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The Convivencia in Islamic Spain
Jul 1, 2013
For a period of almost four centuries, when Medieval Spain was ruled by the Moors, the believers in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam lived together in peace and harmony. La Convivencia refers to this coexistence. For over 400 years, knowledge and mysticism thrived in the Spanish towns of Toledo, Cordoba, and Granada as students and teachers in all three disciplines helped one another to learn, translate, and understand ancient teachings.

The year 1492 marked the destruction of an unprecedented form of coexistence between the Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Al-Andalus, a state that had thrived since the eleventh century. Was the purported reality of La Convivencia a mere construct of mythology, recreated by the Spanish historian Ramon Pidal and his student America Castro, or one exacerbated by populism? This in microcosm forms the basis of the article which is divided in three parts. Firstly, the historical context will be sketched in order to determine how the spirit of Convivencia crystallised. Secondly, the essay will draw upon political, religious, and socio-economic determinants to best understand the reality of La Convivencia. Thirdly, by way of historiography, the essay will attempt to reconcile the notion that La Convivencia was a retrospective utopian fallacy with the equally persuasive assertion that there really existed such an unprecedented social fabric in medieval Spain. Drawing upon proximate and remote factors, it will be argued that to blindly subscribe to utopian historical interpretation only exacerbates this theoretical misguidance and continues flawed historical documentation. This essay also seeks to provide an alternative. Perhaps by looking at the very tenets of Islam itself, one can channel the confused conclusions of the Convivencia into a cohesive understanding, for within the Qur’an lie the very seeds of democratic pluralism. As an overarching analysis, the essay will draw upon aspects of La Convivencia that should inform the peace process in the Middle East. For when Muhammad XII Abu 'Abd Allah left the gates of Granada in 1492 marking the “last sigh of the moor,” the death knell of the ever celebrated Convivencia reverberated throughout the medieval world.

Historical landscape

If indeed, the postulations of Convivencia by historian Ramon were based on a genuine reality, how the spirit actually precipitated would form a useful basis. According to some historical accounts, Arab armies first arrived in the peninsula in AD 711. Although records of the conquest are tenuous, it is known that the Arabs had gained control over North Africa from Egypt to the Atlantic (Chejne 1974). Having observed the socio-economic degradation of the Visogoth rule and the proximity of a fertile country, the Arabs made their advance from the Southern tip and met Roderick the ruler of Spain at the Barbate River (Chejne 1974). Having defeated his armies, the Arabs advanced North and Muslim rule was accepted voluntarily by many Spaniards (Esperanza 2008, 25). Al-Andalus was ruled by the Umayyad caliphs in Damascus until 750 when the Abbasid dynasty came to power in the East. Abd al-Rahman ibn Mu'awiyah, an Umayyad prince escaped, and fled to Spain where he established an independent Umayyad state in 756 (Gampel 1992). Andalusian rulers who were sovereign politically continued to regard the Abbasid caliphs as the ultimate religious authority for almost 200 years until the eighth ruler of the dynasty, Abd al-Rahman III al-Nasir, claimed the caliphate title for himself and his progeny in 929.1 It is at this point that historian Ramon Menendez Ridal and his student America Castro form the historical rhetoric resembling something of a pax Islamica, the golden age of Islamic civilisation which embodied the spirit of Convivencia. Rosa Menocal describes how this planted the seeds for an unprecedented level of scientific, philosophical, and metaphysical discovery, rendering medieval Spain the ornament of the world (Hillenbrand 1992, 10). It will be stated here that prima facie the spirit of Convivencia was no mere myth. What led to the success of the coexistence was a convenient political cocktail mixed with proximate social factors and the religious dynamics of Islamic presence.

