Al-Andalus: A Meeting of Cultures

Alhambra in Spain

Alhambra in Spain

Yesterday, I attended a lecture put on by Dialogue International about the musical tradition of Al-Andalus, or Muslim Spain. Ethnomusicology professor Dwight Reynolds talked about the history of what is now called Andalusian classical music and how it is preserved in the present day.

Performance played in the lecture

According to Prof. Reynolds,  the period of Al-Andalus was defined by tolerance, diversity, intercultural exchange, and innovation. One clear example was the music in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims all contributed. While this music was Arab in that the songs were sung in Arabic, there was a move away from regional traditions in the Arab world to a cosmopolitan tradition where a new class of professional musicians, from numerous backgrounds, came together and produced a new style  of courtly music.  Eventually, the people of Al-Andalus started to think of themselves as an important cultural center that rivaled Baghdad in the East.

This musical tradition continued until the expulsion of the Moors in 14th and 15th centuries.  However, the expulsion did not mean the end of Andalusian classical music; on the contrary, it is still popular in North Africa and Syria. Moreover, Prof. Reynolds underscored  it is not just Muslims who see this music as part of their tradition but that Sephardic Jews still continue to play this kind of music and see it as part of their tradition. Finally, when asked about the Spanish reaction to the performances of Andalusian classical music, Prof. Reynolds responded by saying that those who attend performances do so out of political motivations. In other words, this music, for them, is a symbol of the rich cultural history of Spain that must recognize Al-Andalus.

Prof. Reynolds’s lecture reminds us of a cultural example that demonstrates the possibility for intercultural exchange. Al-Andalus, Muslim Spain, also counters the current images of Islam that show it as static, violent, and without regard for cultural production. Al-Andalus and its music continue to serve as powerful examples of how different groups lived together in relative peace and were able to produce a musical tradition that transcended religion and ethnicity.

Have you heard Andalusian classical music? What do you think of this music? Can music be a medium for interfaith dialogue? Please share your thoughts below.

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