The Dissolution of the Iberian Religious Harmony

By Nick Gier
Reader Columnist

I’m just back from a one-month trip to Portugal, Spain and Morocco, and I was reminded, primarily because of the spectacular Islamic architecture, about the relative peace among the Jews, Christians and Muslims in this area from during the 8th-13th centuries.

I first learned about the Iberian religious harmony from my study of St. Thomas Aquinas, the great Catholic theologian. Aquinas developed a brilliant synthesis between the Greek philosopher Aristotle and Christian revelation. He learned about Aristotle from Averroes, a Spanish Muslim who excelled in philosophy, theology, medicine, astronomy, physics and law. 

Except for a few Platonic dialogues, medieval Christians did not have access to Greek philosophy and literature. Early on, however, Islamic scholars preserved the Greek texts, translated them into Arabic, added their own vast knowledge (especially of astronomy) and brought that into Europe from North Africa. Without Muslim maps and navigation tools, for example, Spanish and Portuguese voyages around the world not have been possible.

I did not have time to travel to the incomparable Alhambra in Granada, but I did visit two Muslim sites in Seville, Spain. When King Fernando III took the city from the Muslims in 1248, he raised the Aljama Mosque and in its place the world’s largest neo-Gothic cathedral was erected.  (The 300-foot minaret was left standing and a bell tower was added to the top.) The pointed Gothic arch is stronger than the rounded Roman arch, and it originated with Islamic builders.

Not too far from the cathedral, the remains of the distinctive Moorish walls of the Alcazar can still be seen. On grounds of this Muslim fortress three Christian palaces were built. Fernando hated the Muslims, but he loved their architecture. The interiors of the Alcazar contain some of the most prized mosaics in the world. 

The Alcazar was the royal residence of King Pedro I, sometimes known as King of the Jews. He was their defender during a time in which the they were increasingly persecuted and murdered. The Iberian religious harmony was obviously collapsing.

An inscription in the lower level of the Alcazar’s Courtyard of the Maidens also calls Pedro I “Sultan.” In a time when the Muslims were being forced out of Spain and Portugal, Pedro was one of the few Christian leaders who tried to maintain friendly relations. 

Pedro’s best political friend was Muhammed V of Granada, who sent him 1,000 of his best artisans to finish Pedro’s part of the Alcazar. Their work is considered the best example of the Mudejar style in the world.

In 1492, King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella issued the Decree of Alhambra, which declared that all Jews would have to convert, face death, or leave the country. About 150,000 Jews sought refuge in Portugal, but King Manuel I instituted a similar ban against the Jews in 1496. A Second Diaspora (the first came after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 A. D.), then began with Jews fleeing as far east as Turkey.

Just to the south over the Straits of Gibraltar, Morocco, after already receiving thousands of Iberian Muslim and Jewish refugees, embraced a new flood of desperate Jews. With the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition in 1536, Jews living as Christians (known as Conversos) and now fearing torture and death, also joined the Moroccan Diaspora. 

Jews had lived in Morocco since Roman times, and street names such “ben Yakub” can be found all over the country. I visited this particular street in the beautiful mountain town of Chefchaoen, where the locals claim that their Muslim ancestors came from Granada and had invited their Jewish friends to join them after the 1492 expulsion.  

Everything changed for the Moroccan Jews with the establishment of Israel and the ensuing wars. Muhammed V, king of Morocco at that time, had refused to hand over Moroccan Jews to the French Vichy regime. 

Despite this magnanimous gesture, Moroccan Jews noticed that their Muslim neighbors had sided with the Palestinians, and in 1948 riots broke out in three cities and 44 Jews were killed.

The Jews of Morocco started emigrating to Israel in ever larger numbers, and of the estimated 300,000 before only 2,500 remain today. They constitute the second largest non-European portion of Israel’s population, and a sizable number are members of the army. 

It’s sad to think that Jewish Moroccan soldiers have been sent into battle against Morocco’s close Arab allies. One can see this as symbolic of the final dissolution of the Iberian religious harmony.

Nick Gier of Moscow taught religion and philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years.  Read his articles at Islam at www.webpages.uidaho.edu/ngier/IslamPage.htm. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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