Political determinants

Arguably, political factors were most influential in facilitating the Convivencia process. There were two key political figures present in the upper echelons of Islamic rule in Al-Andalus in the tenth century which directly impacted upon the birth of the amicable coexistence. The rule of Abd al-Rahman III from 912 to 961 came the closest to achieving the full realisation of this coexistence and in 929, he officially declared himself Caliph and “Prince of All Believers”(Allen 2008). He conducted his policy of reconciliation of the Berbers, Arabs, Jews and Christians of the Iberio-Hispanic population. He also worked directly with the Mozarabs, a controversial term generally used to refer to Christians who lived under the Muslim rule, and placed them in positions of power. Furthermore, the Jews and Christians could practice religion without harassment or persecution. The maliki fiqh or law was an effective legal instrument which regulated the practice of all three religions (Lewis 1984). Abd al-Rahman III also rotated posts within the bureaucracy and placed even former Jewish and Christian slaves in positions of power. The Muslim rulers in Spain relied on the Jews for diplomacy and public administration who were inaugurated into posts of commerce and played important roles in cities such as Toledo and Cordoba. As a direct result of this, a thriving mercantile class grew during the Islamic rule in Al-Andalus. Intrinsic to the success of Convivencia during his reign was the political figure Hasdai Ibn Shapmut, the Jewish Vizier of the Abd al-Rahman III. Their collaboration led to a convenient political marriage of ideas (Lewis 1984). Both he and Abd al-Rahman III had a common goal of removing their Jewish and Muslim communities respectively from their Eastern centre and advancing intellectual and religious independence. Consequently, this led them to create an educational structure that encouraged the importance of Greek Philosophy, particularly the works of Aristotle which was translated into many languages. This political manoeuvring had social manifestations—the Jews shared the same Romance and Arab vernacular as the Christians and Muslims. This further inaugurated the social unification among the three faith-communities of the peninsula” (Hillenbrand 1992, 11).

Aristotelian philosophy

The nuances of Aristotelian philosophy should perhaps be examined closely. Aristotelian thought directly challenged the sole use of religion to justify the denouement of certain political theory. Although both political figures were not secular, both Abd al-Rahman III and Hasdai promoted the prominence of such philosophy insofar as it pertained to political policy. Whilst the political collaboration of Abd al-Rahman and his vizier in the tenth century facilitated Convivencia, the philosophy of twelfth century was arguably the crux of the flourishing of the Convivencia. The presence of Islamic interpretations of Aristotle by Averroes and Maimonides achieved the archetypal Aristotelian scholarship (Constable 1997, 99). They urged the need to develop a state based upon the interpretation of Plato’s Republic (Constable 1997, 99). Such strong cohesion in philosophical debate led the Jews, Christians and Muslims to believe that there was a place for the three Abrahamic (Ahl Al-Kitab) faiths to coexist. It would be intellectually barren however, to state that the flourishing of Convivencia can be solely attributed to internal factors. The presence of more remote factors played into the hands of those in power. Just before the Ummayad Caliphate was established in Al-Andalus, the Visogothic rulers had conducted extensive anti-Semitic policies. These policies were particularly rampant within the state and church in the first two decades of Visogothic rule. Highly possible within the formulation of what constituted the spirit of Convivencia could be the fact that the Jews saw the Muslims as their liberators from Visogothic rule. David Lewis certainly holds this view (Allen 2008). This begs the question, was Convivencia a mere construct of retrospective utopianism or a reality exaggerated by populism and recreated through historical account?

The need to recreate history

The raison d’etre behind the recreation of history vis-a-vis the moors was a direct result of the lack of scholarship in this particular period in Spanish historical account. Thomas F. Glick in his book Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages argues that until the 1970s, historians were grappling with how to express an account of the rise of nationalism of a nation-state without alluding to socio-psychological dimensions (Glick 1992, 123). For long after the Muslim political reign came to an end, he claims that “the image of the moor remained as the quintessential stranger, an object to be feared” (Glick 1992, 123). He claims that the forgotten chapter in Spanish history was incinerated in the flames of the Spanish inquisition. Thus, transposed into the historiographical field are subconscious fears which have transferred into a bias that underlies historical interpretation. Unless a historian is purged of this bias, the historian cannot play a valid role as an interpreter of Spain’s history (Glick 1992, 123).

Convivencia: a fallacy?

