Philip Jenkins: PBS and historical objectivity

Roundup: Talking About History

Ever since Americans discovered that Islam still mattered, writers and film-makers have worked to meet the demand for knowledge about the history of that faith. Unfortunately, many of these accounts have been tendentious, and at their most extreme, they present a wildly romanticized Islamic Golden Age as a rhetorical counterpoint to an ignorant and bigoted Medieval West. This Occidentalizing trend reached its height in the starry-eyed 2002 PBS documentary Empires of Faith, which is still widely used as a teaching tool and an instrument of interfaith dialogue.

Judging by the latest PBS offering, Cities of Light, those very same film-makers have learned something in the interim, although they are still a long way from any semblance of historical objectivity. In its study of Islamic Spain, Cities of Light presented an unsurprisingly glorious image of a tolerant society in which all religions worked happily together under a benevolent Caliphate, a world in which Muslims, Christians and Jews cooperated to produce innovative science, fine literature and functioning sanitation. Encouragingly, the film did concede that this particular brief shining moment lasted for less than half the history of Islamic Spain, and that Muslim extremists became more powerful, and more intolerant, after 1050 or so. The film reported honestly the massive Córdoba pogrom of 1066, and showed radical Muslims burning controversial books. Unfortunately, we don't hear about their other bright idea for ensuring orthodoxy, namely the mass deportations of all surviving Spanish Christians to Morocco in the 1120s.

So far so good, and that is quite an improvement in balance. What the film's producers and sponsors still have not yet got is that the later problems of hatred and intolerance all had their roots in the greatest period of Muslim Spain, the so-called Golden Age of the ninth and tenth centuries. The episodes of brutality and persecution cannot just be blamed on less civilized African outsiders, who did not comprehend the easy-going Spanish Way. To point this out does not mean that earlier Muslim elites were monsters or tyrants, still less is it to deny their cultural glories; but they were creatures of their age, and it is idle to pretend they shared modern ideas of coexistence and toleration.

Watching Cities of Light, we rarely realize that the early Muslim rulers are dominating a largely Christian population, in which it is nonsense to say that "minorities" (actually majorities) could "worship freely without fear of persecution". We know of about fifty or so martyrdoms of Christians just in and around Córdoba in the 850s, and there were certainly others in more poorly recorded eras. The destruction of monastic communities and the seizure and plunder of churches continued throughout. Knowing this, it is rather rich to complain that after the Reconquista, "In an act of utter domination, the Christian king orders the great [Córdoba] mosque consecrated as a Catholic church." Actually, that mosque (like most major Spanish mosques) was itself built on the site of an earlier church. Nor would viewers appreciate that the Arabs actually borrowed their much-cited "Muslim science" (the astrolabe and so on) from the Nestorians and other Eastern Christians.

So yes, the purveyors of public broadcasting history have learned something; but they are still offering apologetics, not reality.

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