Relationship between the different communities


Al Andalus, ha-Sefarad, Andalucia: “a remarkable medieval culture rooted in pluralism and shaped by religious tolerance,” (Menocal, 2000, p. 2). Al-Andalus was a region of cultural convergence and confluence. There, Jew, Muslim, and Christian culture coincided with remarkable intensity and mutual respect. For hundreds of year, as many as eight hundred, Andalucian culture represented the pinnacle of peace among the all the People of Abraham. Such a time of peace seems like an outlandish dream in the 21st century but it was real until the 13th century.

The relationship between the different communities of Al-Andalus was collaborative, with each stimulating and inspiring the other. However, clearly it was the Umayyad culture brought originally from Abd al-Rahman that spawned the Golden Ages of Sephardic Judaism and Andalucian Islam. Abd al-Rahman was half Syrian, half Berber: an already bi-cultural being. His example set the tone for the multiculturalism that characterized Al-Andalus for eight centuries. When the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads and moved their political center of power to Baghdad from Damascus, it was like the east-west schism in Christianity that is symbolized by Byzantium and Rome. Abd al-Rahman drew upon his Berber roots and set forth on a peripatetic journey through the Maghreb, ultimately landing in the Iberian Peninsula. There, Abd al-Rahman established a new caliphate for the Umayyad dynasty.

Abd al-Rahman established the government in Cordoba, and built there a fantastic mosque, the Great Mosque of Cordoba. The Great Mosque of Cordoba is the reverse mirror image of the Hagia Sophia in Isbanbul, because the former was originally a mosque that turned into a cathedral, and the latter originally a cathedral that turned into a mosque. What is now viewed as cultural appropriation and blatant displays of religious power struggles were, in the times of Al-Andalus, simply coexistence in a diverse society. As Menocal (2000) points out, the great synagogue in Toledo is a fusion of Jewish and Islamic traditions because inside the synagogue there are inscriptions in both Hebrew and Arabic, including verses of the Quran.

Verses are the most important feature of Arabic culture, and of Islamic culture in general. As Blair & Bloom (1999) point out, there are five main themes in Islamic art: the art of writing; the aversion to iconography; the use of geometric features in arabesque style; the “exuberant use of color,” and “willful ambiguity” (p. 222). Of these five elements, all of them are visible in Al-Andalus. Poetry, which belongs to the first feature, the art of writing, was the hallmark of Arabic culture both before and after Islamisation. Even before Muhammad, Mecca was the mecca of Arabic poetry. An annual poetry competition there started the tradition that is now completely cloaked with the symbolism of Islam to the point of forgetting its Bedoin roots: the tradition of the cloth draped over the mysterious black stone at the Ka’aba. Now, that cloth bears verses from the Quran, but prior to Muhammad, it bore poetry.

As Menocal (1999) points out, the vibrancy of Arabic language, culture, and poetry inspired the Jews living in the Iberian Peninsula. The Jews had been living in the Iberian Peninsula since the Roman occupation of the region. However, the Jews were severely oppressed and even enslaved by the Visigothic rulers. Their culture was suppressed, and Hebrew was only a language used for liturgy. When Abn al-Rahman established the caliphate in Cordoba, he transformed the political and social landscape of Iberia, especially al-Andalus. The Jews were liberated from their oppressors, and welcomed by the caliphate along with Christians as “dhimmi.” They were not forced to convert to Islam, but many voluntarily and enthusiastically learned Arabic. Arabic was not only a lingua franca; it was the language of the learned peoples and the language of poetry. Thus, Christians and Jews, were both “thoroughly and mostly enthusiastically Arabized within a relatively short period of time,” (Menocal, 1999, p. 6). Jews spoke Arabic, which is why there are Arabic inscriptions and Quranic verses on the synagogue in Toledo. Likewise, Christians learned Arabic, which is why the tomb of Ferdinand III has name carved in Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, and Castilian.

Furthermore, Samuel Halevi built the synagogue in Toledo in Nasrid style in 1360, in spite of the fact that the peak of Granada’s power had passed. The Castilians had overtaken Al-Andalus by the middle of the 13th century. Yet the Jews still identified with Arabic culture. This accounts for the arabesque style of many synagogues around the world (Menocal, 1999). The arabesque style is also one of the five core elements of Islamic art, according to Blair & Bloom (1999). Both Jews and Arabs also shared an aniconic approach to the visual arts.

