Rational discussions about Cordoba’s history

Double arcades in La Mezquita, Cordoba, Spain

More than a few readers have asked us to take another look at a topic we broached last week — the history of Cordoba, Spain. Historic Cordoba has been in the news because the proposed Islamic center near ground zero is part of what’s called the Cordoba Initiative. The center was going to be called Cordoba and its backers said it was in honor of a golden age of interfaith relations. Others were aghast at the name because Muslims conquered Cordoba’s Christians. The mosque’s backers are now calling it Park 51.

I already noted my dislike of the Islamophobia meme spreading through the media. Time‘s cover this week asks “Is America Islamophobic?” The associated story acknowledges a lack of evidence for the charge, but that’s a bit late. In any case, the story’s reporter Bobby Ghosh made a tour of cable news last week and one of his appearances caught the eye of more than a few GetReligion readers. I looked for the transcript at CNN but had trouble locating it. Media Research Center, a conservative site that analyzes media, has this transcript of the chat between CNN anchor Ali Velshi and Ghosh in the meantime:

VELSHI: The name Cordoba- some people are associating it with Muslim rule and bloody battles, when, in fact, Cordoba was one of the finest times in relations between the major religions.

GHOSH: Exactly right- in interfaith discourse-


GHOSH: And the great mosque of Cordoba that people are talking about and that Newt Gingrich was talking about- the man who built it, the Muslim prince who built it, bought it from a Christian group- paid money for it and bought it from a Christian group. And there was not a lot of alarm and anger raised then. It’s- as I said, we- I’m afraid, at this point, no rational discussion seems possible-

A reader suggested that we look at Reinhart Dozy’s book Spanish Islam: A History of the Muslims in Spain to see if this was accurate. Dozy’s work is well regarded and he explains, in the section dealing with Cordoba that “In some respects the Arab conquest was even a benefit to Spain; for it brought about an important social revolution, and put an end to many evils under which the country had groaned for centuries.” Indeed, “viewed as a whole, the conquest was not a great calamity . . . at least as endurable as that of the Visigoths.” But he casts doubt on the idea that Muslims treated the Christian church well.

“Religion, for instance, was free, but the Church was not: she was on the contrary subjected to shameful and grievous servitude.”

And his account of the sale of the Cordoba cathedral differs from the Time reporter’s (my transcription of page 239):

All the churches in that city had been destroyed except the cathedral, dedicated to S. Vincent, but the possession of this fane had been guaranteed to the Christians by treaty. For several years the treaty was observed; but when the population of Cordoba was increased by the arrival of Syrian Arabs, the mosques did not provide sufficient accommodation for the new-comers, and the Syrians considered that it would be well for them to adopt the plan which had been carried out at Damascus, Emesa, and other towns in their own country, of appropriating half of the cathedral and using it as a mosque. The Government having approved of the scheme, the Christians were compelled to hand over half of the edifice. This was clearly an act of spoliation, as well as an infraction of the treaty. Some years later ‘Abd-er-Rahman I requested the Christians to sell him the other half. This they firmly refused to do, pointing out that if they did so they would not possess a single place of worship. ‘Abd-er-Rahman, however, insisted, and a bargain was struck, by which the Christians ceded their cathedral for a hundred thousand dinars, but obtained permission to rebuild the churches which had been destroyed. ‘Abd-er-Rahman on this occasion acted equitably, but such was not always the case . . .

Other treaties were modified, or abrogated, quite arbitrarily, so that in the ninth century scarcely any traces of them remained. Further, the Moslem divines taught that the Government ought to manifest its zeal for religion by raising the assessment of the tribute exacted from the Christians, and so many extraordinary imposts were levied upon them that in the ninth century the Christians in many cities, including Cordova, were ruined or impoverished (on one occasion, a special contributon of 100,000 dinars was levied on the Cordovan Christians). In other words, that happened in Spain which happened in every other country conquered by the Arabs; their rule, at first mild and humane, degenerated into intolerable despotism.

