Christian Kusi-Obodum reflects on the experience of the long coexistence of Jews, Christians and Muslims in medieval Spain, and how this can be a source of inspiration for those who seeking to improve interfaith relations in today’s world.
In less than a century, Western Europe has changed considerably. With the brutality of the Second World War, established Jewish communities were devastated by the Holocaust. As the Imperial order declined, the needs of post-war reconstruction saw the establishment of Muslim communities throughout Western Europe. With the seemingly ever-accelerating pace of change, it is easy to think that we have never known anything quite like this. But when we look further back into history, medieval Spain reveals an often-overlooked period in which Christians, Muslims and Jews coexisted for many centuries.
The meeting of the Abrahamic faiths in medieval Spain was a long, and sometimes turbulent, affair. In the year 711, Umayyad forces crossed from North Africa into the Iberian Peninsula, and quickly conquered great swathes of Visigothic Spain. Christian kings and counts clung to power in the northern fringes of the Peninsula for three centuries, after which they began to push southwards – traditionally dubbed the “Reconquest”. By the middle of the thirteenth century, Muslim rule was confined to the small Emirate of Granada. The emirate survived for a further two hundred years, until it was annexed by the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.
Christian and Muslim kingdoms were multi-faith societies. Communities of Christians could be found living under Islamic rule, and equally there were Muslims residing in the Christian territories. Jewish communities could also be found across the entire Peninsula – they were well established, and had been living in Spain since Roman times. This coexistence of the three faiths came to be known as convivencia, meaning “living together”.
We shouldn’t be fooled into thinking this was anything like perfect harmony. It was not always an easy coexistence: warfare was a habitual tool of government, and countless souls perished as kingdoms collided and conquered one another. The rhetoric of ‘holy war’ was invoked by Christian and Muslim kings, for purely political ends. This was a world that was at times turbulent and chaotic, even by today’s standards.
But in spite of the conflict, there are numerous examples of productive relations between the faith communities. The historical record reveals that Christians, Jews and Muslims lived side-by-side in the same towns, and worked the land in rural settlements, sharing the same irrigation systems. They engaged in commercial activities of all kinds: from blacksmithing and carpentry to luxury goods and finance. Merchants of all faiths freely travelled in and out of Christian and Muslim Spain, conducting long-distance trade. In the highest echelons of society, both Muslims and Jews served as royal physicians to the Christian kings of late medieval Spain.
The meeting of the Abrahamic faiths in the Iberian Peninsula gave rise to a rich cultural exchange. Jews and Christians worked together to make the first Latin translations of the Quran, at the School of Translators in Toledo. Many works of Arabic scholarship were translated into Latin, transferring knowledge from the Islamic world into Latin Christendom. Architecture saw the remarkable fusion of Islamic and gothic forms. The mixing of artistry knew no limits: the work of Muslim craftsmen can even be found in Christian places of worship! Cultural exchange proved to be an irresistible force.
Even though warfare was part and parcel of medieval government, Spanish rulers broadly accepted that it was right to ensure the rights of religious minorities within their territories. Kings, counts, emirs and caliphs permitted free practice of religion for many hundreds of years. This basic pragmatism underpinned the convivencia of Christians, Muslims and Jews for 800 years.
The world has changed dramatically since medieval times, but in many ways the challenge remains the same: ensuring society remains stable and peaceful, so that its inhabitants can prosper. But with a worrying rise in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism across Europe, now more than ever we need open dialogue and trust building. The history of medieval Spain can provide countless examples of co-operation and mutual respect, worthy of note in today’s world. Taking just a few moments to reflect, we find some of the finest intellectual and cultural achievements produced by the coming together of Christians, Jews and Muslims. Though it was by no means a perfect society, it nonetheless gives us many examples of tolerance. That convivencia lasted some eight hundred years is truly inspiring.
This article was written by Christian Kusi-Obodum, who is in the final stages of his doctorate in Hispanic Studies at the University of Birmingham. He is one of the editors of the Estoria de Espanna Digital, a digital edition of one of the defining works of historical writing in late medieval Spain. His thesis explores medieval Christian narratives of Muslims and Islam.
Call for Papers:
The Woolf Institute will shortly be holding a collaborative workshop with the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge, entitled: “After the Conquest: Converging Approaches to the Study of the Iberian Reconquista”, to take place between 12-14 February 2018. Themes will include:
v The relationship between space, local communities and political allegiance
v Changes in urban and rural structures
v The evolution of institutions and socio-economic systems
v Contrasting pre- / and post-conquest pools of evidence (written and archaeological)
v Non-Christian perspectives on the Latin conquest
v Representations of conquest and transition: for instance, narratology (particularly narratives of crusade/jihād), biology and demography (from anthroponymy to isotope analyses), or iconography (images of power, both secular and religious).
v Different theoretical approaches in framing the Christian takeover (‘postcolonial studies’, ‘emotions’, frontier studies, feudalism…)
There is no registration fee for this conference. Interested participants are encouraged to submit a 200-300 word abstract to Rodrigo García-Velasco (email@example.com) by October 30th, 2017. For further details, please see: