Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Myth and Reality in Al-Andalus

Razib has an interesting post over at Gene Expression (classic) about the legend of reality of tolerance vs. intolerance in medieval Spain:
A few months ago a friend made an offhand comment about how they were on the side of the "Andalusian model." His assumption was that Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain, was far superior in its method of dealing with religious pluralism than Christian Spain. I've read a fair amount of popular & scholarly work on this period and region, and the reality is more complex than the hype. The friend holds a Ph.D. in a social science from Harvard and has a position as an assistant professor at a moderately elite university. He isn't an uintelligent individual. I tried to communicate to him a few general points:

1) Religious pluralism was a reality in both Christian and Muslim Spain

2) Subordination at the expense of the religion promoted by the the elite was the norm throughout this period

3) Persecution of Jews occurred both in Muslim & Christian Spain

4) One can see a general trend where the dominant religion, whether it be Christianity or Islam, tends to become less tolerant when its numbers are great enough to dispense with accommodation with the majority (or what has become a minority)
There follows some more good analysis about the dynamics at play during various periods in the history of medieval Spain, and their effect on the degree of 'tolerance' that was exhibited. His closing is also important to note:
Which brings me to my final point: attitudes and sentiments about Muslim Spain are not about history or an analysis of the data, they are about the beliefs we hold about the modern world in regards to the values we deem to be precious. That is, my friend, scholar though he is, was not really interested in the nature of life in medieval Spain, he was making a comment about his adherence to the principle of religious toleration and the separation of church & state. Muslim Spain is simply a notional marker, a signal, the historical details are pretty much irrelevant, it is the legend that matters. I bring my friend's educational qualifications up because this is a person who is intellectual in orientation, but in hindsight I realize that bringing up the minutiae of historical detail is pointless, and fundamentally a distraction for him. The history is grist for the mill of ideology, not a thing in and of itself.
This dynamic is seen over and over again in how different cultures treat the history of other cultures which they identify with in some specific way. One of the examples that stands out to me, with a classics background, is the idea of the Athenians, and it's evolution through the last few hundred years in the imaginations of English and American authors.

Being one of the first democracies in the history of the world, Athens has always had a special place in the imaginations of Western countries that treasure democratic ideals. And yet, the Athens of British and American imagination often looses much the of the alien, pre-Christian and imperialistic tendencies that the real city state in fact possessed. This is not to say that there is nothing worthy of emulating to be found in ancient Athens, but rather that it's important to distinguish the place itself (in both its glory and imperfections) from the lessons that we have drawn from it.

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