Muslim rule: The other side of the story

Our minds grow closed, our books remain unread and our true history is forgotten. But there exists a glorious past.

Faiza Rahman February 24, 2013
Our minds grow closed, our books remain unread and our true history is forgotten. But there exists a glorious past, the example of which can erase the shadows of the present and illuminate our future. ILLUSTRATION: JAMAL KHURSHID

A forgotten fairytale must be told. It is a fairytale set amidst opulent palaces in which lived people from different lands and different beliefs. Palace courtyards echoed with strums of harps, lush gardens were redolent of citrus fruits, velvet lawns speckled with fresh water fountains, and libraries bosomed a wealth of rare knowledge.

The fairytale is the history of Muslim rule in southern Europe, remembered as ‘al-Andalus’. It is a story which remains unwritten in books that are blind towards an era epitomising a love for knowledge, for alien peoples, and for celebrating differences and contradictions. Indeed, Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula from 718 to 1031 AD painted a breathtaking picture of ethnic pluralism, religious tolerance and cultural sophistication.

Today, it is difficult for many to understand that Islamic rule helped pave the way for “Western values” to reach the West. Alas, the history of Muslim rule in al-Andalus remains stubbornly unread. The era is discounted as just another of the several Muslim expansions which ascended the ladder of glory and withered away into nothingness. But Muslim expansion in Europe left anything but a withering legacy. It provides answers which may serve as antidotes to the surmounting hostility between Islam and the West.

Muslim expansion into Europe has been the subject of many squabbling controversies. There are claims, for instance, that Islam was spread primarily by the sword, and was driven by a greed for land and wealth. But a peek into history adds much nuance to the conventional narratives, debunking prejudices held by those in the West as well as in the Muslim world. Islam did not make inroads into Europe purely on the basis of spiritual appeal, or conversely, on the basis of brutal military assaults. Rather, Islam’s stronghold in Europe was established through a combination of military prowess, competent governance and a flourishing exchange of ideas pertaining to the theological as well as the secular domain.

Historian Mahmoud Makki from the University of Cairo writes that Tariq Bin Ziyad’s military intervention in Southern Europe in 711 AD was welcomed by the governor of a Spanish city (Ceuta) to curb the power of a hostile Visigothic king. In the documentary When the Moors ruled in Europe, Bettany Hughes, an Oxford historian, says: “The traditional explanation is that society collapsed when the Arabs invaded Iberia. However, society collapsed during Gothic rule. Recopolis, which was the royal city of the Visigoths, has been thoroughly excavated by archaeologists. No evidence of violence was found after Muslim invasion. On the other hand, Muslims started to build a new society here.”

That Muslim expansion was welcomed by locals is understandable once the on-ground crisis in Iberia — and the rest of Europe — is taken into context. Europe was a wreck when the Western Roman Empire breathed its last in the late third century. As Roman authority dwindled, barbarian tribes (Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals and Franks) parceled away territory, plundered the lands and menaced the local population. Lands which were spared remained in the possession of Byzantine kings, who played the card of religion (Orthodox Christianity) to salvage power at home. The Byzantine king was the ‘viceroy of God’ and heterodox Christians and Jews were persecuted by the authorities. Dogma remained the order of the day.

At a time when Europe was steeped in ignorance, Muslims had consolidated land and crossed intellectual milestones in Asia and Africa. As followers of a religion whose first dictate was to “read”, they applied themselves hungrily to new ideas.  This expansion was not a colonialist venture in the modern sense, motivated by territorial hunger at the expense of the natives, as many in the West would have us believe. There was no ‘other’ homeland to which resources or ‘booty’ could be siphoned. Muslim conquerors settled alongside locals to share resources, as builders and settlers, and integrated their culture with their own. Borrowing technology from bustling Islamic metropolises like Baghdad and Damascus, the dilapidated Iberian cities of Cordoba, Seville, Granada and Toledo were given elaborate irrigation and sewage systems. Caliph Abdur Rahman set in place a remarkable system of share-cropping in which locals were allowed to hold their lands, use it to grow food, and forfeit a percentage of the produce as tax. The revenue was used to build libraries, mosques, palaces and gardens and turn al-Andalus into the pinnacle of contemporary human civilisation. So magnificent was the medieval capital of Cordoba that it was described by several historians as the ‘Ornament of the World.’

The magnetic charm of this civilisation could not help but woo dilapidated Europe. Secular knowledge poured into the conflict-ridden continent straight from the busy learning centers of Fez, Cairo and Baghdad. Bounties of science, philosophy, poetry and medicine were channeled into al-Andalus’s Cordoba, Toledo, Seville and Granada. The freedom to learn, to acquire knowledge, embrace foreign ideas and tolerate diverse opinions were the defining features of the intellectual culture in al-Andalus.

New knowledge led to fresh skepticism. Ideas were debated and comparisons were made. Science remained the darling of Islam. While Europe regarded science as a challenge to religious authority, Muslims had little choice but to apply themselves to it, as studying science was essential to sustain both empire and religion. Advanced mathematical problems, such as locating the Kaaba’s direction for prayers from newly conquered lands, calculating exact dates for Ramazan and Eid, travelling long distances in the quest for Hadith, and formulating dimensions for new mosques, made it impossible for Muslims to avoid scientific inquiry.

Today, the ‘defenders’ of faith may do all they like to posit Islam as a religion which shies from arguments and is mistrusting towards non-Islamic learning, but the tradition of Islam in al-Andalus stands out as a refreshing refutation. It was the culture of openness in al-Andalus which drew throngs of Christians and Jews to the lands of Islam. The works of Thodosius, Arichemedes, Euclid and most importantly, Aristotle, were translated into Arabic at the learning centers of Toledo. Christian, Jewish and Muslims scholars united to debate ideas and relish an environment which was miles ahead of the mistrusting conservatism that prevailed over the rest of Europe. The city of Toledo is particularly significant because of its startling multiculturalism. The intellectual wealth of different faiths and cultures was exchanged via a glorious symbiotic liaison between Muslims, Christians and Jews, which remains unsurpassed by any other civilisation of the medieval era.