The primary part of this essay has dealt with the underpinnings of Islamic reign and the machinery upon which La Convivencia functioned. So far the proposition has been that Convivencia was in fact a reality. However it will be argued here that perhaps to some extent it has been exaggerated. Much retrospective idealism was created through the historical accounts, the populism created by the Museum of Three Cultures in Cordoba and the mythos created by Washington Irving in the Tales of the Alhambra. Many contemporary historians purport that this retrospective utopianism of the Convivencia precariously masks the very presence of institutional fundamentalism in medieval Spain—both in its Jewish and Muslim manifestations in the nature of forced conversions, exile, lower standards of citizenship, higher taxation, and violence (Hillenbrand 1992, 7; Rothstein 2003, 9).

Thus, three prongs of analysis come to the fore. Firstly, whilst there might have been a great deal of tolerance, it is important to examine the social fabric and the differentiation of toleration within the classes (Hughes 2005). For the spread of Convivencia’s spirit was not a monolithic one working at equilibrium amongst classes. Cruz claims that whilst the aristocracy benefitted from policies of Convivencia, many of the lower echelons of Jewish and Christian society remained segregated or in conflict with their Abrahamic counterparts. Amongst the Christians, it was the nobility, scholars and upper ranks of clergy who enjoyed the fruits of Convivencia (Hughes 2005). Amongst the Jews, it was the rich merchant class who had little interaction with the lower echelons of society (Hughes 2005). Furthermore, cultural coexistence was more tangible amongst the Jews and Muslims than with Mozarabs. The case in point here is that aspects of divergence in culture were masked by simultaneous developments in philosophy and metaphysics. Such development in thought veiled the unearthed intricacies of conflict and carefully transposed the spirit of Convivencia onto the forefront of historical scholarship. Secondly, by way of resolving whether the theory of Convivencia translated into praxis, it is useful to analyse the intricacies of Abd al-Rahman III’s policies more microscopically. If indeed he did intend on conducting the policy of Convivencia, he did so with a very different goal in mind. His policies were mainly aimed at the homogenisation of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims into one culture. Furthermore as one analyzes the work of Pidal and Castro, it becomes obvious that they propose a similar thesis—the Spanish racial fabric would not have been what it is today without La Convivencia. This therefore seems more like one of convergence rather than coexistence.

Fallacy continued: the exoticism of architecture

A third and a more remote layer, compounding this mythos of Convivencia is the presence of ever-undulating, overwhelming architecture in Andalusia. Rothstein states that this idealism led to a form of architectural mysticism through the creation of monumental buildings such as the Alhambra and the Great Mosque of Cordoba. Rothstein claims that such overwhelming architecture declares mystery which allowed this historical idealism to achieve its physical manifestation. He claims that the “position or status of the individual is the focus, [not the individual itself]” (Rothstein 2003, 9). This is quite different from the humane ideal so often attached to Convivencia. The outcome is not a version of tolerance as she claims that the viewer is absorbed into a world that overwhelms, inspiring awe with intricacies in architecture of monumental proportions that seem beyond comprehension. This perpetuates the retrospective utopianism in its more tangible manifestation.

The thesis here however, is that whilst these interpretations temper the level of utopianism attached to the Convivencia, it was undeniable that this level of coexistence was unprecedented and arguably has not been replicated yet. What then was the lynchpin of Convivencia’s success?