Christianity does not shun iconography, although there was an iconography debate that characterized early Christian doctrine on the matter. In Spain, however, Christian architecture like the Alcazar in Seville, bears witness to the power of Arabic art forms in the evolution of Christian aesthetics. Just as the Halevi-built, Nasrid-style synagogue in Toledo was directly and overtly influenced by the Alhambra in Granada, so too was the Alcazar in Seville (Menocal, 1999). In the 1360s, Peter the Cruel ruled as a Christian in post-Islamic Seville. His ancestors were actually the ones who sacked Seville and took it from the Almohads in 1248. The Almohads had built a mosque in Seville, and on that sacred ground Peter the Cruel built the Alcazar (al-qasr, the palace). The Seville Alcazar shares in common with Cordoba and Hagia Sophia the distinction of being a structure bearing witness to the confluence of cultures that existed most vibrantly in Al-Andalus. The Christian Alcazar and the Jewish synagogue in Toledo are the “most visible tokens” borne out of Al-Andaluz culture (Menocal, 2000, p. 5)

One of the core ways that the three primary cultures of Al-Andalus intersected was via the transmission of Greek philosophy, first into Arabic, and then into Hebrew and Castilian. Turner (n.d.) calls it a “multiracial, international fellowship,” and Menocal would refer to it as a quintessentially Andalucian endeavor (p. 112). Arabic affection for scholasticism and learning facilitated the borrowing of Greek texts, the assimilation of Greek ideas, and the eventual carrying of Greek knowledge across thousands of miles and into multiple lands. Jews and Christians living in the Iberian Peninsula reaped the rewards of Arabic enthusiasm for knowledge, learning, and language. Philosophies and religions were, in medieval Spain, shared traditions and not owned by one segment of society. Al-Andalus was delightfully pluralistic, and it thrived precisely because it was so. Even the Arabs in Al-Andalus were multicultural; not all were Berber. Rather than create antagonism or foment discord, multiculturalism became a cauldron of knowledge, from which a thriving political, economic, and cultural community arose.

It is a terrible irony that Queen Isabella, a Christian, betrayed the beneficence of the Muslims and Jews. The Queen had Jewish advisers close to her when she approached Granada. Jews and Muslims believed that the visit was standard, but it was not. The Queen summarily destroyed an eight hundred year-old peace that started with the transference of the Umayyad dynasty from Syria to Spain. Thus began yet another diaspora event for the Jews, who fled to Turkey. In Turkey, the Ottomans like the Andalucians welcomed the people of Abraham as lawful citizens. It was not the same for the Jews in Christian Spain.

Christian Europe and its much-celebrated Renaissance owes much to the Islamic culture of Al-Andalus, notes Menocal (1999). This is precisely because of language and the transmission of Greek philosophy into Arabic first. Were it not for the Arabic hunger for wisdom, the Greek documents may not have survived, let alone have been translated and disseminated throughout Europe after the fall of the caliphate in Cordoba. Just as Jewish culture flourished because of the Umayyads, so too did Christian culture. The Islamic wellspring of culture and creativity permeated the culture of their region. It was not about converting everyone to Islam; it was about celebrating the written word and the mystery that is poetry. As Turner (n.d.) notes, Islam also celebrated the mysteries of geometry and science and introduced those to Christian Europe as it had introduced love of poetry to the Jews.

The most evocative element of the five aspects of Islamic art is “willful ambiguity,” (Blair & Bloom, 1999, p. 222). Willful ambiguity is a phrase that shares much in common with the delight taken in paradox and contradiction, which were hallmarks of Andalucian culture in its heyday. According to Menocal, Jew, Christian, and Arab comfortably coexisted. Yet even more important than physical coexistence was the management of personal identity in spite of contradictions. The Andalucian Jew had no trouble reciting Arabic poetry. There was a “willful ambiguity” taking place in the minds and hearts of Andalucians, whose diversity even extends beyond the artificial boundaries of Jew, Christian and Muslim. Religion is conveyed as a deeply personal, mystical matter far before it was wielded as a political instrument of power in Spain. Only after Queen Isabella conquered Al-Andalus was it obvious that religion would tear apart the people of Abraham over the course of the next several hundred years.


Blair, S.S. & Bloom, J.M. (1999) Art and architecture.

Blair, S.S. & Bloom, J.M. (n.d.). The art and architecture of Islam 1250-1800.

Menocal, M.R. (2000). Culture in the time of tolerance.

Turner, H.R. (n.d.). Science in medieval Islam.

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