Out of Cordoba

"Accept the truth no matter where you find it" Interview with Jacob Bender on his film "Out of Cordoba" highlighting the importance of Maimonides, Averroes and Aristotle in the time of Al Andalous and the principle of ‘condovencia’. Karamat: "Welcome to our interview dear Jacob, we are very pleased to meet you here in Stuttgart and to talk about your film ‘Out of Cordoba’, which we learned you started making in order to set a positive sign to the world. What was behind your mind when you had this idea?"Jacob Bender: "Thank you very much for this great honour to be here! I was motivated to begin with the film as a response to the events of 9/11. I was in New York with my little daughter in the Central park and a plane flew over our heads, we could see its wings going like this and we quickly went home, turned on the TV and the rest is as they say history. In the months and weeks after 9/11 many commentators in the West began to speak about something they referred to as the ‘clash of civilisations’ between the West and the Muslim world. I wanted to present a different sight of history, one that showed the cooperation between Islam and Christianity and Judaism as a response to many people in the Bush administration, who are using this idea of clash of civilisations as a justification for what they called the world of terror, later leading to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq with un-foretold difficulties and disasters in the years after that and because I had studied history in the university I knew there is a different sight of history; a history of cooperation and sharing between Jews, Muslims and Christians around the Mediterranean Sea for hundreds of years and I wanted to highlight that aspect of Al Andalous Muslim Spain in what the Spanish called ‘condovencia’ = living together, where Jews, Muslims, Christians shared language, poetry and song."Karamat: "Jacob, you were just staring to tell us why you started to make this movie. I’d like to know more details about how it came that you travelled to all these countries to catch the pictures of this movie. How did that develop?"Jacob Bender: "When I decided to make a movie that would utilize the legacy, the heritage of Islamic Spain, I looked for two characters or people to focus on. I knew about Maimonides, a great Jewish Rabbi, who lived in the twelfth century and I discovered that he had a Muslim Doppelgänger, a mere image of himself, by the name of Ibn Rushd, in Latin better known as Averroes. These two people became the foundation for the film. I decided to follow their live stories and I first followed Maimonides life path that went from Spain to Morocco to Egypt and then I followed the path of the influence of Averroes who even though he only lived in Spain and Morocco, his influence was felt first after his death in Paris and then in Venice and now in contemporary Egypt. So the film took a lot of travelling and it also took a lot of money, as documentary films are quite expensive. The film costed about one Million Dollars. I started with zero. In a way the process of making the movie was also a mirror of the content of the movie as well because I as an American Jew without the help of the people that I received from people outside of my community meaning from Muslims and from Christians the film would not have been made. So the money donated to the film was a mirror, was a symbol of a condovencia, a living together, which was the content of the film and the content of Muslim Spain during the Middle Ages."Karamat: "What did you learn personally by making this movie in all these encounters with different people like scientists and philosophers?" Jacob Bender: "I think I found that many people in the US think that religion is a cause of division and hatred between people. There is a group in the US called the New Atheists – Christopher Hitchins was one of them – and they argue that religion by its nature claims speaking in an exclusive truth it will always look down on people from different traditions and therefore is a cause of hatred and ultimately leads to violence. I think that I found – in making this film – that there people of religion, people of faith, people of the spirit – from the Jewish community, from the Christian community, from the Muslim community – who want to their belief and their tradition as a source of Freiheit, as a source of freedom, of tolerance, not as a source of hatred, as a source of love rather then division. And I think that is the major evidence of what I learned from the film that in fact religion can be a source bringing people together and not only the source dividing them." Karamat: "So you are talking about religion as on the one side a dogma and on the other side a spiritual inspirational source and you followed more this path of spiritual inspirational sources…"Jacob Bender: "Yes. For instance Maimonides said ‘One should accept the truth no matter where you find it.’ and by that he was justifying his reliance, his building his work upon a non-believer, on Aristotle the great Greek philosopher who came before the birth of Christianity and before the birth of Islam. And here Maimonides although he was a Jew he