The Legacy of Al-Andalus

Edited from
Encyclopedia of Religion
Second Edition
by Lindsay Jones (Editor)

As in other Islamic societies, in al-Andalus Muslim rulers allowed the existence of Christian and Jewish communities as dhimmis, although there were episodes of persecution under certain political and religious circumstances, such as the pogrom of Granada in 1066, the expulsion of the Christians to North Africa in 1126, and the forced conversion of the Jews under the Almohads. Eventually, both non-Muslim communities either disappeared from al-Andalus or saw their numbers greatly di-minished, although their Arabo-Islamic acculturation had lasting consequences. But before exploring them, what was their contribution to Andalusi cultural and intellectual achievements? Echoes of the Latin tradition in astrology, medicine, geography, history, and perhaps agronomy have been identified in early Andalusi culture. The most famous example is the Cordovan Calendar. But there was nothing comparable to the impact of Hellenistic culture in the Eastern Islamic civilization and thus Said of Toledo, writing in the eleventh century, stated that the scientific development of al-Andalus was not indebted to any indigenous tradition. The related issues of the possible influence of Romance lyrics in the appearance of new poetical forms (muwashashat and azjal) in al-Andalus and of the possible influence of such forms in Western poetry have been (and still are) widely and ardently debated. The muwashashat encapsulate verses in Romance called kharjas. They have attracted a passionate interest from Arabists, Hebraists, and Romanists, giving rise to hugely divergent interpretations and becoming one of the cornerstones of the presentation of al-Andalus as the land of the three cultures or the land of religious convivencia (living together). This largely mythical presentation has had a recent flourishing, owing once again more to contemporary needs than to historical accuracy.

Less open to debate is the impact that Andalusi Christians and Jews had in Latin Christendom and in Jewish culture. In the case of the Christians, those who emigrated to Christian lands brought with them artistic skills that modern scholarship has analyzed as representing a specific Mozarabic art, unique to the Iberian Peninsula. The Christians who lived in Muslim lands conquered by the northern Christians kept for some time the use of Arabic, as shown by the rich collection of Arabic documents from Christian Toledo (eleventh to thirteenth centuries), and they also preserved the old Visigothic church ritual.

But it was mostly the highly Arabicized Jews who played a crucial role in the transmission of Arabic culture and science to Christian Spain and Europe. They are closely associated with the so-called school of translators of Toledo, a label which is merely a way to express in a simple manner the complex linguistic and intellectual process through which Arabic works were translated into other peninsular languages (Latin, Romance languages, Hebrew). The need to translate arose mainly for two reasons.

On the one hand, knowledge of the “other” was necessary in order better to confront the Muslims or to convert them, especially when Christian expansion led to the presence of Muslim communities inside Christian territory. In the twelfth century, Latin Christendom started the serious study of Islam, thanks mainly to the encouragement given by Peter the Venerable of Cluny to the translation of Muslim religious texts. Raymond Lull (1232–1316), who called himself Christianus Arabicus, developed a philosophicalapologetical system with the aim of convincing the infidel Muslims of the truth of the Catholic faith, arguing not against, but rather from their own faith, which he had deeply studied. On the other hand, translation was needed to take possession of the knowledge achieved by the Muslims in philosophy, science, and other fields. For example, Christian historical works written in the thirteenth century, like those produced under the patronage of Alfonso X the Wise, were highly indebted to Arabic chronicles, in the same way that the Arab geographers had learned about the Iberian Peninsula from Latin sources. But the translation effort concentrated mostly on the field of the “sciences of the ancients.” The Greek and Latin legacy was sought where it was known to have been preserved, in those Arabic works containing translations from that legacy, but also the original contributions made by Muslims themselves. In fact, in searching for the scientific and technical knowledge of antiquity, the Christians had to acknowledge the importance of the additions made in the Arabo-Islamic civilization. That search started early, as shown by the manuscripts of Ripoll monastery (in Catalonia). The main impulse took place in the twelfth century, when Hermann of Carinthia and Robert of Ketton worked in the Ebro valley, while Dominicus Gundisalvus and Gerard of Cremona centered their activities in Toledo. The exact sciences, linked to astrology and magic, attracted the first translating efforts, but philosophical an d medical treatises were soon incorporated. Andalusi Aristotelianism had a lasting influence in Latin and Hebrew philosophy.

Averroës’s works were already translated in the first half of the thirteenth century, shortly after having been written, provoking the well-known reaction of both attraction and rejection in Christian Europe. Alfonso X the Wise promoted the translation from Arabic into the vernacular, employing mostly Jews, of a wide range of works dealing with magic, astrology, astronomy, games, and literature. Arabic vocabulary penetrated into these vernacular languages, mainly in the fields of agricultural products and techniques, building crafts, clothing, and food. Mudéjar art, like its counterpart Mozarabic art, singles out Spain from the rest of western Europe with the exception of Sicily. Spanish medieval literature is indebted in both contents and form to Arabic literature. The Muslim religious influence on peninsular Judaism has acknowledged manifestations in the fields of mysticism and theology, while its influence on Christianity is less widely accepted. This reflects the tensions that have existed (and continue to exist) in the construction of a Spanish Catholic national identity, while similar debates (such as that on the debt of Dante’s Divine Comedy to Muslim eschatology) show that the study of religious interaction has been, and still is, a contested field.

The al-Andalus cultural and intellectual legacy should not be sought only in what is now known as the West. Andalusi Islam produced works and developed doctrines and practices that had a lasting influence in the Muslim world at large. Following Christian expansion in Muslim lands, Andalusi intellectual elites started a process of emigration to other regions of Islamdom. Its rhythm and peculiarities are not yet well known, but it helped disseminate Andalusi cultural achievements among Muslims. Any look at the contents of extant Muslim libraries reveals that the list of Andalusi “best-sellers” in Muslim religious literature is substantial and that in certain areas, such as North and Central Africa, Islam cannot be understood without reference to the thought and works of Andalusi scholars.


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