By Hwaa Irfan
It is more out of an attraction for the out of the ordinary that I find myself bemused by the auctioneer’s skill to sell lumber. Even more curious, when Christies of London, (the auctioneer house) aimed to sell these five 10th century wooden beams from the Great Mosque of Cordoba (The Mezquita) in Spain.
As someone who struggles with the onslaught of materialism and technology, the question that immediately comes to mind is who would sell (let alone keep) a set of wooden beams that are 11 centuries old for US$1.75 million (UPI), let alone something from a religion that seems a little too inconvenient to some. Then to add to it all, the sale was stopped by the Spanish authorities and the lawyer of the Cathedral of Cordoba. What is so important about those wooden beams to attract such attention?
Jonathan Wheeler, a lawyer, told Agence France Presse that the beams held “great cultural and religious importance” for Spain. Curious and more curious, considering it was in 2004, when a request to the Vatican by Spanish Muslims to pray in the cathedral was not open to dialogue on the idea. Muslims are not a part of the equation here, at least not on the surface, so what is all the fuss?
The wooden beams must have been some kind of structural support for what stands as the only monument left of the Muslim medieval past in Cordoba. Today’s Islamophobes would have us look at our past as an invasion into Europe territory, ignoring that there were dark-age “crusades” previous to the dawn of Islam in Europe. But when the Umayyad Emir Abd Al-Rahman was fleeing from Abbasid rule in Baghdad in the 8th century CE, there was no Muslim invasion on Spanish soil.
Emir Abd Al-Rahman was the only surviving member of his family. Being half Syrian and half Berber-Andalusian, the prince fled to live in exile in his mother’s country. Like all men before and since, Muslim outlanders and frontiersmen sought their equivalent of the “Wild West” in Spain since 711 CE (the historical date given for the invasion of Muslims) in seclusion. If there was an invasion in our sense of the word, how come it took 800 years for Europe to muster up an army? And how come such beautiful art was created and not destroyed as we see in Iraq under the American banners of “liberation”?
It was not until 756 CE when Abd al-Rahman moved to Cordoba. Against the wishes of Baghdad, ‘Abd-ar Rahman sought to reestablish the Umayyad legacy with the building of the Great Mosque of Cordoba in 785 CE and much more. The original great Mosque of Cordoba was built on the strong geometrical principles of the square-circle on top of the place where the pagan Roman temple of Janus and the Christian Visigoth church of St. Vincent once stood.
To build the original mosque, it was not only finances that had to be mobilized, but also technical skills and craftsmanship. Even the Roman Emperor Constantine was solicited for a cargo of colored glass cubes and a master mosaicist. Old Roman columns (previously razed by the Visigoths) were reused in the building of the mosque. Having been improved and expanded upon five times, the eventual 23,400 square meter prayer hall and 500 columns are reflective of the size of the mosque, its place in the western Islamic empire and the growing Muslim ‘Ummah.
The forest of columns allowed sunlight through the hall, which had since been filled in by the builders of the cathedral inside the Mosque. With four entrances, the Gate of the Viziers (Bab Al-Wuzara), now called the Stephen Gate, stands as a memory to the important officials who would arrive in response to the call for prayer through this gate. In the Patio de los Naranjos (courtyard of the orange trees), which has survived to this day, Muslims would carry out their ablutions before entering the mosque.
For 300 hundred years, the great mosque had Christian worshippers; it was consecrated by King Ferdinand III when he conquered Cordoba. It wasn’t until the 16th century when the bishop of the cathedral decided to demolish the mosque in order to build a church on top of it. Sixty-three pillars were removed from the center of the mosque to allow for the cathedral’s structure.
Whereas the original mosque was built within the lifetime of ‘Abd-ar Rahman II (833-52 CE), it took over three centuries to complete the cathedral. Workers often dropped down their tools, not because they weren’t being paid, but because of frequent disputes that took place regarding building works spurred by a local attachment to the beauty of the mosque.
It was not until Roman Emperor Charles V gave a clear mandate in 16th century, when work on the cathedral progressed by consecrating the mosque as a Christian place of worship. When the emperor finally visited Cordoba, it was documented that he said, “Had I known what was here, I would never have dared touch the old structure. You have destroyed something that was unique in the world and added something one can see anywhere.”
In 1931, Allama Muhammad Iqbal prayed in the Great Mosque of Cordoba. In I980, Muslims were able to get permission to pray `Eid Al-Adha in the mosque from a local priest. In 2004, the Islamic Council of Spain made a formal request to the Vatican to pray in the mosque, but this was denied according to Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
The Legacy of Cordoba
The Great Mosque of Cordoba stands as a symbolic testament of Muslim Cordoba (or Qurtuba in Arabic) which once contained 250,000 buildings and 3,000 mosques, palaces, and baths. Cordoba was the birthplace of the Roman stoic Seneca, the Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and the Jewish physician and philosopher Maimonides (Abu ‘Imran Musa ibn Maymun ibn ‘Ubayd Allah).
Andalusia gave birth to others like Ibn Sina (Avicenna). Gerbert of Aurillac (955–1003 CE), who later became Pope Sylvester II, was sent to Catalunya to study mathematics, he benefited from close contact with Cordoba’s fountain of knowledge that contained over 400,000 books. In Europe, books were mainly kept in private collections and the Church had forbidden any investigation that was deemed to go against the Bible.
Cordoba’s fame for its knowledge of the sciences, arts, and commerce led to communication and dialogue between the Catholic Church and Muslim Cordoba. All the works of Aristotle, Archimedes, Apollonius, Euclid, Hippocrates, and Galen survived through Arabic translation into Latin to become valuable tools that led to the reanimation of civilization in Europe through the Renaissance. Through the medium of the Arabic language, Europe was reintroduced to part of its heritage.
Cordoba’s prosperity between the 9th and 10th centuries was nurtured by the introduction of irrigation systems designs brought from Damascus which assigned water to each cultivator in proportion to land size and Yemeni irrigation techniques were employed in the distribution of water over a fixed time period. The sahib al-saqiya (the person who was responsible for irrigation) managed the distribution of water that led to a cultivation of cherries, apples, pears, almonds, pomegranates, figs, dates, sugarcane, bananas, cotton, flax, and much more. Providing what seemed like exotic fruits and finery to Europe, economic reform was aided and abetted by access to international trade.
Spanish poetry, albeit originally based on Arabic models, evolved into a new form, its rhythm and rhyme came under the influence of Romanesque poetry. Under the patronage of the caliphate, literature flourished with scholars from the east emigrating to Spain. Grammar and philology came from Iraq, Aristotle’s philosophy was introduced and the medical standard was set by Galen’s books.
It was under the dictatorship of Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Amir when Cordoba fell, splintering into smaller states, namely Seville, Badajoz, Toledo, Saragossa, Albarrac’n, Valencia, Almer’a, and Granada which all bickered among themselves. Their disputes left them weak, vulnerable, and ripe for attack by ensuing armies from the Christian north and the impending Crusades.
A Symbol of Prosperity, Diversity, and Tolerance
On Cordoba, Earl Bertrand Russell, a philosopher and a recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature (1872-1970) wrote the following:
“Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews had no part in the culture of Christian countries, and were too severely persecuted to be able to make contributions to civilization, beyond supplying capital for the building of cathedrals and such enterprises. It was only among the Mohammedans, at that period, that Jews were treated humanely, and were able to pursue philosophy and enlightened speculation. The Mohammedans were more civilized and more humane than the Christians. Christians persecuted Jews, especially at times of religious excitement; the Crusades were associated with appalling pogroms. In Mohammedan countries, on the contrary, Jews at most times were not in any way ill-treated. Especially in Moorish Spain they contributed to learning; Maimonides, who was born in Cordoba, is recorded by some as the source of much of Spinoza’s philosophy”.
The Christian Visigoths who ruled Spain prior to Muslim’s took control of Andalusia, made the following dictates on Jews in their code (constitution) as follows:
• Jews shall not celebrate the Passover according to their Custom.
• Jews shall not contract marriage according to their custom.
• Jews shall not perform the rite of circumcision.
• Jews shall not divide their food into clean and unclean according to their custom.
• No Jew shall subject a Christian to torture.
• No Jew shall testify against a Christian.
• The descendants of Jews may testify.
• No Jew shall circumcise a Christian slave
• Under no circumstances shall Christian slaves attach themselves to Jews, or be admitted into their sect.
• All Christians are forbidden to defend or protect a Jew, by either force or favor.
And much more…
Spain and Palestine had become the centers of Judaic literature development during a period that Jews referred to as “The Golden Age.” Even the Jewish Virtual Library acknowledges that Cordoba
was “the seat of Jewish learning, scholarship, and culture, gradually eclipsing the Babylonian academies of Sura and Pumbeditha.” Albeit, they attribute these facts to a Cordoban Jew. Jews were not second-class citizens, nor were they maltreated, rather, they participated in all levels of Cordoban society.
Not everyone accepts the “either/or” paradigm of history. One such person is Maria Rosa Menocal, philologist, professor of Spanish and Portuguese, and director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University. Echoing Betrand Russell, Menocal illustrated:
“Throughout medieval Europe, Arabic had a far more powerful impact on the transformation and shaping of culture than most narratives of our history reveal.”
In response to someone’s desire to live in a place “where the religions of the children of Abraham all tolerate each other and where, in the peace of that tolerance, and in the shade and fragrance of orange trees,” Menocal stated that such a place did exist and pointed out the following facts:
• The first generation of Muslims were immigrant Berbers from North Africa. Within a few generations, the majority of the Muslims, in part or in whole, were ethnically no different from those who remained Christian, such as the Celto-Iberians, Romans, and Visigoths.
• The unconverted Christians and Jews, called the dhimmis, of al-Andalus, were not very ethnically different from their brothers and neighbors who did convert; and soon enough they were not very different in other crucial ways, since Christians and Jews took to Arab culture. A ninth-century churchman of Cordoba once complained that young Christian men could barely write decent letters in Latin, yet they were so in love with Arabic poetry that they could recite it better than the Muslims themselves.
• Ibn Khaldun, a descendant of an old Andalusian family, was offered the restoration of his ancestral lands by Peter the Venerable if he would stay on as his vizier.
• In 1360, Samuel Halevi Abulafia had built for himself and his community a synagogue in the extravagant new Nasrid style. Writings on the wall were in Hebrew and Arabic (with verses from the Qur’an).
• Arabic poetry was central to the lives of all educated men in Andalus. This meant that the educated Jewish community came to know it, write it, and covet it. For hundreds of years, Hebrew was used only for liturgy. Pious Muslims could recite the Qur’an in God’s own sacred language, but for the Muslims, God did not hoard His language or keep it locked up in His temples, and so those same Muslims could also do a thousand different things in Arabic.
• New Hebrew poetry was born not out of “translation” in any conventional way, but out of that intimate understanding, gleaned directly from the use of Arabic as a religious and a secular poetic language, and born not in the comfort of Jewish society of Umayyad caliphate but rather in the exile of theTaifas.
• Maimonides, a Jew and a “Greek,” wrote “The Guide for the Perplexed in Arabic’.
• The translation movement from Arabic to Latin led to the translations of so much of the imperial culture of adab (the vast genre in Arabic traditionally translated as “belles lettres” but perhaps better understood as “humanistic study”) into the Castilian language at the end of the 13th century CE.
• The Abbot of Cluny was responsible for the translation of al-Khawarizmi’s great work on algebra (al-jabr). He was a key player in the introduction of the number system that would revolutionize computation in the west and make all modern calculations possible, using what we call Arabic numerals in English.
• In the courts of Languedoc, the jewelry boxes of the women who could afford them were engraved in Arabic. The style was introduced to Europe a form of luxury. Thus the first great songs of the vernaculars of Europe, those songs which Nietzsche composed defined the very essence of our culture, were sung in courts also graced with exquisitely carved ivory boxes, perfectly executed and engraved astrolabes, and of course new musical instruments upon which love songs were sung. And they were all part of a very Arabic world.
It shouldn’t be ironic that a seminar entitled Peace and Human Rights in Europe and the Middle East should take place in Cordoba. In Ken Coates’ summary of the goals of the seminar he wrote:
“All the known works of Aristotle had survived in the Arabic language, but not in Europe, so that Cordoba could be said to have provided a vital link not only between the monotheistic faiths, but also between the ancient world and the dawning of modern times.”
The Beginning or the End?
I may not have found out who kept the five wooden beams in their barn or why; what the importance of the five wooden beams that led Christies of London to believe that they could be sold for US$1.75 million; or why the Catholic Church of Cordoba deemed them to be of such importance that they should not be sold, but a least, here, the beams served to remind us that Islam was brought to mankind as a mercy and that we as Muslims have helped to shape this world. For those of us who want a more harmonious life, this cannot be done in seclusion, with intolerance, or by being passive or blind to the 360 degrees that is Islam.
Shrine of the lovers of art! Visible power of the Faith!
Sacred as Mecca you made, once, Andalusia’s soil.
If there is under these skies loveliness equal to yours,
Only in Muslim hearts, nowhere else can it be.
Ah, those proud cavaliers, champions Arabia sent forth
Pledged to the splendid Way, knights of the truth and the creed!
Through their empire a strange secret was understood:
Friends of mankind hold sway not to command but to serve.
Europe and Asia from them gathered instruction: the West
Lay in darkness, and their wisdom discovered the path.
Even to-day in its breeze fragrance of Yemen still floats,
Even to-day in its songs echoes live on of Hejaz.
(from Menocal. M. R. ” The Literature of Al-Andalus.”)
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Menocal. M. R. ” The Culture of Translation.”
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