Remembering Convivencia

How is it that my history teachers managed to omit a fact so breathtaking and relevant to this broken world of ours, rife with multicultural religious conflict? A simple question tells it all: Is it possible for Muslims, Jews and Christians to live together peacefully? In my experience, 95% of folks reach for the easy answer, the knee-jerk quip of: “Look around, open your eyes! Peace? Are you kidding?!”

Well, let me break it to you gently. Not only did Muslims, Jews, and Christians find a way to live together peacefully (shocker #1), but they lived together peacefully for a couple hundred years (shocker #2).

When and where? In medieval Muslim Spain (a.k.a. al-Andalus), under the enlightened, tolerant rule of the Umayyad Muslim Caliphs in Córdoba, Spain, beginning in the 10th century. Yes, smack in the middle of The Dark Ages, a time when our teachers told us civilization ground to a halt.

Guess what? It didn’t.

Córdoba in the mid-10th century was truly remarkable, a place almost impossible to exaggerate. It was the largest city in Europe, the richest, the cleanest, with the largest library (over 400,000 volumes!), running water, indoor toilets, lighted streets, public paths, and public hospitals. All this, plus an unprecedented intellectual flowering as the lost books of the ancient Greeks and others in the Near East were rediscovered and translated (into Arabic), setting the stage for major breakthroughs in medicine, philosophy, mathematics, poetry, agriculture, art, architecture and science.

This exuberant civilization blossomed in an embracive Muslim culture that welcomed Christians and Jews into their ranks and even encouraged churches and synagogues. Here was a society complete with social mobility for minorities and an intentional intermingling of languages, cultures and customs. This remarkable period is known today as convivencia (coexistence), a time still recognized by Jews as their “Golden Age.”

That is not to say that life was all a bed of roses; it wasn’t. But all in all, these three found a way to make it work over an exceptionally long period, and work well it did.

Here, then, is the singular proof of lasting peace achieved within the obvious constraints imposed by a diverse multicultural, multireligious, multiethnic society. If it happened once, why not again?

Let me not be too harsh on my teachers. There was no conspiracy. To be sure, the fact of convivencia and the marvels of al-Andalus are out there, but somehow they tend to get glossed over, hidden within dense history texts, neatly squirreled away and tucked out of sight. Why? Perhaps in our post 9/11 world, it is just too easy to embrace the simple-minded view that peace among Muslims, Christians and Jews is patently absurd.

But now you know otherwise. Let’s join together and reawaken a lost world that can help reshape our collective memory as a global community. Let’s dream a different ending, a world centered on tolerance and peace between we three. Convivencia.

Dr. John D. Cresslerspent 8 years at IBM Research and 10 years at Auburn University before joining Georgia Tech in 2002.  Emeralds of the Alhambrais the TED talk presenter’s debut historical novel.  Connect with John on Facebook, Google+,Twitter, and GoodReads.

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