Yes, this is complex history. No, I don’t expect your average Time reporter or CNN anchor to know this level of detail. But perhaps they should not suggest that “no rational discussion” is possible with people who oppose the construction of an Islamic center at ground zero. Particularly if they don’t have the firmest grasp on the history they’re asserting.

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  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat Nicole Neroulias

    Moorish Cordoba’s 400+ year history is almost irrelevant at this point, because it’s become a Rorschach test for existing beliefs about the motivations behind the Cordoba Initiative. Some people compare it, unfavorably, to how we would perceive a peacefully pluralistic society today. Others point out that it was a model of interfaith harmony and religious tolerance, when compared to the rest of Middle Ages Europe and what followed after the Reconquista (the Spanish Inquisition, bloodbath between Protestants and Catholics in England) — so, which interpretation do we use?

    For what it’s worth, tourists who visit Cordoba are taught by guides and books that it was a uniquely pluralistic society when under Muslim rule, with a vibrant Jewish quarter (celebrated as the home of Maimonides — his statue is a main attraction there). One could rationally believe the Cordoba Initiative’s explanation that it’s name references that common, if simplistic, historical interpretation, rather than using it as some sort of subtle declaration of conquest. But, as with the issue of whether we should take President Obama at his word that he’s a Christian, should journalists take the Cordoba Initiative folks at their word that they come in peace, or keep giving equal weight to the anti-Muslim response?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    At the very least, journalists should explain why the name issue is so emotional — especially, btw, for Christian Arabs and others from those cultures. You can’t say that a story is so emotional that it is no longer rational and then not provide facts that pinpoint the sources of the emotions.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    One other complicating factor is that the Visigoths were Christian invaders who brought their religion with them to Spain. Those invaders built St. Vincent in the first place.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Yes, although the area was Christian prior to the Visigoth arrival.

    One interesting thing I read in Dozy’s book was about how the people in parts of Spain weren’t particularly religious one way or the other — no matter the “ruling religion”.

  • Jerry

    But perhaps they should not suggest that “no rational discussion” is possible with people who oppose the construction of an Islamic center at ground zero. Particularly if they don’t have the firmest grasp on the history they’re asserting.

    True, there is a media bias in favor of stereotyping and falling into logical fallacies. Such as: because some people can’t engage in a rational discussion therefore no rational discussion is possible. But in this case I think that statement might be warranted even if stated too dogmatically because the vast majority of Americans are historically ignorant.

    To have an informed discussion, we need to know not only the history of Moorish Spain but also what else was going on during that era from Genghis Khan to the crusader slaughter of Muslims. And in terms of treaty breaking, ask any Native American about the record of the United States and be prepared to receive quite an earful including atrocities such as the Trail of Tears. Or read up on the history of who broke treaties with Muslims while Mohammad was alive. The list is very long.

    And to have that rational discussion, many people including myself to be fair would need to overcome what David Brooks called the “metacognition deficit” in his column the other day:

    In this atmosphere, we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions.

    So ideally you are right, Mollie. But in the real world of today, I feel that the odds of an historically-informed rational discussion is close to zero.

  • http://www.perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com Perpetua

    Not sure what “religion was free” given all non-Muslims had to pay a tax, and this from an article at Big Peace

    For example, the contemporary scholar J.M. Safran discusses an early codification of the rules of the marketplace (where Muslims and non-Muslims would be most likely to interact), written by al-Kinani (d. 901), a student of the Cordovan jurist Ibn Habib (d. 853), “…known as the scholar of Spain par excellence,” who was also one of the most ardent proponents of Maliki doctrine in Muslim Spain:

    “…the problem arises of “the Jew or Christian who is discovered trying to belnd with the Muslims by not wearing the riq? [cloth patch, which might be required to have an emblem of an ape for a Jew, or a pig for a Christian] or zunn?r [belt].” Kinani’s insistence that Jews and Christians wear the distinguishing piece of cloth or belt required of them is an instance of a legally defined sartorial differentiation being reconfirmed…His insistence may have had as much to do with concerns for ritual purity and food prohibitions as for the visible representation of social and political hierarchy, and it reinforced limits of intercommunal relations”

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    What “free” means is that no one was FORCED to convert. Even if they had every incentive to do so and every disincentive against remaining as they were . . . no actual force was involved.

