Did Muslim-Christian Europeans live in peace 1,500 years ago?

Did Muslim-Christian Europeans live in peace 1,500 years ago?
Medieval Muslim-Christian relations are often characterised by the Crusades and Arab invasion of Spain. But archaeologists have unearthed evidence of early Muslim presence in Europe and peaceful ecumenical relations.
3 min read
29 February, 2016
Muslim-Christian relations have recently been under the spotlight in France [AFP]
Graves discovered by archaeologists in southern France have revealed the early presence of Muslims in Europe.

The bodies were laid to rest in Nimes decades before the Arab invasion of the European continent.

There are also no indications that the three Muslim men met violent deaths, which would indicate peaceful relations between Christians and Muslims 1,500 years ago, a journal on PLOS One has shown.

Three graves were unearthed near Nimes with the deceased laid to rest facing Mecca and showing other signs of Muslim burial rites.

The bodies form the earliest Muslim graves discovered in France, and when alive they could have been among the first Muslims to live in Europe.

Archaeologists say the find would also suggest Muslim communities living with Christians side-by-side and in peace around Nimes.

This opens up the possibility of other Muslims and Christians cohabitating the same settlements across Europe, the archaelogists said in the paper.

The impact could be a major shift in modern day understanding about interactions between Christian and Islamic Europe. This is a narrative that has been dominated by misunderstanding and confrontation, some have suggested.

In 711, an Arab-Muslim army crossed the narrow sea separating North Africa from the Iberian Peninsula and set Western Christendom on a collision course with the Islamic World, which would continue for centuries.
This could mark a major shift in our understanding of interactions between Christian and Islamic Europe.

Although the Muslim fighters were not able to advance much further than the Pyrenees Mountains, they did set up a kingdom in Spain, which was to last for over 700 years.

The Arab-speaking Muslim-ruled Andalucia or al-Andalus kingdom had a huge impact on art, science, medicine and learning. It also was vital to Europe's own Renaissance centuries later. 

Al-Andalus also marked a major advance in multicultural relations, with Muslims, Christians and Jews living in peace and sharing power.

The bodies found near Nimes would also suggests relations between Christians and Muslims outside Islamic Spain were not always violent. 

Genetic research also indicates that the three people buried in Nimes were of Berber background and hints at population exchange between North Africa and Europe before and during the Islamic conquest of Africa.

The researchers also found that although the bodies were laid to rest with markedly different burial customs from Christians in the area, they were not isolated from their neighbours in the burial grounds.

Nimes would later be occupied by Muslim armies, but there are other indications that the Muslim survivors lived for sometime in the area after a Christian army recaptured the area.

Before this, Christians also remained in Nimes when Muslim warriors overran the area.

"Despite the low number of Muslim graves discovered, we believe that these observations provide strong evidence for either the establishment of a garrison or a more long-term establishment of Muslim communities in Nimes," the paper read.

Local Christians could well have turned to a Muslim army for protection and continued to practice their faith in peace besides their African neighbours.