The concept of Convivencia refers to the way in which Christians, Muslims and Jews lived together in Medieval Iberia. But what is the history behind this concept? And its modern impact?
The idea of ‘Convivencia’ refers in modern Spanish parlance to the peaceful coexistence of Christians, Muslims and Jews, as it should be played out in the practical day-to-day lives of modern Castilians, Catalonians, Basques and Galicians, when cohabiting with each other and the migrants from the Maghreb and the Levant. But it also refers to a specific period in the history of the Iberian peninsula, 711 – 1492. For many it narrows down to the history of how the Islamic rulers created a peaceful al-Andalus where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in perfect harmony.
At least, this is the medieval myth, which is constantly peddled to cultural tourists travelling though the Iberian peninsula. The question though is where this idea comes from; and what are the facts and the fictions behind? In order to get an inkling of what lies behind the construction of this myth it may be pertinent to follow the history behind the concept.
Américo Castro and Claudio-Sánchez-Albornoz
The first historian, who launched the concept was the philologist and literary historian, Américo Castro. In 1948 a book with the title ‘España en su historia: christianos, moros y judíos’ (Buenous Aires 1948). In this history he traces the roots of the specific Spanish mentality and ‘structure of life’ to the mixture of Christian, Muslim and Jewish values, which was created post AD 711, and more specifically in the period 1100 – 1492. Predictably he gave pride of place to the literary and linguistic heritage, which he presented in an impressible series of case studies. But he also stressed the effect, which he believed the culture of toleration (before the Almoravids and Almohads) had on the Castilians. It stands to reason that Castro’s thesis provoked a great deal of controversy, both academically and politically. Famous was the riposte by Claudio-Sánchez-Albornoz, who in opposition to Castro’s view unpacked a more ‘biological’ thesis, according to which the distinctive Spanish Identity had been forged in prehistory, long before the Muslims arrived in Andalucía. It was simply a biologically derived characteristic. Undoubtedly, the debate between the two historians was forged in the post-WW2 climate. They needed to know why Spain and Portugal was not freed from the oppressive dictators of Franco and Salazar. Why this particular ‘sonder-weg’?
However, in 1975 Franco died and with him the need to explain the inherent Spanish identity. Now, the drive was rather to find a way to reconcile the former warring factions in a political project, which was to move forward. In view of this focus shifted towards the question of “multiculturalism”. It was at this point American and later English historians chose to rework Castro’s concept of ‘convivencia’ in order to explore the manifold ways in which people characterised by different cultures had established contact and lived with each other ‘perfect harmony’.
It is perhaps in this connection worth to remember that this was also the time, when USA no longer believed in the “inherent” ‘Americanism’, but instead struggled to find ways to reconcile with the fact that the people of USA included a host of not only Afro-Americans and Indians but also Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican and countless other persons with different cultural identities. No longer was it a question about a special ‘Spanish’ ( or ‘American’) mentality. instead, it became a question of reading Spanish (and American) history as a constant struggle for ‘Convivencia’ between people belonging to different cultural and religious traditions. Medieval Spain became a grand laboratory to understand the actual inner workings of ‘living together’ in USA in the late 20th century.
One of the historians, who came to play and important role in the establishment of this particular scholarly field was Thomas Glick, who in 1979 wrote the seminal book, titled: Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages. In 2005 a new edition was published by Brill. This is still regarded as the best introduction to the history proper of how the actual convivencia played out in the early Middle Ages until ca. 1250. In 1992 he was co-editor of a catalogue published in connection with an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, titled Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain. This coffe-table book has since been published in a number of editions, serving as a visually enticing introduction to the whole field. Since then, a host of more detailed studies have been published, outlining the details of the many types contacts, conflicts and solutions, people in the Iberian peninsula came up with in the Middle Ages.
