Thursday, August 03, 2006

Islam and the West: Al Andalus in the context of and as exemplifying the Islamic Nation as Established by the Constitution of Medina.

Islam and the West: Al Andalus in the context of and as exemplifying the Islamic Nation as Established by the Constitution of Medina.

This article intends to deal with the historic presence of Islam in Europe, specifically in Al Andalus in what today is known as Spain and thus what is termed ‘The West’. It will consider the concept of this period as the ‘Golden Era’ (Mann, et al., 1992, p.xi), weighing whether this is a fitting appellation for Islamic Spain, and if it is one that was used, or should be, by Muslims. Consideration will be given to the constitution of Medina, how this is fundamental to an understanding of Spain, early Islam, and thus the concept of dhimmi generally. It will finish by considering the future of Islam in the context of Europe, the wider world, but also considering differing Islamic opinions on ideas of governance.

Islamic rule in Spain and invasion can be considered to begin in 710 when ‘a party of four hundred Muslims landed at the southernmost tip of Spain’ (Watt, 1965, p.13) and is considered to have reached its completion, but by no means end, by 715 with a significant treaty signed with ‘Tudmir (Theodemir), the prince of Murcia, confirming him…and his subjects…the same status of “protected persons”’ (Watt, 1965, p.19). The rule of Islam continues until the surrender of ‘the last Muslim ruler in Spain - Abu-‘Abd-Allah’ (Watt, 1956, p.150) in 1492. The period in-between is known by ‘Spanish historians’ as ‘convivencia…the word’ being ‘loosely defined as “coexistence”’ (Mann, et al., 1992, p.1), with some referring to it as ‘The Golden Age’ (Mann, et al., 1992, p.xi). It would however appear that this term does not have its origin with Muslims, rather ‘the words “Golden Age” connoted a Jewish community living in harmony with its neighbours and, therefore free to explore its creative potential in a wide variety of fields’ (ibid.), so in actuality this term is more usually used by people ‘who received Jewish education’ (ibid.), i.e. ‘Jews’, to describe Islamic Spain, rather than by Muslims. This is of course not to say that Muslims would not admit to the historicity of the period rather that the ‘Golden Age’ for the Muslims would begin with the commandment from Gabriel to Muhammad to ‘Read!’ (The Noble Quran, Surat Al-‘Alaq, 1996, p.807). So it can be seen that the ‘Golden Age’ (to borrow the Jewish concept) of the Islamic world spread far beyond the shores of Spain, having ‘intellectual centres’ across the Ummah, whether in Al Andalus, ‘Medina, Damascus,’ or ‘Baghdad’ (Watt, 1972, p.13). It seems natural to move on and consider Medina before returning to Al Andalus.

The Islamic nation/Ummah is considered to begin at year 0 with the Hijrah from Mecca to Yathrib/Medina. Yathrib when considered in a socio-economic and political sense was a complete contrast to Mecca. In ‘Mecca…no agriculture was possible’ whereas ‘Medina…about 250 miles to the north, was an oasis of twenty square miles or more, and gained its livelihood chiefly from growing dates and cereals’ (Watt, 1961, p.84) considered as ‘an urban center whose main functions were commerce and trade’ (Parvin and Sommer, 1980, p.8). The word Ummah is considered to convey ‘varying connotations in different times and places, but most commonly used for the religio-political community of Islam as a whole’ (Savory, 1976, p.203). It was instituted in part as a means of unity in the newly established state at Medina changing the culture and tradition of primarily the peninsula Arabs,

‘and shaped and moulded Islamic society into something totally different from pre-Islamic society. First, the blood-tie, which was the basis of pre-Islamic tribal society, was abandoned, and replaced by loyalty to the ummah, to the Muslim community as a whole.’
(Savoury, 1976, p.55).

However, it must be emphasised that Islam highly values the family structure, so long as it does not cause division between the believers, and a hint of this can be seen in the word Ummah itself, which while having ‘the general meaning of…‘community’’ may also be considered to have ‘an association with the term umm, ‘mother, source’’ (Al Ahsan, 1992, p.11). The word occurs 64 times in the Quran (ibid.) with varying meanings, as Bernard Lewis states,

Umma seems to mean no more than a group, however defined – by descent, by language, by creed, by conduct, or other. It may refer to whole communities, or to subgroups within such communities…In some passages it is even applied to the Jinn…and in one passage to all living creatures. With the advent of Islam, the umma of the Arabs became the umma of Muhammad, a religiously defined community…In this usage of the term, the Jews, Christians, and others each had their own umma.
(Lewis, 1998, p.83)

