Essay on Successes and Failures of Medieval Spains: Unique Multi-Religious Society

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Harvey Mudd College
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Medieval Islamic Spain was a representation of one of the most productive intercultural relationships in western Europes history. Jewish temples and Christian churches with a strong resemblance to Muslim mosques, the pinnacle of Hebrew literatures golden age, the transmission of Greek philosophy to western Europe and the roots of mathematics and medicine are some of the collaborative achievements that form the legacy of Muslim, Christian and Jewish cultures in medieval Spain. Medieval Spain demonstrated how a society of various religious backgrounds found the means to co-exist and thrive together while also demonstrating the fragility of such co-existence. The pluralistic culture of medieval Spain facilitated an institutionalized respect and love for all forms of learning from poetry, philosophy, science, and mathematics.

The success of medieval Spain was largely contributed by the fact that the Muslims, unlike the Visigoths and Romans that previously occupied medieval Spain, recognized the necessity of the Jews and the Christians in creating a productive society. However, the productive multi-religious culture of medieval Spain did not last due to various factors that led to the deterioration of the society. Factors such as forces of division, corruption, and prejudice between the various religions as well as a lack of a clear line of succession and the rise of jihadist and crusading culture led to the downfall of the pluralistic society of medieval Spain.

After the invasion and conquest of the Iberian Peninsula by the Muslim forces, the Christians and the Jews lived under restrictions. However, for much of the time the three religious groups managed to get along and to some degree, they all benefited from the presence of each other. Such collaborations of the three religious groups brought about a degree of civilizations that rivaled the heights of the Italian Renaissance and the Roman empire. The success of the medieval Spain can be attributed to the stability established by the Andalusian Umayyad dynasty. Under the Muslim rule the Christians and the Jews were regarded as a protected population as the three regions in various ways shared the Bible as the holy book and all prayed to one God, a situation that was different from the Visigoths rule in which they faced harsh persecutions. However, protection under the Muslim rule did not mean equality. Non-Muslims in Islamic Spain had to pay hefty taxes and although they were afforded certain freedoms such as being allowed to observe their own beliefs, they were not allowed to persuade Muslims to their faiths. With the relatively better living conditions under the new rule, the interaction between the three religions led to various cultural, economic and religious impacts.

After the Muslim invasion and conquest of medieval Spain in 711, the majority of the Visigoths that had earlier occupied Spain had fled to other parts of Europe. However, the Christians that did not flee were over time joined by other immigrants, the majority of which settled at the heart of Muslim al-Andalus. The old and the immigrating Christians willingly adopted numerous aspects of the luxurious lifestyle of the Muslims that had conquered medieval Spain. The Muslims influenced many Christian and Jewish aspects that included their language, with the Christians and Jews adopting the Arabic language, their dressing, their interests in poetry and literature, and their architecture.

The majority of the Christians did not strictly adhere to the absolute requirements of the Christian religions and such Christians were referred to as Mozarabs a term used to refer to Christians that had adopted the styles and customs of the Muslim religion without converting to Islam. This influence was evident from the significant degree of intermarriages between the Christians and Muslims generally between a Muslim man and Christian woman that resulted in the conversion of the Christian wife to the Muslim faith. For instance, the most powerful ruler of medieval Spain, Abd al-Rahman III was the grandchild of a Christin Basque princess. Additionally, the son of Abd al-Rahman III also married a Christian Basque woman.

Language was also another factor that contributed to the success of the Muslim medieval Spain. For instance, the population in the society was multilingual with the majority of Jews learning and speaking in Hebrew, Latin and Arabic and many Christians learning Arabic. However, very few Muslims were fluent in Romance and Spanish. Additionally, there was a widespread neglect of Latin by Christians in favor of Arabic as they deemed the language to be more elegant in expressing oneself. In Spain, at the time, Arabic was considered a real art form and a language of beauty and poetry. As a result, the Jews and Christians adopted Arabic to represent distinction and classiness in the society.

Furthermore, the knowledge of the Arabic language played a major role in the cultural development of the Jews and Christians. By learning the Arabic language and grammar, it was easier to understand the Hebrew language and grammar. This comprehension is evident from the fact that Hebrew poetry was derived from Arabic and that Spanish Jews attempted to clarify Hebrew by comparing it to Arabic. Additionally, Muslim physicians and scientists were of great importance in medieval Spain, a period in which Christian knowledge was virtually nonexistent or very weak. In this period, it was not unusual for a Muslim scholar to be extensively knowledgeable in the areas of medicine, physics, and astrology. Such Muslim scholars influenced the Christian world well beyond the medieval times. However, Christians did not see the need to study astrology as they regarded the discipline as diminishing the importance of God. As public literacy was a major priority to the Muslims, knowledge from the Muslims played a huge role in the cultural development of the society.

The downfall of the multicultural society of medieval Spain was primarily facilitated by the Muslim leaders. Not all Muslim rulers in Spain were tolerant to the interactions of the various religions. Oppression in the later periods of medieval Spain, from the middle of the 11th century, was rampant as the position of the non-Muslims continued to deteriorate significantly as the Muslim leaders at the time become stricter. However, the external pressure of the Islam faith was the major factor in the demise of the multi-religious society of medieval Spain. Persistent civil wars among rival Muslim factions led to the demise of the once flourishing Islamic Spain society.

The multi-religious culture prior to the civil wars of 1009 had been infiltrated and ruined by rebels within the society. The destructions of Madinat al-Zahra and the Cordoba palace marked the end of the political wellbeing of the Islamic society in medieval Spain. In addition, the division among the various Muslim communities, such as the fundamentalist and conservative Berber Muslims and the Andalusians, that struggled to obtain religious and political legitimacy also played a significant role in the downfall of Islamic Spain. The civil wars led to the formation of semi-independent Muslim states that also struggled to acquire authority and prestige that they had during the period Islam controlled Spain.

Such factors opened up opportunities for the Jews and the Christians that were living in Muslim led medieval Spain. For instance, the Muslim educated Jews left Al-Andalus to join some of the newly formed Muslim states whereby they resumed the influential roles they had in Al-Andalus. Furthermore, the Christians who had begun to consolidate into increasingly powerful and unified kingdoms also started increasing their influence in the once Muslim controlled Spain. With their increasing power, Christian controlled cities gradually expanded their territories and were in competition with the Muslims for leadership and territories. The eventual failure of the once centralized state meant that Muslim state borders were constantly shifting which meant that Muslims unexpectedly found themselves residing in Christian cities along with Arabized Jews.

The final demise of Muslim medieval Spain occurred the once oppressed Christian in Muslim controlled Spain joined forces with the Christian European army from the north against the Muslims. Their win resulted in Muslim retreats and losses which meant the fall of the once productive multicultural society. as the Muslims were heavily divide, they could no longer defend and retain their kingdom and were left with no other choice but to surrender. The collaboration and coexistence of the Muslims, Christians and the Jews came to an end when the transition of power was completed in 1492 and the coming to power of Queen Isabella and her husband Ferdinand.



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