Convivencia: Does Convivencia (Coexistence) Describe Relationships Among Christians and Muslims in Spain During the Middle Ages?

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Editor: Mark T. Schipper
Date: 2003
History in Dispute
From: History in Dispute(Vol. 10: The Crusades, 1095-1291. )
Publisher: St. James Press
Document Type: Viewpoint essay
Pages: 6
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1300L

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Convivencia: Does Convivencia (Coexistence) Describe Relationships Among Christians and Muslims in Spain During the Middle Ages?

Prolonged contact and routine daily interaction among members of different ethnic or religious groups raises the issue not only of tolerance but also the degree to which such contact over the long term is creative as well as conflictive. Interaction among Muslims and Christians during the Middle Ages took place under two distinct social and political dynamics. The first was as two opposing blocs facing each other across a politically established frontier, which was quite porous, and across which the transit of manufactured goods and agricultural produce flowed, mainly from al-Andalus (Muslim Spain) to the Christian kingdoms, entailing a certain degree of cultural interaction.

That this prolonged contact produced cultural exchange is not in doubt. Much of this interaction, however, does not speak to issues of tolerance, even when Muslims or Christians adopted elements of each other’s culture. For example, the olive tree has a Latin name, olivo, in Castilian; but both the fruit and the oil are known by Arabisms: aceituna (olive) and aceite (olive oil). This naming resulted because until the twelfth century most Christian territory lay to the north of the climatic zone favorable to olive cultivation and therefore olive products had to be imported from al-Andalus. Thus, Christians acquired the habit of referring to these products with their Arabic names. Likewise, the Muslims of al-Andalus referred to certain varieties of wheat with Latin names. These examples of acculturation are neutral with respect to interpersonal relationships. Constant warfare stimulated not only two-way cultural borrowing (of military technology, for example) but also promoted the production of propaganda designed to foment hatred and fear of the enemy.

The second area of culture contact was that between the dominant Christian society of the later Middle Ages and minority ethnic enclaves of Muslims and Jews. Américo Castro, in The Spaniards: An Introduction to Their History (1971), asserts that what is now considered “Spanish” culture is the result of many centuries of convivencia (coexistence) among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Anthropologists speak of the “degree of enclosure” of minority cultural communities. How do groups maintain their cultural boundaries when all around them live people of another, politically dominant, culture, with whom they must interact in the course of going about their daily routines? Such commonplace interaction promoted the kind of familiarity that breeds acceptance but that also places minorities at risk and produces pressures to convert. Familiarity may breed both acceptance and contempt.

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Viewpoint: Yes. A marked degree of mutual tolerance, understanding, and creative interaction among Muslims, Christians, and even Jews was a reality

One of the key questions of Muslim-Christian relations in the Middle Ages is, “How well and in what specific ways did the two religions interact?” In the literature on Medieval Iberia, this sociopolitical context is usually termed convivencia (coexistence). Spain in the eleventh and twelfth centuries was the primary place where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived in close proximity and interacted with each other in extraordinary, as well as everyday, ways. Beyond Iberia, there were significant contacts in Sicily and the Crusader States of the Near East. Throughout this period there was usually some kind of warfare being waged, which set Islamic state against Christian state, as the broad backdrop to all social and cultural history. Hegemony was not always well delineated, and it changed frequently: Christians could appear to be headed for victory, but there were also significant signs of Islamic resurgence. In such fluid political circumstances the triumphalism of dominance could rapidly become the despondency of subjugation. Therefore, people living in such circumstances had strong reasons to learn how to relate to each other in effective ways that still respected their social and cultural differences. Convivencia was literally “living-togetherness.”

