Once upon a time in the mid-eighth century, an intrepid young man named Abd al-Rahman abandoned his home in Damascus, the Near Eastern heartland of Islam, and set out across the North African desert in search of a place of refuge. Damascus had become a slaughterhouse for his family, the ruling Umayyads, who had first led the Muslims out of the desert of Arabia into the high cultures of the Fertile Crescent. With the exception of Abd al-Rahman, the Umayyads were eradicated by the rival Abbasids, who seized control of the great empire called the “House of Islam.” … The prince’s mother was a Berber tribeswoman from the environs of today’s Morocco, which Arabs had reached some years before. From this place, which the Muslims called the Maghrib, the “Far West,” the descendants of the Prophet and his first followers had brought women such as Abd al-Rahman’s mother back east as brides or concubines for the highest-ranking families, to expand and enrich the bloodlines….
Beginning in 711, the Muslims–here the Berbers under the leadership of the Syrian Arabs–had pushed across the small sliver of sea that separates Africa from Europe, the Strait of Gibraltar, to the place the Romans had called Hispania or Iberia….
Abd al-Rahman followed their trail and crossed the narrow strait at the western edge of the world. In Iberia, a place they were calling al-Andalus in Arabic, the language of the new Muslim colonizers, he found a thriving and expansive Islamic settlement. Its center was on the banks of a river that wound down to the Atlantic coast, the Big Wadi (today, in lightly touched up Arabic, the Guadalquivir, or Wadi al-Kabir). The new capital was an old city that the former rulers, the Visigoths, had called Khordoba, after the Roman Corduba, who had ruled the city before the Germanic conquest. It was now pronounced Qurtuba, in the new Arabic accents heard nearly everywhere. The governor of that amorphous and fairly detached frontier “province” was understandably taken aback by the unexpected apparition of this assumed-dead Umayyad prince. Out in these hinterlands, after all, so far from the center of the empire, the shift from Umayyad to Abbasid sovereignty had, until that moment, made little difference in local politics….
The vexed emir of al-Andalus saw at least some of the handwriting on the wall and offered the young man permanent refuge in the capital city as well as his daughter’s hand in marriage. But the grandson of the caliph, the successor to the Prophet and the supreme temporal and spiritual leader of the Islamic world, could not be so easily bought off. Abd al-Rahman assembled forces loyal to him, Syrians and Berbers combined, and one day in May 756, a battle just outside the city walls of Cordoba decisively changed the face of European history and culture. Abd al-Rahman easily defeated his would-be father-in-law and became the new governor of this westernmost province of the Islamic world….
But this young man was, for nearly everyone in these outer provinces, the legitimate caliph, and he was not about to spend the rest of his life in embittered exile…. Although it would be two more centuries before one of his descendants actually openly declared that Cordoba was the seat of the caliphate, al-Andalus was transformed and now anything but a mere provincial seat….
This book tells the story of how this remarkable turn of events, which actually had its origins in the heart of the seventh century in what we call the Near East, powerfully affected the course of European history and civilization. Many aspects of the story are largely unknown, and the extent of their continuing effects on the world around us is scarcely understood, for numerous and complex reasons. The conventional histories of the Arabic-speaking peoples follow the fork in the road taken by the Abbasids. At precisely the point at which the Umayyad prince sets up his all-but-declared caliphate in Europe, the story we are likely to be told continues with the achievements of the Abbasids, who did indeed make Baghdad the capital of an empire of material and cultural wealth and achievement….
The very heart of culture as a series of contraries lay in al-Andalus …. It was there that the profoundly Arabized Jews rediscovered and reinvented Hebrew; there that Christians embraced nearly every aspect of Arabic style–from the intellectual style of philosophy to the architectural styles of mosques–not only while living in Islamic dominions but especially after wresting political control from them; there that men of unshakable faith, like Abelard and Maimonides [Musa ibn Maymun] and Averroes [Ibn Rushd], saw no contradiction in pursuing the truth, whether philosophical or scientific or religious, across confessional lines.
SOURCE: The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Back Bay Books, 2002), by María Rosa Menocal, pp. 5-11