What ELSE was the big story in 1492?

From Europe to India, a major geopolitical event in 1492 had everyone talking –  and it had nothing to do with Columbus. Columbus was just some explorer who had discovered some islands somewhere. But the really big news was that, after nearly 800 years, the aggressive Christians had finally kicked the more cultured Muslims out of Spain.

The Great Mosque of Cordoba

Granada was conquered. Cordoba and Seville, the greatest centers of learning in Europe, where thousands of Christian scholars had traveled surreptitiously, and from which the European Renaissance had been born, were now turned into fresh hunting grounds for the Spanish Inquisition. Decrees ordered Muslims and Jews to convert or leave. Tens of thousands chose the former, hundreds of thousands the latter. Of those who converted and stayed, thousands were subsequently executed by the Inquisition under suspicion of insincerity; initially over 90% of the executions were of Jews, because the moriscos were too well-connected and too important to the government and economy to be maltreated. But after some decades the focus turned to moriscos (and Protestants), and finally all the moriscos were expelled without being allowed to take money or jewelry or anything more than they could carry.

The most advanced state in Europe was destroyed, and neither it nor the rest of Spain has ever fully recovered.

An ironic element is that, after 800 years of Islam in Spain, the Christians “were not actually expelling Arabs nor were they expelling Berbers. The huge majority of the people that were being expelled, by blood, by DNA if you will, were as Iberian as their Christian cousins in the North who were kicking them out of Peninsula”. This from British historian Professor Dwight Reynolds in a 2005 documentary.

The Muslims and Jews who were expelled took the keys to their front doors with them. Fifteen generations later, around the Mediterranean, many of those keys are still in the possession of the original families.

In Praise of Ignorance

“All men, by their nature, desire to know,” Aristotle wrote. Knowing that we lack knowledge, we seek it. In seeking knowledge we discover things which often make our lives more dangerous, but overall better. We have longer, healthier and more richly diverse lives than our neolithic ancestors, and it is thanks to our search for knowledge.

The search for knowledge stops, in the individual and in society, when there is a sense that all the answers are known. While the Greeks questioned everything, knowledge (and speculation, even if it didn’t lead to proof, certainty or fact) expanded rapidly. Coupled with Roman organization and engineering, there were enormous innovations in everything from underfloor heating, to urban water and sewer systems for cities of a million inhabitants, to the use of anesthetics in surgery, to the invention of the safety pin.

Ancient Roman engineering was superior to Britain's until the 19th century

The Greeks and Romans allowed for a diversity of religions, or for none at all, all of which promoted free inquiry. Then monotheism got a strangle hold on the Empire; Christianity provided Certainty and The Truth; scientific inquiry was crushed; and (not coincidentally, according to historians in the line of Gibbon) the Roman Empire collapsed. Western Europe had 700 years of the Dark Ages.

Meanwhile Islam came out of nowhere in the 7th century and expanded into different areas and cross-fertilized Greek and Indian learning. “Seek knowledge,” the Prophet Muhammad advised, “though it be in China” – which was the ends of the earth to him. As it turned out, China indeed had a wealth of knowledge to add to the mix. Islam was in the forefront of science for a thousand years. Western Europe came into contact through the Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries, and Arabic culture and scientific texts kicked off the Renaissance. You can see it in the Arabic words that entered European languages as fresh concepts in the Middle Ages: admiral, alchemy, algebra… calipers, candy, chemistry, cipher, cotton… magazine, mattress, muslin… all the way to zenith and zero.

Arabic scientific advances led to the European Renaissance

And then Islam, being the most advanced, decided everything essential was known from the Qur’an… it provided Certainty and The Truth; scientific inquiry was crushed; and, not coincidentally, the various Islamic empires stagnated and were overrun.

And in both the US and the Islamic world today, the argument in several states is over who has the right to teach (Comparative) Religion and history in general… geology and biology and science in general… should it be those secular, agnostic or downright atheistic scientific types, or should it be those for whom Religion has provided Certainty and The Truth?

Let’s have a little more acknowledgement of our ignorance. Uncertainty and free inquiry have always produced better results than Certainty and divinely-revealed Truth.