Sunday, September 28, 2003


Via Ed Cohn I find a link to a New York Times story titled "Was the Islam of Old Spain Truly Tolerant?" There's a difficulty with how that question is framed, however, as medieval Andalusian Islam was as diverse as Islam in general, and it depends on where you were and who was in power at the time. Two dynasties, the Almohads and the Almoravids, conquered the peninsula from North Africa under the banner of almost Taliban-like ideologies, while other dynasties were more open.

Another point I could make here concerns the term "tolerance," which as Bernard Lewis pointed out in The Jews of Islam is a modern concept people in the Middle Ages simply didn't think about. Indeed when you have a One Righteous and True Religion, whether Islam or Christianity, people would have found it absurd to treat its followers the same as those who rejected it, and the only question was one of what place the unbelievers did have in the world order. In my master's thesis, "Sultans and Patriarchs: The Social Practice of Coptic and Muslim Elites in the Early Thirteenth Century," I focused on the relationship between individual members of different religious communities during a certain series of events in Egypt as an alternative means of looking at things. Others have attempted to study the framework created by Islamic law and how people applied it. In any case, you need to move beyond just "Was Islam tolerant?" to understand the way past societies actually worked.


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