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Al-Andalus: a european Renaissance.

Emilio Gonzalez-Ferrin

1 It was Gregory of Nisa who wrote around sixteen centuries ago- that History is a non-stop sequence of new beginnings . Nonetheless, we do not usually feel it in the same way, tided-up -as we use to be- in the concept of the so-called History of the decline, normally over-following the great work of Edward Gibbon History of the Decline & Fall of the Roman Empire-. Thus, we tend to feel History as a non-stop sequence of declines , searching for causes just like a meteorologist designs the map of a long awaited storm. One of these overwhelming storms seems to be the Middle Ages, or the Dark Ages, as physicians of History use to refer, considering those times just like an eventual illness lastly overcome in the genesical -brigth, splendorous-Renaissance. History of dates and proper names, History of capital letters tends to live on this organic perception of passing time and Humanity. Because it History- seems to be the biography of the heroes, the times that flourished at their feet, the territories that motherland gained by means of that flourishing, and the way the world came down when those heroes & times passed away. At least, this was the perception of Thomas Carlyle and his numerous crypto-followers. But this sort of biological perception of History is guilty of incoherence or selfcontradiction. In fact, it is the quoted Gregory of Nisa who writes closer to Biology, for it is clear that life is not a downhill road to the end thought a pesimist would sign above this-. Life always spread, althought not necessarily in the way it was expected. In fact, in life and in History- everything is on the verge of becoming something different, even something new, or so it seems if we point at it from today, jumping to conclusions about a time cut-off from its recent past. So to speak: we do not understand historical meanings if we select a portion of past time and expose it out of context. Having said that about the unexpected aftermath of things- we may also point out the subsequent truism: that everything was born from something previous. 2 New beginnings and continuity as mechanisms of History, and Historiology as a means of perceiving and understanding them through a correct consideration of proper


historiography, not myth and believes wraped up by ideologies. This is our vision of History just in case we should entitle or present it. We could also point out that it is not so common to talk about perceptions and understandings in a discipline so old and with methodologies so fixed. Most of historians refuse necessary evaluations -never veredictsand use to be more like scroll curators and file keepers, committed to the slogan of blind Philology: if its old and hard to translate, it is the truth . Reluctants at any case- to revisit certain inconvenient periods of time that in contrast- use to be overhauled by more impudent non specialists that at the very end- are the ones that shape the common understandings of the periods aforementioned. One of these inconvenient periods is al-Andalus, a long and strange time of arabo-islamic culture in european lands and surrounded by a dark medieval stage. And it is inconvenient because it refers to a past time in which we were different -but who were we?-, as well as refers at any case, in faulty and ideological perception- to a way of refusing being different to-day -yes but, again, who are we today?-. The background of this past & present, ideologican & identitary mess is the concept of religions as cultural identities and subjects of History. Again: new beginnings and continuity. There are two needed axes crossed in between as the ways of tackling this subject of al-Andalus. First of all, we have to move from creationism to evolutionism in the way of understanding passing time. It is worthless to maintain in History what has been disregarded in general science postulates: the old fashioned tenet about things coming from nothing and at once. This History based upon ideals fallen from above and absolute starting points by means of invasions and amazing cavalries is no longer comprehensible. Everything flourish in a context from which it emanates. The second axis deals with our current and mediatic vision of the world. There is something that was once disregarded in medicine and psychiatrics as non scientifical: the so called phrenology bust; a freaky distribution of brain lobes presuming a magical ability to read the human mind. And that disregarded procedure is the basis of our description of the world: in this asumed phrenology globe there are places out of time, others out of culture, a section out of religion, another -in contrast- plenty of prayers, a vast northern paradise of reason, another disgusting land with an endemic proclivity to conflict, and so on. A complete phrenologic description of the world with anachronic mixture and abiding topics that points out every single tendency of a region and its historicist background. 3


Having in mind that quoted period and land called al-Andalus, we may ask ourselves: which is its current and political versatility in this context; the context of these two axis crossed between: historical creationism and our phrenologic vision of the world?. Well, sometimes, al-Andalus appear as a revival in terms of orientalist stage machinery for a certain operetta. Mythological nourishment in times of alleged esentialist diatribe. In easy-going readings of al-Andalus, one may say this is not me although belonging to the same land, and another one may say this is me in spite of belonging to a cultural tradition two or three continents far away. Faulty background fitted for faulty senses of identity. It is, indeed, a harassing sens of History, for nothing is allowed to appear as it once really was, but as we need it in our current fusses. Because we use to apply our vision of todays we said- phrenologic distribution of the world over different phases of the past. Phases based on that mentioned difficult conception -just in case we try to depart from a scientifical point of view-: that religions are the subjects/starrings of History, as well as the unique way of being someone. Religions as flags, as vertical motherlands, as teams with a collection of medals and awards gained in the past, as were as some affronts never to be forgotten. Let us suppose I am a muslim; an indonesian muslim for instance-: do I thus- inherit al-Andalus simply because of my coincidence with its majority religion? Does a man from Panama for instance- inherit the cultural legacy of Byzantium just because he follows the same religion?. Let us suppuse I am a christian; a swedish christian -for instance-: should I bypass medieval roads that crearly lead to my western tradition, simply because they appear written in arabic? 4 Revisiting al-Andalus with no revival purposes -with no vocation of stage machinery- means another thing quite different. Is about admitting the role of movement in History and, thus, designing the true path that once led to a european enlightment. In the common faulty vision, al-Andalus displays itself as something stepped out of that Punch & Judy Show of History currently called, as a matter of fact, clash of civilizationsand embodies a rare, fertile and original european arabic portion of the Middle Ages . And, by the way, that time the Middle Ages- are considered -we saw it- dark ones by the creationists of the Renaissance just because they need dark around on order to highlight their core. Just as Haskins once wrote, the continuity of history rejects violent contrasts between successive periods, and modern research shows the Middle Ages less dark and less static, the Renaissance less bright and less sudden, than was once supposed. The Italian Renaissance was preceded by similar, if less wide-reaching, movements 1. That's right: to
Charles Homer Haskins (1927), The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. Cambridge (Massachussetts): Harvard U.P. Page v (foreword).


some extent, the Middle Ages are not that dark but hardly understood because are written in arabic. As we shall see, al-Andalus is not merely a past time. It is a component, an ingredient. In fact, we are convinced that is an unavoidable seed of Europe; the Europe that we take as matrix of the West and the one that in al-Andalus jumped from the Middle Ages to live a first renaissance in arabic2. Following the new over-arching interpretations in the origines of the european Renaissance 3, we should admit that the starting point of that flourishing new age includes a wide-spread stream of previous orientalisations conducted mainly through four channels: the eastern commercial contacts of Venise, the midlands of Sicily arabic culture under normand dinasties with Frederik the Second Hohenstaufen-, the flight of greek intellectuals after 1453 because of the turkish never arabic- conquest of Constantinople, and last but no least- the long and dense crossroad of al-Andalus. 5 This crossroad al-Andalus, a quite atypical portion of Europe in arabic- was created like a sediment, after a long and constant formation. It was Hegel who wrote about cualitative changes as an accumulation of cuantitative incorporations. And so, al-Andalus is the final step after a long series of eastern grafts, just like anywhere else all over the Mediterranean. It is worthless to maintain the myth of an arab-islamic conquest in 711, that creationist and genesical origin commonly admitted and absolutely bare, undressed of historiographical proves. This is not exactly the place and time to study it in depth, but in 711 there were no arabic culture or islamic civilisation able to spread out from a very limited portion of the Middle East. In later propaganda, islam expanded by force, christianism by conviction, and judaism by genetics. Three well-grounded myths that evaporate with a serious sens of historiology: there were always convertion to the three of them, as well as traffic of populations and socio-religious troubles all over. And regarding the insistent myth of an islamic miraculous and bloody invasion, it should be noted the complete lack of arab sources -till, at least, year 858-, while several latin, syriac and greek contemporary related sources describe numerous causesfor a single consequence: the destruction of two centralisms (Rome and Persia). We just need the comparative reading of two authors living the first universal steps of Islam: Saint John of Damascus in the East, around year 750- and Eulogy of Cordoba in the West, almost one hundred years after-. Through the pages of their accounts, both of them shed light enough
Emilio Gonzalez-Ferrin (20104), Al-Andalus: Europe between East and West in spanish and french-. Cordoba: Almuzara, page 11. 3 Jerry Brotons (2003), The Renaissance Bazaar: from the Silk Road to Michelangelo. Oxford U.P. Juan Vernet (2006), What Europe owes to the Islam in Spain. Madrid: Acantilado.


