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New York City Mosque: Part II, Cordoba

by Michael Lame, posted on August 16, 2010

Most of the editorial comments, pro and con, regarding the proposed new mosque complex for lower Manhattan, are concerned with Who and Where: the people behind the mosque and its proximity to Ground Zero. My purpose in these articles is not to support or oppose the project but to examine a different set of questions, What and How: What are the assumptions and premises of the project promoters? How do they intend to build interfaith bridges to Christian and Jewish communities?

The first article examined the ideas of the group led by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf regarding jihad and the supposed hijacking of Islam by violent extremists. Presumably these ideas will help shape the new Islamic center’s outreach to Christians and Jews.

Another key to understanding Imam Rauf’s thinking is his use of the name Cordoba. His non-profit group is called the Cordoba Initiative and, until very recently, the mosque project was called Cordoba House. In order to emphasize “the community center aspect of the project rather than religion,” that name has now been changed to Park51, a more hip, New York style name that offers no associations to another place and time (except perhaps to Studio 54, which I’m sure is unintentional). Cordoba House, by contrast, summons up a host of images and historical references for those familiar with Islamic, Spanish, or medieval history and culture.

The Cordoba Initiative’s website offers this explanation of the Cordoba connection:

“Despite what many think, Islam and the West have a long history of coexistence and harmony. For nearly 800 years, the city of Cordoba in Spain endured as a shining example of tolerance among the three monotheistic religions. Muslim, Christian and Jew cohabited in prosperity during a period known for its outstanding literary and scientific productivity.”

From this blurb it sounds as if medieval Cordoba was an idyllic oasis of brotherly and sisterly love, the sort of world we should all aspire to re-establish. Many writers have waxed rhapsodic about a golden age of peace and prosperity in Muslim Spain. But is that really what it was like? “Nostalgia is the enemy of historical understanding” warns historian Richard Fletcher, author of Moorish Spain. “The simple and verifiable historical truth is that Moorish Spain was more often a land of turmoil than it was a land of tranquility.”

The 800 years referred to by the Cordoba Initiative constitutes the entire era of Muslim rule in Spain, stretching from 711 to 1492. Yet Cordoba itself, the cultural and for long periods of time the political capital of al-Andalus, succumbed to Christian conquest (or reconquest) in 1236.

Imam Rauf’s book, What’s Right with Islam: a new vision for Muslims and the West, narrows the pertinent time frame, explaining that the Cordoba Initiative is “named after the period between roughly 800 and 1200 CE, when the Cordoba Caliphate ruled much of today’s Spain.” This formulation is also problematic. To be a bit more precise regarding chronology and terminology, the Umayyad emirate of Cordoba, established in 756, was proclaimed a caliphate in 929. Barely a century later, in 1031, the last Umayyad caliph abdicated, after which Cordoba ceased playing the central role in Spain’s political and intellectual life.

Yale professor Maria Rosa Menocal, in The Ornament of the World: how Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain, further whittled down the time period in question regarding Cordoba’s heyday: “From about the mid-eighth century until about the year 1000 this was an Islamic polity, centered in Cordoba, which at its height, in the mid-tenth century, declared itself the center of the Islamic world.”

Though any identifiable Cordovan era of good feelings lasted closer to 250 years than to the 400 or 800 years posited by Rauf, those two and a half centuries also contained episodes of intolerance and bouts of anarchy. Still, for Rauf, the name Cordoba “reminds us that Muslims created what was, in its era, the most enlightened, pluralistic and tolerant society on earth.” That is a big, bold, though commonplace assertion. The idea of an Andalusian golden age, when Christians and Jews lived contentedly under Muslim rule, has become a fixture of Western historical thinking over the last hundred years. But is it true?

Professor Fletcher weighs in on the question: “Early medieval Spain was multicultural in the sense of being culturally diverse, a land within which different cultures coexisted; but not in the sense of experiencing cultural integration. Toleration for Christians and Jews as ‘Peoples of the Book’ is enjoined by the Koran. But in practice it was limited – Christians under Islamic rule were forbidden to build new churches, to ring church bells, to hold public processions – and sometimes it broke down altogether. In 1066 there was a pogrom in Granada in which its Jewish community was slaughtered. Thousands of Christians were deported to slavery in Morocco in 1126. Thoroughly dismissive attitudes to Christians and Jews may be found in the Arabic literature of al-Andalus. It is a myth of the modern liberal imagination that medieval Islamic Spain was, in any sense that we should recognize today, a tolerant society.”

Regardless of historical accuracy, the very name of Cordoba exerts a powerful appeal for many who long for a multi-religious, harmonious pathway to the future. As Rauf writes, “We strive for a ‘New Cordoba,’ a time when Jews, Christians, Muslims, and all other faith traditions will live together in peace.”

In considering the “Old Cordoba”, however, one should not forget that Cordovan tolerance was predicated on Islamic rule. Jews and Christians, once they accepted their status as dhimmi, protected albeit subservient peoples, could participate in the intellectual, artistic, and economic life of the broader community. But one fact was clear throughout medieval Spain, that a single faith was dominant – Islam in the south and Christianity in the north – and the other religious communities were allowed to remain at the pleasure, or rather the sufferance, of the dominant religious-political power.

