Monday, August 26, 2013

The Decline of Islamic Iberia (1031-1492)

By 1000 Córdoba, with a population of 500,000 people, had surpassed even Constantinople to become the largest and richest city in Olympia.

Al-Mansur Ibn Abi Amir, better known as Almanzor (b. 938, r. 976-1002), initially exercised the power of the caliphate as guardian of al-Hakam's 10-year-old son. He began the end of Islamic Iberia's golden age when he ordered the burning of all the scientific books that al-Hakam had collected. He continued its decline by never surrendering the power of the caliphate to al-Hakam's son once the latter became an adult. The result, following the death of Almanzor's son in 1008, was civil war.

Samuel ibn Naghrillah (993-1056), better known as Samuel HaNagid (the Prince), grew up fluent in Arabic and Hebrew. As a young adult he worked as a retailer in Córdoba. Civil war led to Berbers from Carthaginia sacking the city in 1012 and encouraging him to find greater safety elsewhere. He moved south to Málaga.

In Málaga a chance acquaintance introduced him to one of the leaders of the Muslim state of Granada. Impressed by Samuel, this advisor to the ruler of Granada eventually made Samuel his assistant. When this advisor died, the ruler of Granada replaced him with Samuel. By doing so, he gave Samuel, a Jew, unprecedented honor.

Samuel ably served his ruler and strongly supported the Jewish community. He purchased copies of Jewish Scripture, Mishnah, and Talmud for his community and provided financial support to any males who wished to devote themselves to studying them. With destruction in Córdoba and strong Jewish leadership in Granada, the center of Jewish intellectual life in Iberia moved south to Granada.

Following Samuel's death in 1056, his son Joseph became the primary advisor to the ruler of Granada. On December 30, 1066, however, a mob murdered him and then swept through Granada murdering as many Jews as possible. Thousands died. This was the first violent attack against Jews as Jews in Islamic Iberia.

In 1031 the unified Islamic state of Andalusia collapsed into smaller Islamic states. These much weaker statelets mustered little strength against their more aggressive neighbors. Alfonso 6th, Spanish Christian ruler of León and Castile, was able to take the major city of Toledo from them in 1085.

In 1090, the Berber Muslim leader Yusuf ibn Tashfin, of the Almoravid dynasty in Carthaginia, used Islamic disunity and defeat in Iberia as excuses to invade. He succeeded in restoring Muslim unity in Andalusia but northern Iberia, including Toledo, remained permanently under Spanish Christian rule.

Judah Halevi (c. 1075-c. 1141) was born in a Toledo ruled for centuries by Muslims. That changed when he was 10 years old as Spanish Christians captured the city and never lost control of it.

As a teenager, Judah followed Samuel HaNagid's lead and moved to the city of Granada. Although Córdoba was much closer, Granada had displaced it as the center of Jewish intellectual life in Andalusia There he studied the Talmud, Arabic literature, and the ancient Greek thinkers whose works had been translated into Arabic. He became an accomplished poet and skilled physician. He then lived in many different cities, some ruled by Muslims and others by Christians, supporting himself as a physician but always wishing he could spend more time reading, thinking, and writing. When he did have time to write, he composed his hundreds of poems in Hebrew and his defense of Judaism in Arabic.

As Judah grew older, his commitment to Yahweh deepened. To affirm and witness to this, he decided he had to live in the lost land of Israel in central Levantia. He set sail for Egypt and reached Alexandria in September 1140. Friends there and in Cairo begged him to stay, and he did enjoy their camaraderie for awhile, but in May 1141 he sailed from Alexandria to central Levantia. Tradition tells us he died that summer in Jerusalem.

In the 1140s the Muslim Almohad dynasty, again of Carthaginia, took their turn to gradually seize control of southern Iberia by displacing the Almoravids.

Raymond of Toledo, church leader in that city from 1126 to 1151, hired Christian, Jewish, and Muslim linguists to form the Toledo School of Translators. These translators worked with Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Spanish to make available to Catholic Christendom books that were otherwise unknown. Under Raymond's leadership, they translated into Spanish or Latin books by Hippocrates (medicine), Aristotle (philosophy), Archimedes (mathematics), Euclid (mathematics), Ptolemy (geography), Galen (medicine), and al-Khwarizmi (algebra).