    But the church itself was targeted by force.

    Maybe it seems like a fine line, but that’s what it means.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    What bothers many Christians is what seems to them the media’s pro-Islamic, anti-Christian slant. In fact, the comments here are sort of a microcosm of what bothers Christians about the media.
    Sins comitted by Christians seem to come regularly, almost glibly, off the tongues (or pens) of so many reporters and commentators. And some cases always rolled out as examples of such–like the Crusades–can very easily be defended (as many modern historians do) as wars of liberation to help out fellow Christians who were being conquered and made into 2nd class citizens in their own homelands–even to having to pay a head tax as non-Moslems to their conquerors or be executed.
    On the flip side how many citations of the Holocaust of the Christian Armenians by the Moslem Turks in modern times is even alluded to in stories about Islam. It is the forgotten (on purpose??) bloody horror of our era but still reverberates in world affairs. And how many times has the media even mentioned the raids Moslems used to do throughout the Balkans harvesting Christian little boys to be made into Moslem warriors called Janisseries.
    It is the lack of balance that is so galling. But the minute a Christian raises the issue of balance using media ignored examples from Islamic history, he is written off as being against “rational discussion” or an Islamophobe for wanting to look at the whole picture with honesty and without censorship.

  • Tyson K

    As someone with a history degree, I’d like to point out that there is no way Dozy’s work is still “well regarded,” at least within the historical community, seeing as he died in 1883. The standards for good historical writing and research have changed so much and so much more writing and research has been done since then that there really can’t be a lot of significance to his interpretations other than their historiographical importance.

    Not that that means journalists shouldn’t be looking at contemporary historians’ interpretations of the situation at Cordoba, of which there are are surely many, if they want a unique angle on this story.

  • michael


    Like the CNN interview, the two interpretations you present to us are history reduced to slogan, so I vote we choose neither. Whatever you want to call the religious cultures of the Middle Ages coexisting side by side in relative peace, it isn’t ‘pluralism’ and ‘tolerance’ in the modern liberal (small l) sense. These hadn’t been invented yet, and neither had their basic presupposition: that ‘religion’ is a private belief system within a world (and state) that is essentially secular (i.e., indifferent to God). Something that is essentially tolerable because it is essentially private and harmless.

    So I agree with your pessimism but not your reasons. Our apparent inability to think outside these parameters–which are the parameters of western liberalism–leaves me very pessimistic that history, mediated by journalism, will be able to shed much light on the current controversy, especially since journalists’ only interest in the history is as some kind of magic key to interpreting the motives of the Initiative’s protagonists. This is a recipe for anachronism and will be little help in really understanding Moorish Cordoba and whatever relationship it may have to the Cordoba Initiative in the minds of its supporters. Nor will it help us to understand what the many varieties of Islam are and how well they may or may not map onto secular categories of thought. A similar blind spot has already been noted with respect to Obama’s alleged Muslim roots. It’s simply assumed, in good ole American fashion, that we are whatever we define ourselves to be. So if Obama says he’s Christian and not Muslim, then that suffices to settle the matter. (Now as a Christian myself, I sort of agree with part of this). Never mind that there may be a significant portion of the world’s muslims who do not share that basic assumption, and who may therefore hold an entirely different view of the matter.

