Sunday, July 5

Jews, Muslims and Christians in Medieval Spain

The relationship between Jews, Muslims and Christians has a very long and complicated history. In some respects, there has been peaceful coexistence depending on the area, politics, culture and social contexts. In others, the relationships have been portrayed as intolerant, violent and oppressive. Much of this has to do on who lives where. For example, in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, he portrays Jews in a negative light - yet where he lived, there were no Jews for three generations. Therefore, there was no experience and no dialogue. Alfonso "the Wise" (AD 1200s) noted that some Jews were showing contempt to Christians by celebrating Good Friday, fastening children to crucifixes, and making wax images and crucifying them when children were not available. Alfonso ordered that any Jew who does this is to be put to death - out of respect for Christians. Clearly, there were major issues in the Spanish territories. What transpired during this time?  (This brief article is based on "Medieval Christianity: Jews, Muslims and Christians" by Daniel E. Dornstein and the University of Colorado's class, Deciphering Secrets: Unlocking the Manuscripts of Medieval Spain from Dr. Kathryn Andrus and Dr. Roger Louis Martínez-Dávila).

A Jewish presence in Western Europe dates back even to Roman times. Christians did not necessarily attempt to convert Jews, because they knew that Jews were God's elect, that from them came the Hebrew Bible, that Jesus was a Jew and that from them came Christianity. At the same time, however, there was rampant anti-Semitism, condemning Jews for the killing of Jesus. This sometimes led to acts of Christian violence on Jews. Throughout the time of the Roman empire to the eleventh century, Jews suffered from both neglect and from persecution. At times, those in power would use Jews as a scapegoat or a way to work politics to their own advantage, as politics and religion were so tied together. During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, however, Jews became more marginalized. As a result of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, Jews were now forced to wear a yellow circle to identify them, just as beggars and lepers were required to carry bells and other markers. This therefore separated Jews from much of society, so much so that Christians and Jews were not to have sexual contact. Although both Jews and Muslims were looked at in a negative light, the bulk of Christians had never met a Jew or Muslim. Christians did, however, consider Muslims to be political and intellectual equals. But Jews continued to be marginalized. In fact, even with the formation of Dominican and Franciscans, their preachers still spoke ill of Jews. But Christians and Muslims infrequently came in to contact with one another, as in St. Francis of Assisi's encounter with the Muslim sultan Malik al-Kamil in 1219. These encounters were far and in-between - except for the Iberian peninsula. 

Jews were present in Spain even since the 1st century AD. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Jews were faced with a number of problems. Several invasions had occurred - the Vandals, the Suevi and the Visigoths. The new rulers were Arian Christians, which created problems with the Catholics, the pagans and others. The Visigoths did not allow Jews to marry Christians, hold Christian slaves or build new synagogues. When the Visigoths converted to Orthodox Christianity, the restrictions continued and were worsened, setting a pattern for later treatment. Also, Christians who converted to Judaism were put to death. In the year 711, various Muslim groups attacked the Visigoths and became the head of Iberia. Relations changed - the Jews were treated much better, and as "people of the book," were also given positions of power. Christians either converted and fully assimilated into the new lifestyle, remained Christian yet assimilated some Muslim culture into their lives, or fled into the mountains. The Muslims. Jewish communities began to spread again, Jewish merchants were able to make more money, many European Jews moved to Spain to enjoy the Iberian benefits, and the culture itself was very connected with Muslim or Arabic culture. Therefore the bulk of the Jewish writings from this time in Spain are found in Arabic.

Although Jews were doing rather well under Muslim rule, Christians were not doing as well. Some Christians embraced parts of Islam but continued to be Christians, and became known as Mozarabs (they would be known today as Chrislam), created their own language - Mozarabic, and their own Christian liturgy. Other Christians, however, created much resistance to the Muslim presence, such as the Martyrs of Cordoba in the AD 800s. For them, Mohammed was seen as a false prophet, Islam was a false religion, they were cruel and relentless people, and the Qur'an was nothing but lies. The Caliphate began to wane in power, however, and Christians and Jews began to move North in order to better practice their faith. By 1035, the Caliphate broke into smaller kingdoms known as taifas. Due to the Christian Reconquest, Muslim relations with Jews and Christians waned. Strict observance of Islam increased - no wine, more antagonism. The Christian brought up more monasteries and became more involved in the politics, and as a result, created more hostility toward the Muslims. A Muslim mosque was converted into a Church, for example, which created even more hard feelings. Alfonso VI tried to be the "emperor of three religions" and pictured a united city where the three religious traditions could live in harmony. But problems arose, and he was forced to abandon this idealistic vision. 