In Iberia the locus classicus of discussion has been the city of Toledo, in particular after its conquest (1085) by Spanish king Alfonso VI. The treaty of surrender allowed the remaining Muslims, those who wished to accept the rule of Alfonso, to stay in his realm—secure in their freedom, lives, possession of property, and free exercise of their religion. However, only the Jami’ (Main) Mosque was to remain to the Muslims; all other mosques were to be given to the king, along with the personal property of the former Muslim ruler. A head tax was to be the only serious burden of accepting his over-lordship. That the king expected a loyal citizenry continuing to live in convivencia is further indicated by his adoption of the title “Emperor of the Two Religions.” One sign of the relative ease of relations between the elites of the two religions was the initial appointment of Sisnando Davidiz as governor of Toledo. Davidiz was a Mozarab, originally from al-Andalus (Muslim Spain), who instituted tolerant policies—too tolerant in the eyes of the French and some Castilians at the court—illustrative of the course the king intended to take. Even more significant was the employment of Abu’l Qasim ibn Khayyat, the former qadi (judge) who converted to Christianity and who wrote several charters for Alfonso, particularly to other Ta’ifa kings who had been closely related to the Toledan Muslim kingdom. In similar circumstances, during the conquest of Zaragoza, Alfonso VI forbade his knights to harm Muslim villages and assured the people he would respect their laws and customs. One Muslim historian, Ibn Bassam, recognized the lenient approach of Alfonso—and especially of his governor Sisnando—who, he says, “tried to make the Toledans’ [i.e., the Muslims’] misfortunes bearable and render tolerable the vile condition into which they had been depressed.” The career of a freelance soldier such as Rodrigo Diaz, El Cid of Spanish legend, illustrated the level of military interrelationships. The alliances and treaties that the kings of Castile and Aragon made with various Muslim lords are evidence of cooperation at the highest levels of Iberian society.

Leniency in victory and elite conversions alone do not make a social structure; however, there is ample additional evidence of the interpenetration of Islamic practices among Christians that became so thoroughly ingrained that they remained long after political dominance had swung to the kings of Castile and Aragon. In al-Andalus, Christians and Jews were governed by what is known as the dhimma, contract: they were “People of the Book,” could not be forcibly converted, and had the right to practice their religion. In spite of this leniency, by about 950 most of the original Hispano-Romans had converted to Islam. There continued to be Arabized Christians, known as Mozarabs, who not only became Arabic in language but also had adopted other elements of Islamic culture. Nearly three hundred years after they had rejoined Christian society (after the conquest of Toledo), Mozarabs continued to speak Arabic and to bear Arabic names and used formulas and documents in deeds and records of property transfers according to the practice of the Malikite school of Islamic law.

Among Christians, irrigation systems captured from the Muslims were administered as they had been “in the time of the Moors,” and they continued to utilize Arabic terminology and follow Muslim customs of water allocation. Christian religious scholars not only used Islamic terminology to refer to Christian practices (for example, calling an altar a mihrab), but they had even been thoroughly trained in the methods of reading the Qur’an and interpreting it. Christians who had lived under Islamic dominance for the better part of four centuries even

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In response to a query about Muslim and non-Muslim relations, an Egyptian professor of Islamic law, Hasan Al Kafrawi, observed:

It is no longer permitted them to put themselves, with respect to their houses, on an equal footing with the dwellings of their Moslem neighbors, and still less to build their buildings higher, if they are of the same height, or higher, it is incumbent upon us to pull them down to a size a little less than the houses of the true believers. This conforms to the word of the Prophet: “Islam rules, and nothing shall raise itself above it.” This is also in order to hinder them from knowing where our weak spots are and in order to make a distinction between their dwellings and ours.

They are forbidden to build new churches, chapels, or monasteries in any Moslem land. We should destroy everything that is of new construction in every place, such as Cairo, for instance, founded under the Moslem religion, for it is said in a tradition of Omar: “No church shall be built in Islam.” They shall no longer be permitted to repair the parts of these [post-Islamic] buildings which are in ruins. However, the old buildings [of pre-lslamic times] which are found in a land whose population had embraced Islam need not be destroyed. They shall not, however, be enlarged by means of repairs or otherwise. In case the tolerated peoples [Jews, Christians, etc.] act contrary to these provisions we will be obliged to destroy everything that has been added to the original size of the building. [Only pre-lslamic churches and synagogues may be repaired; new ones must be torn down.]

Entrance into Moslem territory by infidels of foreign lands under the pact guaranteeing protection to the tolerated peoples is permitted only for the time necessary to settle their business affairs. If they exceed this period, their safe-conduct having expired, they will be put to death or be subject to the payment of the head-tax. [Jews and Christians of foreign lands must pay a special head-tax if they wish to remain permanently in Moslem lands.]…

Their men and women are ordered to wear garments different from those of the Moslems in order to be distinguished from them. They are forbidden to exhibit anything which might scandalize us, as, for instance, their fermented liquors, and if they do not conceal these from us, we are obliged to pour them into the street.

Source: Jacob R. Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, 315-1791 (Cincinnati: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1938), pp. 17-18,

imbibed the prejudices of Muslims, referring to Latin-speaking Christians as ‘Ajami (barbarians). One need not even mention all the ordinary words that came into Spanish as a result of the Arabization of the peninsula. This cultural adoption is all the more curious because

Mozarabs prided themselves on their resistance to Islamicization—it appears they were able to survive successfully because of their willingness to speak Arabic.

Jewish communities were also highly Arabized in al-Andalus and, therefore, were later able to mediate between Muslim and Christian culture. One famous Jewish convert to Christianity during the twelfth century, Pedro Alfonso (Petrus Alfonsi), not only adapted Muslim astronomical tables to advance science but also represented Arabic literary styles in a Latin collection of tales called the Disciplina Clericalis (Ecclesiastical Discipline). Even though scholars such as Alfonso became Christians, they still continued to teach-even subjects well known in the former Islamic world but relatively unknown in their new surroundings. Jewish intellectuals (and it is they about whom scholars have the most knowledge) worked alongside Christians and Muslims. Their important role ought not be forgotten. In multiethnic Toledo the only two private libraries or bookshops whose existence is documented were owned by Jews. Likewise, Jews often helped Christian scholars translate texts from the Arabic originals; one such translator was Ibn Daud. Jewish scholars appear to have known and studied with Muslim masters.

Jewish poet Moses ibn Ezra tells a story of a curious encounter that illustrates some of the tensions of intergroup relations. He relates how in the days of his youth and in his own home, a wise faqih (a religious or legal scholar or jurist) had asked him to recite the Ten Commandments in Arabic: “I perceived his intention, to minimize its eloquence. So I asked him to recite the Fatihah of his Qur’an in Latin language since he spoke and comprehended it. And when he set out to translate it into that idiom he debased his pronunciation and disfigured it in its entirety. Comprehending, then, my intention he excused me from having to do that which he had asked me.” This tale is revealing, for it shows that each scholar was aware of a central text of the other’s religion, of the equivalence in function of those texts, and of the tie between the religion and the language it was expressed in. There is also mutual knowledge of the language of the third ethnic group, the Christians. Each of these scholars knew enough about the other’s religion to be able-perhaps to want to-attack it, in spite of being friends; that neither pursued the matter further is an excellent example of how convivencia worked among religious scholars. For both Jews and Christians there is evidence that they were acculturated in an Islamic educational milieu, if not schooled in an Islamic institution. The tools and products of their education are displayed by their writings.

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This latter episode also indicates that convivencia means more than mere “toleration.” This living together is the product of social circumstances—not some modern idealization of the relative equality of all ethnic groups. That idea is grounded in modern ideas of cultural relativity and desired assimilation (cutting social distance so that one is fully accepted in a society). However, assimilation and acculturation (becoming accommodated to dominant cultural norms) are not the same thing. Acculturation is not instantaneous, and it may not even be completely conscious: in the case of al-Andalus, because all the ruling elite comprised mainly Arabic-speaking Muslims, interaction of Iberian natives with the dominant group necessitated communication; learning Arabic was the main vehicle of that communication. In everyday life conquered peoples went to the cities to sell food or horses, seek protection, and pay taxes; such transactions were generally conducted in Arabic. This situation was especially true for the native elite who had to communicate with the Muslims as heads of their respective communities: they needed to be increasingly Arabized to bridge the cultural gap between themselves and their new rulers. This acculturation is what convivencia was about; it was not necessarily concerned with reducing social distance, which is not quite so simple. The gradual character of assimilation is seen in conversion: a person desiring to convert (an outsider) first became the client of one family or person (partially acculturated) and only later was acknowledged as a full-fledged member of the ummah (Islamic community).

Convivencia was produced largely by the Islamic requirement that people at least respect the “People of the Book,” to whom God had revealed himself in earlier times. For Muslims, however, it also included a fundamental disparagement—Jews and Christians had lost the right path that followers of Muhammad had found. On the Jewish and Christian side, though, despite resistance to assimilation, there was also a recognition that Islamic civilization was in some measure superior, with more to offer than their respective traditions alone had available. Perhaps this is why convivencia appears to be rather one-sided: Muslims living under Christian rule did not as frequently become “Latinized”—they either converted or emigrated. One possible reason is because Christian society had no institutional status comparable to the dhimmi (protected persons). The only places where Christian rulers displayed an attitude such as the Muslim one was in lands that had been conquered from Muslims. In these places—Christian Spain, Norman Sicily, and the Crusader States—there is a valuing of members of the other two Abrahamic religions.

Wherever it occurred, convivencia produced a complex set of interactions among the rulers and the ruled that inculcated on both sides a kind of grudging respect. It was not some modern form of toleration, and it was not actively sought out as a virtue; instead, it was simply a way of living, a structure of life, which was “just the way it is” for many citizens in medieval Iberia. It lasted as long as it did because it worked as a social system. Of course, when less practical men than the medieval kings—the bishops—were able to exercise influence, then this system disappeared because of ideological intolerance. When people who had to relate to each other on a daily basis were in charge, however, convivencia was the rule.


Viewpoint: No. Convivencia is an idealistic oversimplification of the complexities of Christian-Muslim relations in medieval Spain

While there can be no doubt that creative interaction among Muslims, Jews, and Christians certainly took place in the Middle Ages, particularly in regard to the transfer of science, technology, literary, and artistic motifs, the existence of convivencia must be judged at the level of daily interaction, although tolerance in the modern sense did not exist. That does not mean, however, that normal daily interaction of a nonconflictive nature was unattainable. On the contrary, interaction among these groups normally occurred without the expectation of conflict. But nonconflictive interaction does not add up to tolerance. Instead of tolerance, therefore, one must look for other terms. First is curiosity, because peoples who are habitually incurious about others are unlikely to acquire the habits of tolerance. Second is what might be termed epistemological modesty: can a person of one religion accept the validity—at any level— of the religion of another? Third is acceptance: can persons of different religions accept the presence of other groups as their legitimate right? On all three grounds, one must reply in the negative. The only curiosity that medieval people had about other religions was to gain enough information to refute them. Christians never accepted the legitimacy of the competing Abrahamic religions. Furthermore, repeated incidences of aggression against minority religious groups and the lack of any consistent

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recourse by the aggrieved parties leads to the conclusion that convivencia (coexistence), viewed as positive interchange, was sharply limited in scope, involving a numerically insignificant group of individuals.

David Nirenberg, in Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (1996), has shown that coexistence, far from demonstrating pacific rules of interaction, in fact defined the level of violence acceptable to the three communities. Insofar as Christians were concerned, the religion of the minority in question determined what kind of violence was permitted. Indeed, he understands competition among different ethnic/religious groups in terms of “the economy of violence.” The core of Nirenberg’s argument is the role of women in interethnic competition. In this view, Jewish and Muslim communities responded to Christian prohibition of miscegenation by reinforcing sexual boundaries. Christians punished sexual contact between members of their faith with Jews more severely than with Muslims. Medieval law codes explicitly prohibited these relations between Christians and members of the two religious minorities. Competition for women was not divorced from the search for converts, however, as Jews typically sought to convert their female Muslim slaves.

Nirenberg also describes ritualized Christian aggression against Jews—the routine casting of stones on the walls of the Jewish quarter, particularly by priests and student priests, in order “to make brutally clear the sharp boundaries . . . that separated Christian from Jew.” Even a socially neutral, but religiously loaded, area such as the selling of meat became a point of conflict. Jewish butchers sold meat that was not kosher to non-Jews, incurring the active enmity of Christian butchers. The Pope himself forbade such sales.

An example of Christian anti-Jewish writing is the Dialogue Against Jews of Pedro Alfonso, a Spanish Christian who converted from Judaism and who wrote in the twelfth century. His original name was Moshe (Moses), and he is known for four works: the Disciplina Clericalis (Ecclesiastical Discipline), a collection of moralizing tales of Indian origin; the astronomical tables of al-Khwarizmi; “Letter to the Peripatetic of France,” which defended the new, Arab-based sciences; and a polemical religious piece, the Dialogue against Jews, which also attacked Islam (the message—to Jews—that it is better to convert to Christianity than to Islam). The fact that Alfonso, while a declared enemy of both Judaism and Islam, was also a representative of the positive aspects of convivencia (by transmitting Arabic science to the Latin West) points up one of the conceptual problems plaguing the concept.

The Dialogue takes the form of a conversation between Peter, his new self, and Moses, his former self. For a Christian polemic, it is written in quite respectful terms, and the idea is that both science and logic favor Christianity as a religion. One way he argues against Judaism is from the Aristotelian position on incorporeality of God, which relates to the philosophical question of divine attributes as Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Aristotelians argued it. Alfonso argues that in the Talmud the rabbis heretically ascribe corporeality to God, especially attacking the Jewish mystical tradition which ascribed dimensions to God’s body (mystics of all three religions ran up against this kind of critique from orthodox scholars in their own ranks). The attack on the Talmud as a spurious document was standard in Christian polemics, and both Christians and Muslims argued that Jews had abrogated their own Torah by forging certain passages some time after their divine revelation (which the other Abrahamic religions, in principle, accepted as a valid part of their own traditions).

His argument against Islam was better informed than in other such treatises, and he was the first Christian polemicist who had a decent knowledge of Islam. However, while his attack on Judaism focuses on doctrinal issues, which he attacks from a logical standpoint, his critique of Islam (in spite of his knowledge) was common slander, the typical denunciation of Muhammad as a false prophet. He stops short of calling Muhammad Page 45  |  Top of Articlea pagan but implies that Islam was compromised by the survival of pagan rites, linking the Kaaba to pagan cults.

When Pedro defends Christianity, it is by an appeal to reason in support of authority—a stance typical of medieval Aristotelians of whatever religion. He invokes scientific arguments to support various aspects of Christian doctrine. His explanation of Creation and various cosmologies related to it is wholly derived from classical astronomy and astrology.

A Muslim polemicist against both Christianity and Judaism was Ibn Hazm, born in Cordoba in the decade before the fall of the Spanish Umayyad caliphate. Ibn Hazm was well informed about both Christian and Jewish theology; he was familiar with both the Talmud and the Gospels. His interest in these religions, however, was only a means towards their comparison with Islam, viewed as a creed superior to both. Jews he condemned both for the supposed abrogation of the Torah and for their faulty doctrines of prophecy (which denied status to Muhammad). He also asserted that the Christian Gospels did not have the attributes of a normative revealed text (as compared, that is, with the Qur’an) and lacked the chain of attribution that traced the scriptural text back to eyewitnesses—a standard procedure in Islamic religious theology. While he was familiar with the texts, he criticized and presented them accurately, Ibn Hazm portrayed the medieval inability to accept the theological concerns of members of other faiths as having validity, even for themselves. Dissent from Islam, in this context, was a kind of arrogant vanity entertained with infidels.

Nirenberg concludes with the gloomy assessment that “Convivencia was predicated upon violence; it was not its peaceful antithesis. Violence drew its meaning from coexistence, not in opposition to it.”



Robert Ignatius Burns, Islam Under the Crusaders: Colonial Survival in the Thirteenth-Century Kingdom of Valencia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973).

Américo Castro, The Spaniards: An Introduction to Their History, translated by Willard F. King and Selma Margaretten (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971).

Thomas F. Glick, Islamic and Christian Spain in the Early Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).

Muhammad ibn Ahmad Ibn Jubayr, The Travels of lbn jubayr, being the Chronicle of a Mediaeval Spanish Moor Concerning His Journey to the Egypt of Saladin, the Holy Cities of Arabia, Baghdad the City of the Caliphs, the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, and the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, translated by R. J. C. Broad-hurst (London: Cape, 1952).

Salma Khadra Jayyusi, ed., Legacy of Muslim Spain (Leiden & New York: Brill, 1992).

Vivian B. Mann, Glick, and Jerrilynn D. Dodds, eds., Convivencia: Jews, Muslims, and Christians in Medieval Spain (New York: Braziller in association with the Jewish Museum, 1992).

Usamah ibn Munqidh, An Arab-Syrian Gentleman and Warrior in the Period of the Crusades: Memoirs of Usamah ibn-Munqidh (Kitab al-I’ti-bar), translated by Philip K. Hitti (New York: Columbia University Press, 1929).

David Nirenberg, Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2877000016