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The Meaning of 'Cordoba': Can It Really Symbolize Religious Tolerance?

Posted: 09/09/10 08:34 PM ET

"Cordoba House," the name initially given to the projected Islamic cultural center in downtown New York in the vicinity of Ground Zero, has receded into the background and been replaced by "Park51," a name derived from the address of the location. The name "Cordoba" had been chosen because it recalls the culture of pluralism and mutual tolerance that is thought to have reigned among Muslims, Jews, and Christians in medieval Spain. Apparently the project organizers came to feel that the name "Cordoba" was too contentious.

Quite apart from the political debate about Islam raging in New York and, increasingly, around the country, it would be useful to clear up some misconceptions about Córdoba.

In 711 the Muslims conquered Spain, at that time ruled by the Roman Catholic Germanic Visigoths. This came less than 100 years after the rise of the new religion of Islam in Arabia and its unprecedented expansion from Iran and Central Asia in the East to the Straits of Gibraltar in the West.

While the conquests brought much death and destruction, and while pagans were offered the choice of "Islam or the Sword," others -- monotheistic "People of the Book" -- were granted peace treaties in return for accepting subjugation within the new religious polity, paying a kind of protection tax, and exercising humility before their Muslim rulers. This was a form of toleration, though not the equality of religions that we value today, and which was won in the West only after centuries of infernal warfare and religious intolerance.

When the Muslims invaded Spain, which they renamed al-Andalus, they found a mixed population of Christians and Jews. In the decades preceding the invasion, the Jews had suffered violent Visigothic persecution. They evidently welcomed the Muslims. They may have heard that Islamic policy toward People of the Book in conquests elsewhere had been relatively non-violent, that in return for their own submission they would benefit from becoming "protected people," ahl al-dhimma. Submission wasn't a bad price to pay in those days for security and religious freedom.

In the Islamic capital of Córdoba -- the grand and much-admired city, with its beautiful mosques and highly developed urban landscape -- Jews and Christians experienced substantial security and economic prosperity. Apart from their respective religions, members of all three faiths shared a common Arabic culture. Inspired by the Arabs' reverence for their holy Arabic language, Jews, who both spoke and wrote Arabic, studied their own holy language, Hebrew, to understand its beauties. Like their Muslim counterparts, the Hebrew poets of Córdoba regaled their patrons using Arabic poetic structures and wrote "secular" poems dealing with nature, love, beauty -- even, in the case of one poet, war. Muslim and Jewish philosophers confronted the same intellectual challenges and often discussed these with one another in formal settings.

This cultural exchange, which was not limited to Córdoba or even to al-Andalus, looked from the outside like a mutually tolerant society of "living together," a convivencia.

Was there convivencia in Córdoba? Yes, though it had its limits. Jews and Christians were not the equals of Muslims. And there were instances of oppression. But when such episodes occurred, they nearly always erupted when non-Muslims were deemed to be "violating" the terms of the dhimma covenant, and they never stemmed from irrational anti-Semitism. The irrational hatred of Jews we know today as anti-Semitism (as distinct from disdain for the nonconforming "other," characteristic of all three monotheistic faiths) did not then exist.

Can Córdoba serve as a symbol for tolerance and mutual understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims today? Yes. As long as it is not rejected for its failure to meet the standards of modern societies; as long as we accept the fact that for neither Muslims nor Christians nor Jews in Córdoba was tolerance -- as we know it today -- considered a virtue; as long as we remember the shared culture that created bonds among Muslims, Jews, and Christians.

We live in a world in which societies strive to impose their way of life on others. Cordoba House (aka Park51) symbolizes the possibility of another approach, one which fosters mutual understanding and respect among peoples of different faiths who know little about each other and whose mutual ignorance breeds suspicion and fear. Cordoba House can be a place where Muslims, Jews, Christians, people of other faiths, and secular people, can gather for social and cultural activities and get to know one another, and this mutual understanding might just contribute to a tolerance that none of the three religions has had a very good record at fostering in the past.