Principles, civilisation, and influence of Islam: future directions

For indeed Al-Andalus was the enlightened society that combined the triune people of the holy book (Ahl Al-Kitab), their beliefs, humanism, and artistry, it would serve as an extraordinary model for any Muslim country, especially for the peace process in the Middle east. Whilst the underpinnings of truth and mythos of Convivencia have led to mixed conclusions, the assertion here is that the spirit of Convivencia has been undermined by Eurocentric historiography. The fallacy in studying the Convivencia from this perspective is that it disregards Islamic determinants from the formulation. Often the impact of the Islamic civilization and its influence are measured against the yardstick of European historiography. Perhaps imbued within this bias of reviving the rhetoric is the Huntington thesis philosophy. This thesis seeks to offer an alternative by looking at the very principles of Islam. For if most historians attribute the success of Convivencia to the Aristolean division of religion and state, why did Abd al-Rahman III go about Al-Andalus making Islamic proclamations and orations? It is unlikely that the Islamic leaders in medieval Spain really conducted a policy of disestablishment and privatization of Islam (Sachedina 2001, 24). Sachedina’s study of the Islamic roots of democratic pluralism provides a useful stepping stone. One reason why the three faiths could have coexisted so amicably could be attributed to the Qur’an’s very definition of belief itself. The Qur’an states that “Those who believe (i. e. professing to be Muslims), or those who declare Judaism, or the Christians or the Sabaeans (or those of some other faith) whoever truly believes in God and the Last Day and does good, righteous deeds, surely their reward is with their Lord, and they will have no fear, nor will they grieve” (2:62).” The apex of the Qur’an’s inclusive spirit can be extrapolated beyond the realm of the three religions of Abraham. It is particularly informative in terms of the universal application of the religious pluralism and community identity in Islam. An oft-quoted passage reads: "Humankind were (in the beginning) one community (following one way of life without disputing over provision and other similar things. Later on, differences arose and) God sent Prophets as bearers of glad tidings (of prosperity in return for faith and righteousness) and warners (against the consequences of straying and transgression), and He sent down with them the Book with the truth (containing nothing false in it) so that it might judge between the people concerning that on which they were differing” (2:213). The presence of post-911 terrorism had tainted the essence of Islam, often making it synonymous with fundamentalism. This is largely due to the obscurantist and exclusivist schools of thought which have monopolized juridical interpretations. The peace process of the Middle East must learn the inclusive spirit of the Qur’an.

Overarchingly, La Convivencia was indeed a reality however much obscured by both utopian and realist schools of thoughts it may be. As a final analysis, perhaps the reason why Convivencia blossomed at the Golden age of Islam lies in the very crux of the faith’s capacity to engage in a pluralistic world of communities (ummah) with secular concerns such as the universal good and forgiveness (Sachedina 2001, 24). Far from being antithetical to modern Western values of liberal democracy, Islam can assist this very liberal project of public international order. Blindly prescriptions to mere Eurocentric rhetoric would only exacerbate this theoretical misguidance and continue flawed historical documentation.


1. As a historian I note that there are many conflicting and unclear records of the conquest. I have attempted to reconcile several academic views and historical interpretations.


Allen, Marilyn Penn. 2008. Cultural Flourishing in Tenth Century Muslim Spain among Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Unpublished master's thesis submitted to Georgetown University, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Bresheeth H. and N. Yuval-Davis (eds). 1991. The Gulf War and the New World Order, UK: Zed Books Ltd.

Chejne, Anwar G. 1974. Muslim Spain: Its History and Culture, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Constable, Olivia. 1997. Medival Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim and Jewish Sources, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Cruz, Miguel. 1991. “The Roots of Coexistence” The Unesco Courier, 12, December.

Esperanza, Alfonso. 2008. Islamic Culture through Jewish Eyes: Al-Andalus from the Tenth to Twelfth Century, New York: Routledge.

Gampel, Benjamin R. 1992. “Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Medieval Iberia: Convivencia Through the Eyes of Sephardic Jews” in Vivian B. Mann, Thomas F. Glick, and Jerrilynn D. Dodds (editors) Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain, New York: George Braziller Incorporated.

Glick, Thomas F. 2005. Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages, Boston: BRILL Publications.

Hillenbrand, Robert. 1992. “The Ornament of the World, Medieval Cordoba as a Culture Centre” in Salma Jayyusi, The Legacy of Muslim Spain, Leiden: E. J. Brill Publications.

Lewis, Bernard. 1984. The Jews of Islam, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Rothstein, Edward. 2003. Was the Islam of Old Spain Truly Tolerant? New York Times, New York, NY, September 27.

Sachedina, Abdulaziz, 2001. Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism, New York: Oxford University Press.

Online Video Resources

Hughes, Bettany. 2005. When the Moors Ruled in Spain. Wildfire Television.

Gardner, Robert H. 2007. Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain. 2007. PBS.