    It’s appalling how universally shallow the coverage has been on both counts (and from both sides), but unsurprising, I suppose, seeing that ‘information trafficking’ by the media so often innoculates us against actual understanding. At any rate, the ‘depth’ of coverage speaks to the unfailing confidence that liberalism (small l again) has in its own neutrality and the strength of the assumption that the world is simply transparent to its categories, which means that it speaks to liberalism’s failure to relativize its own perspective and its inability to imagine that ours isn’t the only way of seeing the world.

    One might nevertheless make progress on both counts by asking not how information about historic Cordoba is conveyed to tourists in a contemporary post-Christian Spain eager to demonstrate its pluralist credentials, but how the significance of Cordoba has been transmitted in nonliberal Islamic cultures in Spain and beyond. Have Muslims traditionally regarded Cordoba as a symbol of enlightenment tolerance and pluralism?

    I would be shocked if they did, though not because Islam is a monolith or is essentially violent. Nor do I mean to suggest then that the only alternative interpretation of Cordoba available to Muslims is as a symbol of conquest. There are many Islams as we’ve been told repeatedly. But the key point is this: none, so far as I know, is a variant of liberal protestantism. Perhaps that’s what is being proposed in New York–a pecularly American Islam, enlightened, liberal, and willing to privatize itself for the sake of a deeper and more comprhensive Americanism. But otherwise I’d be shocked if ‘pluralism’ and ‘tolerance’ are concepts really innate to Muslim thought and practice–though again, not because Islam is essentially intolerant. I do not understand Islam well enough to make that judgment, and besides, there are other (and better) ways of being holy, charitable, noble or generous than being ‘tolerant’ and ‘pluralistic’. Rather it is because these concepts derive their meaning and importance from a particular history that produced the secular liberalism of the West and the western artifact that is the modern secular state. What is Islam’s relation to that history? And what would it mean for Islam to embrace it? These, it seems to me, are the sorts of questions a good journalist, intent on understanding, would be asking.

  • Jerry

    what would it mean for Islam to embrace it?

    The question you are asking can be phrased as “what is Shariah law” in the eyes of American Muslims and how does it apply in a secular society?

    I don’t know of a really good news story that has covered that territory but I did find a couple of ‘on faith’ statements which could serve as an introduction: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/25/AR2010082504298.html and http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/john_esposito/2010/08/will_muslims_impose_shariah.html?tid=PT-IGB-298

    The later ends with what I think is a clear statement of what many if not most of us feel would be the ideal:

    In America, Muslims, like members of other faiths, can draw on their religious law to govern internal matters and as a guide in family and social behavior as long as they do not violate civil law. At the same time, there are informal or non-judicial areas where religious leaders and scholars are consulted by the president, Congress and other government officials on public issues such as abortion, stem cell research, and health care. Many hospitals and physicians today consult with Muslim and non-Muslim scholars on sensitive religious and cultural issues in their treatment of Muslim patients and some suggest that it might be useful to have religious arbitration councils at the service of the courts to mediate in family law disputes.

    But what do Muslim do when in some instances American laws are contrary to their beliefs? Respond in the same way as members of other faith traditions –by recognizing the democratic process and pluralistic nature of society and, if one wishes, work within the system to change it through lobbying the government concerning laws and appointments of Supreme Court judges just as many Americans, of all faiths and of no faith, have done on issues like prayer in the schools and abortion.

  • Larry

    Time magazine was asking a question in its cover headline, and its a valid current issue. The media should be challenging Americans whether we uphold our basic Constitutional rights or we are just followers of mercenary agitators trying to undermine our religious tolerance.

