For many, the word persecution has become almost synonymous with the experience of Christians suffering for their faith in Muslim lands. Just last year, several cases reached the attention of the public, including those of Christian publishers Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel, and Tilmann Geske, who suffered brutal deaths at the hands of Muslim Turks. Months later, Rami Ayyad, a Palestinian who managed a Christian bookstore in Gaza received death threats from Muslims angry with his ministry and was later found dead. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal pointed out the growing international problem of radical Muslim attempts to ban and severely punish any criticism of Muhammad or Islam, even in Western lands.

If Muslims forbid Christians (or anyone else) to criticize their religion, is this persecution? How should Christians respond? Long before our modern debates about how Muslims and Christians can coexist peacefully, the church in medieval Cordoba, the capital of Islamic Spain, wrestled with some of the same questions.

In the 700s, a small Muslim army from North Africa launched a successful conquest of Spain and set up the first Islamic state in Europe. Under Muslim rule, "al-Andalus" (which endured from 711 to 1492) flourished economically and culturally. Cordoba, the capital, boasted a population ranging from 250,000 to 500,000 (compared to 15,000 in London). Many scholars attribute the grandeur of Cordoba to the creative mixing of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. These scholars portray Islamic Spain as a model of tolerance, where Muslim rulers "protected" their Christian subjects and gave them a remarkable amount of religious freedom.

But a series of events in the ninth century throws some doubt on this assertion. In 850, ...

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