Al Jazeera World

Lessons from the Golden Era of Andalusia

A university teacher leads a group of students to Andalusia to explore cross-cultural and interfaith understanding.

Filmmaker: Abdelkrim Sekkar

Saadane Benbabaali is an Algerian academic whose ancestors came from what is now the southern Spanish region of Andalusia. He has retired from teaching literature and Arabic at Paris University III. But for 15 years, Benbabaali has led groups of students on annual trips to Andalusia to share his passion and knowledge about the region and its rich history.

He believes that the period of Arab Muslim rule over the Iberian peninsula was arguably the only time in European history when Muslims, Jews and Christians lived relatively peacefully together, producing a common culture and harmonious society.

He also thinks that the period and place have powerful lessons for what he sees as today’s fractured world.

“There were beautiful periods of co-existence in Andalusia. So why not today? We need to cultivate the spirit of optimism in people … Today, the difference is that everyone thinks they own the truth and will confront others. They’re even prepared to kill for this,” Benbabaali says.

In 711, Muslim forces entered the Iberian peninsula from North Africa. They eventually occupied most of present-day Portugal, Spain and parts of southern France, which became known as al-Andalus as it joined the expanding Umayyad Empire

During the Islamic ‘golden age’ between the 8th and 14th century, al-Andalus became a hub for social and cultural exchange, while the arts, science, architecture, agriculture, medicine and mathemathics flourished.

Andalusia is a world that belongs to the past but this past had a reputation and an impact on the people who experienced it and left behind a culture, music and ideas that still exist today.

by Saadane Benbabaali, Andalusian expert

Many attribute these achievements to religious tolerance and collaboration between Muslims, Christians and Jews, which is why that period of history is also sometimes referred to as La Convivencia, or co-existence.

The era also produced some of the most significant scholars, poets, musicians, philosophers, historians and thinkers of the medieval age – such as Ibn Arabi, Ibn Rushd (also known as Averroes), al-Zarqali (Arzachel in Latin), al-Zahrawi (Abulcasis in Latin) and Ibn Firnas, among others.

“Today we need all those [Andalusian] philosophers, thinkers and Sufis, who like Ibn Arabi made love the basis of human relationships,” says Benbabaali.

The retired university teacher subscribes to a school of thought that considers Andalusia’s golden age to have been a beacon of enlightenment for Europe and the lands around the Mediterranean Sea.

“Andalusia is a world that belongs to the past but this past had a reputation and an impact on the people who experienced it and left behind a culture, music and ideas that still exist today,” says Benbabaali. 

The ‘Reconquista’ of al-Andalus

As time passed, however, internal conflict resulted in the emergence of competing city-states and led to a gradual weakening of central power and influence.

Muslim rule over al-Andalus came to an end in 1492 with the conclusion of the “Reconquista,” a centuries-long campaign by Christian states aimed at recapturing the territories that had previously been taken by Muslim forces.

Queen Isabella I of Castille and King Ferdinand II of Aragon initiated the Spanish Inquisition, aimed at re-establishing Catholic orthodoxy across their kingdoms. After royal decrees in 1492 and 1502, Jews and Muslims were ordered to convert to Christianity or leave Spain.

An era of tolerance, peace and co-existence had come to an end – and even the descendants of those Muslims who did convert to Christianity, known as “Moriscos”, were expelled from the country by King Philip in 1609.

But, for some, the golden age of Islam still remains in the collective Muslim memory.

video of Mouaz al-Nass, a young Syrian Islamic musician, went viral after he gave the adhan [the Muslim call to prayer] in Spain’s Alhambra Palace, which was built by the Muslim rulers of Granada in the 1330s. It’s believed to have been be the first adhan heard there for 500 years and has been viewed over a million times on social media. Nass reportedly said he felt the walls of the palace missed ‘hearing the call to Allah’. 

What Andalusia can teach us about peaceful co-existence between religions today