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Reflecting on Al Andalus: Living Legacies and the Power of Myth

06/17/2013 12:50 pm ET | Updated Aug 17, 2013

There's wonderful power in an ideal. My childhood visions of Camelot, where gallant knights fought for justice, "July and August cannot be too hot", and rain "never falls till after sundown", still evoke dreamy smiles. Al Andalus is another mystical world, a place where Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived in harmony, taking learning and the arts to new heights. Camelot and Al Andalus both have historical roots, Camelot in medieval Britain and Al Andalus in eight centuries on the Iberian Peninsula before Ferdinand and Isabella came to power in that famous year 1492. But history and mythology are intertwined and the lasting imprint on our moral imagination owes at least as much to myth as to reality.

Visions of Al Andalus are far more vivid in places like Morocco than in Spain or other Christian worlds. That's hardly surprising because 1492 marked a bitter end to a golden age in one narrative while most Americans learned that it's the beginning of a new age of exploration and adventure (Christopher Columbus set out in that year).

This year the Festival of World Sacred Music in Fes, Morocco, drew on the inspiration of Al Andalus both for musical performances and artistic displays and as the theme of a sober reflection, in the four day Fes Forum, about what that era might teach us about beauty, tolerance, and religious pluralism. The festival put love as the primary legacy of Al Andalus, love with its many dimensions intertwined: love of God, love of beauty, love of the other, and passionate, romantic love.

The ideal Al Andalus evokes a deep spirituality that fostered such love and pervaded all aspects of life. It was a paradise, a golden age, of beauty, gardens, and libraries, and a brilliant civilization where poets and philosophers thrived. Berbers, Arabs, Visigoths, Jews, and Christians from many backgrounds lived together in harmony and something approaching equality; the poet could address the emir with respect on both sides. Through the era's haunting poetry, its legacies in dance, and Andalusian music, Al Andalus comes alive. Many of our most enduring mythologies can trace their roots to the era and medicine, law, and philosophy all are beneficiaries. The memories are especially vivid in Fes because many who fled Andalusia after the Christian conquest (both Muslims and Jews) settled in there so that even people's names evoke Al Andalus.

Al Andalus has special significance today in the light of raging contests for mastery within the Muslim faith and communities. Several institutions have adopted the name Cordoba (a capital in that period) because it symbolizes an Islam that is dynamic, open to ideas and religious traditions, a world intellectual leader, and the protector of the finest wisdom inherited from the past and transmitted to the future. Al Andalus is seen as a place where Islam blended spirituality with models of just governance. Sufi traditions emerged as the essence of dialogue and the secret of harmony.

Delving into historical realities, complexities and dark shadows emerge. Al Andalus was definitely not always a romantic, ideal society. Its dark sides bequeathed harsh legacies that play out to this day.

During the Fes Forum, Princeton professor Michael Barry put the contrasting faces of the Al Andalus legacy in stark relief in a tour de force of historical narrative and stories. Positive and negative, myth and reality, are so tightly intertwined that only deep historical excavation can distinguish them. The story of the round table illustrates the complexities. A real and legendary table traveled, by routes clouded in mystery, from Jerusalem to Toledo, becoming the mystical symbol of destiny, power, and spiritual hold. Powerful cultural myths including King Arthur's round table, are part of the legacy. Legends traceable to Al Andalus underpin today's identities and social realities, Barry argued.

Dark histories of persecution, prejudice, emerging slavery, and racism, however, are also part of the Al Andalus story. The very notion of racism emerged from the idea that bloodlines could be polluted. A "raza", meaning a stain or taint (as in a blemish on a shirt) came to mean that certain races were permanently tarnished at the level of blood, a tarnish that could not be altered by religious conversion or education. The notion and word found their way into the emerging Spanish language of the era, carried along with Iberian conquerors and colonists into the Americas. The darkest facets of colonial experience are, Barry contends, Iberian, and the practice of slavery, justified in terms of the racial taint, endured with the complicity and connivance of Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike.

But, Barry recalled, if religious teachings and practices allowed cruel persecution, book burning (auto-da-fe), torture, rigid dogmatism, and slavery to spread across the world, religion also inspired remarkably courageous and visionary stands by men like priests Antonio de Montesinos and Bartolomeo de las Casas, who stood firm against power, driven and inspired by the core principles of their faith.

Today's enduring debates about relationships between faith and reason, mystery and realism, wisdom and law, belief and reinterpretation, and art and reality, have roots in Al Andalus and the legends around it. Andalusian poetry reflects powerful emotional currents that shaped the era's history and culture, including love of country, the pain and longing of exile, love of learning, and love of God.

The Fes Festival theme elevated the ideals of Al Andalus and their enduring expression, especially in the arts but also in our understandings of what is right and good and in our very notions of identity. Probing the history of Al Andalus was a reminder that myths have powerful holds on cultures and identities, both good and bad. Positive memories of Al Andalus as a golden age of openness, learning, creativity, and respect for diversity offers an inspiring vision of what can be today. We also, however, need to learn from its darker sides and complex realities because they too are part of today's challenge.

Camelot and Al Andalus may thus teach and inspire us to work towards the societies of our ideals.