Think back… then think again

08/26/2010 12:00 AM |

A true New Yorker might ignore discussion of the mosque proposed for two blocks from ground zero, but an alternative is to find out more — in this case, go back in time to look at two historic Islamic kingdoms.

The city of Baghdad had settlements as far back as 1800 BCE, but it became prominent when the Abbasid dynasty established it in 762 CE as the world’s center of education and culture for the next five centuries. Here, during Europe’s Dark Ages, when no political structure existed that could preserve and protect culture, Muslim scholars translated the works of the Greek philosophers into Arabic and made intellectual contributions of their own — algebra, for example.

Another Islamic group, the Moors of North Africa, invaded Spain in 711 and pushed as far as Tours in southern France, where they were halted. The Moors created some of the greatest architecture in present-day Spain, and instituted “universal” education (for men) at a time when even most kings and nobles in Europe were illiterate.

From the 11th century onward, Christian rulers gradually pushed this kingdom of al-Andalus into a smaller area. To help with the conversion of Muslims, Spanish scholars studied Arabic and translated key works of Arabic scholarship into Latin. It was these translations that brought ancient classics into Europe – the works of Aristotle, the astronomy of Ptolemy. A Muslim philosopher from 12th century Cordoba, Averroôs (Ibn Rushd), is considered the “father” of philosophical rationalism.

By the end of the reconquest of Spain in 1492, the knowledge developed in Baghdad had made its way into European intellectual life. There was no longer room for Muslims or Jews, however, who were expelled from the country — a tragedy both for Spain and for those who had to flee and, if they survived, re-establish themselves in other European countries that were only slightly more tolerant.

I’ve telescoped and abridged history here, but it’s important because Islam is now being tarred with the brush of Sept. 11, as if that day represented the sum total of the whole religion. But Islam began in the seventh century CE. We also need to remind ourselves that three major religions, Christianity, Judaism and Islam, consider Abraham a patriarch. In that sense, followers of the three faiths are spiritual cousins, and the conflicts between us are as bitter and intolerant as all family feuds. Each group has a long history. As an example close to home, my ancestors were ardent Christian warriors whose ferocity in expelling the Moors won them the distinction of adding the phrase “of the burnoose” (de albornoz) to their surname. It’s not something I’m proud of, but however we define them, we all have sinners and saints in our background.

As for the present, it’s not only that Muslims have a constitutional right to build a mosque where they wish as long as they meet city zoning requirements, but that the presence of the Islamic faith adds an important balance to the Sept. 11 story. Islam is not the only religion with extreme believers, and the presence of the mosque expresses hope for the future. Some of those who lost loved ones on Sept. 11, including Muslims, may wish for a more tolerant world to come. As for those who find the mosque a desecration, does it really have to be so? Do they really want the darkness of their loss memorialized by the banishing of the mosque from the neighborhood of ground zero and, with it, a lost promise of future understanding?

As it is, the families are being used and their pain manipulated to serve political ends. We don’t need that, and neither do they. We are all looking for healing from the events of Sept. 11, and for that we need to reach for something larger than ourselves, and more lasting.

Ms. Amussen is a freelance writer and a former copy editor at Times/Review Newspapers. E-mail: diane.amussen@gmail.com.