The use of the term as a religio-poitical expression is delineated by Serjeant thus, ‘Ummah is basically a political confederation, but since confederations…are so generally associated with an hereditary ‘priestly’ house, most confederations are theocratic’ (Serjeant, 1978, p.4). This point is further emphasised by Lewis who states that ‘the umma thus expressed from its inception the fusion of politics and religion characteristic of the later Islamic states’ (Midlarsky, 1998, p.486, citing Lewis). It is said that on the day Muhammad entered Yathrib he addressed the gathered saying ‘O people, give unto one another greetings of Peace; feed food unto the hungry; honour the ties of kinship; pray in the hours when men sleep. Even so shall ye enter Paradise in Peace’ (Lings, 1991, p.121). Even orientalists such as Lewis have lately credited the ‘strong egalitarian elements in Islam’ (Midlarsky, 1998, p.486) which was ‘in the great majority of cases, a prophetically announced religion of redemption has had its permanent locus among the less-favoured social strata’ (Gerth & Mills, 1948, p.247, cited by Morris, 2000, p.76). Medina’s inhabitants ‘were of different origins’ with as many as ‘eleven main groups’ considered ‘‘clans’…as well as a number of smaller ones.’ (Watt, 1961, p.84), and it is in this context that the formation of the nation, but also its later expansion, must be viewed.

The Islamic Nation is considered to have come into existence formally at Medina with this being codified by the ‘Constitution of Medina’ (Faizer, 1996, p.465, see appendix i). With this agreement, rights of minorities like People of the Book/Ahl Al Kitab as People of the Covenant/Ahl Al Dhimmah, (Kritzeck, 1962, p.390 and Denny, 1977, p.47) specifically the three Jewish within the eleven Medinan already mentioned, were established with them allowed to ‘live unmolested and as a part of the umma in accordance with their religious beliefs’ (Faizer, 1996, p.467). The protection within the Islamic state did include a tariff ‘for non- Muslims who’ made ‘a treaty with Muhammad the demand’ being ‘usually called jizyah’ (Watt, 1956, p.246). This is not to be considered solely as a payment for protection (ibid.), but also in light of the obligatory yearly tax payment by Muslims, Zakat. The treasury, sometimes also referred to as ‘Bayt al Zakat’ received ‘a fifth of the amount of the booty captured on military expeditions, the rents of most of the lands in conquered provinces, and the poll-tax and other dues from ‘protected groups’’ (Watt, 1968, p.42). This was under the jurisdiction of Muhammad, and subsequently the Caliphs, in what has been considered as the archetypal welfare state. Islam is however considered less spiritual by its dealing with worldly matters, the axiom of Jesus; ‘…render unto Caesar that which is Caesars, and render unto God that which is God’s’ is cited as emphasising this when compared to Christianity (Asad, 1986, p.3 & Said, 2003, p.299, citing Halpern, M.). Islam, when considered within both its historical and contemporary context may be seen as progressive in the socio-economic and political fields, and equally as revolutionary in its prohibition of spiritual hierarchy.

All the clans that came to form part of the Ummah, and thus in confederacy, put forward representatives or nuqaba’ (Watt, 1956, p.248) which, when added to the concept of shura or council (Watt, 1968, p.35) may be considered as a prototypical form of parliament. As a moot point it may be argued that these people were not elected in what can be recognised as the democratic model, rather they were elected as speakers for their clans. However it could be contested as to just how different this is to having a choice of three candidates elected by their parties, one is ‘free to vote for anyone’ so long as they have been proposed by the party, though as of yet that party is not ‘Hizb Allah’ (Watt, 1956, p.247).
Before returning to the Al Andalus model, it is diligent to consider the movement of political power within the Islamic nation prior to, and during its period of existence. At the time the Muslims crossed the straits of Gibraltar, the governmental ‘seat’ had moved from Medina to Damascus, post the death of the last rightly guided Caliph, ‘Ali, and with the establishment of the Ummayid Caliphate. There is of course the whole dynamic based in pre-Islamic Mecca between the Qurayshi houses of Hashim and Ummayyah, and the power plays leading up to the present dynamics between Sunni (Salafi/Wahhabi) and Shi’a. This is exemplified during the period of Al Andalus in the dynamics between Damascus (Ummayid) and Baghdad (Abbasid) and even the Fatimid influence in North Africa (Glick, 1979, pp.35-42); however deep considerations of this politick is far beyond the remit of this paper. Nevertheless, Al Andalus was established under the political Ummayid Caliphate, and continued as an independent Ummayid region under Cordoba even after the move of power from Damascus to Bagdad.

