During the reigns of Abd-ar-Rahman III and his son Al-Hakam II two “Golden Ages” occurred: The Golden Age of Arab rule in Iberia and The Golden Age of Jewish culture in Spain. During the half-century reign of Abd ar-Rahman (also sometimes written as Abd al-Rahman), Islamic Spain rose to its grandest and most prosperous era. He was the first of the Umayyad rulers of Spain to take the title of Caliph. He engaged in military activities both to secure the internal cohesion of his kingdom and to expand its borders against Christian enemies to the North and Muslim enemies in North Africa. By his death he had stabilized his realm and launched building projects which made Cordova one of the greatest cities in Europe.
Following the Arab Muslim conquest of Spain in the 8th Century, the repressions of Jews by the Christian Visigoths was replaced by liberty to practice their religion under Moorish rule. As dhimmis, or “protected non-Muslims,” Jews were only required to pay the Jizya tax of one dinar per person. Payment of the Jizya was separated from the administration of the Muslim zakat assessed for the poor. Jews were also exempt from military service. People of various religious beliefs were allowed the freedom to practice their religion, though public displays such as processions and bells were discouraged. The Jewish community prospered, becoming active in the economic life of Moorish Spain in a way that added to the economic strength of the whole society. The Jewish community was allowed to have its own legal system and social services. Adb ar-Rahman brought Jews into his court and into positions of social and academic leadership.
Though Al-Hakam II continued the policies of his father, including winning some major military victories, he was better known as a patron of the arts and sciences. Al-Hakam had a great love for scholarship and made Cordova a center of learning. He developed a library with over 400,000 volumes. He expanded the university founded by his father by drawing not only Muslim scholars but also Christian scholars to its faculty and as students. Under Al-Hakam’s sponsorship Jewish scholars translated many ancient Greek and Hebrew texts into Arabic. Jewish academics made major contributions in the fields of botany, geography, medicine, mathematics, poetry and philosophy.
The high-water mark of Moorish religious tolerance of Adb al-Rahman III and Al-Hakam II was followed by periods of increasing intolerance. First some of the books in the library established by Al-Hakam were viewed as heretical by the son who succeeded him and were burned. Then in 1011 and 1066 major pogroms against the Jews were launched by successive waves of puritanical Muslims. Jewish scholars who had flourished under Moorish tolerance and had made Cordova a center of learning, left Spain for more moderate Muslim realms such as Morocco and Egypt. One such scholar was Moses Maimonides who eventually settled in Egypt.
Sometimes history is difficult to discover because those telling the story have their own agendas that can distort or emphasis one point to the exclusion of other points. The current struggle over the story line of Moorish Spain is a case in point. The question of whether Muslims and non-Muslims can co-exist peacefully today is often argued with Moorish Spain as a debating point. Contemporary scholars wishing to advance a particular agenda such as a view related to Zionism and the question of harmony between Jews and Arabs, will interpret the history of Moorish Spain to support their current political concerns. Was the relationship between the dominant Moorish Muslim society a exemplary model for interfaith relationships or was it just better than the religious intolerance exhibited during that period in Christian western Europe? Jews were allowed fewer rights than Muslims, but they were far better off especially during the days of Abd-ar-Rahman III and Al-Hakam II than in most of the Christian kingdoms at the time. Also adherents of Christian sects that were labeled “heretical” could find refuge and tolerance in Moorish Spain. Their more religiously tolerant rule created a place of economic, cultural and academic vitality.