Although MMW is primarily focused on Muslim women in the media and their issues, I chose to review this book anyway because it lends context to the issues that affect us. In recent months, I have been told that Islamophobia doesn’t exist (and is just a fabrication of the victim mentality Muslims have fed the liberal media) that “a Muslim woman told me not wearing a veil is ok so the veil isn’t ok” (when the truth is much more nuanced than that) and that teh Islamz is inherently responsible for domestic violence by definition (because only Muslim men hit women, of course). I also think that Muslim women are on the front lines when it comes to bearing the brunt of Islamophobia (headscarf wars, anyone), and in that this book, while not looking at women per se, sets the stage for the issues that affect us. In this vein, if I could critique what is otherwise an excellent book, it would have been nice to see women’s issues treated in a more balanced way, given women are affected by Islamophobia in lopsided ways (see: France’s niqab ban).
Much like the work of John Esposito and Edward Said back in the day, in a sea of the Bernard Lewises and Thomas Friedmans of this world, Nathan Lean’s book is a welcome addition to Muslim cultural criticism when the only stuff getting airtime these days seems to be the recent Pamela Gellar New York subway ads. Lean takes us through the history of fear in America, drawing parallels among the anti-Catholicism of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Red Scare of the mid-20th century, and the discourse surrounding Muslims today. As he mentions in the introduction, it is a propos that parts of the evangelical Christian community root their faith narratives precisely in a “religious showdown” with Muslims.
The Islamophobia Industry reads well as a continuum, but it is also an easy read chapter by chapter – I could see how either the entire book or parts of it could be assigned in a classroom context. As a tech blogger based in Europe, the two highlights of Lean’s book for me were Chapter 2 (“A Web of Deception: Fomenting Hate Online”), covering the role of the internet in creating hate; and Chapter 7 (“Across the Pond: The Deadly Effects of Hate in Europe”) which provided an accurate analysis of the situation “over here.” In Chapter 2, I couldn’t help but chuckle when Pamela Geller’s name showed up on only the second line and set the stage for a takedown on Atlas Shrugsand Jihad Watch (I don’t hyperlink and send traffic to bigotry, sorry). This chapter also provides an extremely detailed analysis of the Park 51 shenanigans. I enjoyed Chapter 7 because one of my ongoing complaints about America-based activists is that some people, while well-intentioned, fail to realize that Islamophobia isn’t the same game “over here,” something that Lean catches onto right away in the way he writes the chapter. This chapter starts out with a play-by-play of Anders Breivik’s acts of violence (and some ironic giggle-worthy quotes about how his gushed over Robert Spencer). Lean goes over some of the context in France, Belgium and Switzerland, and notes that the extreme right, where necessary, is “creating fears about Islam and Muslims rather than exploiting existing ones,” as shown by campaigns by people like Geert Wilders, or the anti-Minaret vote in Switzerland.
Books and articles on Islam are pretty good business these days, just ask Robert Spencer.
Tom Holland’s most recent book takes aim at the Meccan origins of Islam, but as Glen Bowersock writes it is one of the most “irresponsible” books on Arabia in recent memory.
Books that take minority revisionist positions appeal to an anti-Muslim culture that is contemptuous of Islam. As one commenter on Bowersock’s review noted,
Commercially-driven bandwagon jumping of the most risible kind is not restricted to popular writings, clearly. Interesting that, today, I struggled to buy a copy of Alexander Kynsh’s readable and erudite Islam in Historical Perspective, a book widely respected and admired within academic Islamic Studies, whilst the literary classes of Britain celebrate having this title on their bookshelves because it is written with such literary panache, willfully oblivious to the ugly cultural current that flows beneath this kind of intellectual partisanism.
*Update: I want to add that Tom Holland is not an Islamophobe or anti-Muslim as far as I can tell. Bowersock’s review of Holland’s book highlighted some crucial issues and questions and was generally spot-on in my opinion. I want to emphasize that writing, investigating, and critiquing the “origins of Islam” and the “literal truth” of orthodoxy does not make one a hate-monger, in fact it is necessary. I would recommend everyone read Holland’s book for themselves and decide.
