The lessons of history, like the lessons of religion, sometimes neglect examples of tolerance. A thousand years ago on the Iberian Peninsula, an enlightened vision of Islam had created the most advanced culture in Europe . A nun in Saxony learned of this kingdom from a bishop, the caliph's ambassador to Germany and one of several prominent members of his diplomatic corps who were not Muslims; the bishop most likely reported to the man who ran the foreign ministry, who was a Jew.
Al Andalus, as the Muslims called their Spanish homeland, prospered in a culture of openness and assimilation. The nun, named Hroswitha, called it "the ornament of the world."
Her admiration stemmed from the cultural prosperity of the caliphate based in Cordoba , where the library housed some 400,000 volumes at a time when the largest library in Latin Christendom probably held no more than 400. What strikes us today about Al Andalus is that it was a chapter of European history during which Jews, Christians and Muslims lived side by side and, despite intractable differences and enduring hostilities, nourished a culture of tolerance.
This only sometimes meant guarantees of religious freedoms comparable to those we would expect in a modern "tolerant" state. Rather, it was the often unconscious acceptance of contradictions on an individual level as well as within the culture itself.
For many who came to know Andalusian culture throughout the Middle Ages, whether at first hand or from afar — from reading a translation produced there or from hearing a poem sung by one of its renowned singers — the bright lights of that world, and their illumination of the rest of the universe, transcended differences of religion. It was in Al Andalus that the profoundly Arabized Jews rediscovered and reinvented Hebrew poetry. Much of what was created and instilled under Muslim rule survived in Christian territories, and Christians embraced nearly all aspects of Arabic style — from philosophy to architecture. Christian palaces and churches, like Jewish synagogues, were often built in the style of the Muslims, the walls often covered with Arabic writing; one synagogue in Toledo even includes inscriptions from the Koran.
And it was throughout medieval Europe that men of unshakable faith, like Abelard and Maimonides and Averroes, saw no contradiction in pursuing the truth, whether philosophical or scientific or religious, across confessional lines. This was an approach to life — and its artistic, intellectual and religious pursuits — that was contested by many, sometimes violently, as it is today. Yet it remained a powerful force for hundreds of years.
Whether it is because of our mistaken notions about the relative backwardness of the Middle Ages or our own contemporary expectations that culture, religion and political ideology will be roughly consistent, we are likely to be taken aback by many of the lasting monuments of this Andalusian culture. The tomb of St. Ferdinand, the king remembered as the Christian conqueror of the last of all the Islamic territories, save Granada , is matter-of-factly inscribed in Arabic, Hebrew, Latin and Castilian.