The history of Cordoba

Low angle view of La Mezquita Mosque and Cathedral, Cordoba, Spain

We've had an interesting conversation going on in a recent comment thread about how the media cover Islam and Christianity. Some people have speculated that political correctness or moral relativism harms some media coverage. I wonder if it might just be some problems with history. A GetReligion reader sent in this CNN article cheerily headlined "Muslims in Spain campaign to worship alongside Christians." It takes a while before you realize that this pleasant campaign involves protests, such as rolling out prayer mats in the middle of the cathedral in Cordoba, Spain. Late in the story, we learn that the protest "turned violent." It's just an unbelievably bizarre way to write up something most Christians in the world would find threatening. But that's not even why I'm highlighting it. Here's the portion that caught my eye:

Today, at the original Cordoba mosque in Spain, there is no call to prayer, only the ringing of church bells. That's because the former mosque is now a working Catholic cathedral, performing a daily mass.

It's been a Cathedral since Spain's Christian monarchy conquered Cordoba in the 13th century and more than a million visitors walk through its doors every year.

Depictions of Jesus' crucifixion hang underneath the distinctive red-and-white arches of what was once the Muslim prayer hall. Cordoba's dazzling "mihrab" -- the sacred alcove from where Muslim prayer is lead -- still stands as a separate part of the site and is one of the main attractions for tourists.

In fact, the site remains significant for Muslims as a symbol of Islam's golden age of learning and religious tolerance. The Mosque of Cordoba was once famed for allowing both Christians and Muslims to pray together under the same roof.

Oh so much to comment on. For instance, the story literally never mentions how the mosque came to be. And that's a serious flaw in this case. We learn that the Christians "conquered" Cordoba in the 13th century. We don't learn anything about this conquering, such as that it was part of something called the "Reconquista." And why was it called that? Because the Christians were "re-conquering" the land that Muslims had taken from them. This basic history is not mentioned. This means that the article also fails to put the religious identification of Cordoba in larger context. How many years has it been

Perhaps more importantly, the story doesn't mention that the original building being discussed was known as the church of St. Vincent before it was known as the Mosque of Cordoba. Not that there is much resemblance between those two buildings. The mosque really was an architectural feat. But still, we need to know our history. On that note, I'm not entirely sure if the mosque was famed for allowing different religions to pray together so much as the previous incarnation of the worship space -- that is, the Church of St. Vincent -- in the early years after the Muslim conquest. The Muslims conquered Cordoba in 712. Work on the Mosque didn't begin until 784 and it didn't become the large structure it's known as until the late 10th century. The co-worshiping happened, I'm pretty sure, prior to Umayyad emir Abd-ar-Ramman I's conquest of Cordoba a generation after Muslims first took the city. He's the guy who started the mosque project. He's also one of the great Muslim rulers of history.

Cordoba has been in the news a bit recently because it's the proposed name of the proposed mosque that's had everyone from Hamas (pro) to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (con) weighing in. Or at least it was the proposed name. I'm not sure if the plan has changed on account of some Americans finding the name too provocative.

On the other hand, imam Feisal Abdul Rauf wrote that he chose the name "after the period between roughly 800 and 1200 CE, when the Cordoba Caliphate ruled much of today's Spain, and its name reminds us that Muslims created what was, in its era, the most enlightened, pluralistic, and tolerant society on earth." So you have two wildly different views.

If you are interested in the topic, I think this Tablet (a daily online magazine of Jewish news, ideas, and culture) piece has some interesting things to say about how neither interpretation may be fully accurate:

According to Princeton historian Mark Cohen, the notion of convivencia, of medieval Spain as utopia, began with mid-19th century German-Jewish historians. Disappointed to find that emancipation did not equal equality, they crafted a long-ago world of true Jewish freedom as the model that their own world failed to live up to. "They looked back nostalgically to Muslim Spain, and said, 'Look there,'" Cohen told me. "They wanted to embarrass the Christians." They were not demanding a state of their own; on the contrary, they were demanding the right to live freely in another people's state and, moreover, to be considered members of that people.

A subsequent batch of historians, under the spell of early-20th-century Zionism, cast medieval Spain not as a utopia but as, according to Cohen, "an unmitigated disaster." They did so in order to argue that "Arab anti-Semitism is firmly rooted in a congenital, endemic Muslim/Arab Jew-hatred," which in turn buttressed their case for a country of, by, and for the Jewish people.

So, which of those versions is right? Neither, Cohen said. In one essay, he refers to a "myth" (the German historians' heaven) and a "counter-myth" (the Zionist historians' hell) and asserts that the truth lies somewhere in between. Those who hold up the period as an ideal are exaggerating: "In a medieval situation," he argues, "where you have monotheistic religions living in proximity, there is no such thing as toleration." (In other words, tell "toleration" to the Jews of Granada, many of whom were massacred by angry Muslims in 1066, or to Granada's Jewish vizier at the time, who was crucified.) And those who downplay the extent of tolerance and pluralism exaggerate, too. "If by convivencia," said Cornell historian Ross Brann, "we mean that cultural and social proximity, conversation, and interaction among Jews, Muslims, and Christians were significant and productive," then convivencia was real.

It's great to see the current conflict used as a hook for a deeper exploration of some important themes. And it's a good reminder that the current conflict isn't being seen for the first time, even if many of its aspects are new. A good understanding of religious history could go a long way to helping find resolution.

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