on the gradual formation of eastern Islam and al-Andalus as well as a key concept in the origines of a wider cultural world: at least during a century and a half, Islam was a hellenic culture. This would change after the foundation of Bagdad in 762-, itself a graeco-roman polis in its planification, but in any event a persian starting point of an esencialist feed-back that promoted a new lingua franca: the arabic language. 6 This hellenic origins can be traced not only through the progressive replacement of byzantine coinage, art, law and so on, but also in two significant details so much extended that reached the progressive formation of al-Andalus. One is the name: al-Andalus as fonetic transformation of the voice Atlantis. Located the lost Paradise by Plato in the western lands where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic ocean, between the IV and the VI century were writen several commentaries to Plato main writings, generating that hellenic cultural movement called the neoplatonism, and origine in its turn of the wordhomage Atlantis > adalandis > al-Andalus. Something quite similar would once happen with the also hellenic travel from the Garden of the Hesperides to Separad > Sefarad, the hebrew equivalent to al-Andalus. The second hellenic trace is paradoxically included in the first valuable arabic source containing information about al-Andalus. It is the so called Akhbar majmua Collected Chronicles, dated in 858-, responsible in part of the official version of the andalusian origines insistently repeated till today. In this chronicle is narrated the european uprising of the old syrian Ummayad dinasty related to the adventure of ten thousand soldiers commanded by a certain general called Balj. Their feat consists precisely on a defeat in north Africa, followed by a tactic retreat that led them to streghten in al-Andalus and become the principal party that supported the first emir of Cordoba. It is interesting to stress that this is exactly the narrative plot of the Anabasis, the greek chronicle of the ten thousand written by Jenofonte. But the chronicle provides two other greek literary elements: one is that first Ummayad emir was precisely the last of the eastern kings, just like in the plot of the Aeneid and the foundation of Rome. The other element is that the hereinafter allegued conquest of Spain was due to the kidnapping of a maid from the spanish Visigoths and the organized invasion in revange. Exactly the detonating flame of the Iliad. 7 As time went by, following that old thesis of Hegel, the addition of cuantitative changes drove a cualitative one. Hispania became al-Andalus after a long struggle of


different heretical trends, substantive problems in the transition of the visigothic kingdom, a long peripherical questioning of the late roman centralism, and so on. Hispania was not at all the empty or uncultivated land that appears in the arabic chronicles written, let us always have it in mind, at least a century and a half after the presumed conquest-: the background of the previous encyclopedical writings of Isidoro de Sevilla indicates cultural heights that in the next iberian phase -al-Andalus- not only were known but even wisely exploited taking precise advantage of it. Isidoro and latin-visigothic legacy of Hispania fertilized the science produced long after in arabic in the same lands, permanently under the cultural tides originated in the East, progresively in arabic. Once again: new beginnings and continuity; evolutionism. This new beginning grew in natural and constant relation with a similar evolution in the rest of south and east Mediterranean. It was precisely the unexpected continuation of the Roman culture and not its decline and fall. Rome and Persia fell into the subsequent Mediterranean cultural model: Dar al-Islam. Although it was not exactly the latin one western mediterranean- but the greek version, the much more illustrated one at that time, centered in Byzantium and its fusion by confusion in Bagdad with the Sasanid persian Empire. But the gap between these two different roman worlds East and West, Constantinopla and Rome- provoked a definitive european disconnexion. Hispania, on the verge of becoming al-Andalus, aligned itself with the rest of the mediterranean south and east, suffering a cut off from its closest rest of Europe; this one aligned in turn with a future configuration: the Carolingian project. 8 This Carolingian state played the lead of a certain cannonical definition of Europe: disregarding the existence of a living Roman Empire in the East, a new emperor claimed for himself the role of a restoration in the beginnings of the IX century. And so, it seems that Rome tended to resume in the West bypassing the way of being roman in the rest of the mediterranean basin; in fact, a very orientalized way. That carolingian assumed restoration bypassed also the iberian peninsula, and eventually minted a key concept in european historiography: the aforementioned idea of restoration, instead of an admitted and more credible- evolution and graft. The point is that Europe loves re-ism: every restoration presumes to reject the past from which it emanates at any case. It will be accomplished in that carolingian restorarion, as well as the reconquest to come in the iberian peninsula, or even in the Renaissance itself. In the future, every single great project in Europe will have to be anchored in an assumed golden distant past, thus marking a distance from the previous one just to bypass it and validate the old theory of Mircea Eliade concerning the myth of the eternal return.


9 By dint of arabization the cornerstone of the andalusian miracle -and not at all the mythical invasive cavalry- al-Andalus became a substantial part of what we may call the heights of the time. Dimitri Gutas has shown the connexion between creating the greek lower-case letters and the spreading out of all the hellenic cultural heritage: it seems that by the time of the foundation of Bagdad as arabic economic and cultural fortress, the greeks in Byzantium created this practical small letter to make the most of time copying manuscripts in order to sell them to the bagdadis translators into arabic 4. And it is quite interesting that, in the commercial interchange between Bagdad and Constantinople, the bagdadis would always refer to themselves as sons of the igriqis -the greeks-, while the others were simply sons of Rome -rumis-. The arabized populations of the Middle East in the future, the arabs, and even the muslims to a certaint extent- were translating cannons of science qanns, in the futurenot exactly inspired by a sudden love for letters, but because they needed them in order to apply the knowledge of the elders. The success of a civilization always comes from the more practical. Dar al-Islam was not a company of carriers -translators from the greek for the european Renaissance- just as people tend to label them, admitting -in a quite orientalistic way- a lesser arab role in the circulation of ideas. No: in more than eight centuries, the mediterranean know-how from philosophy to astronomy, from theology to medicine, was composed in arabic, not merely translated into it. And the spin-effect of the Mediterranean worked once again delivering formation all over a world already in arabic and mastering commercial routes silk, slaves, gold, paper, spices- with a compulsory stop in al-Andalus. The Dar al-Islam; the territories with a common civilized structure -never a single state, but a certain and critical commonwealth-, was a network of cities and routes. We have to insist: it was never a unique empire, and was always urban, mantaining certain bedouin roots just in terms of fashion and implant of colective memory. Belonging to it, to the Dar al-Islam, it was once just like belonging today to the West for instance- in terms of technological or economic heights. 10 This Dar al-Islam as civilized network used to have a pluralist system of laws derived from the roman and persian laws. In general, this previous dichotomy always persisted: the so-called sunni islam comes from Byzantium, as well as the so-called chii
Dimitri Gutas (1998), Greek Thought, Arabic Culture. The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early 'Abbasid Society. (2nd-4th / 8th-10th centuries). London: Routledge.


islam comes from the persian and zoroastriam background, in spite of the fairy tale tradition of familiar disputes. At any case, al-Andalus became a very active part of this network with no connexion of political dependency with the East. As a matter of fact, the unique andalusian dependency was fron north Africa after mid-XI century and the overwhelming Murabit -almoravid- islamic preeminence, not very different from the north-iberian dependency from the Cluny french fundamentalist christian preeminence. At the very end, the torn between these two similar and opposite pressures would produce a particular andalusian spin-effect that will in fact deliver a whole heritage all over Europe. 11 But perhaps we are trying to build up the house starting by the roof. Before that, before the need to deliver in order to survive, al-Andalus reached the necessary level to have a proper historical meaning. Around 850 we may already talk about a specific arabic culture called andalusian, and from then on began to spread out a young and formative vision of the world that we may recognize as part of a pre-renaissance, in part provoked by ocassional political incertitude. As a matter of fact, the two-times motor of al-Andalus was the alternance of centralisation/non-centralisation focused in a modern capital of its times Cordoba- till a morning in which the system broke down. It was 1031, the beginning of an age always disregarded or looked down with scorn in the manuals. A new age that in fact consist on the core of andalusian identity: the city-states of Taifas. Cordoba, the ancient capital of sciences, poetry and functionaryjungle did not disappear but on the contrary- was clonated into one thousand and one small cordobas whose rivalry and competition in-between contributed to raise the level of the whole al-Andalus. It was the beginning of a golden age on arab letters -and even of hebrew ones in the Iberian peninsula, under the influence of such overwhelming semitic model as it was the arabic-. 12 Just like the italian city-states that preluded the Renaissance, the city-states of Taifas in al-Andalus generated the enough creative political crisis in order to stimulate culture. Against the common-places regarding islamic culture as a whole, in al-Andalus Taifas and after- were born several books that let us start thinking of antropocentrism and other typically european themes. Such as The Self-Taught Philosopher by Ibn Tufayl whose translation into english preluded the genre of the utopia and the beau savage-. Or like The Necklace of the Dove , the treatise of love and lovers by Ibn Hazm. Or the aftermath


