Carl S. Pyrdum III: Professor Newt's Distorted History Lesson

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Carl S. Pyrdum III is a graduate student in Medieval Studies at Yale University.]

There are any number of reasons why an American might oppose the Cordoba House, the planned $100 million Muslim-financed community center that has come to be known in the press as the "Ground Zero mosque."  I don't think any of them are particularly good reasons, but the universe of potential justification is much broader than the narrow scope of this humble blog.  There is one justification being floated around, however, that is both within this blog's purview and completely and totally bogus.  Indeed, this particular justification is such an egregious and purposeful misreading of medieval history that I feel I must speak up.

Last week,* Newt Gingrich released a Newt Directstatement at concerning the project.  As you may have heard, he's somewhat opposed to it.  And to explain why, he offered this history lesson:
The proposed "Cordoba House" overlooking the World Trade Center site – where a group of jihadists killed over 3000 Americans and destroyed one of our most famous landmarks - is a test of the timidity, passivity and historic ignorance of American elites.  For example, most of them don’t understand that “Cordoba House” is a deliberately insulting term.  It refers to Cordoba, Spain – the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over the Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world’s third-largest mosque complex. [...I]n fact, every Islamist in the world recognizes Cordoba as a symbol of Islamic conquest.  It is a sign of their contempt for Americans and their confidence in our historic ignorance that they would deliberately insult us this way. [emphasis mine]
It's that appositive phrase there buried in the middle of my quote that is the problem.  In these twenty-five words, Newt offers the final word on medieval Cordoba: "the capital of Muslim conquerors who symbolized their victory over Christian Spaniards by transforming a church there into the world's third-largest mosque complex."  This fact, the transformation of a church into a mosque, is the only thing we should think of when we hear a modern Muslim use the word "Cordoba," according to Mr. Gingrich.

Notice how carefully he's phrased his claim to give the impression that during the medieval conquest of Spain the Muslims charged into Cordoba and declared it the capital of a new Muslim empire, and in order to add insult to injury seized control of a Christian church and built the biggest mosque they could, right there in front of the Christians they'd just conquered, a big Muslim middle finger in the heart of medieval Christendom.  Essentially, they've done it before, they'll do it again, right there at Ground Zero, if all good Christians don't band together to stop them.

The problem is, in order to give that impression of immediacy, Newt elides three hundred years of Christian and Muslim history.  Three hundred years. The Muslims conquered Cordoba in 712.  The Christian church that was later transformed into the Great Mosque of Cordoba apparently** continued hosting Christian worship for at least a generation after that.  Work on the Mosque didn't actually begin until seventy-odd years later in 784, and the mosque only became "the world's third-largest" late in the tenth century, after a series of expansions by much later rulers, probably around 987 or so.

Then there's the matter of the two odd verbs in Newt's summation of Cordoba's history: "transformed" and "symbolized".  Surely, a mosque as great as The Great Mosque of Cordoba has symbolized a lot of things to a lot of people over the years.  But Muslim historians writing about the Great Mosque don't point to it as a symbol of Muslim triumph over Christians; rather, they treat it primarily as a symbol of Muslim victory over other Muslims.

Keep in mind that when ground was broken on the Great Mosque, the vast majority of the men who had been personally responsible for conquering the Iberian peninsula were long dead and most of their sons were dead, too.  Sure, a few extremely ancient grey beards might have been present as very, young men, and a few older men might have been able to talk about what their fathers had done during the Conquest, but Muslim control of Spain was simply a fact of life for them, not something they felt they had to justify to the Christians.

The mosque was indeed begun in the wake of a Muslim conquest--just not the conquest of the Christians.  Rather, it was ordered built by the Umayyad emir Abd-ar-Ramman I, probably in part to commemorate his successful conquest of Cordoba in the 750's, fought against other Muslim chieftains loyal to the rival Abbasid Caliphate, and his successful repulsion of subsequent Abbasid attempts to dislodge him by force throughout the 760's.***  This is, incidentally, probably why the Great Mosque--unlike almost every other Mosque in the Muslim world--is built facing south. Usually, Mosques are built facing Mecca, as Muslims are meant to pray towards the holy city.  But the Great Mosque is oriented as if it were actually built in Damascus, the original capital of the Umayyads and the city from which abd-ar-Ramman had had to flee in exile when it was conquered by the Abbasids.  Damascus is north of Mecca, while Cordoba is much further west.  By pointing his Mosque south, Abd-ar-Ramman I was telling his Muslim rivals, "This exile to Iberia is a temporary thing; you may hold Damascus for now, but in the eyes of our god, my family still controls it."

Still, the Muslims did "transform" a Christian church, didn't they?  Possibly, but only in a very qualified sense.  Most standard histories of Cordoba will note that the Great Mosque is built on the site of the Basilica of St Vincent, Martyr, a Visigothic church that was itself built on the ruins of a Roman pagan temple.  And archaeological work has confirmed that the present site of the Mosque did at one time belong to some sort of Christian church.  There's no indication that the present-day structure included any elements from that church, though, and exactly when it was razed and under what circumstances is unclear.

Muslim historians of the late tenth century tell that Abd-ar-Ramman bought the church from the Christian congregation after sharing it with them for fifty years "following the example of Abu Ubayda and Khalid, according to the judgement of Caliph Umar in partitioning Christian churches like that of Damascus and other [cities] that were taken of peaceful accord".****  The Christians, we're told, took their money and relocated their church to the outskirts of Cordoba.  Now obviously, these are Muslim historians writing two-to-three-hundred years after the events they describe, so we must always take their accounts with a grain of salt (as we would with any historian's work, Muslim or not) and consider the political motivations responsible for their histories.