quotes many many mystic philosophers, far more than he quotes Jewish philosophers. He always works in Arabic, at a time when it was the lingua franca, the connecting language among people in the Mediterranean. So in the life stories of Averroes and Maimonides you can see a lesson that cultures advance when they open up to outside influences; that they retract, that they become narrow, they decline, they wither away, if they rely only on their own tradition and say that there can be no truth be found outside of their house."Karamat: "Then it is more about wisdom then about religion?"Jacob Bender: In their point of view religion meant an accepting the wisdom of any other traditions. One of this great scholars that I interviewed in the film and he was one of my main inspirations for the film was a catholic priest – he wears a collar – his name is David Burrell, he teaches Math at one of the main Christian universities – Notre Dame – in the United States. He says by the 13th century in Europe the idea of religion was an interfaith affair. For a catholic priest to say that this is an amazing statement and what he means is even though that Christianity was the major religion in the West that they understood their religion because they had learned about Aristotle, about spirituality, about law from Aristotle, from great Greek philosophers and that influenced their notion of what religion is."Karamat: "We’ve been looking to the point that you experienced some interesting encounters on the way of making that film. What kind of reactions did you receive after you showed that film?" Jacob Bender: "I’ve been screening the film for about two and a half years around the world. The film has been showing on Spanish TV, it would be showing on Al Jazeera in Arabic to literally all of the people in the Middle East and North Africa, Turkey bought the film. But I have personally been taking it around over a hundred times to universities, film festivals, conferences, churches, mosques and synagogues. And I have been all over Europe with that film, to Egypt, to Morocco, to Qatar. The film has mostly been received very very positively but on occasions there have been people in all three communities who objected the film. Firstly there were some Muslims who felt that 9/11 should not have been shown again. They said ‘we’re always been beaten over the head with the charge of terrorism’, so there are some Muslims, not many, who said ‘it’s a great film, but you should not begin with 9/11. There were some Christians, primarily Catholics, who felt the film was too critical of the church, because it talks about the church banning, burning the books of Averroes in Paris in 1277. And there were more than a few Jews, I am sad to say, who objected to the end of the film, which talks about Israel’s oppression and violating the Human Rights of the Palestinians. It profiles a Rabbi who tries to help Palestinians to help defend their houses against destruction by the Israelian army and extremist Jewish settlers in the West bank. And so there were a few Jews who felt that it was nice to make a film about Maimonides but the film should stay in the Middle Ages and not advance into the present. But for me there is no point to make the film except to use the past as an inspiration and a guiding light to shine a torch light on the problems that we face in the present. David Burrell again -my catholic priest – he said ‘if we look at interfaith relations as a garden there is a lock on the door to enter in that garden. The lock on the door is the key of self-criticism. If we enter into that garden we need to have the courage to be self critical to our own tradition.’ It’s easy to say ‘Muslims are terrorists!’ or ‘the Christians have been against the Jews!’ that’s an easy statement to say as a Jew, but it harder for a Jew to get up in public and to say ‘I love my people, I love my tradition, I have lived in Israel like I have but I oppose what Israel is now doing to the Palestinians – that is a much harder statement. We face criticism for doing that but again as Maimonides said ‘we must accept the truth no matter how we find it’ and we have to be open to being self-critical because without self-criticism the tradition is not worth saving, if all we do is flag waving we are good, we are good and everyone else is below us."Karamat:The legacy of Maimonides and Averroes is harmonizing science with religion. How important is this in our present time?