New York 9/11
However, after 9/11 these continued scholarly endeavours to understand how it really played out were taken over by a more popular literature. First of all was Maria Rosa Menocal, who in 2002 published her elegiac history of The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Continuously on the top-spot on the Amazon list of bestsellers in the category of European History, it was soon followed by The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture (2009), which she co-authored with Jerrilynn D. Dodds and Abigail Krasner Balbale.
Menocal’s thesis was that “the unusual level of tolerance of religious difference” during the Umayyads (756 -1031) was first of all a reflection of the “often unconscious acceptance that contradictions – within oneself, as well as within one’s culture – could be positive and productive” (Menocal 2002, p. 11). In her opinion the Umayyads created a Muslim culture, which – although intensely pious and observant – was in no way inimical to the intellectual and secular lifestyle of “the others” (Jews and Christians). Menocal had – it appears from her postscript – ended the manuscripts only weeks before 9/11. In this she accordingly felt the need to address the horrible events and also the reasons, why the golden period of the convivencia of the early middle ages fell apart. In the end it was the invasion of the Almoravids and Almohads. It stands to reason that Menocal’s work has gendered an ungodly number of packed tours to the golden utopia of friendliness: Al-Andalus.
Shortly afterwards 191 people were killed and more than 1800 injured in the 2004 Madrid train Bombings. This led to the book by Chris Lowney, titled: A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Medieval Spain (2005). In this book he did not claim that ‘convivencia’ had not existed. However, his conclusion was darker and more despondent: according to him accommodation was a more precise term to apply to the happenings in Medieval Spain. “Uncomfortable necessity, rather than some higher-minded ideal of tolerance, first spurred the accommodation that scholars hail as Spain’s era of ‘convivencia’, he wrote in his conclusion (Lowney 2005, p. 189). No facile solution to the enigma of how to deal with 21’st century ‘conviencia’ may be found here.
The Myth of Convivencia
Already in 1994 Mark Cohen published his study of the Jews under the Crescent and the Cross, which argued that the jews in medieval Europe and the Levant fared much better under Muslim than Christian Rule.
Recently scholars and historians have begun to be even more critical of the whole idea of convivencia. One result of this is the recent publication by Simon Barton, Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines. Interfaith Relations and Social Power in Medieval Iberia. In his work he demonstrates how representatives of the three faiths actively policed the complex religious boundaries in the Peninsula; but also how women were used as tokens in the game of convivencia. In his book he uses a wide variety of source material including legal documents, historical narratives, polemical and hagiographic works, poetry, music, and visual art, thus actively turning towards amore cultural historical understanding of the phenomenon.
Another example of this ‘genre’ are the books by Brian A. Catlos on The Victors and the Vanquished: Christians and Muslims of Catalonia and Aragon, 1050-1300 and Muslims of Medieval Latin Christendom, c. 1050-1614. He argues that we should not use the word ‘convivencia’ but rather ‘conveniencia’, since the many histories of the controversies, collaborations and confrontations had a practical side to it, which is often overlooked by scholars, who either focus (too much) on the involved and evolving theologies or the daily praxis on the ground. By turning towards the concept of ‘conveniencia’ he is pointing to the middle ground: the local level where practical accords and agreements were invoked in order to set the scene.
Another scholar, which has a less elegiac approach to the relationship between the three faths is David Nirenberg. In 2014 he published an overview of the Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today, which tells the story of how the three religions developed in interaction with one another through an interplay between love, tolerations, massacres, and banishments.
Out of all this has finally grown a literature, which tries to de-mask the invention of the tradition or myth of convivencia. One recent publication is the book ed. by Connie L. Scarborough, Revisiting Convivencia in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia, in which a number of scholars seek to shed light on the newest research into the many historical considerations, the literary manifestations and the question of languages.