In his sprawling new book Tom Holland undertakes to explain nothing less than the origin of Islam. This is a subject as relevant to today’s world as it is controversial within it. How Islam began was obscure right from the start, above all to the surprised Christians who first succumbed to the Arab armies that surged out of the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century. They had seen themselves as confronting a different threat. After all, the Persians had captured Jerusalem in 614 and soon moved into Egypt. At that moment they appeared to be the principal antagonist of the Byzantine empire based in Constantinople. No one could have imagined that a little over two decades later the Persian empire would be in its death throes and that the Patriarch of Jerusalem would be turning over the city to an Arab caliph.
The beginnings of Islam have always been anchored in Mecca in the northwestern part of the Arabian peninsula. Here Muhammad was believed to have received from the angel Gabriel the earliest revelations that became incorporated in the Muslim scripture, the Qur’an. Scholarly debate about the revelations and about Meccan society has gone on for centuries, but no one before has seriously doubted the conjunction of Muhammad and Mecca. Holland wants us to believe that Muhammad did not come from Mecca at all but from southern Transjordan, and that his revelation was a compound of languages and ideas floating around in the Near East.
Holland came to his work on Islam unencumbered by any prior acquaintance with its fundamental texts or the scholarly literature. He modestly compares himself to Edward Gibbon, whom he can call without the slightest fear of contradiction “an infinitely greater historian than myself”. In the Decline and Fall, at the opening of his magisterial chapter 50 on Muhammad, Gibbon had candidly acknowledged his ignorance of “Oriental tongues”, but he also expressed his gratitude “to the learned interpreters who have transfused their science in the Latin, French, and English languages”. Holland seems to have confined himself largely to interpreters, learned or otherwise, writing in English, but his efforts to inform himself, arduous as they may have been, were manifestly insufficient.
He has written his book in a swashbuckling style that aims more to unsettle his readers than to instruct them. I have not seen a book about Arabia that is so irresponsible and unreliable since Kamal Salibi’s The Bible Came from Arabia (1985). Although that work was depressingly misguided in replacing biblical places with their homonyms in the Arabian peninsula, it at least revealed an accomplished scholar who had gone badly astray. Holland has read widely, but carelessly. He starts out with an irrelevant, though arresting, account of a defeated Jewish king in Arabian Himyar (Yemen) killing himself by riding his horse into the Red Sea. It is typical of Holland’s style to lead off with this fanciful story when an inscription from the time of the king’s death records that the Ethiopians killed him.
Holland explodes with indignation over the traditional term, jahiliyya (age of ignorance), for the time before Muhammad. After a tabloid view of Arab culture in that period, he declares: “The effect of this presumption was to prove incalculable. To this day, even in the west, it continues to inform the way in which the history of the Middle East is interpreted and understood.” This was partially true in Gibbon’s time, but it is quite false today. Research and publication on pre-Islamic history, archaeology, art and languages may be found in many western universities, such as Oxford, as well as in many Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and Syria.
The past 30 years have seen lively controversies in the scholarship on early Islam, much of it emanating from the revisionist work of John Wansbrough in analysing the text of the Qur’an and its possible links with both Christian and Jewish language and thought. This is catnip for Holland, as is the revisionist work by Wansbrough’s disciple, Andrew Rippin, and, much more idiosyncratically, by the pseudonymous Christoph Luxenberg, who dares not speak his name. Although these debates are all solidly grounded in close textual study, they can do little more than titillate uninitiated readers because the dust has not yet settled.
Holland’s failure to follow Gibbon in examining French scholarship means that he has missed many of the most important recent discoveries, above all the large number of inscriptions from late antique south Arabia that Christian Julien Robin and his associates in Paris have been publishing in a steady stream. We now know much more about the Judaism of Himyar, the conflict with Christian Ethiopia and the Persian occupation of western Arabia. In discussing early Qur’an manuscripts Holland has missed the collaborative manuscript, in five different hands, which François Déroche has dated to the third quarter of the seventh century. It appears to antedate the Qur’anic inscriptions in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
The scattershot nature of Holland’s investigations is particularly apparent in his breezy reference to the Qur’an manuscripts that were found in Sana’a, Yemen, in 1973. He hints darkly at censorship to explain publication delays caused by textual variants in a palimpsest but is unaware that the palimpsest itself and two other manuscripts are actually now with the publisher. He is also unaware that a second cache of Qur’an manuscripts was discovered five years ago in renovations of the Great Mosque in Sana’a and that in February 2010 the Yemeni authorities granted permission for them to be studied.