Sufferance as the basis for a multi-religious society is not a model that will appeal to 21st century Christians, Muslims, or Jews. For that reason alone, Cordoba is a questionable symbol of inter-faith co-existence. A better model might be … New York City! Predominantly Christian, with sizeable Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu minorities, a Jewish mayor and a Catholic state governor, NYC is a place where religious freedom is guaranteed by law, with constitutional protections to prevent arbitrary revocation of that freedom. Whether the designated location for the Park51 mosque is a good idea or not, whether its current backers are the right people to build it or not, no one is questioning the legal right of Muslims to build mosques in America and to practice Islam openly.

As we have seen, the suggestion of Cordoba as a relevant religious-diversity prototype for New York City raises questions of historical accuracy and acceptable majority-minority relations. In looking for examplars, we might do better to reverse the geographic direction of the search by asking: Does New York’s multi-faith freedom of expression offer a good role-model for the cities of the Middle East?

Note: Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

7 responses so far

7 Responses to “New York City Mosque: Part II, Cordoba”

  1. Thomas Mitchell, PhDon Aug 16th 2010 at 8:29 am

    Michael,
    I’m surprised that you didn’t quote from Benzion Netanyahu, a renowned scholar of medieval Spain who has specialized in the Jewish experience under Muslim rule in Andalusia.

    Sometimes a myth can be useful. Where relatively few people know the truth about early Islam, the battle for control of Islam centers around the recreation of that era from the few sources that exist. These recreations may be as much imagination as the quest for the historical Jesus and involve the same selective belief and disbelief in certain sura just as New Testament scholars for their own purposes emphasis or discredit certain verses from the Gospels. Much of national history in most countries that is taught at primary and secondary schools consist of myth rather than “scientific history” written by professional historians. It was said in Stalin’s Russia that it was always difficult to predict the past–because one would have to know how history would be rewritten to eliminate certain newly found “enemies of the people.”

    If believing that Islam in medieval Spain was tolerant can make Muslims, especially those living in the West, tolerant than I believe that we can go along with the charade and let the professional historians repair the damage once the need for falsification is past. Most people believe that history is the past–rather, it is the modern recreation of the past from what records we have in order to fulfill the needs of the present.

  2. Michael Thomason Aug 16th 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Interesting material, although I don’t know enough about the history to judge whether your selections reflect reallity any more than the broad statements you quote Rauf as making. But Dr Mitchell is right on about the uses of history. That is, no one expects Rauf to create a new Cordoba, whatever the historical reality of that would be. He is reaching for a metaphor, based on an undoubtedly mythologized history, and the metaphor is one of tolerance. You would not argue, I am sure, that he intends to replicate the pogrom said to have occurred in Granada, so pointing out that Cordoba lasted fewer years, or was less than ideal, is hardly material to support an argument against his project.

    In fact, your point, if there is one, is totally obscure. Is it that Islam is incapable of tolerance, as demonstrated by those parts of its distant history that you review? If so, you need to point to 250 years of any empire where minorities were consistently treated as equals. Is it that Rauf can’t be trusted? If so, you haven’t begun to make that case. And, by the way, it would be nice to see a comparative review of the institutional and societal norms of the Jewish state, especially as to the issues (personal status, education, etc) as to which the Orthodox have nearly total control. Those facts are current, not lost in the mists of time.

  3. Michael Lameon Aug 16th 2010 at 1:37 pm

    Michael Thomas, enough with the wild accusations! Your comment on my writing of Part I included this nugget: “Given Rauf’s reputation, your accusation that he finesses “inconvenient truths” suggests you don’t trust any Muslim to tell the truth about the religion.” No, I suggested nothing of the sort. Nor does that conclusion follow even a little bit. To question the veracity of one particular Muslim is to question that one person’s veracity, not the veracity of all Muslims!!! That’s an outrageous charge you made, which you now renew in a slightly altered form. From my quoting a historian regarding instances of intolerance in medieval Spain, you wonder if my point is that “Islam is incapable of tolerance.” Of course that’s not my point! I have not made that assertion nor would I.
    I regret that my blog post came across to you as “totally obscure”. I thought I made a couple pretty good points:
    1) the claim of a golden age for Jews and Christians under Islamic rule in Spain needs further examination and should not be taken at face value, especially when those making the claim are clearly not very familiar with the history of the era. The difference between 250, 400, and 800 years is not trivial! That a hundred year caliphate (not emirate, which is completely different) is called a 400-year caliphate reveals a very sketchy understanding of the role played by Cordoba in Muslim Spain. Professional historians have engaged in lively debate on the Andalusian golden age construct for decades. Just as the Israeli new historians have given Jews reason to rethink the accepted Zionist version of modern Middle Eastern history and as Howard Zinn and other like-minded American historians have caused many Americans to question the received patriotic version of American history, so we should also be wary of other overly-rosy interpretations of golden ages in Spain, Elizabethan England, Republican Rome, Periclean Athens, etc.
    2) Corbovan tolerance, as I tried to point out in my piece, was based on sufferance. Benevolent Muslim rulers treated court Jews and court Christians well. Perhaps they even treated the entire Jewish and Christian communities well. But it was also within their power to treat the dhimmis — and their Muslim subjects, for that matter — very badly indeed. We could also propose the Ottoman Empire as a model for the Middle East, with a re-institution of the millet system. The problem is that the lesser status of Jews and Christians under benevolent Ottoman sultans and Cordovan caliphs is not something that the Christians or Jews of today aspire to. So if the fundamental basis of the Corbovan tolerance model is Muslim supremacy, then the model is fundamentally flawed. Nor is there any particular reason for Christians and Jews to get on board in support of a model predicated on Muslim dominance. Raising these kinds of questions may have resulted in the abandonment of the Cordoba House name for the proposed new Islamic complex near Ground Zero.