On the other hand theologians and religious historians with the wish to build bridges between Jews, Christians and Muslims have been busy exploiting the myth. One result is a recently published book by Terence Lovat and Robert Crotty on Reconciling Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Islam’s Special Role in Restoring Convivencia. In this book the authors argue that Islam has potential to re-awaken its self-understanding as a leader of accord among the Abrahamic faiths, thus reinventing the role that it played in “the era of Convivencia when, in medieval Spain, Islam constructed and contributed to advanced civilizations characterized by relatively harmonious co-existence between Muslims, Christians and Jews”. The blurb tells us that the book focuses on the role that a more respected and self-confident Islam could play in forging enhanced inter-faith relations in a world that desperately needs them as it struggles to understand and deal with modern and particularly vicious forms of radical Islamism.
The irony is of course that while historians are busy trying to uncover the actual and very complex mechanisms through which different people in medieval Iberia interacted with each other, theologians and religious scientists are busy colporting the myth once more; something, which then spills over into official Islamic propaganda of organisations like The Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb ut-Tahrir.
Convivencia in Medieval Spain: A Brief History of an Idea
By Kenneth Baxter Wolf
In: Religion Compass, Volume 3, Issue 1, pages 72–85, January 2009
Little Mosque on the Prairie’ and Modern Convivencia: An Intervention into Canadian Muslim Identities
By Franz Volker Greifenhagen
In: Muslims and the New Information and Communication Technologies: Notes from an Emerging and Infinite Field, eds. Thomas Hoffmann & Göran Larsson (Muslims in Global Societies Series 7). Dordrecht: Springer, 2013, pp. 129-146
Utopian virtues: Muslim neighbors, ritual sociality, and the politics of convivència
By Brad Erickson
In: American Ethnologist, Volume 38, Issue 1, February 2011, pp. 114–131
Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages (2. edition)
By Thomas Glick
In: The Medieval and Early Modern Iberian World Vol 27.
Thomas Glick presents a comparative history of the Islamic and Christian areas of Spain in the period between A.D. 711 and 1250 when these areas emerged as distinct political, social, and cultural entities. The author accounts for the social, political, and ethnic structures that developed between the frontiers of Muslim and Christian territories and explores the cross-cultural relationships and the transmission of ideas and techniques, mainly from the Islamic culture to the Christian culture in Spain. Glick argues that science and technology are key indicators of cultural influence. The author has revised this text considerably since the first edition appeared in 1979 to reflect the fruits of the increased exploration of Spanish medieval history spurred by the “historiographical revolution” in Spain over the last two decades.
Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain
Ed by Vivian B. Mann,Thomas F. Glick and Jerrilynn Denise Dodds
George Braziller; Reissue edition 2007 (1992)
The Middle Ages in Spain—the the period from the Muslim conquest of 711 to the expulsion of the Jews and the defeat of the last Muslim ruler in 1492—witnessed an extraordinary “Golden Age” through the intermingling of its Jewish, Muslim, and Christian inhabitants. This volume explores the nature of their coexistence (termed convivencia by Spanish historians), which embraced not only ideological interchange and cultural influence, but also mutual friction, rivalry, and suspicion. The cultural and social dynamics underlying convivencia powerfully influenced the creation of poetry, art, architecture, and the material culture of Spain, as well as the transmission and absorption of scientific ideas and technology from East to West. Explored by leading scholars in each of these fields, the cultural treasures of convivencia range from Hebrew biblical manuscripts illuminated with Islamic stylistic motifs, to astrolabes with Latin inscriptions, to the first examples of secular Hebrew poetry. More than one hundred of the objects are united for the first time in an exhibition at the Jewish Museum, New York. At a time when the study of cultural fusion is receiving increasing attention, this volume offers a fresh and comprehensive view of Spain’s pluralistic medieval society. Moreover, it celebrates an inspiring history of cultural achievement in the context of intergroup relations that were both negative and positive. Published in connection with an exhibition in 1992 at the Jewish Museum in New York.
