The beginnings of the great period of tolerance and coexistence in Al Andalus, the lost kingdom/s of the Moors, are normally marked with the takeover of the Cordoba outpost by a young refugee of the Umayyads in Damascus; the massacre of the ruling family was carried out by the incoming Abbasids, in 750. The only survivor of the ruling family was the youth Abd al Rahman, the son of an early convert to Islam in what is today Morocco, a Berber princess, who married one of the heirs of the Damascus Khalifate, an Arab prince. The young scion of the Umayyads searched for safety in the vast Moroccan expanse and learnt about the amazing victory in 711 of a Bereber-Syrian army which crossed the narrow straights separating Europe from Africa, defeating the local Visgoths, also called Vandals and establishing themselves in southern Spain, in the kingdom they named Al Andalus, after the Vandals. The capital of this Muslim outpost became Cordoba, an old Roma outpost named Corduba some hundreds of years earlier.
Abd al Rahman, considering himself the rightful inheritor of the title of the Umayyad Khalif, decided to follow in the footsteps of these Muslim warriors, and re-establish the Khalifate in the new land of Al Andalus. Putting together a fighting force of Muslim warriors he manages to repeat the feat of the earlier Muslim army in 755, and through defeating the ruler of the capital, crows himself as the new Khalifa, or Chaliph, restituting the Umayyad Caliphate in the south-western corner of Europe – an incredible and audacious act, which seems to the distant Abbasid Khalifate, now re-established in Baghdad, like the youthful nonsense of a political refugee they need not bother about, distant as he was from the centres of Muslim power and influence. This will prove a great oversight. Abd al Rahman was not someone to be dismissed as a mere distant pretender. His reconstituting of the Umayyad Caliphate in Al Andalus will greatly affect European history as well as that of the Islamic world, in ways which could hardly be foreseen at the time. For over seven centuries, Al Andalus will represent a major Islamic intervention in European history, laying the groundwork for early modernity – the Renaissance and the Age of Discoveries, and the later Enlightenment.
The term Convivencia was introduced in the 20th century by the Spanish cultural historian Américo Castro, to describe the unique form of social organisation developed in Al Andalus, bringing together Christians, Muslims and Jews through a culture of tolerance and co-existence, as argued by the late Maria Rosa Menocal, in her magisterial work on the period.
What followed in Al Andalus was not only without precedent, inspiring deep changes in the European society emerging out of the darkness of the Crusades, but also serving as a model for other Muslim societies – from one side of the vast Muslim empire to another – for such empires as the Indian Mughals, the Persian Safavids and the Ottomans. The important common factor was Muslim rule – similar developments were not taking place in Christian Europe. While the Christian kingdoms used the science developed in Al Andalus, it was almost always used to subject and suppress the many peoples of the Third World which were unfortunate enough to be conquered by European empires. From the wanton destruction of Mexico by Cortez, to the systemic genocide of Native Americans by the British and the French, The Spanish subjugation of Latin America, the destruction of South Africa by the Boers and the English, to the cruel suppression of the native Australian by the British empire – the Muslim kingdoms displayed the tolerance Europe and its tentacles lacked and denied to billions of native indigenous peoples. While the history of Convivencia is uneven and should not be carelessly idealised, the history of European cruelty was indeed consistent – stretching over long centuries, from native genocide and industrial slavery to the Holocaust. This is the background against which Convivencia should be described and understood.
 Menocal, M. S. Ornament of the world: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, Little, Brown and Company, 2002
Convivencia in Al Andalus and elsewhere
In southern Spain, now called Andalucía, people of the three monotheistic faiths (Muslims, Jews and Christians) lived in relative harmony during Moorish Muslim rule for a few hundred years, until the Christian Reconquista expelled the Jews and Muslims from 1492. That period has been retrospectively described as the Convivencia, Spanish for coexistence or living together. This concept is used today for the co-existence of various faiths and immigrant groups. In particular, ‘Days of Integration and Convivencia’ have been regularly held in Spain.
For most of the Moorish period, Al Andalus (its Arabic name) enjoyed a great flowering of the arts and sciences, as well as of philosophy, literature and poetry. The Caliphate encouraged a culture enriched by the three religious communities. It understood that the three religions shared some crucial principles. The two younger faiths accepted their historical debt to Judaism.
Some benefits of this shared past are still evident today. Beyond the obvious artistic flowering which turned the cities of Al Andalus into centres of intellectual creativity without equal, including the preservation and rediscovery of classical texts lost to Europe due to Rome’s, and even Byzantium’s, persecution of much pre-Christian cultural heritage. The classical Greek literature and drama, which had been suppressed by centuries of Christian animosity, survived in the original version or in translations into Arabic. They were now retranslated into Latin and the various ‘vulgar tongues’ – the local European languages.
In those ways, Moorish rulers provided an intellectual haven which preserved and extended classical knowledge, in turn serving as a basis for the Renaissance and, later, the Age of Reason or Enlightenment. The advances in Al Andalus were stimulated by a scientific explosion (of mathematics, algebra, geography, astronomy, physics and chemistry) fuelled by the knowledge that had been preserved and further developed in Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo and north Africa’s Muslim centres of learning.
After 1492 Muslims and Jews were expelled from Al Andalus or were forced to convert. Andalucian scientific advances were later used by Europe’s great navigators to establish a nautical-cartographic foundation for discovering new routes to the East and the ‘New World’; eventually dominating those territories. Great achievements were combined with mass suffering. By appropriating the wisdom of Al Andalus, Christian empires increasingly subjugated the world through industrialised slavery, racist colonialism and plunder.
Meanwhile European Jews were regularly subjected to antisemitic exclusion, discrimination, persecution and even murder. These attacks were often promoted by ruling elites, directly or indirectly.
Palestine under the Ottoman Empire is another example of coexistence where the three monotheistic faiths lived in relative harmony. They shared a common Arab culture and lived in the same neighbourhoods (far more so than in Al Andalus). Antisemitism was rare, largely imported by European racists. From this centuries-long coexistence, people of all three faiths opposed the Zionist colonisation project as it dispossessed the indigenous population, marginalised Arab Jews and eventually destroyed the traditional Interfaith coexistence.
Dominant historical narratives have neglected the fact that Palestine itself had enjoyed a form of Convivencia through most of its history. This coexistence between the three religious communities was shattered by the bloody, brutal European Crusades. Such islands of comparative calm existed elsewhere, for example in the Balkans and parts of Turkey. This heritage should offer a cultural resource to the movement seeking contemporary coexistence in Palestine/Israel. We are aware that such historical models cannot be reconstructed or used literally without changes respecting current circumstances and values. We believe the historical model of Convivencia can inspire the building of a contemporary civic social structure liberated from colonisation enabling Jews and Palestinians to live as equals.