But Holland is at his most irresponsible when he turns to the Meccan origins of Islam. After reasonably supporting Patricia Crone’s argument against the tradition of Mecca as a mercantile centre, he goes on to ask whether the place itself might not be an invention in the story of Muhammad. He raises the possibility that the Qur’anic pagans, calledmushrikun, might be confederate tribes simply because the word is constructed from the Arabic root for “sharing”. He looks for these tribes in southern Jordan and not only thinks of placing Muhammad among them but proposes that his own Meccan tribe, the Quraysh, took its name from the Syriac word qarisha, which, according to Holland, would have been “duly Arabised”. This jaw-dropping idea depends on Holland’s mistaken view that the Syriac word could allude to a confederation. What it means is to clot or congeal.
For some reason Holland’s book was released in the Netherlands in Dutch before it appeared in English. It had a different title then, The Fourth Beast. A marketing strategy of this kind looks like a conscious effort to profit from recent Dutch anxiety over Muslim immigrants. But Holland’s cavalier treatment of his sources, ignorance of current research and lack of linguistic and historical acumen serve to undermine his provocative narrative. In the Shadow of the Sword seems like an attempt by author, agent and publisher to create a very different account of early Islam, but fortunately the quality of the book stands in the way.
In the media, and in the world at large, we are fed many narratives about the unique propensity of Islam towards violence. We see arguments for apocalyptic, creeping, stealth Jihad conspiracies on a regular and incessant basis in the Islamophobesphere and beyond. Little mention or attention is paid to the peacemakers, the voices seeking transformative change, from norms of vengeance and retaliation to ones of reconciliation and peace–Arsalan Iftikhar is one such peacemaker.
We discussed with Iftikhar his book on the topic of “Islamic pacifism,” a hitherto almost alien concept to many minds but one that Iftikhar believes is an important imperative for what he calls our “millennial ‘farewell to arms.’” The book describes “Islamic Pacifiscm” as,
…a humanitarian ethical platform rooted within the general concepts of nonviolence and basic Muslim ethical teachings of mercy and compassion towards all of humanity. From the global Muslim response to September 11 to analyzing the concept of ‘The Golden Rule’ within Islamic tradition to highlighting the contributions of historical Muslim pacifist giants from our recent past, this book ‘Islamic Pacifism’ shall offer young girls and boys of all colors and religions around the world a nonviolent antidote to many of our shared social and political issues affecting our globe today.
We also discussed the increasing fear-mongering about “Sharia,” and the notion of “Jihad” and how that fits in with pacifism.
LW: Islamic pacifism will probably strike many as a novel idea, yet you point out in your book there is a long history of pacifism in Islam. You mention several historical figures, including Abdul Ghaffer Khan. Khan was a friend of Gandhi, and was referred to as “Frontier Gandhi” in his day. How have the teachings of Gandhi, Khan, and other historical pacifists influenced your work?
Iftikhar: Mahatma Gandhi once beautifully said that, “I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and nonviolence are as old as the hills.” The important take-away from that sentiment is that the concepts of nonviolence and pacifism are as old as humanity itself. For Gandhi, he attained his inspiration from previous pacifist luminaries like Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy. Just like Dr. Martin Luther King adapted his own version of Christian pacifism, by highlighting the lives of prominent Muslim pacifists like Abdul Ghaffar Khan and others, I am hoping to help shift the global narrative on Islam in a more iconoclastic direction.
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LW: The word “jihad” has entered the Western vocabulary as a synonym for “holy war.” In sharp contrast, you’ve called for a “love jihad.” In practical terms, what does that mean?
Iftikhar:For young pacifists around the world, our millennial ‘farewell to arms’(or ‘love jihad’) will be a very simple global pacifist philosophy based on the ethical thesis that every single geopolitical issue in existence today (and from this day onwards) will only be resolved through diplomatic, peaceful, and nonviolent means. As millennial pacifists of all colors, we must help to elevate and enlighten our next generation by finding innovative, humanitarian ways to positively contribute to our respective societies and not be bogged down by the political baggage of our older generations.
