Sunday, January 13, 2008

Lessons from Muslim Spain

The Umayyad dynasty of Spain, which dominated the Iberian Peninsula for almost 300 years, remained, for all its high cultural sophistication and sheer military might, an empire rooted in nostalgia. Like its founder, Abd al-Rahman I, who composed poignant lyrics evoking the palm groves of his youth in the summer palace of Rusafa, in distant Syria, its poets and chroniclers looked yearningly eastward. They lived in Granada or Seville among feuding Berber tribesmen and conquered Visigoths, but when they wrote their pens flew home to the lost gardens of their origins. When Abd al-Rahman I was proclaimed “amir,” or ruler, of the dynasty on May 15, 756, he was not quite 25 years old, but he had already had long training in the backward glance. He, and the dynasty he created, were fortuitous survivors of a long succession of hairbreadth escapes.

Abd al-Rahman was the sole Umayyad prince to elude the assassins of the victorious Abbasids when they swept to power under their black banners in 749 and overthrew the tottering kingdom of the Syrian Umayyads. Abd al-Rahman saw his younger brother cut down on the banks of the Euphrates. He managed to swim the river and, staying one step ahead of his pursuers, hid out for five years, first in Palestine, then in Egypt and finally in North Africa among the Nafza, the Berber tribe into which his mother had been born. When he crossed the straits into Spain, on Aug. 14, 755, he had earned the Arabic sobriquet “al-Dakhil”; the term means not merely “immigrant,” as usually translated, but also “a guest among strangers” — in effect, an alien. He would eventually go on to reign for 32 years, establishing a state that would not only rival, but recreate, the splendor of his stolen birthright.

In “God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215,” his fast-paced and provocative new study, David Levering Lewis, the author of a much-acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of W. E. B. Du Bois, provides a fascinating account of “this hunted survivor of an illustrious dynasty,” as he aptly puts it; and yet, he may read too much into the man. He views Abd al-Rahman’s vicissitudes as the source of “a uniting vision of community” that the enlightened young ruler brought to his newly won territories, a principle of “civilized coexistence that might have served as a model for the continent.”

But Lewis’s own examples show that civic harmony in Umayyad Spain was more the result of shrewd statecraft and common sense than of some vague and anachronistic ideal of “tolerance.” In a highly stratified society, composed of unruly and often incompatible elements, religious and ethnic — not only Muslims, Christians and Jews but Arabs, Berbers and Slavs, as well as quarrelsome tribal factions — the assignment of strictly defined roles, with their attendant rights and responsibilities, was essential.

Thus, as Lewis notes, “sumptuary laws required that non-Muslims display badges and that clothing worn by dhimmis be distinguished from that worn by Arabs.” Non-Muslims were not allowed to ride on horseback without a permit, or to bear arms. Moreover, for sound fiscal reasons, conversion to Islam was not warmly encouraged since non-Muslims who converted were no longer required to pay the head tax on which state revenues depended. Though well aware of the overly rosy picture often painted of Muslim Spain, Lewis sometimes accepts it himself. Nowadays, we know all too well that the enforced wearing of badges to signify religious affiliation is hardly a sign of tolerance. That was true in Muslim Spain too.

-Book review of GOD’S CRUCIBLE-Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215.

A side note- If you're like the following person who had commented after watching the above documentary, then you might have not got the message- and may God help the Muslim world.

Hey, the lady in this presentation is little bit going over the edge as far as her dress is conserned. At least that's what I think. Her name appears to be a muslim name and that's why I'm reacting to her.

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