To again consider Islamic Spain it may be seen as standing as an example of tolerance and Islamic coexistence with Dhimmi, with ‘Al Andalus’ being ‘the home of the “Thousand-and-One Nights”’ romantic imagery (Harbron, 1956, pp.136-7). It can be contrasted with the subtle conversion attempts of Coptic Christians under the Mamluks. During the C13th in Egypt ‘the Dhimmis had been in a state of extreme humiliation and degradation’ (Little, 1976, p.554) which is considered to have parallels in Modern Egypt. It is proposed that the reason for the extension of the right of dhimmitude in Al Andalus was as a result of smaller numbers of ruling Muslims. Yet it appears that this was not always so, though maybe true directly after the conquest. Glick writes that ‘the perception of the frontier by Castillians and Leonese of the ninth and tenth centuries was the awareness of the paucity of their own population in comparison with the great numbers of their Muslim adversaries’ (Glick, 1979, p.63). The writer of this paper would contest that the atmosphere in Islamic Spain and Fatimid lands, as opposed to say Mamluk Egypt, lies more in the nature of the state established at Medina, and adherence to that model, than as a clever survival strategy while in small numbers, ‘a protection which is guaranteed by the Prophet’s saying ‘He who harms a Dhimmi will have me for his enemy’’ (Bosworth, 1972, p.314). In actuality during the Fatimid period Christians and Jews lived in better conditions than in the preceeding Mamluk era. Cohen writes that ‘it is conventional to characterize the Mamluk reign as one of persecution for the Jews and Christians…In 1442, the repressive action began with the Jews, and only later were the Christians drawn into the suffering.’ (Cohen, 1984, p.446), adding that ‘compared with Christian Europe…the atmosphere surrounding the crisis of 1442 was not one of widespread terror…there was no wholesale violence against the community’ (ibid.). Even in light of this persecution in North Africa the Jews, and even the Morisco Christians, faired better in Dar As Salaam than within Christendom, ‘after the fall of Granada in 1492 Christian priests gave the Muslims and Jews a nightmare choice: either convert or leave the land’ but even then ‘they could be burnt at the stake’ with the Moriscos eventually being expelled or killed in 1609 (Ahmed, 1993, p.75). To consider the extended and continuing rights of Dhimmi under Islamic rule it is perhaps pertinent to consider not only were Dhimmi afforded the right to follow their faith, but even to have jurisprudent autonomy within the Ottoman Empire (Al Quattan, 1999). Though this is by no means to suggest such relationships were trouble free, it illustrates a continued model of ‘Islam in the West’ beyond Al-Andalus, in land that was formerly Byzantine territory, and with its foundation in Medina.

If we consider current trends within Islam as relating to Europe, but also democratisation of the Muslim world both the Al Andalus Model, and by extension the Medinan, play a crucial part. Current political thought is highlighted by what may be delineated as the Caliphate : Ummah dialectic. There are those who call for the reestablishment of the rule of a Caliph. This is thought to be personified by the politics of modern wahhabis/salafis (Ali, 2003, pp.73-78) who often tend to reject ideas of representative/deomcratic government, ironically given the history of the movement. While there are others who believe that the Ummah comprises of Caliphs in that all men are sons of Adam who was designated Caliph by Allah. Thus the raising of a representative and egalitarian voice is the legacy of all sons of Adam, and certainly by the inheritors of Muhammad. The Ummah that may come, as with its historic forbearer (Al Ahsan, 1992, p.109) could provide the synthesis between this apparent political dialectic. To believe Islam backward looking politically is to ignore history, with some of the roots of both social and political sciences often attributed to Muslim thinkers, such as the scholar Ibn Khaldun (Watt, 1968).
In conclusion and in consideration of Occident and Orient (Said, 2003), of East and West, and in the context of the old world it is surely an irony that the furthest point of the Maghreb lies further west than the most westerly point of the continent of Europe, hence its name. Thus despite of the present posited and disputed ‘Clash of Civilisations’ theory (Fox, 2001, pp.459-460, citing Huntingdon) as shown by the suppos├ęd conflict between ‘Democracy and Islamic Revivalism’ (Nasr, 1995) and given that ‘those concerned with the possible threat of Islamic revivalism should take the implications of its greater participation…seriously’ (Nasr, 1995, p.285), it is then with these facts borne in mind, that one might make sound analysis for the future of ‘Islam and the West’ if indeed the phrase has any real meaning. While Ibn Khaldun’s observation that “Arabs Conquer only Plains” (cited by Issawi, 1961, p.550) may still be thought to hold true, ultimately the pen may well prove to be mightier than the sword.