For centuries, Europe has basked in the glory of the Renaissance — a grand period of scientific advancements stretching from the 14th to the 17th century. Little thought is given to what sponsored the grand European leap from the fierce conservatism of Byzantine rule to an insatiable fancy for classical learning. A link seems to be missing. If Greek works were not secured and developed by any scholars during the European Dark Ages, how was this previously shunned body of knowledge ‘rediscovered’ to sponsor the Renaissance in Italy?

Indeed, it was through the welcoming borders of Toledo that the classical texts were flown off secretly to kick-start the intellectual stir known as the Renaissance. Historian Maria Menocal writes that the prime motive to ignore Muslim contribution towards the Renaissance is to glamourise Europe. Clearly, it was a shame for the ‘West’ to entertain an explanation that said it was indebted to the ‘non-Western’, she writes. Quite interestingly, one of history’s most paradigm-shifting discovery is that the famed Renaissance philosopher-theologian Thomas Aquinas was the direct student of Cordoba born scholar Ibn-e-Rushd. As several of Aquinas’ theological positions reek of Ibn-e-Rushd’s philosophy, they problematise the stubborn ‘Europeanness’ of the Renaissance.

Lamenting ignorance towards the Muslims’ contributions to Western glory, eminent Pakistani historian Dr Nomanul Haq says, “We live in a colonial hangover. Sadly, the history of the world has been ideologically reconstructed to weed out unpalatable details. Unlike what is generally believed, Islam is not an ‘Eastern’ phenomenon since no aspect of Western life is devoid of the influences of Islam. The fates of Islam and the West are but tied.”

Muslims did not simply transfer classical legacy back into Europe, but also furthered it with their own independent contribution. The same classical legacy forsaken by Byzantine kings was revived by Muslim scholars, debated and developed at the learning centers of al-Andalus. While Greek works were being rendered into Arabic, Muslim scholars added to them their own findings. For example, Ibn-e-Rushd’s translations of Aristotle included his independent works on the philosophy of the human soul and origins of the universe which were absorbed into the original. A simple exercise of compare and contrast reveals some other startling findings: thanks to Aristotle’s Arithmetica and Euclid’s Elements, the classical world was well aware with the mathematics of algebra and geometry. However, the fusion of these two mathematical disciplines was a purely Muslim contribution, giving rise to the branch of trigonometry. The ensuing liberality and love for knowledge from different cultures led Muslim scholars to pick up intellectual challenges from one tradition, and apply solutions belonging to another. In this way, many Indian questions were given Greek solutions, and vice versa.

“It was nothing but a remarkable example of cross-fertilisation,” says Dr Haq while elaborating on Muslim mathematical contributions, “The Muslims of Spain did not simply transfer classical knowledge back into Europe as dead wood, but carved it most ornately. It must not be assumed that the translation of classical texts into Arabic was a simple exercise of replication. Translation is a complex procedure. An Arabic translation would mean that the entire work was being looked at from an ‘Arab lens’. ”

In a nazm dedicated to the Mosque of Cordoba, Allama Iqbal writes:
Ah, woh mardaan-e-haq, woh Arabi shah-e-sawaar…jin ki nigahon ne ki tarbiyat-e-shaq-o-gharb. Zulmat-e-Europe mein thi jin ki khirad raahbeen

(Ah! Those men of Truth! Those Arab cavaliers! Their insights have trained the East and the West, their reasoning was the guiding force in the darkness of Europe.)

Today, the Muslim scholars of al Andalus are denied due credit. The writing of history must give recognition to stories which are buried deep beneath the debris of biases. Tolerating contradictions, relishing differences and cherishing knowledge were the very values which allowed the people of al-Andalus to reach the unprecedented pinnacle of civilisation. These values are not ones which the Muslims of al-Andalus contrived to suit their circumstance. Rather, these were values which had been made possible by Islam. In a lamentable turn of fate, the West, which benefitted from them, and the East, eager to distance itself from everything ‘Western’,  have disowned their own values. Differences have now been frozen into permanence. Books only scream out narratives of violence and bloodshed when telling the history of Islam.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, February 24th, 2013.

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Siddharth Pandey | 8 years ago | Reply

This is exactly the kind of medieval romance that has ruined Pakistan. It is exactly why you'll even lost East Pakistan. East Bengalis were Muslims yes, but they knew exactly what their roots were and are. They are as Bengali as their Bretheren on the West of the border. They lived under no illusions of Islamic Imperial Grandeur. They dont consider Arabic History as their own and take pride in their language and writers such as Tagore and Nazrul unlike harking back a millenia to Arabs and what they achieved or what they conquered. Not once have I heard any Pakistani talk about Chandragupta or Ashoka. As if they were some alien rulers when the truth is the Arabs consider you'll Aliens mate!! Try getting citizenship of a GCC country or marrying their girl. You are as much a Muslim as they are, aren't you?? So much for the Muslim Ummah. "There was no other homeland to which resources or booty could be siphoned". I seriously wonder what Mahmood of Ghazni did with all the loot he collected after sacking Somanth innumerable times along with other temples in India. Surely he did not spend them for the welfare of the people of India did he?? P.S- We share the same blood, the same DNA and the same history. Stop being stupid and accept reality.

Dhanus Menon | 8 years ago | Reply

Nice try... Islam was spread by the sword in most places. Now the author has given many a jobless muslim an idea for a whacking off pleasure.

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