LW: What is the “Clash of the Knuckleheads” and how does it relate to the “Clash of Civilizations”?
Iftikhar: Well, my book ‘Islamic Pacifism’ highlights the last interview ever of Samuel Huntington (author of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ theory) with our Islamica magazine. In his interview extensively mentioned in my book, I write that most people would agree that the vast numerical majority of the human race would obviously prefer ‘peace’ over ‘war’ on any given day of the week.
Following suit, this would necessarily (and mathematically) make the warmongering knucklehead dinosaurs (on both sides of the global political velvet rope) among the infinitesimal minority of the world’s total numerical population. Thus, since many of our global political problems today revolve around extremist ‘knuckleheads’ on both sides who are not even close to representing the majority of any given ‘civilization’ around the world, this global political hypothesis should probably tweak Huntington’s theory to be renamed ‘The Clash of Knuckleheads.’
LW: The next time there is a provocation, like the Danish cartoon controversy, you said before responding, Muslims should ask themselves, “WWMD?” What would Muhammad do?
Iftikhar:The next time there is one of these geopolitical flashpoints, we should be reminded of a well-known Islamic parable that tells the story of the Prophet Mohammed and his interactions with an unruly female neighbor, who would curse him violently and then dump garbage on him from her top window each time he walked by her house. One day, the prophet noticed that the woman was not there. In the spirit of true kindness, he went out of his way to inquire about her well-being. He then went on to visit his unfriendly neighbor at her bedside when he found that she had fallen seriously ill.
This genteel act of prophetic kindness toward unfriendly or overtly hostile neighbors is the Muslim “Ubuntu” standard that we should all aspire to, not irrational threats of violence in response to some silly, sophomoric cartoons aimed at inciting a provocative response around the world. If we ask ourselves the simple question “What would Mohammed do?” about this, the even simpler answer would be two words: “Absolutely nothing.”
LW: You have called for abolishing the death penalty. Why is this so important to you?
Iftikhar:By following the brave political lead of the European Union and every other major industrialized nation in the world (with our United States being the tragic lone exception), the diverse spectrum of 56 Muslim nations can finally start to show to the rest of the world that our millennial global Muslim community are helping to improve our respective legal, political and human rights frameworks to comfortably fit within our global village’s accepted standards of current international humanitarian law. As a proud Muslim death penalty abolitionist, aside from our own disastrous death penalty experiment here in the United States, it is important for every reader to again remember that every single other country in the entire global community of modern-day industrialized nations has already outlawed the death penalty from their respective legal and judicial systems.
LW: As a devout Muslim and a strong advocate for women’s rights, why do you think Islam is widely perceived as inherently misogynistic?
Iftikhar:Notwithstanding the Western media’s obsession and fixated lens on global Islamic feminist issues like the hijab (head scarf) and other compelling (albeit fringe) media stories of (dis)honor killings, female genital mutilation (FGM) and/or the absurdity of ‘morality police’ anywhere around the globe; any knowledgeable observer would also have to unflinchingly concede that Muslim women around the world today have suffered the vast majority of these disparate sociopolitical impacts primarily because of anachronistic medieval cultural tribalism and ridiculous un-Islamic legal edicts (a la ‘women are not allowed to drive’ laws) aimed at continuing patriarchal hegemonic societies clinging onto their dinosaur mentality from their own tortured historical pasts.
In fact, any truly holistic reading of the Quran (or any other religious holy book) actually reinforces the divine idea that males and females are all created by God as equal human beings meant to be inseparable and complementary to one another – to coexist with mutual love and recognition.
LW: Many states in the US are considering legislation to ban Islamic Law in response to fears of “creeping Sharia.” As a human rights lawyer, what would you say to people who feel Sharia is a genuine threat to the American legal system?
Iftikhar: The “supremacy clause”of the U.S. Constitution (Article VI, Clause 2) states quite clearly that the “Constitution and the laws of the United States … shall be the supreme law of the land” and that no other law (foreign or domestic) can pre-empt or supersede it. Any idiot who says that Islamic law is about to take over America should retroactively fail 9th grade civics class.
LW: Thank you for taking your time out and discussing some of these very important ideas and issues.
Iftikhar: You’re welcome and it has been my pleasure.
His book is available at Amazon.com, or signed copies can be purchased here from Islamica Magazine.
Arsalan Iftikhar is an international human rights lawyer, global media commentator and author of the bookIslamic Pacifism: Global Muslims in the Post-Osama Era. Arsalan is a regular contributor for National Public Radio (NPR) and his ‘on-the-record’ media interviews, commentaries and analyses have regularly appeared in virtually every major media outlet in the world.
Abdul Ghaffar Khan (also known as ‘The Frontier Gandhi’)
In March 2005, I was honored to give a keynote speech in my home state at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and was even more humbled by the fact that the person who was officially introducing me to the college audience that evening was Professor Rajmohan Gandhi; a former Indian politician and well-known grandson of the legendary pacifist, Mahatma Gandhi. In addition to being a lifelong peace activist like his well-known grandfather, Professor Rajmohan Gandhi had also written the seminal biography on the life of Abdul Ghaffar Khan; the famous Muslim pacifist contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi known around as the world as ‘The Frontier Gandhi’ and the ‘Nonviolent Badshah [King] of the Pashtuns’ within the geographical region known today as modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In a December 7, 2001 column for The New York Times entitled “The Peacemaker of the Pashtun Past”, Karl Meyer of the World Policy Journal wrote that Abdul Ghaffar Khan was “renowned as ‘the Frontier Gandhi’…His [Muslim pacifist] followers…all had to swear: ‘I shall never use violence. I shall not retaliate or take revenge, and shall forgive anyone who indulges in oppression and excesses against me.’” Furthermore, for over two decades of his life, “Ghaffar and his [supporters] dominated the North-West Frontier [Province of modern-day Pakistan and Afghanistan] without resort to violence, enduring prison and torture.” In response to this political campaign of Islamic pacifism, Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s dear friend and pacifist contemporary, Mahatma Gandhi, once called Khan’s non-violent political feat “a miracle”. In Professor Rajmohan Gandhi’s seminal biography entitled Ghaffar Khan: Nonviolent Badshah of the Pashtuns, one of the central theses of the important life history of this Islamic pacifist was the notion that: “To this Muslim, forgiveness was [an integral] part of Islam.”
“There is nothing surprising about a Muslim like me subscribing to nonviolence,” once said Abdul Ghaffar Khan during a personal meeting with Mahatma Gandhi in 1931. “It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet [Muhammad], all the time he was in Mecca…But we [Muslims] had so forgotten it that when Mahatma Gandhi placed it before us, we thought he was sponsoring a new creed or a novel weapon.” For Abdul Ghaffar Khan, this pacifist doctrine of Islamic nonviolence (or adam tashaddud in his native Pushto language) was considered to be the “twin of patience [or perseverance], a virtue stressed again and again in the Quran.” A true sociopolitical visionary during his lifetime, in response to the blatant historical mistreatment of Muslim women within our own Islamic societies, Ghaffar Khan was once known to have said to all the women of his region:
“In the Holy Qur’an, you have an equal [human] share with men…You are today oppressed because we men have ignored the commands of God and the Prophet [Muhammad]…Today, we are the followers of [tribal] custom and we oppress you.”
Mahatma Gandhi was once known to have famously said that, “I claim to have as much regard in my heart for Islam and other religions as for my own.” Furthermore, during a personal conversation between the two dear pacifist friends, Mahatma Gandhi once told Abdul Ghaffar Khan: “Look, nonviolence is not for cowards…It is for the brave.”
To exemplify the profound impact of Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s life on the millions of people of South Asia, in a June 19, 1947 personal conversation with his own grand-niece, Mahatma Gandhi once uttered these amazing words about the Islamic pacifist known around the world as Abdul Ghaffar Khan:
I cannot sleep…The thought of him has robbed me of my sleep…I cannot cease thinking of Badshah Khan…He is a prodigy…I am seeing more and more of his deeply spiritual nature daily…He has patience, faith and nonviolence joined in true humility…He is a man of penance, also of illumination, with love for all and hatred for none.
At a time when there was great communal bloodshed between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs during the fight for independence from British colonial rule, Abdul Ghaffar Khan always commanded nonviolence to India’s Muslim populations in the name of Islam and the Holy Quran. “If you plant a slap after having been provoked by a slap, then what is the difference between the followers of the Quran and the evildoer?” once asked Badshah Khan on the need to peacefully respond to any grievance in the name of the basic Islamic ethical teachings of forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. In 1984, on speaking to the pure divine simplicity of his own Islamic pacifism, the ninety-four-year-old Abdul Ghaffar Khan once said as he tapped his own chest: “What else can I do…if Allah has placed this feeling [of love] for all people inside here?”
Whether one is a Muslim, Christian, Hindu or Jewish pacifist, the tremendous ninety-eight-year human legacy of global pacifism exemplified by Abdul Ghaffar Khan showed our world that “the naturalness of his Islam, his directness, his rejection of violence and revenge and his readiness to cooperate with non-Muslims add up to a valuable legacy for our angry times.” Named in 1957 as Amnesty International’s ‘Prisoner of the Year’ for his nonviolent protests, the world-renowned human rights organization said at the time that, “His example symbolizes the suffering of upwards of a million people all over the world who are in prison [simply] for their conscience.” As the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and the seminal biographer of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, my dear friend Professor Rajmohan Gandhi finally noted that the most important legacy of the Islamic pacifist known as Abdul Ghaffar Khan was the simple historical fact that “his bridge-building life is a [direct] refutation of the clash-of-civilizations theory.”
In summarizing the overall historical significance of the amazing life of Abdul Ghaffar Khan, The Washington Post once noted that his life exemplifies the greater need to tell the world “about an Islamic practitioner of pacifism at a moment when few in the West understand its effectiveness and fewer still associate it with anything Islamic.”
Finally, the Christian Science Monitor once beautifully summarized the overall global contribution of this Muslim pacifist giant quite perfectly when it simply stated:
The essence of Khan’s story…is that the true nature of Islam is nonviolent.
Maria Rosa Menocal published this gem of a book just before the events of September 11th, 2001, when a cadre of young Arab Muslim men driven by the politics of occupation, empire and rage combined their grievances with a religio-ideological veneer and flew out of a clear blue sky into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
The infamous day was seared into our collective conscious just as deeply as the burning aftermath that smoldered into the earth at Ground Zero, and with it a whole new era was upon us. One in which our confidence, our ideas, our principles and our policies were shook in a seismic way.
How did we react as a society and as a nation?
We clamped down on civil liberties, expanded surveillance on citizens to unfathomable and previously unheard of levels. We compromised the Constitution, built and invested even more in the Military Industrial Complex and invaded two nations while outsourcing torture. We paid lip service to Democracy while compromising with despots and apartheid regimes.
Initially, politicians, including President George W. Bush made statements to the effect that “we aren’t at war with Islam” and “Islam is a religion of peace.” Despite these fluffy statements, Islamophobia increased and cynical politicians and organizations oiled the machinery that would churn out the new bogeymen: Islam and Muslims.
Fear-mongering, especially amongst the Right continued apace and was given a new impetus with the election of Barack Hussein Obama (the “secret Mooslim”). This past summer 2010 saw the greatest backlash against Muslims since 9/11, the scene once again was Ground Zero.
A group of Muslim developers led by Sharif El-Gamal and Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf created a project that according to them would mirror all the best in Islamic values, while also being an inclusive space that welcomed all faiths. It would be designed to facilitate events, programs, lectures, debates, studies, and in theory would be quite similar to the 92nd StreetY– they named the project Cordoba House.
Cordoba House was the perfect name for a project with such lofty aims. It immediately evokes images of the beautiful palm-like arches of the Cordoba Mosque and stirs the memory of Andalusia.
Anti-Muslims opposed to the mosque raised hackles at the name Cordoba, and with their usual blustering ignorance and foolhardy arrogance put forward the bizarre and illogical lie, that, by using the name Cordoba for their project, the developers were trying to build a “triumphal mosque” to mark the conquest of Islam.
Such mendacity is dangerous because it seeks to alter reality by revisiting history and washing it of truth so as to fit a particular agenda. Cordoba was the capital of Andalus, a culture, in fact a civilization that stands as a beacon and a warning to humanity.
Menocal’s book deals with this subject, and in contradistinction to the Islamophobes, relates that Cordoba and Andalus was for a moment in history the epitome of tolerance, culture, civility and harmony.
The story of Andalus is about,
a genuine, foundational European cultural moment that qualifies as “first rate,” in the sense of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wonderful formula (laid out in his essay “The Crack-Up”)–namely, that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.” (p.10-11)
Cordoba is therefore not separate from the West, it is not the “other” as some wish to cast it, but rather it is quintessentially Western.
Andalusian culture viewed contradictions within oneself and ones culture as having the possibility of being “positive and productive.” These contradictions consisted of differing religions, philosophies, languages, races, etc. Something which we take for granted in our societies but which is under pressure from fanatical and retrograde forces who mirror the forces that brought down the Andalusian civilization.
The founding stone of this culture was one of the last survivors of the Umayyad dynasty, Abd al-Rahman who traversed from Damascus to Muslim Spain “Aeneas-like,” to become “the first, rather than the last, of his line.”
His arduous journey and homesickness for his native land were evident throughout his life. He wrote in verse his feelings of “exile”:
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 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. (p.61)
Not for much longer were his descendants to feel like “strangers.” Andalus and its jewel, Cordoba became home to a glorious civilization in which everyone, Muslims, Jews and Christians alike took part:
It was there that the profoundly Arabized Jews rediscovered and reinvented Hebrew; there that Christians embraced nearly every aspect of Arabic style–not only while living in Islamic dominions but especially after wresting political control from them; there that men of unshakable faith, like Abelard and Maimonides and Averroes, saw no contradiction in pursuing the truth, whether philosophical or scientific or religious, across confessional lines. (p.11) (emphasis mine)
Andalus produced such prominent Jewish poets, military leaders, governmental leaders, philosophers, theologians, architects, and intellectuals as: Dunash Ben Labrat, Hasdai Ibn Sharput, Maimonides, Samuel the Nagid, Ibn Ezra, Judah Halevi, Moses of Leon and a plethora of others. I cannot do justice to their contributions to humanity in this short review, for more on their works and lives read Menocal’s book.
These Arabized Jews ushered in a Jewish Golden Age and contributed to the redemption of Hebrew which had become a near dead language, relegated to the realm of liturgy,
The brilliance of the Golden Age came from Hebrew’s redemption from its profound exile, locked inside temples, never speaking about life itself. Maimonides, born in Cordoba just five years before Halevi left al-Andalus, described this post-exilic, pre-Andalusian state of things in his Laws on Prayer: ‘When anyone of them prayed in Hebrew, he was unable adequately to express his needs or recount the praises of God, without mixing Hebrew with other languages.’ It was not that Jews should speak other languages but that the Hebrew they spoke was no longer the language of true love, of complex emotion, of seemingly contrary ideas and feelings: maternal, erotic, spiritual, material, transcendent. Maimonides, Andalusian that he was, believed that God needed and wanted to be spoken to in a language alive with that whole range of possible emotions. It was an attitude that later allowed English to find its voice in the love sonnets of Shakespeare as well as in the prayers of the King James Bible. The prayers prove more satisfying, perhaps even more true, for being in the language of the love songs.
Hebrew’s redemption had come at the hands of writers who were masters of Arabic rhetoric, the Andalusian Jews, men as thoroughly and successfully a part of the cult of Arabic grammar, rhetoric, and style as any of their Muslim neighbors and associates. A century before Halevi took his final leave to find Jerusalem, Samuel the Nagid had first made Hebrew perform all the magic tricks that his native tongue, Arabic, could and did. He had been made vizier because his skill in writing letters and court documents in Arabic surpassed that of all others. He then went on to write poems in the new Hebrew style, among them verses recounting his glories leading his taifa’s armies to victory. In one fell swoop, Samuel’s Hebrew poetry, with its Arabic accents and prosody –the features essential to making alive for the Arabic-speaking Andalusian Jews–vindicated and completely exceeded all the small steps that others had taken in the centuries before him to revive the ancestral language, to reinvent it as a living tongue. Everyone, from Halevi to the nineteenth- century Germans who made the Andalusians into the noble heroes of Jewish history, knew that Hebrew had been redeemed from its exile thanks to the Andalusian Jews’ extraordinary secular successes, first during the several Umayyad centuries and then in the taifas. Because they had absorbed, mastered, and loved the principles that made Arabic easily able to sing to God and Beloved in the same language, they had been able to revive Hebrew so it could, once again, sing like the Hebrew of David’s songs, and Solomon’s songs. It was a great triumph…(p.161-62) (emphasis mine)
One of those whose story I found very intriguing was Judah Halevi who encapsulated all the contradictions and creativeness that was Andalusia. He was a profound poet, much admired by his peers and was considered one of the “greatest champions” of the Andalusian ethic. However, he transformed over time and turned his back on Andalusian culture, “he declared that it was all folly and inimical to Jewishness and had to be forsaken, in spirit certainly and — if possible, as he intended to do — physically. People were astonished, and some of them offended.”(p.163)
This sort of destructive change and move away from the Andalusian ethos afflicted Muslims and Christians as well.
[T]he first significant instances of cultural puritanism in the Iberian Peninsula were imported from places with little of the Andalusian experience. The Berber Muslims of North Africa never quite understood the Andalusian application of the dhimma, and they mostly disapproved of the syncretic culture that resulted from it. From the Berber sack of Cordoba at the beginning of the eleventh century on, a variety of “reform” movements swarming northward from across the Strait of Gibraltar always threatened to remake Andalusian politics and culture in their own image of Islam. At the same time, the Berber obtuseness was mirrored by the incomprehension with which the peninsula’s Christans were viewed by their coreligionists north of the Pyrenees. This was especially evident after Castile began to expand into territories that had been under Islamic rule for three and four centuries, and to incorporate their thoroughly Arabized populations, Muslims, Jews, and Mozarab Christians alike. An often stark difference in worldview separated the Roman Church as it had evolved outside the peninsula from the Christian communities within it. And these differences grew more profound in the decades and centuries that followed the Christian expansion southward…
During the second half of the twelfth century and the beginning of the thirteenth, more puritanical visions of these cultures converged in Iberia. The determinedly crusading forces from Latin Christendom and the equally fanatic Berber Almohads became influential parts of the landscape and inevitably met, head-on, on the plains between New Castile and old al-Andalus, at Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, with disastrous results for the Almohads. The effects of the long-term presence of two expansive religious ideologies, each originally foreign to the Andalusian ethic, transformed the nature of the conflicts at hand. They made religious-ideological warfare a reality, cultural orthodoxy a real possibility, and monochromatic identity a realizable ideal.(267-68)
I have not recounted the amazing and spectacular contribution of Muslim scholars, philosophers, scientists, poets, musicians, theologians, architects, statesmen and leaders. This review would become very long if we recounted the lives of: Ibn Rushd (Averroes), Ibn Tufayl, Ibn Hazm, Abd al-Rahman, Abd al-Rahman III, Muhammad Ibn Abbad, Ibn Arabi, Ibn al-Khatib, al-Idrisi and the many others.
AlCazar, the Church on top of the hill
Nor have I recounted the glorious arabized Christian production and contribution in this period: the Alcazar, the syncretic identity of the Mozarabs, the development of Mudejar architecture, the “for hire” activities and sagas of ElCid, Peter of Castile, the Abbot of Cluny’s Qur’an, the translations by Christians of Arabic works into European languages and how it effected the diffusion of knowledge in Europe and the age of exploration.
How can I do all this justice, when even Menocal’s book seems to only give us a tantalizing glimpse and a thirst for more?
The dynamic, intellectual, creative, unique output in regards to language, literature, philosophy, theology, politics, and science serves as an ultimate rebuke to the concerted effort of Anti-Arabs and Islamophobes who claim that Muslim peoples accomplished nothing, were intellectually bereft, culturally barren and uncreative. The well worn talking point that makes frequent rounds in Islamophobic circles, the idea that ‘anything of value that Muslims created or invented wasstolen’ is forever put to rest and quietly mocked by al-Andalus.
Menocal’s book on Andalusia gives us insight into the possibilities of various religions, ideas, identities to not only coexist but to exalt in differences and to view them positively. It also warns us against the insular, narrow view of nationalism, fanaticism, supremacism, both religious and cultural. It is a warning that we would do well to listen to and comprehend for our own time and place.
For our readers to savor a bit of the Andalusian experience, I provide two beautiful examples of Andalusian Music:
Ibn Arabi–”Her Words Bring Me Back to Life”:
Mozarabic Chant: “Alleluia” and Mauritanian Samaa: