral and had a fascinating discussion of Spanish identity with the priests, which they defined as Catholicism. As we left, Father Fernando Cruz-Conde, the Vicar-General of the Diocese of Cordoba, embraced us warmly and said this prayer for peace is invoking the patron saint of Cordoba:

“Let’s pray then to the Archangel St. Raphael, who is always together with the people who are travelling, so he might protect you and defend you against all evils, and that he might grant you success in your task so that we all come to the truth and live in peace. We ask this through the intercession of the Archangel St. Raphael through our God.”

While there is a lively debate today about the extent of the cordial relations between the religions in Andalusia, “la convivencia” or co-existence was a reality according to many Spaniards that we met, who also said it could be a model for the present and future. Considering the high tension surrounding Islam in Europe today, people in Europe and elsewhere can learn much from these Andalusians. There is no better place to explore these questions than in Andalusia. If we can rediscover the spirit of convivencia, both Europe and the world will be a more peacefuland productive place.


Daily Times is pleased to announce that Dr Akbar S Ahmed will be a regular contributar on these pages


Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. and the author of The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam and the forthcoming Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity.