By Michael van der Galien
When I received the screener of Cities of Light a documentary about Islamic Spain, it was also mentioned to me that if I wanted to ask questions to one of the producers, I could. After watching it – and writing the review published yesterday – I decided that I could not let this opportunity pass, so I send out an e-mail, got in contact with Michael Wolfe – executive producer of Cities of Light – and we did an interview. Meanwhile, do not forget to watch the documentary about Islamic Spain – tomorrow (Wednesday August 22nd), at 9PM on PBS.
MvdG: Where did the idea to make a documentary about Al-Andalus come from?
MW: We’re history buffs at Unity Productions. We’re always reading, constantly searching for great stories in the past that will make exciting films modern people can learn from.
MvdG: Why did the subject appeal to you?
MW: The true story of an Islamic state in Medieval Western Europe where Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together for centuries is both fascinating in itself and pertinent to our times.
MvdG: How did you prepare for it and how did you study the subject?
MW: I read a few dozen books and then started talking at length with an initial handful of brilliant scholars. In particular, James Monroe at the Berkeley to start with. Then I lunched many times with Brian Catlos, of the University of California at Santa Cruz. A prize-winning author and Medieval historian, Brian speaks all the languages and lived for many years in Spain. He gave guided tours as a student there and later wrote guidebooks for travelers. He has both immense erudition and real, hands-on experience on the ground. Talking with him and other scholars like Tom Glick, at Boston University, was enormously inspiring at the outset. It also kept me from making dumb assumptions about this extremely complex period that lasted more than seven centuries.
MvdG: How long did it take to prepare for the documentary and how long did the actual filming take?
MW: We started planning and then researching the film in 2002 and 2003. Raising money took a long time. The filming went more quickly. As I recall, we filmed abroad twice over an 18 month period—once for about a month and once for about two weeks.
MvdG: As mentioned in my review, the tolerance of Al-Andalus was a rare in that day and age. I wonder, was the entire Muslim world as tolerant as, for instance, Abdul Rahman III, or was Al-Andalus also an exception for Muslims? I wonder about this, because of the fact that Istanbul (or Constantinople) also was a multicultural society for several centuries.
MW: Al-Andalus was unique in Europe, though the region of Sicily and southern Italy had a similar experience of sorts, for a shorter period of time under Muslim rule and the so-called Turbaned Kings. The multi-faith aspect was as true in Baghdad under the Abbasid rulers as it was in Cairo under the Ismaili sultans like Mustansir as it was in Cordoba under Hakim II. The great Jewish philosopher and author Maimonides was physician to the Muslim sultan in Egypt. Jews held high office in many Muslim courts, including Cordoba.
MvdG: Where did the leaders of Al-Andalus get the idea of tolerance from?
MW: It’s all derived from the Qur’an and the story of Muhammad’s life. What made this possible in Medieval Spain was a strain of religious and legal thought in Islam in those days that treated Christians and Jews as faiths related to and so socially in synch with Islam. Tolerance as we understand it was not an active concept in those times. The process by which this occurred in Spain later acquired the name “Convivencia,” living together. In Spain, the wisest regimes recognized that the most productive route to a thriving country was through utilizing the strengths of the different faith groups, not by pitting them against each other. That came later, as themes like ethnic purity, the Crusades/and Jihad, and religious exclusivism won out over notions of pluralism and inclusion. Spain commenced as an experiment in pluralism. It ended in the Inquisition and expulsion or conversion of two-thirds of its population, the Jews and the Muslims.
MvdG: Is it fair to say that the Muslim Empire – at least the ones in Andalus / the Ottoman Empire were de facto the heirs of ancient Greece and perhaps even Rome and – at that moment – not the European Kingdoms?
MW: I don’t think so. These were very different experiments in organizing territory and living together. They are not really inter-related, though of course the Roman Empire did re-package the Greek ethos in many ways and refashion its culture. I would say that Al-Andalus was an historical period and a place that partook of Western European and Middle East culture and values and forged a unique civilization out of them.
MvdG: As mentioned in the documentary, the Muslims studied the ancients and added to it. Could you explain to the reader what they exactly added to these works?
MW: The best scholars, for example Ibn Rushd (aka. Averroes in the West), didn’t just make word for word translations of Aristotle. They wrote commentaries that viewed the work of Aristotle in terms of then-modern monotheism. There were real philosophers among this group. They did what the great Catholic writers would do later: that is, bring science into line with religion. The difference is that the Catholics did it largely on paper, while Islam as a culture proved actively friendly to scientific dialogue and discovery in a way that was not so often fettered by organized religion. There were periods of book burning among strains of Muslim culture, even in Spain, but they didn’t dominate to the degree that the Roman Office of the Inquisition dominated and fettered scientific practice and knowledge in the Middle ages and Pre-Modern period. That is why the circulatory system was discovered hundreds of years earlier in Islamic science than in the West, and why optics and medical knowledge in general was so advanced that Arabic text books were cornerstones of Western medicine for centuries.
MvdG: Is what’s known as “Mevlana” (or Sufism) – the peaceful almost Buddhist like Muslim philosophy taught by Rumi influenced by the culture of Al-Andalus?
MW: Not directly, that I know of. Religions of all kinds, and particularly the mystical variety, tends to share a lot of common ground. The Peace That Passeth Understanding is as much a part of Judaism as Christianity and Islam, in the form of Sufism. But the person Rumi was a Persian, not a Spanish Muslim, who relocated to the west of his father’s country, and worked in a cultural style that was quite different from the Andalusian. That said, there are many giants of Sufism who happened to hail from Muslim Spain, including Ibn Arabi, whom many consider, intellectually speaking, the Giant of them all.
MvdG: A question about poetry. In the documentary poetry plays quite an important role: every now and then a part of a poem about Al-Andalus is read by the narrator and important poets of Al-Andalus are highlighted in the documentary as well. This led me to conclude the following: if one wants to know whether a given society is progressing (and civilized) one needs to look at the level and importance of poetry. Do you agree with that and if so, what does this tell you about Western and Middle Eastern civilizations / societies today?
MW: Poetry is important in Middle Eastern societies today. Many people can recite their favorite works, by their favorite poets, and there are some poets writing in Arabic and Urdu and many other languages who are both Muslim and gifted poets. I think the same is true of poets in the West, though our “society” appears to give them less weight and importance. I don’t know how the future will judge western or middle eastern cultural production. Good poets speak to eternal themes while speaking of their times.
MvdG: 11) When watching Cities of Light, one gets the impression – as the experts said as well – that society can only flourish if it is open and open-minded. Isolated societies, on the other hand, stagnate. Could you explain that a little bit more?
MW: Societies and civilizations go down for different reasons. Greece disappeared under Alexander, because he literally took off, spreading its culture from Ionia to Egypt to Baghdad to Persia and India but in the process dissolving the borders of a very tiny, integrated geography of inventive city states. Self-Isolating societies, on the other hand, cut themselves off and, as you say, stagnate. Spain in the end committed a kind of act of schizophrenia, divesting itself of two-thirds of its cultural and spiritual psyche at just the moment when it became a unified “nation.” In a sense, this is what Cervantes is writing about and making fun of—a society steeped in old codes of chivalry that no longer apply, with a tradition it no longer understands, and a dilemma it can no longer define because its cultural basis—Judaeo-Islamo-Christian—had been willfully shattered. For the sake of ethnic Purity, Catholic Spain cast two-thirds of being to the winds.
MvdG: Lastly, a reasonably negative question two actually: you do not address in Cities of Light how to behave (tolerance wise) when one of the religious groups falls hostage to fundamentalists and grows, therefore, increasingly intolerant. Furthermore, 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 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?
MW: Got me! The institutions of our society today are so very different from the institutions of Spain under Abdul Rahman I, or III, or again under Ferdinand and Isabella…
MvdG: Thank you for giving me the chance to ask you some questions.
MW: Thank you for the chance to think about them.