These tenth-century historians were writing to please the ears of the Cordoban caliphs, Abd-ar-Ramman III and his successors, in the wake of yet another victory of Muslim over Muslim.  Abd-ar-Ramman III, after all, is the one who declared Cordoba to be an independent caliphate, not just an Umayyad emirate. In rewriting the history of the Mosque of Cordoba, these historians were writing imperial justifications for their patron, explaining why Cordoba deserved to be the capital of its own caliphate, held up as the equal to Damascus, site of the Great Mosque of the Umayyads, and even Mecca, the holiest of cities, which was still under Abbasid control.

This is the important fact that Newt hopes those who read his polemic will be ignorant of: for a ruler to be legitimate in Muslim eyes in the tenth century, during the time when the Great Mosque was being expanded into its present-day dimensions, it was important to emphasize the peaceful succession of Islam from the other religions in the area.  A caliph was expected to have arrived at an accord with the Christians and Jews over which he ruled.******  Far from "symboliz[ing] their victory" the Mosque was held up by Muslim historians a symbol of peaceful coexistence with the Christians--however messier the actual relations of Christians and Muslims were at the time.*******

So what should modern Christians think when they hear a Muslim use the word "Cordoba"?  Well, I know that Newt hasn't been a Catholic for very long now, but maybe his priest ought to direct him to read a little thing called "The Catholic Encyclopedia".  Allow me to quote from the 1917 edition (which has the virtue of being in the public domain and easily searchable) and its entry on Cordoba:
In 786 the Arab caliph, Abd-er Rahman I, began the construction of the great mosque of Cordova, now the cathedral, and compelled many Christians to take part in the preparation of the site and foundations. Though they suffered many vexations, the Christians continued to enjoy freedom of worship, and this tolerant attitude of the ameers seduced not a few Christians from their original allegiance. Both Christians and Arabs co-operated at this time to make Cordova a flourishing city, the elegant refinement of which was unequalled in Europe. 
The article then discusses the persecution of the Christians under Abd-ar-Ramman II, which included the martyrdom of St. Eulogius.  Then it continues with the rule of those rulers who expanded the Mosque:
In 962 Abd-er Rahman III was succeeded by his son Al-Hakim. Owing to the peace which the Christians of Cordova then enjoyed [...] the citizens of Cordova, Arabs, Christians, and Jews, enjoyed so high a degree of literary culture that the city was known as the New Athens. From all quarters came students eager to drink at its founts of knowledge. Among the men afterwards famous who studied at Cordova were the scholarly monk Gerbert, destined to sit on the Chair of Peter as Sylvester II (999-1003), the Jewish rabbis Moses and Maimonides, and the famous Spanish-Arabian commentator on Aristotle, Averroes.
So it's easy to see why a group of Muslims creating a community center in the heart of a majority Christian country in a city known for its large Jewish population might name it "The Cordoba House" They're not, as Gingrich hopes we would believe, discreetly laughing at us because "Cordoba" is some double-secret Islamist code for "conquest"; rather, they're hoping to associate themselves with a particular time in medieval history when the largest library in Western Europe was to be found in Cordoba, a city in which scholars of all three major Abrahamic religions were free to study side-by-side.


*While I was away in Italy.  Suspicious?  I think so. [RETURN]
**This is a loaded "apparently" for reasons that will become clear later in this post. [RETURN]
***If your eyes glaze over at the sea of Abds, Umayyads, and Abbasids, let me put it another way.  If it's legitimate for Newt Gingrich to say the Great Mosque of Cordoba was built by Muslim Conquerors in their capital city wishing to symbolize their victory over the Christians, then it'd be just as legitimate to describe the Statue of Liberty as being built by English conquerors in their capital of New York to symbolize their victory over the Dutch.
****Idhari, al-Bayan 2, pp. 341-342.  Cited in Nuha N. N. Khoury, "The Meaning of the Great Mosque of Cordoba in the Tenth Century" Muqarnas, 13 (1996), pp. 80-98.[RETURN]*****
*****Sorry, I know, using a footnote to cite an actual source isn't really what you expect from me.  Those who traveled down here in search of a joke--maybe some sort of pun on those weird Muslim names--my deepest apologies.
******Again, see Khoury for this, in particular, pp. 83-85. [RETURN]
*******Earlier histories don't mention the church of St. Vincent at all.  Instead, they refer to the site of the new mosque as a place where the previous ruling Muslim dynasty had mercilessly executed several Muslim martyrs.  So by this reading in creating the mosque, Abd-ab-Ramman I was consecrating the memory of Muslims killed by Muslims, not desecrating the memory of Christians killed by Muslims. [RETURN]

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Jack Alfred - 8/24/2010

Take a look at the very last footnote, which may clarify the Imam's actual purpose in insisting upon a location so close to Ground Zero, and it may explain the now-replaced name, Cordoba:

"Earlier histories don't mention the church. . . . Instead they refer to the site of the new [Cordoba]mosque as a place where the previous ruling Muslim dynasty had mercilessly executed several Muslim martyrs. So by this reading in creating the mosque, Abd-ab-Ramman I [and Imam Raif?] was consecrating the memory of Muslims killed by Muslims [Muslims killed in the Twin Towers by Muslims acting as Al Qaeda Terrorists], not desecrating the meomory of Christians killed by Muslims.

Jack Alfred - 8/24/2010