Editor’s note: EthicsDaily.com features this review as part of our ongoing focus on Baptist-Muslim relationships.


“Cities of Light: The Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain” is a 47-minute documentary showing how Islamic Spain bloomed—as a result of interfaith cooperation, the documentary argues—while Europe lay in the Dark Ages.


A two-hour version of “Cities of Light” premiered on PBS in August 2007. It was produced by Unity Productions Foundation, which produces films for broadcast and education in hopes of helping end a perceived clash of civilizations. This partly means, in the words of UPF, explaining Islam to the West.

Toward that end, UPF launched “20,000 Dialogues,” a nationwide initiative using film to broaden understanding of Muslims and Islam. This initiative offers the 47-minute “dialogue” version of “Cities of Light,” which accomplishes its goal (and comes with a discussion guide). Directed by longtime documentary filmmaker Robert Gardner, it includes a significant amount of historical re-enactment that is generally high in production value, ample location shooting, a voice-over and comments from about 10 scholars, including experts in Islamic studies as well as landscape architecture.


Central to the documentary is the claim that Islamic Spain was a generally progressive state—due in no small part to the diversity achieved in the 10th century under Abdul-Rahman, who ruled the area known then as Al-Andalus. Muslims, Christians and Jews lived and worked side by side, achieving together what they could not on their own. In their developments lay the seeds of the Renaissance.


Section one, “Unity,” shows how the Iberian Peninsula became a bright light of civilization through vestiges of Roman engineering, ancient Greek knowledge filtering in and Islamic advancements working westward. And as one scholar puts it, water was essential in and to that culture: The peninsula’s civilization used Roman aqueducts, invented the water wheel, delved into irrigation and cultivated magnificent gardens.


Of course, the golden age would not last. The second section, “Purification,” details how factions within Islam and Christianity wanted to purify their religions and cultures. In the 11th century, unity began to crumble. Invading armies from North Africa took over Al-Andalus’ cities of light. Jews and Christians fled as tolerance was lost. Crusading armies from Europe set their sights on the Holy Land and eventually saw Islamic Spain as a battlefield as absolutism supplanted pluralism as a value.


The 12th century did offer a bright light in the city of Toledo, as an archbishop there presided over a reclamation of Christian, Muslim and Jewish knowledge. The initiative meant translations of texts, which required interfaith teams. Toledo thus became a cultural crossroads, and from the city sprang some of the foundation work for the Renaissance.


By 1207, however, the pope had declared Al-Andalus a crusading battlefield. By 1236, Cordoba had been conquered by Christian armies. They turned its mosque into a church—one that is still there and witness to varied cultural influences.


Only the small Muslim kingdom of Granada, protected by mountains, remained. It received Christian visitors, who reported back to their homelands regarding its majesty, prompting imitation. As one scholar noted, “Religion was no barrier to adopting a luxurious lifestyle.”


By the 15th century, however, Granada had become a target for purifying efforts. When the pope authorized the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution started with Christians but spread to Muslims and Jews. By 1492, tolerance was gone. Non-Christians were either expelled or forced to convert.


As one scholar says, “In the end, the society is richest when each individual civilization and culture is bringing something to the table as opposed to thinking my society, my culture, my religion alone knows everything worth knowing.”


The interaction and borrowing of ideas is essential for advancement, says one interviewee, while another argues that if you eliminate diversity, you do eliminate friction—but you also eliminate the creativity that emanates from cultural borderlands.


Cliff Vaughn is managing editor and media producer for EthicsDaily.com.


MPAA Rating: Unrated. Reviewer’s note: Nothing objectionable.


Director: Robert Gardner


Click here to learn more about the DVD.

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