By Saeed Naqvi
Just when the Americans begin to exasperate, they do something so sensationally creative that anger gives way to admiration. New Yorkers have most imaginatively agreed to build a cordoba House in the vicinity of ground zero in Manhattan. This, just when some rabble rousers were being advised by the irrepressible sarah palin to “refudiate” the idea of building a 13-storey community centre two blocks from where the twin towers stood. Why this oppsoition by palin and her cohorts? Because the building will be called Cordoba House. So what if the centre will have a swimming pool, a basketball court, a 500-seat auditorium, among other facilities, for people of all faiths. Palin’s anxieties reside elsewhere: supposing the hall for prayer evolves into a fundamentalist mosque!
I commend New York’s enlightended mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who supported the Cordoba project, to send palin, for her education, a copyof Yale professor Maria Rosa Menocal’s masterpiece, The Ornament of the World, on how “ Muslims, Jews, and christians created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain”. And it lasted 700 years. Which, precisely, is the reason why the Manhattan structure will be so named.
Never in the past century has a project been conceived which, once in place, will go some distance to help remove prejudice left behind by civilisational, cultural and religious conflicts, particularly between the three semitic religions, at least since the beginning of the crusades.
Unlike the conflictual narrative of the crusades, the story of Cordoba is glorious chapter of harmony and intellectual efflorescence. In the 10th and 11th centuries, it was “one of the most advanced cities of the world” for many reasons. It was the “world’s cultural, political, financial and economic center”. For a population of 400,000 inhabitants, the city had a libaray lined with 100,000 volumes. There were dozens of hamams, or public baths, at a time when the rest of Europe resorted to “dry cleaning” a historical consequence of which is the ubiquitous “toilet roll”.
Cordoba actually connotes Islam’s earliest contact with Christian Europe.
On a clear day, if you stand at the Tangier waterfront in Morocco, the spanish coastline can be seen with some clarity, a small stretch of water separating the two land masses. It was this distance that in 711 Tariq Ibne Ziyad traversed with a small cavalry and captured the rock which was named after him-Jabal al Tariq. Jabal means “a rock”. It was this rock which the British, centuries later, renamed Gibraltar.
This was the begining of Muslim, or Moorish, expansion across the Iberian Peninsula up to the pyrenees. It might please sarah palin to know that some 19th century synagogues even in New york are therefore Moorish in style.
Msulims presence in spain for 700 years is, at least, known. But there is total amnesia about 400 years of Fatimid rule beginning 831 AD, in sicily where a column in the Central Cathedral in Palermo, carries Quranic inscriptions by way of memento.
Tariq Ali, the pakistani writer and activist in London, has written a novel, A Sultan in Palermo. It has received little notice, unlike Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh based on the Spanish experience.
Averroes, or Ibn Rush (1126-1198), was a contermporary of the great Jewish philospher Maimonedes (1135-1204) among a host of others who enlivened Cordoba’s intellectual life. Commentaries on Aristotle and plato and Ibn Rush’s comparisons with the latter’s thought and shariah would raise a storm in today’s Islamic centres. He thought that Plato’s philosopher king was similar to the Islamic Imam, a term which has been misused in the contemporary world. Just imagine the intellectual ferment 400 years before Cervantes wrote Don Quixote (in 1605), exactly the year when shakespeare was producing King Lear at the Globe theatre.
What continues to attract millions of tourists to Cordoba is the architectural wonder on a scale the world has never seen the great mosque of Cordoba built in 784 AD. Its 19 north to south and 29 east to west aisles are like avenues between 850 exquisite pillars. After the departure of the Muslims from Spain, Chirstians asserted themselves by erecting a cathedral inside the mosque, which is thronged by worshippers to this day. Modern period as an ornament in its history books and tourist literature. It has not concealed the warts either. Even the brutalities of the Inquisition from 1478 are part of modern public dicourse, including the excesses of the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada who ordered thousands to be paraded thousands to be paraded “wearing shirts short enough to expose their genitals” before being publicly flogged and burnt at the stakes. His favourite targets were the “ Marranos”, or Jews who only pretended to be converts but practised Judaism in private. Jew in hundred of thousands fled the Spanish Inquisitio to find refuge in the Ottoman Empire.
These forgottten details of history, an era of tolerance and multi-culturalism, or to use the great poet Iqbal’s poem on Cordoba, sil silaye Roz o Shub, the shadow play of night and day, ebb and flow of civilisations- all of this Cordoba House will evoke.
Source: The Sunday Guardian, New Delhi