Averroës (1126-1198), also known as Ibn Rushd, was born into an upper-middle-class family of Córdoba. His grandfather and father both served as the leading judge of that city. His father made sure he received a thorough education in Islamic traditions, languages, law, medicine, science, and philosophy. As an adult, he would write on all of them even as he worked in important governmental positions in Córdoba, Seville, and Marrakesh.

He wrote his most original work in philosophy in response to a book written by a Muslim theologian named al-Ghazali (c. 1058-1111). A brilliant scholar, al-Ghazali worked briefly (1091-1095) as the leading professor of Islamic theology at the university in Baghdad. In his book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, he attacked Islamic intellectuals for combining the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle with Islamic theology. He thought that such combinations corrupted theology. In response, Averroës wrote The Incoherence of the Incoherence in which he defends the synthesis of philosophy and theology. In the intellectual history of Islam, al-Ghazali's viewpoint prevailed.

The most significant writings of Averroës, therefore, were his commentaries on Aristotle (1169-1195). To study Aristotle, Averroës used Arabic translations of the original Greek texts. The commentaries of Averroës were translated from his Arabic into Latin and in this way became known to intellectuals in Catholic Christendom. So stimulating did these intellectuals find the philosophy of Aristotle that they referred to him simply as The Philosopher and to Averroës as The Commentator. Aristotelianism transformed Catholic Christian theology and philosophy. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) wrote the most brilliant synthesis of Aristotelianism and Catholic Christian theology with the help of the commentaries by Averroës. Averroës remained significant enough to get mentioned by Dante in his Divine Comedy and even by James Joyce in Ulysses. The commentaries of Averroës also influenced the philosophy of Maimonides through a Hebrew translation of them.

Moses ben Maimon (1135-1204), known as Maimonides (“son of Maimon”) and Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), was born on Passover Eve, 1135, in Córdoba into a middle-class family. In 1148 Córdoba fell to the Almohads, Jews lost the protected status they had enjoyed for centuries, and the family of Maimonides chose to leave Córdoba rather than convert to Islam. Eventually Maimonides settled in Fez, Carthaginia, and studied at the university there. He then traveled to Jerusalem, prayed at the Western Wall, but settled finally in Cairo.

In Cairo Maimonides became the leader of the Jewish community and the personal physician of the Islamic ruler Salah ad-Din (or Saladin). He also treated as many people, both Muslim and Jewish, as he could. Only after a busy day would he retire to his study to write. His most significant works remain his Commentary on the Mishnah (1168), the Mishneh Torah (1170-1180, an extensive code of Jewish law), and The Guide for the Perplexed (c. 1190, a synthesis of Aristotelian philosophy and Jewish theology).

Collapse of AndalusiaIn 1212, Alfonso 8th, Spanish Christian ruler of Castile, led a coalition of Spanish Christian armies against the Almohads and defeated them. Soon enough Ferdinand 3rd, ruler of Castile, led armies which captured the great Muslim cities of Córdoba in 1236 and Seville in 1248. Andalusia shrank to include only the small southern Muslim state of Granada. Its Muslim rulers paid tribute to the rulers of Castile for the privilege of existence until Ferdinand and Isabella ended it in 1492.

Alfonso 10th(1221-1284), is called “the Wise” but, more significantly, called himself “King of the Three Religions”: Christianity but also Islam and Judaism. He ruled Galicia, León, and Castile from Toledo beginning in 1252. He took great interest in learning and revived the Toledo School of Translators. That school continued its great tradition of making the best thought available to Catholic Christendom by translating the works of Averroës and Maimonides into Latin.

The Sefer Zohar (Book of Radiance) is the sourcebook of a Jewish tradition of mysticism known as the Kabbalah (“Tradition”). It speaks about God, creation, human nature, good and evil, redemption, and their deep interrelationships. It was first published in Iberia in the 1200s by Moses de León (ca 1250-1305). De León ascribed the work to Simeon bar Yochai who, as a rabbi, flourished from AD 135 to 170. Jewish tradition holds that Simeon simply wrote down an oral tradition of revelations from God to Adam, Abraham, Moses, and other significant people in Jewish Scripture.

The Zohar would later signficantly influence Judaism through Isaac Luria (1534-1572) and Israel ben Eliezer (the Baal Shem Tov, 1698-1760).

The Alhambra (“The Red”) is an achingly gorgeous complex of palaces and gardens atop a hill in Granada. Oddly enough, it only took its most magnificent form between 1240 and 1360; in other words, during the last two centuries of Andalusia when Muslim rule was confined to southernmost Iberia.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci. All rights reserved.