on courtier letters such as the writings of Ibn al-Khatib in granada, as a model for a european genre: the education of the princes -Maquiavelo, Castiglione...-. Experimentalism also spread out during the Taifas due to the competition between the mini-courts, living the golden age of european astronomy and medicine before the Ilustration time, as well as other genres. For instance, the post-taifa period could be considered the road that led to Averroes , the european comentator of Aristotle. That philosopher from Cordoba reached such a level of predicament in Europe that his translations were forbidden in Paris XIV century- under the accusation of free-thinking. In our opinion, all those writings and works should be considered as part of the european Renaissance, because that would be the case if they had been created in languages different from the arabic. 13 Because it is the time to recognize the diversity of european cultural roots . Europe was the final destination of andalusian cultural items and devices: if Averroes was prohibited in Paris, it was because they were reading his writings there, and not necessarily in other parts of the Mediterranean. And if Colombus reached America was in part because an andalusian called Azarquiel created mobile instruments and devices permitting a type of shipping far from the coastal one. For, at any case, the science is to the needed one, and al-Andalus had beed long time ago setting course for the Renaissance, in that universal game of taking over. Besides this, geopolitic interests coveres the whole peninsula as northern christian kingdoms sniffed the wealth of southern Taifa small states, and these started to pay for peace: introducing a special tax called parias, the Taifa kings used to pay to the north forming states Leon, Castilla and Aragon, mainly- in order to contain expansive whims and to maintain and support the statu-quo. The money from al-Andalus financed the building up of northern cathedrals , and in its crypts were buried the christian kings and courtesans dressed-up in the silk produced and bought in al-Andalus. This circulation of money and goods created a really atypical mutual prosperity that came down with the final eclipse of the arab world due to a new beginning: the european renaissance in itself, as well as the invented feed-back of religious rivalry. 14 Torn between christian and muslim exclusive identities after the terrible year 1000 mainly, Cluny from the north and Murabit from the south, as we said-, al-Andalus began to filter and seep through three important different ways: first, the translations around


Toledo and other centers of competitive scientific formation; second, the Sefarad tragedy by which thousands of andalusian arabized jews had to escape from those two different fundamentalisms at the very end, only one: the national-catholicism- and carrying alAndalus in their saddlebags all around Europe. And third, al-Andalus filtered through several converted jews and muslims- that succeeded in colouring the cultural life of an already sadly closed Spain. This was the general trend in the centuries to come, a time of frontier -in the sense of midland- and elastic sense of nation. At that time, started the sad national sport of the iberian peninsula: deportation or ways of forzing out, pushing to the exile. Since the first andalusian jews, the muslim moriscos afterwards, or a new wave of hispanicized jews... An endemic sport practiced even in the XX century. At the very end, remained a quite a fearful Third Spain between the inquisitorial one and the expelled one- that mantained the silent proud of having been anything else, anything more. A third post-andalusian Spain that made possible some cornerstones of our literary spanish Golden Age by surreptitious influences in movements like the so called erasmism and a lot of heterodox cultural and religious trends. In fact, if we were able to inhabit our History in Spain just like Americo Castro claimed-, we could understand and perceive precious andalusian remainders in the form of social keys left in masterpieces of our literature such as Don Quixote, that unrivalled arm against the oblivion. In its pages, we may find missing moriscos, serious essays to open up the religion in order to cover the mistreated converted, as well as an enlightened fool that shouts I know who I am in a forgetful land. The forgetfulness of having been something more, something else.

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