Sunday, 30 June 2013

Al-Andalus: 'The ornament of the world'

I am stocking up my holiday reading -  one of the perks of my new life is I can say that reading history is now actually part of my job. At the moment I am reading The Ornament of The World - a history of Muslim Spain.

It's appropriate timing for all sorts of reasons: Every few days we hear another story about Gove's plans to re-orientate school history towards Britain's glorious and civilizing relationship with the rest of the world, and even more worrying every few days there seems to be another story about another attack on a mosque, Islamic school or community centre. You don't have to be a paranoid liberal to see a connection between the two trends. 

Which is why re-telling the largely forgotten  story of Al-Andalus might just be a timely addition to the school curriculum. Whilst most of Medieval Europe was in the grip of a near Church-monopoly on culture and ideology, Al-Andalus was for nearly 800 years, a prototype multicultural society where Muslims, Jews and Christians not only co-existed but actually interacted to produce a flourishing centre of arts and knowledge.

And the major threats to this society were religious hardliners of all faiths: Invading Fundamentalist Berber Muslims from North Africa who objected to the tolerance of the Ummayad regime, and Jews and Christians who objected to their own communities' adoption of Arabic culture. Ironically the final downfall of Al-Andalus was at the hands of the much celebrated El-Cid - a mercenary who had spent much of his life fighting for Muslim princes who bore a Muslim name.

I am aware that it is always dangerously ahistorical to transplant our own values to an age which was so fundamentally different to our own. But in these dark days of prejudice and mis-information it might just be worth trying to redress the balance with a look at a story that challenges the lie of an inevitable 'clash of civilisations'. It's a lie perpetuated both by the likes of Tommy Robinson and Nigel Farage, and in a more respectable and articulate form, by Michael Gove and Nial Fergusson.

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