The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
By María Rosa Menocal
Little, Brown and Company 2002
Undoing the familiar notion of the Middle Ages as a period of religious persecution and intellectual stagnation, Maria Menocal now brings us a portrait of a medieval culture where literature, science, and tolerance flourished for 500 years. The story begins as a young prince in exile — the last heir to an Islamic dynasty — founds a new kingdom on the Iberian peninsula: al-Andalus. Combining the best of what Muslim, Jewish, and Christian cultures had to offer, al-Andalus and its successors influenced the rest of Europe in dramatic ways, from the death of liturgical Latin and the spread of secular poetry, to remarkable feats in architecture, science, and technology. The glory of the Andalusian kingdoms endured until the Renaissance, when Christian monarchs forcibly converted, executed, or expelled non-Catholics from Spain. In this wonderful book, we can finally explore the lost history whose legacy is still with us in countless ways.
The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture,
By Jerrilynn D. Dodds, María Rosa Menocal and Abigail Krasner Balbale
Yale University press 2009
Named a Book of the Year by the Times Literary Supplement, this lavishly illustrated work explores the vibrant interaction among different and sometimes opposing cultures, and how their contacts with one another transformed them all. It chronicles the tumultuous history of Castile in the wake of the Christian capture of the Islamic city of Tulaytula, now Toledo, in the eleventh century and traces the development of Castilian culture as it was forged in the new intimacy of Christians with the Muslims and Jews they had overcome. The authors paint a portrait of the culture through its arts, architecture, poetry and prose, uniquely combining literary and visual arts. Concentrating on the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the book reveals the extent to which Castilian identity is deeply rooted in the experience of confrontation, interaction, and at times union with Hebrew and Arabic cultures during the first centuries of its creation. Abundantly illustrated, the volume serves as a splendid souvenir of southern Spain; beautifully written, it illuminates a culture deeply enriched by others.
A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain
by Chris Lowney
Free Press 2005
In 711, a ragtag army of Muslim North Africans conquered Christian Spain and launched Western Europe’s first Islamic state. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella vanquished Spain’s last Muslim kingdom, forced Jews to convert or emigrate, and dispatched Christopher Columbus to the New World. In the years between, Spain’s Muslims, Christians, and Jews forged a golden age for each faith and distanced Spain from a Europe mired in the Dark Ages.Medieval Spain’s pioneering innovations touched every dimension of Western life: Spaniards introduced Europeans to paper manufacture and to the Hindu-Arabic numerals that supplanted the Roman numeral system. Spain’s farmers adopted irrigation technology from the Near East to nurture Europe’s first crops of citrus and cotton. Spain’s religious scholars authored works that still profoundly influence their respective faiths, from the masterpiece of the Jewish kabbalah to the meditations of Sufism’s “greatest master” to the eloquent arguments of Maimonides that humans can successfully marry religious faith and reasoned philosophical inquiry. No less astonishing than medieval Spain’s wide-ranging accomplishments was the simple fact its Muslims, Christians, and Jews often managed to live and work side by side, bestowing tolerance and freedom of worship on the religious minorities in their midst. A Vanished World chronicles this impossibly panoramic sweep of human history and achievement, encompassing both the agony of jihad, Crusades, and Inquisition, and the glory of a multicultural civilization that forever changed the West. One gnarled root of today’s religious animosities stretches back to medieval Spain, but so does a more nourishing root of much modern religious wisdom.
Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages
by Mark R. Cohen
Princeton University Press; With a New introduction and afterword by the author 2008 (1994)
Did Muslims and Jews in the Middle Ages cohabit in a peaceful “interfaith utopia”? Or were Jews under Muslim rule persecuted, much as they were in Christian lands? Rejecting both polemically charged ideas as myths, Mark Cohen offers a systematic comparison of Jewish life in medieval Islam and Christendom–and the first in-depth explanation of why medieval Islamic-Jewish relations, though not utopic, were less confrontational and violent than those between Christians and Jews in the West. Under Crescent and Cross has been translated into Turkish, Hebrew, German, Arabic, French, and Spanish, and its historic message continues to be relevant across continents and time. This updated edition, which contains an important new introduction and afterword by the author, serves as a great companion to the original.
