[Editor's Note: The Muslim expansion reached Spain in 711 when Tarik bin Ziad conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula. Spain (Arabic al-Andalus) became one of the centers of Muslim civilization, and the Umayyad caliphate of Cordoba reached a peak of glory in the tenth century. Spain remained at least partially under Muslim control until 1492 when Granada was conquered by Ferdinand and Isabella, soon followed by the expulsion of unconverted Moslems and Jews and the infamous Inquisition. Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in al-Andalus in an atmosphere of tolerance, with concerns concentrated on enhancing learning, the arts, sciences and trade. Cordoba became one of the most sophisticated cities in Europe at that time. However, despite the fact that "al-Andalus" existed in one form or another for nearly eight centuries, it is largely obscured from view because of present emphasis on political and ideological narratives rather than cultural history.]

Mandated Arab Tolerance

[…] God's universe, in al-Andalus, had three principal and interlocking features which are at the heart of its importance for us, and which were in its own time at the heart of that culture's extraordinarily vigorous well-being: ethnic pluralism, religious tolerance, and a variety of important forms of what we could call cultural secularism-secular poetry and philosophy-that were not understood, by those who pursued them, to be un- or anti-Islamic. Of course, all three are inherently possible in Islam. One might even say they are inherently mandated by Islam. But few Islamic polities have done it as well as al-Andalus did, nor for as long, nor with greater long-term impact and dazzling results. . . .
[T]he Muslims of al-Andalus were striking in their ethnic diversity. The leadership and much of their sometimes imaginary ancestry were Syrian; most of the foot-soldiers were first-generation, immigrant Berbers; and the inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula, from whom within a few generations the majority of the Muslims descended, in part or in whole, were ethnically no different from those who remained Christian: Celto-Iberians and Romans and Visigoths. There were also substantial communities of Jews who had arrived in Iberia with the Romans and who had been notoriously abused and even enslaved by the last of the corrupt Visigothic governments. The Jews were certainly not the only group in the eighth century optimistic that the Muslims would be more benign rulers than the Visigoths had been. The number of Muslims in Iberia grew exponentially during the next several hundred years not because more "Arabs" came to live there, but because the original inhabitants of the peninsula converted to the dominant faith in overwhelming numbers.
The unconverted Christians and Jews, called the dhimmi, of al-Andalus, were thus not very different ethnically from their brothers and neighbors who did convert; and soon enough they were not very different in other crucial ways, since Christians and Jews were thoroughly and mostly enthusiastically Arabized within a relatively short period of time. The Andalusian Christians were even called the Mozarabs or must'arab, or "wanna-be-Arabs" and there is a wonderful Latin lamentation from Alvarus, a ninth-century churchman of Cordoba, complaining that young Christian men can barely write decent letters in Latin but are so in love with Arabic poetry that they can recite it better than the Muslims themselves.
Identity, here as in the rest of medieval Europe, was a very complex thing and many people did not shy away from embracing what would seem impossibly contradictory to others-to Alvarus, for example, or to us moderns, nurtured from the Renaissance on to believe that harmony and unity and coherence are good and advanced things.
One of the least appreciated features of Islamic culture, that vital part of it that comes directly from the poetry-loving and word-worshipping desert culture of the pre-Islamic Arabs, is the way that from the beginning it embraced the possibility of contradiction-as, I believe, poetry-centric cultures are bound to do. F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously said that the test of a first-rate mind was the ability to hold two contrary ideas at the same time.
By that measure, which I think is essential for there to be true religious tolerance and the sort of cultural vitality that can come from that, Andalusian culture, and by extension much medieval European culture, was first-rate indeed. There are dozens and dozens of wonderful examples of this, little-known because we tell the story as if they, like us, were striving to be unified creatures: ergo, Arabs spoke Arabic, religious people were pious and would not have cultivated erotic poetry, and Christians spent all their time crusading against the enemy.

