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A lost history of cultural tolerance

Unbeknownst to many, Qur’anic calligraphy still adorns stone pillars of certain Sicilian churches. The best-known example is the “Bismillah” motif engraved into a column at La Martorana Cathedral in Palermo. Such pillars were often parts of Roman buildings that were integrated into new structures by Arab conquerors.

Such cultural overlapping is prevalent in architecture across the Muslim world, illustrating a period in history when an innovative religious movement sought to adopt the achievements of existing cultures rather than destroy them, as fanatics have done more recently.

Following the advent of Islam, Arab armies conquered half of the known world at breakneck speed. In their haste, many of the administrative and organizational aspects of governance were overlooked.

Early Islamic coinage reflects this. In the absence of established infrastructure, the first coins were minted by existing Byzantine institutions; remarkably, some samples even carry the Islamic declaration of faith in its Latin equivalent “Deus Nisi Solus Deus.” Such cultural openness is not considered by modern-day radicals who claim the supremacy of a uniquely Middle Eastern Islamic tradition.

As Ottoman armies settled around Constantinople and the Bosphorus, the hardened horsemen of Central Anatolia focused on state-building. Conscious that the skills they required often existed among non-Muslims, they sought to attract foreign talent. The foremost velvet-makers were brought from Italy and the finest steel-smiths from Persia, as the Bosphorus re-emerged as a center of global trade run largely by Jewish merchants.

The obvious pattern that emerges is that successful Islamic societies readily accepted globalized models of development, free from the insecurities that characterize insular states across the Muslim world today.

The impressive mosques across the Muslim world are a significant example of the fruits of Islamic tolerance. Having moved into an already disparate and religiously divided Iberian Peninsula, Muslim conquerors sought to integrate the talents and skills of the populace, resulting in some of the most beautiful demonstrations of Islamic art.

The Grand Mosque of Cordoba was built using the foundations of a Visigoth Church, and the Almonaster Mosque on the site of a 5th-century Christian basilica. These stunning examples stand as a perfect melange of Arabesque and European styles.

In the beating heart of Islamic civilization, Damascus —  the site of the Umayyad Mosque, chosen by Caliph Al-Walid — was already considered holy. It had originally housed a temple dedicated to Hadad, which was replaced with a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter Dolichenus, which was replaced with the Church of John the Baptist.

The ability to absorb foreign talent and ingenuity for societal good was a key feature of successful Islamic civilization, and a lesson worth exploring in modern times.

Zaid M. Belbagi

Al-Walid bought the church and left the inner walls of the original temple, which became the entrance to the mosque. The spectacular interior is illustrative of an aping of the style of Byzantine churches in its mosaics and decorative stucco, which would be unheard of among Islamic radicals today.

The Suleymania Mosque, the most resplendent example of Sultan Suleyman’s patronage of the arts, was designed by renowned architect Mimar Sinan. Born a Christian Greek or Armenian, he is responsible for the architectural masterpieces of the empire, and his apprentices went on to advise on the construction of the Taj Mahal.

The ability to absorb foreign talent and ingenuity for societal good was a key feature of successful Islamic civilization, and a lesson worth exploring in modern times. Though architecture acts as an effective historical barometer of attitudes and practices, arguably the most impressive legacy of the golden age of Islamic civilization is its contribution to learning.

Modern science is directly built upon earlier Islamic efforts to both build and preserve Greco-Roman ideas. At the center of the Abbasid Caliphate, Baghdad played a critical role in the translation of existing Greek works into Arabic, not only ensuring their survival but increasing their circulation.

Baghdad’s Bait Al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) was central to efforts to build upon classical learning, and attracted Nestorian, Zoroastrian and Greek scholars as it grew into one of the world’s most important centers of knowledge. This gargantuan effort was continued in Toledo, where under Muslim rule the same texts were translated from Arabic to Latin to provide the intellectual cornerstone of the achievements of Renaissance Europe.

In the 12th century, travelers from across the continent visited the Toledo School of Translators to learn from the translation of Arabic works on medicine, astronomy and mathematics. Such a conscious effort to adopt the achievements of existing civilizations and build upon them could only have been brought about by a confidence that underscored early and medieval Islamic civilization.

This period in Islamic history was markedly different to the current era of insecurity, which has led to cultural tragedies within the Islamic tradition and a growing sense of the incompatibility of religion and learning that had come to plague the Muslim world.

Islamic conquest had at its core an entrepreneurial and innovative zeal that threaded through its successes both east and west. It is very fortunate that the architectural examples of this stand in stone to remind modern adherents of the benefits of learning and cross-cultural understanding.

• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.