Muslims Jews and Christians coexisted for more than seven centuries in a place called Al-Andalus in Spain. The degree to which Muslim rulers tolerated Jews and Christians is a widely contested subject among scholars. Some historians acknowledge that Muslims, Jews and Christians who lived within Al-Andalus interacted peacefully, with just a few instances of religious persecution and revolts. Other scholars argue that the interaction among the three groups led to the formation of medieval Iberia, a system that was characterized by religious, social and political intolerance and violence (O’Callaghan, 2002). This paper examines both accounts of the history of medieval Spain; as a site of tolerant; and as a space of violence and intercultural tension.
In medieval Spain, Muslims comprised of three powerful groups: the Berbers, the Arabs and the Neo-Muslims, muwalladûn. All the three groups emigrated from other parts of the world formed a force that enabled them to conquer non-Muslims who used to live in Spain. Together they formed the majority of the population that lived in Al-Andalus and possessed relatively great social, economic and political power (Menocal, 2002). The non-Muslim minorities comprised of Jews and Christians and they also played significant social and economic roles in the area. According to Watt (1967), the three religious groups had peaceful relations between 736 and 1031, during the Andalusian Umayyad dynasty. The peaceful coexistence was facilitated by Amir Abd al-Rahman, a ruler who succeeded in puling together the three groups of Muslims to rule medieval Spain and interact peacefully with non-Muslims. According to Watt (1967), the relationship among the three major groups was characterized by social, ethnic and religious tolerance and inter-faith harmony between Jews, Christians and Muslims. Christians and Jews retained their freedom, provided that they followed certain instructions and rules. Although these instructions and rules would now not be considered as completely fair, they may not be regarded as very harsh or burdensome considering the standards of the time.
As Watt (1967) explains, the Muslims treated Christians and Jews much better than conquered people might have expected. The Christian and Jews were not forced to live in ghettos, were not forced to abandon their faith, were not slaves and were not banned from engaging in any economic activity. They were tolerated if they acknowledged superiority of Islam, avoided blasphemy, accepted Islamic power, paid tax to the Muslim rulers and complied with rules laid down by rulers. The rules included not to receive inheritance from a Muslim, not to carry weapons, not to build synagogues and building resembling mosques, not to wear the same garments as those that were worn by Muslims, not to own a Muslim slave, not to give a prize to a Muslim and not to give evidence in a Muslim court (Barton, 2009). Generally, the Muslims did not explicitly show intolerance to the Christians and Jews. One of the reasons why there was peaceful interaction between the Muslims and non-Muslims is that when combined together, non-Muslims outnumber the Muslims and thus, mass execution was not possible. Secondly, it could have been massively expensive to control the beliefs of the huge number of non-Muslims (Barton, 2009). Finally, including non-Muslims in administration made their followers loyal to the Muslim government and this had numerous political and economic benefits to the Muslim rulers.
As Novikoff (2005) assert, not all Muslim rulers were tolerant to the non-Muslims. Almanzor, who took over leadership from the middle of 11th century imposed strict restrictions on non-Muslims and rooted churches. Christians were not allowed to employ Muslims, were not allowed to build taller houses than Muslims, were not allowed to express their faith in the public or to carry a bible and were required to give way to Muslims in streets. There were numerous prosecutions and executions of Muslims. Another Muslim leader known as Yusuf bin Tashfin who to over leadership in 1086 continued with the same trend. According to Lane-Poole (1967), these rulers imposed restrictions on non-Muslims to minimize their political, social and economic influence and power. The situation continued to worsen until in the middle of 12th century when the Islamic empire declined and was replaced by Christianity. After taking over power, Christians started imposing restrictions on Muslims that were similar to those Muslim rulers had been imposing on them. The main reason for doing so was revenge. By the end of 15th Century, Muslims had lost all power to Christians (Fletcher, 1993). In the beginning of 16th century, Christian rulers started forcing Muslims to abandon their faith and convert to Christianity (Lowney, 2005). They imposed brutal restrictions on those who refused to change.
In conclusion, various scholars have shown that there was a period of tolerance in which Muslims and Non-Muslims interacted peacefully with others showing that conflict and intolerance was prevalent in Medieval Spain. However, the idea of tolerance and harmony is false and may lead a modern reader to wrongly believe that Muslims and Non-Muslims coexisted peacefully in Medieval Spain prior to the middle of 11th century. As noted in the essay, the Muslims conquered and ruled over the non-Muslims. This could not have happened peacefully. After taking over leadership, Muslims imposed rules on Christians and Jews. Though they may not seem to be much of a burden, these rules led non-Muslims to be treated like second-class citizens who had been denied some rights. The non-Muslims used to adhere to these rules only because they were less powerful. Thus, it would be worthy to argue that the perception of al-Andalus as a space of tolerance and harmony between Christians, Jews and Muslims has been too overstated.
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