    Do these loud protesters define all Americans? Glad Time asked the question, and the answer remains to be seen. The community center under attack in Manhattan is for a moderate Sufi denomination while we should be encouraging moderate Muslims. Sure I enjoy Iberian history, but good thing Time doesn’t try to bury their story in details or irrelevant historic reference behind a name. I guess that is why those reporters are writing for Time.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Enjoyed michael’s thoughtful piece. One of the problems in understanding and then transmitting historical knowledge or insight is that it is hard to get inside the skin and thought processes of, say, an 1132 A.D. Moslem or Christian.
    For example, treason is still punishable by death in our country today. And looking into the past, in very many cultures part of loyal patriotism was to be of the right religion. To be of the wrong religion was equivalent to an act of treason. Thus, executing people over religion in past times becomes at least somewhat understandable by their lights.
    What needs to be looked at are the past practices of a religion AND how it is understood and lived out today. But as michael points out-and I think he is right–there is as yet no “liberal protestant” variant of Islam. (At least as a widespread identifiable movement, although there are certainly individual Moslems of that bent of mind.)
    What is bothersome is the, so far, lack of consideration for the feelings of those who lost loved ones in the Towers by those who are determined to build the mosque complex at that location (a lack of consideration that seems evident in many of America’s media, political and academic elites as well). This determination of the founders gives some the legitimate suspicion under the circumstances that this is what has been termed a “victory mosque.”
    Pope John Paul II had the right idea when he heard the arguments and anguish expressed by many Jewish leaders over putting a monastery very close to Aushwitz and so told the nuns involved in the project to move elsewhere. More was to be gained in taking others feelings into consideration than was to be gained on insisting that the nuns had a right to build a monastery close to Auschwitz.
    Thus, if those promoting the mosque complex voluntarily move elsewhere, they can point to such a decision as a sign that Islam is, indeed, producing a “peculiarly American” version of Islam here–a version that puts a high priority on good relations with those of other points of view.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    As another holder of a degree in history I reject the notion that just because someone was writing in 1883 their history has no meaning.

    Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, though criticized and undermined in many points, can still be quoted as a starting point. An he was writing longer ago than that.

    The purchase of the old Cathedral seems to not be a straightforward event.

    Lastly, the assumption in the minds of some Americans is the Reconquista was neccessary because Christians were oppressed under the Muslims. How true or accurate this argument is does not effect how relevant to the discussion at hand it is.

    The relevant fact is that some Christians view the Reconquista as a valiant fight to liberate Christians from the oppression of a foriegn, Muslim minority government, and no amount of prattle about Jews being well treated (except when driven into excile) and purchase of land for a mosque is going to change these people’s minds.

    In fact, since the Dhimmi taxes were impossed in Cordoba, and since these were emirates and not Republics, the end result of the most informed study of Cordoba will be American Christians, American Jews, American athiests and many other Americans saying “I could not live in such a country”.

    Of course few people would accuse a group harkening to ancient Athens of being pro-slavery, against women’s right to vote, or many other things, so the argument that the invoking of a historic place is conditioned on the history is false.

    However, this is the type of thining that those who have not read Shumway’s book on the founding fictions of Argentina and related works have not gone through. Even those who have gone through it need to better understand it.

    The advocates of the Cordoba Initiative need to point out they are invoking the memory of Cordoba, not the reality. They need to seek more to disseminate their view of Cordoba. Most importantly they need to avoid the rhetoric of “Cordoba was better than Spain in latet years” and “Jews in Cordoba fared better than in contemporary Christian society”. Coming from a guy who will not denounce Hamas as a terrorist organization, these phrases are both provocative and disengenous.

    No one who understands the modern religious right would accuse it of being anything but a supporter of Israel. Some accuse it of being too ardent a supporter of Israel and of blocking progress in the peace process by undermining pressure on Israel, but no one would realistically accuse it of disliking Jews as a racial or ethic group.

  • Brian V

    @ Mollie (4):

    When the Visigoths arrived in Hispania, they were Arians. The Visigothic ruler adopted Nicene Christianity in the late sixth century, which is often pegged as the same moment when the fortunes of Iberian Jews began to sour. It’s way beyond me to capture the complex relationships between Arian,Catholic and Priscillianist groups in late Visigothic Spain.