Jason Webster: What Islam did for Europe

Roundup: Talking About History

Until very recently, suggestions that western civilisation owed much to Islam were rejected out of hand. "Europe", according to the orthodox model, was born out of a marriage of classical and Judaeo-Christian cultures. The missing element in this formula - the Islamic component - was ignored. During the first half of the 20th century a number of Arabists challenged this view, but their opinions made little popular headway. Today, however, thanks largely to the current friction between Islam and the west, new efforts are being made to understand and interpret the influence oriental culture has had, mostly via Spain, on its occidental cousin.

Following the important groundwork done by Salma Khadra Jayyusi's Legacy of Muslim Spain, the edifice of ignorance and prejudice is slowly beginning to crumble. "More than ever before, light needs to be shone on the long Andalusian aftermath that is pressingly with us now," David Levering Lewis concludes in God's Crucible. He is absolutely right.

Historians dealing with the impact of Islamic Spain have to address two important questions with deep contemporary resonance: the extent of Moorish influence over medieval Europe, and the nature of the society from which this sprang. Just how tolerant was it? Were Christians, Muslims and Jews in al-Andalus really able to live harmoniously together, in convivencia, as some claim? Or were the distinct communities continuously at war, with any cultural interchange between them being secondary or accidental?...

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