The Victors and the Vanquished: Christians and Muslims of Catalonia and Aragon, 1050-1300
By Brian A. Catlos
Series: Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought
Cambridge University Press 2008
This is a revisionary study of Muslims living under Christian rule during the Spanish ‘reconquest’. It looks beyond the obvious religious distinctions and delves into the subtleties of identity in the thirteenth-century Crown of Aragon, uncovering a social dynamic in which sectarian differences comprise only one of the many factors in the causal complex of political, economic and cultural reactions. Beginning with the final stage of independent Muslim rule in the Ebro valley region, the book traces the transformation of Islamic society into mudéjar society under Christian domination. This was a case of social evolution in which Muslims, far from being passive victims of foreign colonisation, took an active part in shaping their institutions and experiences as subjects of the Infidel. Using a diverse range of methodological approaches, this book challenges widely held assumptions concerning Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle Ages, and minority-majority relations in general.
Muslims of Medieval Latin Christendom, c.1050–1614
Brian A. Catlos
Cambridge University Press 2014
Through crusades and expulsions, Muslim communities survived for over 500 years, thriving in medieval Europe. This comprehensive study explores how the presence of Islamic minorities transformed Europe in everything from architecture to cooking, literature to science, and served as a stimulus for Christian society to define itself. Combining a series of regional studies, Catlos compares the varied experiences of Muslims across Iberia, southern Italy, the Crusader Kingdoms and Hungary to examine those ideologies that informed their experiences, their place in society and their sense of themselves as Muslims. This is a pioneering new narrative of the history of medieval and early modern Europe from the perspective of Islamic minorities; one which is not, as we might first assume, driven by ideology, isolation and decline, but instead one in which successful communities persisted because they remained actively integrated within the larger Christian and Jewish societies in which they lived.
Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines. Interfaith Relations and Social Power in Medieval Iberia
By Simon Barton
Series: Middle Ages Series
University of Penn Press 2014
Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines investigates the political and cultural significance of marriages and other sexual encounters between Christians and Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula, from the Islamic conquest in the early eighth century to the end of Muslim rule in 1492. Interfaith liaisons carried powerful resonances, as such unions could function as a tool of diplomacy, the catalyst for conversion, or potent psychological propaganda. Examining a wide range of source material including legal documents, historical narratives, polemical and hagiographic works, poetry, music, and visual art, Simon Barton presents a nuanced reading of the ways interfaith couplings were perceived, tolerated, or feared, depending upon the precise political and social contexts in which they occurred.
Religious boundaries in the Peninsula were complex and actively policed, often shaped by an overriding fear of excessive social interaction or assimilation of the three faiths that coexisted within the region. Barton traces the protective cultural, legal, and mental boundaries that the rival faiths of Iberia erected, and the processes by which women, as legitimate wives or slave concubines, physically traversed those borders. Through a close examination of the realities and the imagination of interfaith relations, Conquerors, Brides, and Concubines highlights the extent to which sex, power, and identity were closely bound up with one another.
Neighboring Faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism in the Middle Ages and Today
By David Nuremberg
University of Chicago Press 2014
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are usually treated as autonomous religions, but in fact across the long course of their histories the three religions have developed in interaction with one another. In Neighboring Faiths, David Nirenberg examines how Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived with and thought about each other during the Middle Ages and what the medieval past can tell us about how they do so today. There have been countless scripture-based studies of the three “religions of the book,” but Nirenberg goes beyond those to pay close attention to how the three religious neighbors loved, tolerated, massacred, and expelled each other—all in the name of God—in periods and places both long ago and far away. Nirenberg argues that the three religions need to be studied in terms of how each affected the development of the others over time, their proximity of religious and philosophical thought as well as their overlapping geographies, and how the three “neighbors” define—and continue to define—themselves and their place in terms of one another. From dangerous attractions leading to interfaith marriage; to interreligious conflicts leading to segregation, violence, and sometimes extermination; to strategies for bridging the interfaith gap through language, vocabulary, and poetry, Nirenberg aims to understand the intertwined past of the three faiths as a way for their heirs to produce the future—together.
