Spain and the Arabs -|- Educational Philosophy Theory

Spain and the Arabs

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The conquest of Spain which began in 711 A.D. marked a turning-point in world history. The Arabs who made the first incursions from North Africa had only intended to make a plundering raid, but the inner rottenness of the Visigoth kingdom led to its speedy collapse. The Arabs -or Moors as the Spaniards called them- conquered almost the whole Peninsular and advanced deep into France. The speed of the conquest was mainly because the oppressed Spanish masses rallied to the invaders, who certainly treated them better than their fellow Christian landlords.

The conquest of Spain had the character of a social-revolutionary war, which has been compared to the French revolution. The Arabs appeared before the Spanish serfs as social emancipators, not foreign conquerors. They abolished the oppressive rights of the possessing classes -the feudal landlords and clergy-, and replaced the crushing burden of taxes by a single tax which, as well as being relatively light, was not levied on women, children, the sick, the blind, beggars or slaves. Even the Christian monasteries were exempt. Most Spanish cities were granted favourable terms which were honourably kept by the conquerors. The only land that was confiscated was that of the nobles and clergy who had fled to join the enemy (the demand of the confiscation of the property of counterrevolutionary émigrés was later included by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto.)

In essence, Islam contains a democratic and levelling idea which asserts the equality of all men, irrespective of race or colour. This was remarkably advanced for the period under consideration. Far from persecuting other faiths, the Arabs in Spain were far more tolerant than the Christians either before or after Arab rule. They protected all religions and immediately allowed the persecuted Jews to worship freely. Let us recall that the Spanish Inquisition later brutally expelled the Jews from Spain. Like the Mogul rulers of India, they encouraged intermarriage between the conquerors and the conquered in order to bring about the fusion of the two peoples. They advanced agriculture and created the architectural wonders of Granada, Cordoba and Seville. No wonder a large part of the Spanish population became converts to Islam, and demonstrated their loyalty by fighting to defend their homeland and freedoms against the armies of Christian-feudal reaction in the North.

W.C. Atkinson describes the impact of Islamic culture on the minds of the Spaniards in the words of the famous lament of Alvaro of Cordoba: "Alas, all the Christian youths who become famous for their talent know only the language and the literature of the Arabs; they read and study zealously Arabic books, of which by dint of great expenditure they form extensive libraries, and proclaim aloud on all sides that this literature is worthy of admiration." (From W.C. Anderson, A History of Spain and Portugal, p. 60.)

The same author outlines the economic advance achieved by the Arabs in Spain: "Irrigation works, of which traces still survive today, made fertile wide areas of irregular or inadequate rainfall; rice, the sugar-cane, and other exotic crops were introduced; and although the Koran forbade the drinking of wine, the vine was cultivated on a large scale.

"Industry enjoyed a parallel prosperity, that ranged through gold and silver mining, the weaving of wool and silk, the manufacture of paper, introduced into Europe by the Arabs, and of glass, invented in Cordoba in the ninth century, metalwork, ceramics, and leatherware. The fame of these products travelled far, and to handle the flourishing commerce that resulted there grew up a great trading fleet based chiefly in Seville, Malaga, and Almeria." (Ibid., p. 58.)

Thus began a period of economic and social advance that lasted for centuries, and with it a brilliant chapter in the history of human culture, art and science. One commentator writes: "The Moors organised that wonderful kingdom of Cordova, which was the marvel of the Middle Ages, and, when all Europe was plunged in barbaric ignorance and strife, alone held the torch of learning and civilisation bright and shining before the Western world." (Quoted in Ameer Ali Syed, Short History of the Saracens, p. 115.)

Anyone who today visits the Alhambra in Granada or the Mosque at Cordoba will instantly understand that the Arabs of Spain were far in advance of medieval Europe, which they excelled, not only in science and technology, but also in the fine arts, sculpture and painting. The Arabs' cultural tradition was broad: it included the study of logic, the sciences of nature (including psychology and biology), the mathematical sciences (including music and astronomy), metaphysics, ethics, and politics. No town, however small, was without a school or collage, while every principal town had its own university, including Cordoba (renowned throughout Europe), Seville (Ishbilia), Malaga, Zaragoza, Lisbon (Alishbuna), Jaen and Salamanca, which subsequently became the most prestigious of all Spanish universities. There were a galaxy of writers, poets, historians and philosophers.

Contrary to what one might expect, there were many famous women intellectuals. At a time when the notion of the equality of women would have been anathema in Christian Europe, many distinguished poetesses and cultured ladies were held in esteem in Cordoba and Granada. Hassana at-Tamimiyeh, daughter of Abu'l Hussain the poet, and Umm ul-Ula, both natives of Guadalajara, flourished in the 6th century of the Hegira. Ammat ul-Aziz (a descendant of the Prophet, and therefore styled ash-Sharifa) and al-Ghusanieh, from the province of Almeria, were both women who were in the front rank of scholars at the time. There were many others. Mariam, daughter of Abu Yakub al-Ansari, was a native of Seville, where she taught rhetoric, poetry and literature, "which, joined to her piety, her good morals, her virtues, and amiable disposition, gained her the affection of her sex and gave her many pupils." (Ameer Ali Syed, op. cit., p. 578.)

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