Wednesday, 14 March 2018

What can Andalusia teach us about living together?

“The loss of Andalusia is like losing part of my body,” H.R.H. Prince Turki al-Faisal told me.
I had asked him what the loss of Andalusia meant to him as an Arab. The son of King Faisal, widely celebrated in the Muslim world, Prince Turki heads The King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s preeminent think tank, and has been Saudi ambassador to the U.S. and the U.K. The question had excited the normally taciturn prince. The mask of cultural and royal impassivity developed over a lifetime of diplomatic dealings had dropped as his body and voice expressed high emotion. The image of Andalusia had struck a nerve: “The emptiness remains.”
“‘Andalusia was the exact opposite of Europe at that time — [then] a dark, savage land of bigotry and hatred.’”

When I asked him what Andalusia meant to him, he replied, “I have a passion for Andalusia because it contributed not only to Muslims but to humanity and human understanding. It contributed to the well-being of society, to its social harmony. This is missing nowadays.” For the prince, “Andalusia was the exact opposite of Europe at that time — [then] a dark, savage land of bigotry and hatred.”

At its height, Andalusia produced a magnificent Muslim civilization — religious tolerance, poetry, music, learned scientists and scholars like Averroës, great libraries (the main library at Cordoba alone had 400,000 books), public baths, and splendid architecture (like the palace complex at the Alhambra and the Grand Mosque of Cordoba). These great achievements were the result of collaboration between Muslims, Christians and Jews — indeed the work of the great Jewish Rabbi Maimonides was written in the Arabic language. It was a time when a Muslim ruler had a Jewish chief minister and a Catholic archbishop as his foreign minister. The Spanish had a phrase for that period of history — La Convivencia, or co-existence.

The civilization of Muslim Spain was the embodiment of the Islamic compulsion to seek ilm, or knowledge. Andalusia produced many firsts, the first person to fly, Ibn Firnas, after whom a moon crater was named, as well as a bridge in present-day Cordoba and the first philosophical novel, by Ibn Tufail. Through Spain, Europe received models for universities (Oxford and Cambridge are examples), philosophy and literature (for example the work of Thomas Aquinas), and the study of medicine originating from the work of Avicenna and Abulcasis.

There were two distinct Muslim responses which emerged from that time and would cast their shadows on the present. Both Jalaluddin Rumi and Ibn Taymiyyah lived at the time of the destruction of the Arab world. Rumi was alive when Baghdad was sacked. Ibn Taymiyyah was born five years after its destruction.

The impact of that time is clear in the way these two looked at the world. Rumi responded by consciously rejecting barriers and differences between people and reaching out to everyone with love. Ibn Taymiyyah responded in exactly the opposite way by underlining the threat to Islam and advocating for the drawing of rigid boundaries around the faith. He famously issued a fatwa against the Mongol rulers, even those who claimed to have converted to Islam because they did not adhere strictly to the sharia. He declared a jihad against them which was compulsory for all Muslims. The notion of Islam in danger may be traced to Ibn Taymiyyah. Both men continue to influence Muslim thinking in our time. Mystics throughout the world are inspired by Rumi, groups like the Wahhabis and the Salafis draw their inspiration from Ibn Taymiyyah.


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