Revisiting Convivencia in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia
Ed. by Connie L. Scarborough
Juan de la Cuesta-Hispanic Monographs 2014
Convivencia, literally translated as “cohabitation” or “living together,” is often invoked in discussions of the centuries in the Iberian Peninsula when Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived in close proximity to one another. The term convivencia has been applied, both inside and outside academic circles, to imply a “golden age” of multi-religious, amicable harmony. –Scarborough, from the introduction. Eighteen prominent Hispanists explore “convivencia” in this collection of articles edited by Connie L. Scarborough. The articles are divided into three categories: Historical Considerations, Literary Manifestations, and the Question of Language(s). This book is number 11 in the series: Estudios de literatura medieval John E. Keller published by Juan de la Cuesta Hispanic Monographs.
Reconciling Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Islam’s Special Role in Restoring Convivencia
By Terence Lovel and Robert Crotty
Springer Verlag 2014
At the present time, when so-called Islamic radicalism, terrorism and Jihadism occupy major media space, with Islam often depicted as the main culprit, the book attempts a tour de force. It proposes that Islam is as much victim as culprit in the history that has led to the current hostility. This is because the common claims of both mainstream and radical Islam that Islam represents the high point of the Abrahamic tradition, and therefore a purification of Judaism and Christianity, have been largely ignored, misunderstood or blatantly rejected by these faiths and therefore by ‘the West’ in general. This rejection has effectively rendered Islam as the poor cousin, if not the illegitimate sibling, of the tradition. In turn, this has created long-term resentment and hostility within Islam as well as robbed the ‘Judaeo-Christian West’ of a rich, inter-faith understanding of the wider Abrahamic tradition. The book explores these claims through textual, historical and theological analyses, proposing that many of them stand up better to critical scrutiny than has been commonly acknowledged. It further proposes that seeing Islam in this way has potential to re-awaken its self-understanding as a leader of accord among the Abrahamic faiths, of the kind that characterized the era of Convivencia when, in medieval Spain, Islam constructed and contributed to advanced civilizations characterized by relatively harmonious co-existence between Muslims, Christians and Jews. The book focuses on the role that a more respected and self-confident Islam could play in forging enhanced inter-faith relations in a world that desperately needs them as it struggles to understand and deal with modern and particularly vicious forms of radical Islamism.
The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain
by Dario Fernandez-Morera
Intercollegiate Studies Institute 2016
Scholars, journalists, and even politicians uphold Muslim-ruled medieval Spain—“al-Andalus”—as a multicultural paradise, a place where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived in harmony.There is only one problem with this widely accepted account: it is a myth. In this groundbreaking book, Northwestern University scholar Darío Fernández-Morera tells the full story of Islamic Spain. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise shines light on hidden history by drawing on an abundance of primary sources that scholars have ignored, as well as archaeological evidence only recently unearthed. This supposed beacon of peaceful coexistence began, of course, with the Islamic Caliphate’s conquest of Spain. Far from a land of religious tolerance, Islamic Spain was marked by religious and therefore cultural repression in all areas of life and the marginalization of Christians and other groups—all this in the service of social control by autocratic rulers and a class of religious authorities.The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise provides a desperately needed reassessment of medieval Spain. As professors, politicians, and pundits continue to celebrate Islamic Spain for its “multiculturalism” and “diversity,” Fernández-Morera sets the historical record straight—showing that a politically useful myth is a myth nonetheless.
Playing Chess in Medieval Iberia. El Libro de los Juegos, commissioned by Alphonse X of Castile, thirteenth century. Madrid, Escurial Library, fol. 63 recto