Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

By Bernard Lewis | Go to book overview

10
The Cult of Spain and the
Turkish Romantics

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the Muslim Orient began to rediscover the lost and long-forgotten glories of Muslim Andalusia. The time was one of defeat and retreat for the Muslim peoples. The expansion of Europe—by sea from the west, by land from the east—was still bringing great and ancient Muslim cities under Christian rule. The French in North Africa, the British in India, the Russians in Central Asia, all seemed to be converging on the heartlands of Islam, and, at the same time, political and military defeats were matched by the retreat of traditional Islamic concepts and values before the advance of new notions emanating from Europe. Only the Ottoman Sultanate remained as an independent Muslim Great Power—by now the accepted leader and spokesman of Sunnī Islam; and even then the survival of the Ottoman Empire was gravely threatened by foreign invasion, domestic dissension, and the spread of new and disruptive ideas.

It was in these circumstances that the cult of Andalus emerged and, responding to a deep emotional need, spread widely among Muslim intellectuals. In a time of humiliating weakness and backwardness, they could find comfort in the spectacle of a great, rich, powerful, and civilized Muslim state in Europe—the leader and guide, as they saw it, of European civilization. In a time of decay, they could find a melancholy satisfaction in the contemplation of the sunset splendors of the Alhambra, in the long, sad epic of defeat and withdrawal. Before long, the rise and fall of Muslim Andalusia became favorite themes and settings of poets and novelists; the glories of Cordova served as a Golden Age for the romantic and apologetic school of Islamic historiography that was growing up in the Middle East and especially in India.

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