Singular and Plural: The Heritage of Al-Andalus

By Arie, Rachel | UNESCO Courier, December 1991 | Go to article overview

Singular and Plural: The Heritage of Al-Andalus


Arie, Rachel, UNESCO Courier


ONE of the most striking features of the Muslim presence in Spain is the enduring influence it exerted over Iberian Christianity. In times of peace, the relationship between the Christian and Muslim kingdoms on the peninsula was marked by what the French historian Henri Terrasse has called "a sometimes cordial symbiosis". There were Christian and Jewish communities with Islamic Spain, just as Jews and Muslims were later to live in the crown lands of Castile and Aragon.

In cultural matters contacts never ceased; there was no clear-cut line of division between the Islamic and Christian worlds. From the earliest days of the Arab-Berber conquest, an extraordinary ethnic mixing took place in al-Andalus. In the Islamic melting-pot, Arabs, Berbers brought up in the Arab culture and Christians, whether share-croppers or high-born landed proprietors, intermarried with one another and with the urban middle classes to form a fairly homogeneous whole. Sustained contact between Muslims and Spaniards obliged the conquerors to learn Romance, a derivative of the Iberian Latin that was the language of the country, and one which the Mozarabs or Arabized Christians also used as a common dialect. Meanwhile, some young Christians in the ninth century began to turn away from Latin culture and their traditional religious education. Some of them could read and write in Arabic, knew pre-Islamic poetry and took up the study of Arabic literature.

Andalusian Jews spoke Romance and Arabic in addition to Hebrew. Installed in Spain since Roman times, Jewish communities gave proof of their loyalty to the Umayyad dynasty and were not persecuted. Eight generations of Jews in al-Andalus were to benefit from the tolerance and protection of the Umayyad rulers.

An intellectual

and linguistic ferment

A substantial proportion of Spain's Islamic population was bilingual. The Muslims of al-Andalus used Romance colloquially and even in their palaces. 'Abd al-Rahman III, caliph of Cordoba from 912 until 961 and himself the son of a Christian captive, switched easily between Arabic and Romance when talking to his courtiers. Impermeable to fanaticism, he displayed exceptional tolerance and open-mindedness.

Two examples of his magnanimity are particularly striking. Rabi b. Zayd, baptised as Recemundo, was a cultured Christian of Cordoba who worked as a secretary in the offices of the Umayyad chancellery and spoke Arabic as well as Latin. The caliph sent him as a legate to the German Empire and to the court of Constantinople, tasks he performed so zealously that his employer obtained for him the bishopric of the small Andalusian town of Elvira.

Among the dignitaries of the Cordoban court was a Jew from Jaen named Hasday ben Shaprut, a man of great culture. The director of a financial department, he knew Arabic, Hebrew, Latin and Greek as well as the Romance dialects. He acted as interpreter into Arabic when Christian envoys arrived in the capital, and also translated into Arabic Discorides' medical treatise, sent to 'Abd al-Rahman III by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII.

A distinguished doctor as well as a capable diplomat, he successfully carried out a difficult mission to the Christian territories, in the course of which he helped cure King Sancho I of Leon of obesity and also obtained ten strongholds from the king's grandmother, old Queen Toda of Navarre, in return for a Cordoban alliance. Thanks to the caliph's protection, Hasday was able to act as a patron for the Jewish writers of Islamic Spain, and the symbiosis of Jewish and Arabic culture was evident in the work that resulted. The Judaeo-Spanish poet Dunash ben Labrat even persuaded his Jewish compeers to adopt Arabic metres for their Hebrew verses, while the brilliant philologist Hayyudj rivalled the Arab grammarians.

In the Spain of three religions, the Jews were notable for their multilingualism. …

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