The Golden Age of the Jews

Let me tell you a story to try to debunk some of this. It is the story of the Golden Age of the Jews. Not "A" golden age but "The" Golden Age, and its first chapter, if we tell the story right, is in Mecca. The story explains not only why that amazing synagogue (Figure 2) was built in Toledo but also why the wealthy and educated nineteenth-century Ashkenazy Germans who settled in New York sometimes built synagogues that look like mosques. It all makes sense, but only if we begin with poetry. Much of the history of the stunning poetry of the pre-Islamic period . . . is lost in the desert sands, but stunning shards do survive of an oral poetic tradition of great complexity and refinement. The poems are usually referred to as odes or, more revealingly, as the "suspended" or "hanging" odes, a curious expression from the most telling anecdote about them. Whether it is historical or apocryphal, the anecdote recounts that the many Arabian tribes held an annual poetry competition when they congregated in Mecca. The winning poems would be embroidered in gold on banners and then hung on display at the ancient shrine, that impenetrable black rock at the heart of the city.
Perceived as the house of God, that mysterious black rock would eventually become the symbolic heart of the new religion as well, the Ka'aba that pilgrims still circumambulate in Mecca and toward which Muslims pray. When Muhammad came in from the desert and stood in that town pronouncing the revelation he had received from God, he was a Prophet whom God had instructed to "recite" (the opening words of the Qur'an and "Qur'an" itself mean "Recitation"). But he was also conspicuously a part of that oral tradition, with a highly developed reverence for the power of poetic language.
Muhammad's arrival at the heart of pagan Mecca to preach, to recite verses, many of them powerfully lyrical and hermetic, was an act that in and of itself had eloquent resonance, that was clearly a part of that public poetic tradition that had hung banners embroidered with poems in the village square. The love of the language itself was a key part of that pre-Islamic Bedouin culture that first received and shaped the new religion. These desert warriors were also poets (and great lovers of poetry) of extraordinary delicacy and sentimentality. And, as the story of the hanging odes illustrates, nothing was prized more highly than language itself, the inevitably complex and contradictory language of poetry; nothing was more worthy of being turned into gold and placed at the center of Mecca itself. Until, that is, Muhammad's uncompromising monotheism stripped that pagan place of its idols, but, perhaps incongruously, left what might have been the most powerful idol of all, poetry itself. Poetry, both pre-Islamic poetry, and afterward, poetry that was from the
Islamic period but was still uncompromisingly secular, not only survived the coming of Islam but flourished. Indeed, the pre-Islamic odes were collected by Islam's first
generation of scholars and then canonized as the only hermeneutic key capable of
unlocking the linguistic treasures of the Qur'an.
The extraordinary political, economic, and social well-being of the Jewish communities of al-Andalus was enabled by the very generous interpretation of the dhimma-the mandate that the other "Peoples of the Book" be protected-by the Umayyads, and after them, by what we might call the neo-Umayyads, the competitive city-states, Christian and Muslim alike and not aligned at all by religion, that replaced the caliphate. These political factors are well known and invariably cited as the keys to the spectacular cultural success in virtually every area that justifies the title "golden" for the period, although why it was that the Andalusian Muslims understood the dhimma in ways that seem extravagant is not much talked about. But in any case, the post-Solomonic revival of Hebrew as a language for secular poetry, which is the earth-shaking transformation of Jewish culture unique to that time and place, cannot be understood merely as the result of progressive social policies and most of all cannot be understood without understanding that first-rate poetic culture that was Arabic. The centrality of Arabic poetry in the life of all educated men in
al-Andalus meant that the educated Jewish community came to know it and write it and in some profound way covet it, because it was so at odds with their own relationship to Hebrew, with which they had, for hundreds and hundreds of years, a dried-out, formal, purely liturgical relationship. Pious Muslims could recite the Qur'an in God's own sacred language, but for the Muslims God did not hoard His language or keep it locked up in His temples, and so those same Muslims could also do a thousand different things in Arabic.
Most of all, they could read and write and sing love poetry. God, it turned out, had a first-rate mind Himself, and perhaps not only tolerated but enjoyed contradictions, didn't even mind being made love to in the same language that you might use for your lover. Any more than He minded-the Jews learned this too then-that his good servants in Baghdad wanted to speak that impossibly rational and unbelieving language-philosophy-that had been invented by the Greeks. The Abbasid caliphs thus devoted extraordinary time and energy and money to making Greek into Arabic, to making Aristotle too a vital part of the happily inconsistent conversations of the Muslims.

