Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain aired this week on PBS in my viewing area. The film, which looks at the period of “Moorish” rule in European history when religious diversity was accommodated within a social and political system, and culture among Muslims, Christians, and Jews thrived, is part of a renaissance movement to reclaim the history of religious tolerance in Islam.
The Unity Production Foundation, producers of Cities of Light, is a nonprofit educational foundation that works through the media to produce films and documentaries that serve the cause of peace and understanding. Many of UPF’s current projects focus on creating greater understanding about Muslims and Islam. (See American Muslim Teens Talk and Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet.)
Additionally, An Esoteric Quest for the Golden Age of Andulusia is a conference to be held this September in Granada, Spain. Theologians, authors, artists, poets, and others will come together to examine the extraordinary culture of religious tolerance in medieval Spain that produced works of enduring spiritual and artistic genius—such as the mystical traditions in Judaism and the writings of Spanish Christian mystics St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. (Sojourners writer Mirabai Starr will be making a presentation on both these saints. See her article, A Garden of Righteousness, in the August 2005 issue.)
According to Irshad Manji, author of The New York Times‘ bestseller The Trouble with Islam Today, many Muslims are attempting to restore in Islam the spirit of ijtihad (pronounced ij-tee-had), Islam’s own tradition of creative reasoning. “As globalization persists and pluralism spreads,” writes Manji in her column On Faith, “both Muslims and non-Muslims need to know that Islam offers a positive alternative to the tribal mentality.
“Ijtihad has a history of achievement. In the early centuries of Islam, 135 schools of interpretation flourished. In Muslim Spain, scholars would teach their students to abandon ‘expert’ opinions about the Qur’an if their conversations with the living, breathing Qur’an produced better evidence for their peaceful ideas. And Cordoba, one of the most sophisticated cities in Muslim Spain, housed 70 libraries. That rivals the number of public libraries in most cosmopolitan cities today!
“From the 8th to the 12th centuries, the ‘gates of ijtihad‘ – of discussion, debate and dissent – remained wide open. This is also when Islamic civilization led the world in ingenuity. If ever we Muslims needed to renew our commitment to ijtihad, it is now. From the emerging generation, I continually hear this question: ‘Is there a way to reconcile our faith with freedom of thought?’”
Manji’s own organization, Project Ijtihad, is an international network of reform-minded Muslims who want to work with Christian and Jewish allies in promoting religious diversity and a renewal of the creative, life-promoting Spirit that is the original impulse of our faiths.
In the midst of extreme religious intolerance and violence, celebrating the richness of the arts together is one way to move beyond simply “religious tolerance” or “interfaith understanding” to deep enjoyment and savoring of the flowering imaginations in our shared and diverse heritages and traditions.
Rose Marie Berger, associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.