  4. Michael Thomason Aug 16th 2010 at 6:40 pm

    I stand by my arguments. The point of your assertions, in the context of a particular proposed building project and its imam, is totally obscure. That being so, I speculated as to what could be going through your mind.

    I grant that all of the mythic histories are seriously flawed, including those of Muslim Spain and Christian America. So what??? Rauf does not, could not, propose a caliphate, or a system based on Muslim supremacy and sufferance of the rest of us, or a millet system. He proposes a center for Muslim study, outreach and education in 21st century New York. His understanding, or misunderstanding, of the long-dead caliphate is, then, exactly irrelevant. And because that is true, and because you have no linear argument at all relating the interesting historical stuff to the current proposed project, you do invite speculation as to your motives in hashing out the confused state of ancient history. Even in your heated rebuttal, you are clear that you are attacking Rauf’s “veracity.” Really? But you pointed to nothing at all that indicated he intended anything other than what he is known for and claims to be pursuing, which is building bridges and teaching tolerance. One would have expected that if the point of your piece was to counsel distrust of Rauf and skepticism about his project, you would point to something that justified those responses. If that was not your intent, then it would be helpful if you signaled what it is we are to conclude about Rauf and Park51 from your essay.

    Sorry, but there it is. And I respond with some heat on this in part because of the pious posturing of politicians and others who make their livings stirring up fear and hatred, saying things like the Park51 proposal is “insensitive” to the feelings of 9/11 family members and public opinion. That is of course code for saying that Muslims should understand that they carry the stigma of 9/11, that they are not trusted or seen as full members of our society. Some, including Newt Gingrich, have said much worse. That’s not just contrary to our long-stated principles, that’s really dangerous. We don’t just have a few million Muslim citizens and fragile relationships with important Muslim countries, we are asking our military and other agencies to build mutual confidence and trust as we work work closely with Muslims in two war zones. Islam did not attack America, al-Qaeda did. To be really clear, I am not lumping you in with the Gingriches and Fazios of the world. But I have come to expect care as well as some erudition from you when you jump into volatile subjects, and this time you did a sloppy job which did not advance the conversation we need to have.

  5. Jozsephon Aug 17th 2010 at 12:37 am

    Michael, I applaud your cautions about the uses of the past, as well as your sly politically incorrect suggestion that we might want to look for golden ages of tolerance really close to home.
    I am not a historian, (though I play one in my cooking classes). Looking for golden ages I could believe in has been a pre-occupation of mine that has lead me to conclude that any kind of peaceful coexistence has generally been a by-product of a fragile balance of power between parties capable of causing each other great harm. Generally, one side eventually prevails, at which point the fiction of peace for its own sake is abandoned. And Hell breaks loose, though it may not so appear to the winning side.
    Your point that platitudes about getting along together and common interests obscure the turmoil, uncertainties, and even danger in really getting along together is well taken.

  6. Saba L. Shamion Aug 17th 2010 at 6:38 pm

    Michael,

    Historically, but not fair or humane, a conqueror has the upper hand and
    applies his rule over the conquered including discrimination, subjection
    and cruelty. It seems to be a pattern that has more to do with human
    animalistic instincts. These behaviors/ practices have been used by some
    movements, religions and ideologies throughout recorded human history.
    They have been rationalized and “legalized” to pacify members/ adherents lets
    some question them. The human experience is full of examples: Japan in
    other Asian nations, Whites in North, Central and South America, Afrikaners in
    South Africa and I know you don’t like to hear this Israel with Palestinians.

    While we can and should read history “fairly” it serves us better – I think – to
    reexamine and correct the present, because the future depends on it!

  7. Anisa Mehdion Aug 23rd 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Cordoba — a mere 200 + years of gilded tolerance? Years that, even at their best included bouts of bigotry and injustice? Hmmm, let’s think closer to home. Our dear, great United States of America has enjoyed 223 years of guilded government, a system arguably more successful and fair than any other we know of so far attempted on planet Earth, and it has been riddled with bigotry, error, butchery, and war. Still we stand and struggle to understand and affirm our national rationale and integrity. I think you should give Cordoba a break.

    You should also give the efforts of American Muslims to generate a truly workable Islam a bravo rather than a boot.