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Religious Tolerance: 21st Century Pipedream?
Chris Lowney resurrects with much brio the fascinating history of Medieval Spain, which became the only Islamic state that ever prospered in mainland Europe for more than seven centuries. After a "blitzkrieg" military campaign, Muslim conquerors hailing from North Africa rolled back Christian rule on most of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 C.E. Christian rulers, who were understandably resentful of this occupation, launched their Reconquista from the north of the peninsula after infighting started weakening al-Andalus (the Arabic name for the Muslim-ruled part of Spain) in the eleventh century C.E. Al-Andalus disintegrated itself into more than two dozen rivaling small kingdoms by the 1030s C.E that over time became easy picks for united Christian conquerors. This rivalry among these kingdoms was also a blessing in disguise.
To his credit, Lowney acknowledges and emphasizes the significant contributions of al-Andalus to transition the rest of Europe out of the Dark Ages and into the Renaissance. Without Islam, much western wisdom from the Antiquity would have been lost forever following the disintegration of the Roman Empire in the West. Furthermore, Medieval Spain became the conduit for bringing the best that the Islamic world had to offer to mostly backward Europeans. Cosmopolis such as Seville, Cordoba, Toledo, and Granada were the cities on the hill economically, culturally, scientifically, and religiously. The architecture of the older parts of these urban centers still reflects this past greatness.
Despite their differences, Medieval Spaniards showed for a time a tolerance for each other's religious and cultural background that remains a marvel to a world plagued by intolerance and obscurantism. Outstanding twelfth-century theologians such as the Jewish Moses Maimonides and the Muslim Ibn Rushd Averroes went as far as to subject their respective religions to rationality. Shias and Sunnis in Modern Iraq, especially in Baghdad, have much to learn from this peaceful religious coexistence. Obscurantism and intolerance were the perfect ingredients for the disastrous recipe that Medieval Spain itself ended up swallowing after the completion of the Reconquista.
With the fall of the Kingdom of Granada in 1491 C.E., the sole remaining Muslim territory in the peninsula, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella completed the Reconquista of Medieval Spain. They did not waste much time to impose Christianity on all their subjects. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella gave their Jewish and Muslim subjects little time to either convert to Christianity or leave most of their possessions behind them and leave Spain forever. The discovery of the New World and its riches bought Spain some time. After Catholic Spain passed by its zenith, it could no longer count on the genius of its former Jewish and Muslim subjects who along Christians had contributed to the greatness of Medieval Spain. Unsurprisingly, Catholic Spain became an increasingly troubled and weak state that only rebounded from its backwardness in the second half of the 20th century C.E.
The richness that was Medieval Spain
A first class read for any history buff. Right up there with 'The Ornament of the World' by Maria Rosa Menocal.
Time to move on?
This is the third book I've read recently about the Iberian peninsula from the 700s to 1500s during the coexistence of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I first read Reston's "Dogs of God" (see my review) mostly about the 1400s' Christian reconquest of Spain, and their abuse and expulsion of Jews and Muslims. I then read Menocal's "Ornament of the World" mostly about the flowering of al-Andalus beginning in the 700s under generally tolerant and progressive Muslims.
Lowney's "A Vanished World: Medieval Spain's Golden Age of Enlightenment" is also about the same period as Menocal's book but initially more from the Christians' perspective. And initially I found his writing style somewhat tedious but farther along either it improved or I accommodated to it. Yet Lowney reveals aspects not covered by either Reston or Menocal so it's well worth the read if you want a balanced perspective of the period. And he provides extensive endnotes and annotated further readings.
Lowney concludes by lamenting the squandered opportunities resulting from religious bigotry and greed, and suggests lessons that could be learned by today's Christians, Jews and Muslims. But even here in the US, with our constitutional guaranteed religious freedoms, we still see contending for domination by some religious factions. Perhaps it's time we move beyond obsolescent religious teachings toward a New Enlightenment, as explored in my book "Concepts: A ProtoTheist Quest for Science-Minded Skeptics."