The Richness of Contradictory Identity

The profound Arabization of the Andalusian Jews was due in great measure to those contradictory, first-rate values of Arabic culture itself, and to the especially generous acceptance of paradox in al-Andalus. Tolerance of "others" is one thing, and a very good thing indeed, but the effects of taking pleasure in contradiction within one's own identity can be even richer. It became possible to be a pious Jew who could recite a pre-Islamic ode or a homoerotic poem or take the peripatetic tradition seriously, in great measure because pious Muslims did it. The community of Jewish intellectuals and leaders absorbed and came to believe in the fundamental moral of the story: internal tolerance of contradictory identity is the basis of a superior and first-rate language and identity. And so it was that the Andalusian Jews began, in the first part of the tenth century, to cultivate Hebrew as a language that could transcend the devotional and theological uses to which it had been limited for time nearly immemorial.
For the first time in a thousand years, Hebrew was brought out of the confines of the synagogue and made as versatile and ambidextrous as the Arabic that was the native language of the Andalusian Jewish community. Almost miraculously, Hebrew was once again used as the language of a vibrant and living poetry, what we call secular and vernacular, because the immensely successful Jews of al-Andalus decided that their God and His language too should be great enough, first-rate enough, to transcend prayer, to not mind sharing the language of erotic love. Why should Hebrew too not be the vehicle for contradictory ideas? It was because devout Jews had learned to love the same heterodox love poetry in Arabic that pious Muslims loved to recite that it became possible to read a Biblical text like the Song of Songs with its full compliment of erotic charges, and even to decide that what had once made Hebrew great was precisely that ability to write poetry that not only lay outside the synagogue, but that might well contradict the teachings of the synagogue. A new Age of David was brought into being, and in one of the hundreds of remarkable poems of al-Andalus, the Jewish poet Ismail Ibn Nagrila even says it aloud: "I
am the David of my Age."
That David of his age was also, by the way, the Jewish vizier of the Muslim city of Granada at the turn of the eleventh century, and for two decades the enormously successful military leader of its armies. We know about his exploits, and thus about Granada's victories against other Muslim cities, from various sources but especially from the poetry he wrote. Ibn Nagrila is mostly remembered by his formal title, the Nagid, for he was also leader of the Jewish community of Granada. It was he, a first-generation refugee from Cordoba at the time of the disastrous fall of the caliphate, who almost immediately began building a substantial castle on the hill that the Jewish community had settled. Samuel the Nagid laid out a new and far fancier place for the Jews living on that hill, part fortification and part cultural show of force; and after him, his son would expand it decoratively, laying out elaborate gardens on the adjacent grounds. But little remains of their eleventh-century buildings, the palace and gardens built by two generations of Cordoban Jews in exile, almost certainly out of the Cordoban conceits that had created the Great Mosque and the fairy-tale-like gardens of the caliphal palatine city of Madinat al-Zahra, almost certainly in the Umayyad style that was loved, and missed deeply. Some believe, but others do not, that the unique fountain in the Court of the Lions is a survivor from those original Jewish palaces. But nothing is sure because palace and gardens alike were thickly, spectacularly built over, layer upon layer, until they became the fabled Alhambra of the Nasrids, the last Muslims of Spain. Eventually it would directly inspire the most gorgeous synagogue of Christian Spain, where it is not so strange, after all, to see verses from the Qur'an on the walls.

Destroyed Harmony

Even in 1492 it might all have come out differently. Isabella was a direct descendant of the Castilians Peter the Cruel and Ferdinand III and Alfonso the Wise, all of whom had lived and reigned and prayed in their very first-rate capitals of Toledo and Seville where God had no problems with Arabic on the walls or with Jews as counselors. On the first of January, Isabella marched up that hill of Granada first settled by the Jewish vizier of Muslim Granada, dressed in what the chronicles call "Moorish clothes" and accompanied by a husband arranged for her by her own Jewish advisers, many of whom walked up that hillside with her. The Capitulation Agreements she signed, in the gorgeous main reception rooms of the Alhambra- which she took over as her own casa real and in which she would live-incorporated the same sort of generous dhimma that Andalusians apparently expected in principle, a guarantee of religious freedom for the Muslims of Granada. The tragic events of the rest of that year, which make all of these things painfully ironic, should
not seem to us inevitable and long-sought, as we are taught, but rather as they seemed to those who lived through them: radically incomprehensible. For this catastrophic event the Muslims had no useful analogue, and thus no great consolation. But the Jews did, and the last day of their expulsion was carefully made to coincide with the anniversary of the destruction of the temple, the 9th of Ab, which that year happened also to be the day in early August of 1492 that Columbus left the port of Palos. When he landed in the New World, his official translator was a Jew, presumably by then "converted," who spoke Arabic to the no-doubt baffled Tainos in Cuba. I am a descendant of that conversation […]
Many of the refugees from the catastrophe-the evitable, not the inevitable catastrophe-of 1492 in Granada, must have been reassured as they sailed into Istanbul, into the extraordinary port that is visible from here, across the water, to see that the old first-rate God lived here, that His Church had been made over not too many years before with lovely, paper-thin minarets. Hagia Sophia, the heart of Eastern Christianity, was transformed in 1453 into a mosque, and an iconic mosque at that. The Ottomans also made a new home for the Jews, who arrived with their Haggadahs (one of which was recently re-rescued from the barbaric shelling of the Oriental Institute of Sarajevo) and their fifteenth-century Spanish, which their children speak to this day; and many of the Andalusian values in Islam found refuge and appreciation here too, including the extraordinary boatload of love poetry in Arabic that had for so long been the pride and joy of so many Spaniards-Andalusians, Sephardim, whatever we call them-for whom the language of the poetry you recited, and the name of God in your prayers, and the clothes you wore, and the science you believed in did not have to "harmonize" with each other and could even argue with each other and violently disagree and still be loved and authentic.

Reprinted by permission of the author and Yale Law School.

Comodo SSL