From 1212 until 1391, two major events occurred: Christians had victory over the Almohads at Las Nevas de Tolsosa in AD 1212, which meant that the Christians were now on top, and the second was the aforementioned Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Also, in regard to everyday life, Christians would meet every day with Jews and Muslims, including shopping in one another's stores. Such economic exchanges did not necessarily provide for tolerance, but they did create points of contact. But this was not the only form of contact. Sexual contact became more common, and was sometimes quite violent. Muslims, Jews and Christians seduced each other, raped each other, visited brothels of the other religion, and so forth. By 1391, violence against the Jews erupted. Communities were attacked, Jewish synagogues were burned and destroyed, and Jews were either converted or killed. The relationship between Christians, Muslims and Jews was extremely violent at this point. During Holy Week, for example, some Jews became subject to violence.

By the late 1400s, there was a certain animosity felt toward conversos, or those Jews who had become Christian. Some of them were still practicing Jewish practices, and in the 1440s, riots were breaking out. By the 1470s, Isabella and Ferdinand (Spanish rulers) felt sympathy for the Jews and Muslims. In fact, some Jews were elected into the court. By 1484, however, the Spanish Inquisition began. It was partly a response to whether or not some of these conversos were true Christians or not. In 1492, an Edict of Explusion was issued, and Jews either had to convert or be exiled. Muslims faced much of the same problems. The Edicts of 1492 and 1501-1502 did not bring a complete end to the Jewish and Muslim presence in Spain. Many of the conversos were secretly still Jews, while others were truly Christian. Later saints, such as St. Teresa of Avila, actually descended from conversos. After the Protestant Reformation soon began, the Inquisition turned its attention to Protestants. Muslims were not treated any better. In fact, the authorities attempted to make war on the Muslims in order to force a conversion. Despite all of these terrors and problems throughout the centuries, both Jewish and Muslim influence is still felt today, and Jews and Muslims have in today's world come back into Spain.

It is clear from this glimpse into life in Spain during this time that the relationship between those in different religious traditions needed - and still needs - improvement. The continuing crisis in the Middle East is evidence enough of this. For Christians, the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate attempted to begin to forge new relationships with people of other religious traditions. Nostra Aetate notes that there are a number of similarities and shared beliefs between Christianity and Islam. There is One God, there is an esteem for Abraham and Mary - and even the Virgin Birth of Jesus, Jesus is present in Islam (though as a prophet only, not as God), and there are similar ideas about judgment as well as praying, fasting and almsgiving. Also, one may note the words of the Catechism on Christians and Muslims - "The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind's judge on the last day" (841). Concerning Jews, the document points out that we must remember the bond and the ties between the people of the New Covenant - Christians - and Abraham's stock - Jews. As Christians, the Church recognizes that Jesus was Jewish, that from the Jews comes the Hebrew Bible, the Patriarchs such as Abraham, and a number of other things that we owed to Judaism. For centuries, Christians charged all Jews with deicide, and a number of atrocities has been committed on each side, as glimpsed in this article. Nostra Aetate declares that Jews and Christians are brothers, and that we need to respect Jews and not support antisemitism by any means. 

Today, it is against the teaching of the Church to discriminate against anyone of another religion, nation, condition of life. All men were created in the image of God (imago Dei), and therefore all have inherent human dignity, worth and value. Relationships between Jews, Muslims and Christians is improving on a number of levels, but not all across the board. For example, the 2007 document A Common Word Between Us and You was written by Muslims to Christians. Conferences have been held at the Vatican on Interreligious Dialogue. Meetings between religious figures of these Abrahamic traditions are becoming more and more common. Last summer, through a chance encounter I met an individual - a Muslim professor of interreligious dialogue - who had been doing research on St. Francis of Assisi and his proto-interreligious encounter with the Sultan in 1219. He and I had both been working on the encounter around the same time, and after becoming friends, we spoke about his time at the Vatican meeting with Pope Benedict - and later that year, with Pope Francis. We also visited a Muslim mosque together for Friday prayer, and a Sunday Mass with Franciscans. We can view St. Francis, the famous Thomas Merton and others as models of interreligious dialogue and continue to work together to avoid the past mistakes seen in the example of what happened on the Iberian peninsula centuries ago, and what continues to happen in the Middle East today.

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