Ahmed, A. S. 1993, Living islam: from samarkand to stornoway, Penguin Books, London, UK.

Al Ahsan, A., 1992, Ummah or nation: identity crisis in contemporary muslim society, The Islamic Foundation, Leicester, UK.

Al Qattan, N., 1999, Dhimmis in the Muslim Court: Legal Autonomy and Religious Discrimination, in International journal of middle east studies, Vol. 31, No. 3, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Ali, T., 2003, The clash of fundamentalisms: crusades, jihads, and modernity, Verso, London, UK.

Asad, T., 1986, The idea of an anthropology of islam, Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, Washington D.C., USA

Bosworth, C. E., 1972, Christian and Jewish Dignitaries in Mamluk Egypt and Syria, Qalqashandi’s Information on Their Hierarchy, Titulature, and Appointment, in International journal of middle east studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Cohen, M. R., 1984, Jews in the Mamluk Environment: The Crisis of 1442 (A Geniza Study), in Bulletin of the school of oriental and african studies, university of london, Vol. 47, No. 3, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, UK.

Denny, F. M., 1977, Ummah in the Constitution of Medina, in Journal of near eastern studies, Vol. 36, No. 1, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, USA.

Faizer, R. S., 1996, Muhammad and the Medinan Jews: A Comparison of the Texts of Ibn Ishaq’s Kitab Sirat Rasul Allah with al-Waqidi’s Kitab al-Maghazi, in International journal of middle east studies, Vol. 28, No. 4, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Fox, J., 2001, Two Civilisations and Ethnic Conflict: Islam and the West, in Journal of peace research, Vol. 38, No. 4, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA, USA.

Glick, T. F., 1979, Islamic and christian spain in the early middle ages, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, USA.

Harbron, J. D., 1956, Spain, Spanish Morroco, and Arab Policy, in African Affairs, Vol. 55, No. 219, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Issawi, C., 1961, The Christian- Muslim Frontier in the Mediterranean: A History of Two Peninsulas, in Political science quarterly, Vol. 76, No. 4, The Academy of Political Science, New York, NY, USA.

Kritzeck, J., 1962, Moslem-Christian Understanding in Medieval Times: A Review Article, in Comparative studies in society and history, Vol. 4, No. 3, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Lewis, B., 1998, The multiple identities of the middle east, Phoenix, London, UK.

Lings, M., 1991, Muhammad: his life based on the earliest sources, The Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge, UK.

Little, D. P., 1976, Coptic Conversion to Islam under the Bahri Mamluks, 692-755/1293-1354, in Bulletin of the school of oriental and african studies, university of london, Vol. 39, No. 3, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, UK.

Mann, V. B., Glick, T. F., and Dodds, J. D. (eds.), 1992, Convivencia: jews, muslims, and Christians in medieval spain, George Braziller, New York, NY, USA.

Midlarsky, M. I., 1998, Democracy and Islam: Implications for Civilisational Conflict and the Democratic Peace, in International studies quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3, The International Studies Association, Tucson, AZ, USA.

Morris, B., 2000 (first published 1987), Anthropological studies of religion: an introductory text, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Nasr, S. V. R., 1995, Democracy and Islamic Revivalism, in Political science quarterly, Vol. 110, No. 2, The Academy of Political Science, New York, NY, USA.

Parvin, M., and Sommer, M., 1980, Dar al-Islam: The Evolution of Muslim Territoriality and Its Implications for Conflict Resolution in the Middle East, in International journal of middle east studies, Vol. 11, No. 1, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Said, E. W., 2003, Orientalism, Penguin Books, London, UK.

Savory, R. M., 1976, Introduction to islamic civilisation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

Serjeant, R. B., 1978, The “Sunnah Jami’ah,” Pacts with the Yathrib Jews, and the “Tahrim” of Yathrib: Analysis of the Documents Comprised in the So-Called ‘Constitution of Medina’, in Bulletin of the school of oriental and african studies, university of london, Vol. 41, No. 1, School of Oriental and African Studies, London, UK.

The Noble Quran, 1996, Darussalam, Riyadh, KSA.

Watt, W. M., 1956, Muhammad at medina, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Watt, W. M., 1961, Muhammad: prophet and statesman, Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.

Watt, W. M. 1968, Islamic political thought, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, UK.

Watt, W. M., 1972, The influence of islam on medieval europe, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, UK.

Watt, W. M. and Cachia, P., 1965, A history of islamic spain, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, UK.

No comments: