How diversity enriches culture: a lesson from medieval Spain

With Interfaith Week fast approaching, members of all faith communities are gearing up for a celebration of diversity and plurality in Scotland. This year’s theme of creativity and arts looks to build bridges through the sharing of culture. History teaches us that culture not only brings people together: culture itself can flourish in diverse societies, as was the case in medieval Spain.

It is often forgotten that Spain was once home to the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. If you stepped back in time to the year 1000 AD, you would find Christians kings and counts ruling the north of Spain, and a Muslim caliph in charge of the central and southern regions of the peninsula. All across medieval Spain, there were communities of Christians, Jews and Muslims working, living and trading together.

_Toledo-CC [Creative Commons license] Caption: Toledo, where the Christians and Jews of the School of Translators produced Latin copies of Arabic manuscripts
For 800 years, medieval Spain was a melting pot of cultures and beliefs. The religions did not always see eye to eye – there were times when those in power resorted to violence, and even “holy war”, fuelled by political ambition. But in spite of the periodic conflict, a rich culture grew out of the contact between Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Many aspects of art, craft, language and learning were shaped in new and wonderful ways, thanks to the religious diversity of medieval Spain. Many buildings standing today bear the marks of this fascinating blend of art forms. All across Spain and Portugal, cathedrals and palaces were built with a unique fusion of Eastern and Western architectural forms.

In the 12th century, Christians worked with Jews to make the first translations of the Quran in Western Europe. They also worked in teams to translate Arabic books on mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and medicine. Spanish Christians also began to borrow words from Arabic. Even today, modern Spanish still uses many words of Arabic origin, first borrowed hundreds of years ago.

_Mosque-catedral-of-cordoba-CC [Creative Commons license] Caption: The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba is a unique example of the fusion of Western and Eastern architecture
People sometimes refer to the medieval world as a time of “darkness”, but this is not true. This was a time when culture was flourishing (think of the impressive gothic cathedrals and wonderfully decorated medieval manuscripts). This was a time of learning and discovery: and nowhere more so than Spain. Philosophers and scholars from Africa and Europe travelled to Spain in search of learning and new ideas. This exchange of knowledge in medieval Spain may even have helped lay the groundwork for the Renaissance in Europe, many years later.

Medieval Spain is a testament to the ways that culture can thrive when people of different faiths and confessions come together. Being different does not mean we are incompatible: instead it means that we have can offer each other different ways of doing things. This year, Interfaith Week hopes to demonstrate just how valuable culture is, and by doing so, bring people of all religions together.

Christian Kusi-Obodum


Author: ifsambassador

Our team of Ambassadors for Scottish Interfaith will post blogs using this account to share events during Scottish Interfaith Week.

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