“Jacob Bender: „I would say it is one of their main lessons. Because – look, I grow up in a family influenced by Marxism – Marx said religion will fade away, whither away. It won’t be important and yet just the opposite has happened. We find that religion … since the fall of communism in 1989, the question of religion has risen in importance in the public sphere all around the world. In China with the Falun Gong, in Indonesia, in Malaysia, in India, … certainly in the Middle East, in the Arab world, even in the United States… which even though it has a separation between church and state remains a fundamentally very religious country. So the question about how one is religious in the modern world is a terribly important question. Does religion mean that we should not learn about science? That we should not teach our children about evolution? And there are many religious people who believe that. But because Averroes and Maimonides were scientists, they said that if science contradicts the sacred texts, the Bible or the Qu’ran, that then the sacred texts should be understood not literally but metaphorically and so that science has the upper hand in understanding how the universe works. That is still an important lesson when there are many … when there is a rise in fundamentalism in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim community around the world. So I think: Averroes and Maimonides can be inspirations about how to be religious and not to give up modernity; how to be a modern person and still exist within a religious community.Karamat: So nowadays, it is a very powerful message this bringing together spirituality and science and it is important for the evolution of mankind in fact…” Jacob Bender: “Yes I would agree that that is one of the basic questions that we find of the continual believe of billions of people in religion. Again proving that Marx was wrong and in that aspect of his writing as well.”Karamat: “Averroes and Maimonides were very much influenced by Aristotle because they studied and translated his works. Now Aristotle gave equal weight to the happiness of men and women in the society but nevertheless he viewed women as incomplete and in fact inferior to men. How did this effect the view of the two philosophers and how did it reflect in the society of the 12th century in Al Andalous?”Jacob Bender: “There is a difference on the question of women between Maimonides and Averroes. Maimonides in keeping with the historical understanding of Judaism as a sexist patriotic person did not think much of women, sadly I would say and so he writes a lot about his son Abraham who he loves very much. He had a daughter of who we don’t even know her name. So his daughter was in the closet, so to speak. On the other hand, Averroes, in one of his books, writes very specifically that Muslim Spain would benefit tremendously if half the society, meaning women, was allowed to rise up and to be educated and to flourish and that how much culturally and intellectually richer the society would be if it paid attention to its women members. So again there is a difference between them and also it shows that sexism is not intrinsic to Islam but is a cultural phenomena in the same way that many Jewish feminists argue that Judaism can be reformed to reflect a feminist understanding of religion."Karamat: “Throughout history women were very much discriminated in Islam, in Christianity as well as in Judaism. How important is the gender equality, according to you, in the interreligious dialogue?”Jacob Bender: “Very much! I think there is no more important question because it deals with human rights. It is silly to talk about interfaith relations when men are only talking to each other. And so, for instance in the conferences that I have been to in Doha, in the country of Qatar in the Persian Gulf, I was happily surprised to see that the head of the department of sharia of Islamic law in the National University in Doha was a woman and to see all these men being referring to her on questions of sharia was really startling and  it was really surprisingly to see that this woman scholar of Islam had so much influence among  Muslim intellectuals and imams throughout the Middle East and so that it helps to breakdown the stereotypes that those of us from the West came to the Middle East thinking that women were always going to be veiled – she of course wears a veil but it doesn’t mean that she is not valued. The veil itself is not – I don’t think – is not a symbol of oppression but the society allows women to do."Karamat: “Do you agree that as long as there is no equality, no tolerance between men and women that real peace, real tolerant societies cannot exist?”Jacob Bender: “Yes”Karamat:"What do you wish for your film? Is there anything what you wish for your film to happen or with the subject of your film?" Jacob Bender: "Well, I have already been blessed with the film been seen by literally thousands of people and will be seen once Al Jazeera shows it by tens if not hundred thousands of people more. And I believe the film was a vehicle, a messenger about the importance of tolerance. I’ve seen people very much motivated and emotionally and intellectually moved by the film. I feel very blessed that I was able to do that film with the support of people around the world, with the support of my family and friends and that allowed me to travel around the world to screen the film and to discover small and large interfaith organisations, exactly like yours, all throughout North-America. They came together after 9/11 because they wished to learn who their neighbours were. Nobody forced them to join these groups. They themselves sought out people from other communities and they wanted to learn from other traditions: other recipes, other songs, other ways towards God. And that has been a real joy to discover."Source: Karamat e.V. http://www.karamat.eu

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