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Cities of Light: An Intruiging Documentary

Aug 20th, 2007 by Michael van der Galiën


When I returned from vacation, there were several books waiting for me to read (and review). I published a post listing all of them. Books, however, were not the only thing sent to me: I also received a screener for the documentary Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain, scheduled to debut on PBS on Wednesday, August 22, 2007 at 9PM. After reading the introduction which accompanied the actual documentary, I could not wait to watch it. It seemed – to put it mildly – like a fascinating subject, about a place and time most of us do not know much about. Luckily, I was not disappointed.

Although the makers certainly had an agenda – convincing the viewer that multiculturalism can work and that we can learn from the situation in Spain during the Middle Ages and before Christians ‘reconquered’ it – one has to admit (even a fierce critic of multiculturalism such as me) that they made a good case and that they did not hide the downsides of the society of al-Andalus. When different groups fought against each other, when fundamentalists tried to take control over cities or villages, the documentary spends attention to it and explains when things went wrong and why.

Islamic Spain was, in the words of the introduction and the documentary confirms it, “the one civilization of pluralism and interfaith cooperation that for a few centuries lit the Dark Ages in Medieval Europe.” After Muslims conquered a large part of, what we call Spain today, they decided not to force their religion on others; instead, they proved themselves to be tolerant. People of other faiths had to pay extra taxes and accept the authority of the Muslim government, but that was about it.

The documentary pays attention to the rulers – in reenacted scenes – who tried to make this complicated society work. One of the most effective rulers was Abdul Rahman III. When the Muslims had just taken over, they were more busy fighting each other for a few decades, than with building a tolerant, thriving society. Until Abdul Rahman the Third took over, that is. He enforced order, made friends and declared himself Caliph (rightful heir to Mohammed). More importantly, he also turned Al-Andalus into a little paradise on earth.


Abdul Rahman III was, according to the documentary, a man far ahead of his time – at least according to European norms that is. He was tolerant towards Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. He also encouraged men of great intelligence to study the works of the ancients and to, by doing so, improve society. He talked to Christian European leaders, accepted their representatives to his court and he sent ambassadors of his own to European kingdoms. Instead of sending people of his own religion – as was normal at that time – Rahman III chose to send Christians to represent him.

He also allowed people of other religions to make a career for themselves. According to Cities of Light, one of the greatest scientists (and poets) of that time and place was… a Jew.

Not only does the documentary show us reenacted scenes, key to the explanation of how they lived and what the political structure was like, are experts. Several experts weigh in. Obviously history experts, but also Islamic scholars and a Jewish scholar. The last one convincingly explains that, at that time, it was better for Jews to live in Al-Andalus – under Islamic rule – than under Christian rule. Christians often persecuted Jews, in Al-Andalus, on the other hand, they were free and even allowed to make a great career for themselves.

The documentary argues not just the above: it also proves that the seeds of the renaissance were laid in this time. The Muslims in Al-Andalus studied the works of the ancients, and their translations and explanations then spread throughout both the Muslims and the Christian world – and that is nothing to say about the tolerance and the prominent role poetry played in this modern yet ancient society.

Since all men are sinners, the relative haven of tolerance and religious cooperation had to come to an end. A violent end. More and more both Muslims and Christians were influenced by their less tolerant co-religionists and violent clashes occured moe and more. Then, the Muslims invaded Constantinople – a tremendous loss for Christian Europe. The response: Christian Kingdoms united and ‘reconquered’ Al-Andalus (or Spain). Soon religious tolerance disappeared and the once multicultural society of Al-Andalus was nothing but a vague memory in the minds of the men and women who once lived there.

Well, vague, the documentary constantly uses poems of people who either lived in Islamic Spain or who remembered it by story telling (cultural inheritance). These poems are often quite strong – the emotions – and make the viewer aware of how terrible the loss was to the Muslim empire. They remembered Al-Andalus for its tolerance, peace and beauty. They remembered it as the ultimate society.

When I say beauty, I mean it. The documentary makers remade some important places (like palaces) and show us how the rulers (and other people) lived. When Christian leaders came to visit the Caliph, they were more than impressed by what they saw. Where Christian Kings lived in cold palaces, without much beauty, Al-Andalus was a haven of green and fountains. Beautiful, no awesome mosques were built, amazing palaces were constructed, and – above all – they had running water: something Europeans did not have.

As said, it all had to come to an end. The experts – and by now even the viewer who might be a critic of multiculturalism – are filled with sadness and regret. Well, that might be a slight exaggeration, but fact remains that the loss of Al-Andalus as a highly tolerant society, was not just a loss to the Muslim empire, but to humanity itself.

The main point of the producers (and of the experts who all seem to agree with each other which is one of its main weaknesses) is that as long as people of different faiths respect and accept each other(‘s differences), society can flourish. Even more so, the example of Al-Andalus shows that only open societies can flourish: when society – irrelevant what kind of religion – closes itself to other societies (of other religions), it is in the very real danger of stagnation and even degradation.

When watching Cities of Light one cannot help but to agree with that thesis, at least partially. What the makers sadly forget to address is how to behave once one of the religions falls hostage to fundamentalists and, therefore, becomes intolerant. More, one can also wonder whether any multicultural society can last. When we look at history, we see examples of multiculturalism, and Al-Andalus is a prime example of it, but if we look at the fate of these societies and especially of Al-Andalus, is it not fair to conclude that perhaps – sadly – multicultural societies are doomed to failure because, in the end, man becomes intolerant since intolerance (evil) is in our nature?

And that, that is one of the questions I have asked a producer of Cities of Light. The interview will be published ASAP. In the meantime, you all should not forget to tune into PBS coming Wednesday at 9PM to watch this enlightening documentary. Questions remain, but this documentary is quite important: in the larger debate about Islam and about multiculturalism we sometimes forget to look at the good sides – besides that, often the Islamic empire is made out to be ‘evil’ in Western books or we simply do not know anything about it – it is time to change that. History is not all black and white.

For more information about Cities of Light please visit Unity Productions Foundation website.

Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain
Producer / Director: Robert Gardner
Executive Producers: Alexander Kronemer & Michael Wolfe
Narrator: Sam Mercurio

- Lourdes Maria Alvarez: Director of the Center for Catalan Studies and a professor of Spanish at Catholic University in Washington, DC.
- Brian Catlos: Associate Professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
- Ahmad Dallal: Associate Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies and Chair of the Arabic and Islamic Studies Department at Georgetown University
- D. Fairchild Ruggles: Associate Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
- Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf: Founder and CEO of the American Society for Muslim Advancement (ASMA Society) and Imam of Masjid Al-Farah, a mosque in New York City
- Mustapha Kamal: Currently a lecturer in Arabic, Department of Classics and Mediterranean Studies, at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he focuses on instruction of Arabic language and literature
- Chris Lowney: Former Jesuit and author of A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Medieval Spain
- David Nirenbergs: Charlotte Bloomberg Professor of the Humanities in Medieval History at John Hopkins University
- Raymond P. Scheindlin: Professor of Medieval Hebrew Literature at The Jewish Theological Seminary and Director of JTS’s Shalom Spiegel Institute of Medieval Hebrew Poetry

Cities of Light: An Intruiging Documentary" ""


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