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« Ulfkotte über den Niederlanden: Die Verblendung 8.1.08 [DE] | Main | Als Pax Europa noch "Toleranz" predigte 4.1.08 [DE] »

Cultural Symbiosis: A Civilized Clash of Values 7.1.08 [EN]

The worldwide Crusade against "Multiculturalists" has its foot-soldiers, inquisitors and hirelings, but also its ideologues and apologists. The debate with the last ones often turns around the Andalus (Spain) symbiosis between Muslims, Christians and Jews, that existed from the sixth until the twelfth century.

The Andalus Debate 

Defenders of an open society, often take this case  as proof of the viability of a symbiosis between Muslims, Jews and Christians. They refer to the extraordinary contributions to philosophy, science and heath care this multicultural society has produced. However, They tend to idealize the day-to-day life in (Southern) Spain during that epoch.

Those who believe in the inevitability of a "clash of civilizations" with the Islam, are uneasy with Andalus. They argue, that de Islamic contribution to the Andalus heritage is small. That is untrue: In art (poetry) and, for instance, in carefully translating and reediting "lost" Hellenistic texts from Antiquity, the Muslim department of the (often uneasy) symbiosis of three different cultures, did splendid work. It is also untrue in a broader sense: In order to evaluate the cultural value of Andalus, one should take into account the works of all three of its components as well as "co-productions", like the Jewish poetry in Arabic, for instance.

The reviewer of the book mentioned below, argues along another line in the same sense: Mixing up "culture" and "civilization", he finds, that Andalus was a violent, divided and oppressive society, that only survived its permanent risk to go up in flames, its powder keg-characteristic, by much good luck and governing skills. 

Limits of historic arguing: Culture and Civilization 

As a historian, I should once again warn against antagonistic discussions, where everyone takes his points from a complex and  largely unknown reality of about 1400 years ago. In my review of the reviewer, I limit myself to two evident points.

First: The civil society of Andalus and its successive governments were not better or worse than contemporary societies in Europe or in the Middle East. Multiculturalists shouldn't argue that cultural symbiosis is the same as democracy and freedom as we define them since the end of the 18th century. However, it is certainly a step forward in civilization, compared to the mostly tribal societies of early mediaeval Europe.

Second: The Andalus heritage is a triple cultural co-production. St. Thomas of Aquino (Italy, 12th century) cannot be imagined without the transmission and comments of works of antiquity, made by the Jews and Muslims of Toledo. The exceptionally rich "Ladino" heritage of Andalus Jews that spread over the world at the end of the Middle Ages, from Brazil to Salonica and from Morocco to the Crimea, stems for a great part from cross-fertilizing with Muslims and Christians during the centuries before they were forced out of Spain and Portugal by the Christian Reconquistadores. Moorish scientists, theologians and philosophers from Andalus, also driven out of Spain,gave several boosts to Islamic culture in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, etc. And I will not speak about hybrid christian-islamic, judeo-christian, judeo-islamic works.

A Choice for the Risks of Cultural Symbiosis 

The following "review of review" is published under the My Books > Non-Fiction[EN] heading in the sidebar (With Amazon-Link).

This article is part of a series I intend to publish, that draws upon the remarkable January 4 New York Times Books Update about the (Western) Islam-discussion. It was a pleasure to discover Ajaan Hirsi Ali side by side with Tariq Ali.

The series is cross-published (in English) in A Legal Alien in New York

The Reviewer Reviewed 

(Jan. 6, 2008). Review by ERIC ORMSBY in the New York Times Sunday Book Review (Islam Update 4/1/08) about:

GOD’S CRUCIBLE - Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215. By David Levering Lewis. Illustrated. 473 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $29.95.

The mosque of Córdoba, Spain.                      Credits: NYT Book Review - Matias Costa


"David Levering Lewis, the author of a much-acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of W. E. B. Du Bois, provides a fascinating account of “this hunted survivor of an illustrious dynasty,” as he aptly puts it; and yet, he may read too much into the man. [Abd al-Rahman I, the first Umayyad ruler of Andalus, 755-787, HR]"

For, as Ormsby puts it, the refined culture of Abd al-Rahman and his successors, hides the repressive character of their rule:

"[..] civic harmony in Umayyad Spain was more the result of shrewd statecraft and common sense than of some vague and anachronistic ideal of “tolerance.” In a highly stratified society, composed of unruly and often incompatible elements, religious and ethnic — not only Muslims, Christians and Jews but Arabs, Berbers and Slavs, as well as quarrelsome tribal factions — the assignment of strictly defined roles, with their attendant rights and responsibilities, was essential."

However, modern (Spanish, French and American) historical research finds many instances of Jews and Christians who play a great role in Spain's governments, science and philosophy from the 6th far into the 11th century. There was much cross-fertilization, between the Jews and the Muslims: Philosophy, Science (medical) and linguistic. The Christians learned from it first. Later on, they started to participate in the exceptional philosophic climate that reigned (intermittently, all right) in (Southern) Spain.

Cross-cultural Inspiration produces contributions from all its components in different parts of the World 

Maybe, Lewis, who is not student of Islam in particular, has neglected the extraordinary multiculturally inspired impulses that have come to the later Mediaeval Europe (and, also to Egypt and the Middle East) from the Andalus. Later on, the Moors and the Jews who fled before the Christian Reconquista, transmitted that heritage to Morocco and Algeria. After 1492, many Spanish Jews (Ladinos) found refuge with the Ottoman Turks (Salonica, for instance!), in London under Elizabeth I and in Holland (Spinoza, 17th century). This is, why I think, that Ormsby is both right and wrong, when he concludes:

"Since Lewis wishes to show that medieval Muslim culture was overwhelmingly superior to its contemporary European counterpart — and certainly it was — a more scrupulous attention to the details of that culture would have strengthened his case."

It all depends upon your definition of "culture". When you mean "civilization", then, well, the succession of a series of Muslim regimes (that were very different from one another - we are talking about five or six centuries!) have all in common, that in government, war, justice, they were in no way liberal democracies. From that point of view, they were as good and as bad as contemporary civilizations in Europe and in the East.

Amalgam of "Civilization" and "Culture" 

But when you define "culture" as creative thinking, writing, discussing and implementing knowledge across religious traditions, then, in my opinion, there is no doubt, that for long centuries, the Andalus society was far superior to the contemporary European ones. 

Ormsby's conclusion: 

"He describes the simmering state of tribal relations in the region as constituting “a flammable symbiosis,” but the phrase has wider scope. To judge from his account, that symbiosis was more pervasive than we usually realize, and not merely flammable, but dangerously combustible."

"Everything of Value is Fragile": Monocultural, mono-ethnic, societies may be internally more stable than multicultural and multi-ethnic ones in general. (Which, in itself, I doubt, HR). But they are so, at the price of, generally speaking again, intellectual infertility, provincialism and authoritarian rule. In the longer run, at least. And, while they may be internally more stable, they also tend (in general) to be more hostile and violent as regards their neighbours, than open societies.

When you choose, or accept, to live in an open society, you will have to accept, that your values and your traditions are regularly exposed to discussion. If you believe in your values, you shall not be afraid of that.


Values a fragile. They only thrive in symbiosis...

Maintenance of values and constant adaptation of the way you implement them, require your courage (for they are weak, fragile, the progress in civilization we have made, coming from barbarity), for values do not defend themselves, but they need people, individuals and civil society, to be on a constant alert.


So my conclusion is: I prefer to live in a society, where the fragility of my values is constantly exposed to the "combustibility" of "symbiosis", rather than to seek "the End of History" in an infertile, fortress-like society, that seeks to maintain itself by violently suppressing other systems of value.

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