"Moorish Spain is perhaps more relevant to us today than it has ever been. It was a twisted, distorted dream - a nightmare - of Andalus that drove crazed bombers to destroy hundreds of lives on the Madrid trains in March 2004: their aim was to kick-start a reconquest of the Iberian peninsula for their perverted version of Islam. Such events might make us fear a 'romanticised' idea of the period, and rely instead on the historian's dry account.
Yet the dream can work both ways: it is precisely within Moorish Spain itself that the lessons we need to learn for a better future between Islam and the West can be found. Culturally and religiously tolerant societies were created and lost several times back then. What worked and what didn't? How can harmony be achieved and then sustained."
Jason Webster's introduction to a small book of poetry called "Andalus - Moorish Songs of Love and Wine" was written in Valencia in 2007, when the horror of the Madrid bombs was still fresh. The book is a potent reminder that against that moment there were 800 years of Moorish Spain that achieved
"an openness and spirit of invention which allowed for exploration beyond the standard forms, the same spirit which made Andalus the intellectual and artistic powerhouse of the western Mediterranean: its worth remembering that at the time all manner of Christians from the future Pope Sylvester II to the great translator Gerard of Cremona were making their way to Spain "in search of knowledge". But for their efforts, and the work of many thinkers and writers of the three religions here in the Middle Ages (Islam, Christianity and Judaism), the European Renaissance might never have got off the ground.”
Jason Webster finishes by saying " There are things that need to be stressed about Moorish Spain at a time of growing pessimism about future relations between East and West. There always have been clashes between the two, and probably will be more, but alongside this existed a mutual understanding, trust and respect. We must hope that something of that can be recaptured today. In Andalus huge advances were made in everything from medicine to philosophy, astronomy and higher mathematics, and it gave us chess, oranges, paper, cotton and a fine tradition of love poetry that may, or may not, depending on the latest academic fashions - have influenced Europe's love-struck troubadours. What will future generations say that today's intense contact between the two communities has produced?"
This is a very different outlook to the hostile perspective of Declan Ganley's blog piece " The Cure at Troy" (on the Libertas website), in which he demonises Islam, comparing the prospective US withdrawal from Iraq "as a victory akin to the rout of the 2nd Crusade. Here the Francs were forced to lift their siege of Damascus and abandon vast territories, setting the stage for the fall of Egypt, the rise of Saladin and the annihilation of one of the greatest civilisations in history. Thus fell the apogee of Greek and Roman learning, the Byzantine Empire, whose death throes were commented on by Benedict XVI, perhaps giving room to consider that smarter, richer, better does not always beat faith, sacrifice and commitment. The storm is gathering apace, it will present itself with spectacular effect in the cities of the West soon enough."
Is the future of relations between Islamic people and the rest of the world predicted by this apocalyptic vision of a gathering Islamic storm, or is there any way we can achieve a culture of mutual tolerance and shared learning, as existed in Al Andalus for hundreds of years ?
Just to give a flavour, here is an extract from one of the poems in Webster’s book:
"The pennants of morning are unfurled,
Night’s bell has tolled, its time to travel on.
Go early to the garden and drink a morning draught
Among the flowers glistening with the dew-
The doves have stirred from their lofty perches, and
Warble their sermons from acacia-branch pulpits;
In every sort of language they coo in prose and verse,
Each telling in his own way of his own burning love.
The branch bends down, after the shower,
To drink from cups brimming with the dew,
While the clouds tears spill out into the land,
And find their path through every garden.
The air, spreading joy on all sides,
Toys with the shining scimitar;
Rise! And share in soulful ecstasy,
Caught between flowers and pure light!..
Ibn Zamrak (trans. Ted Gorton)