The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] The rainbow coalition of Christian and Islamic culture

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Dec. 11, 2018 - 17:23

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History tells us that ever since the Crusades, Christianity and Islam have been archenemies. The clash between these two civilizations and religions seems to be reaching its breaking point today, as Muslim extremists frequently attack Christian countries and the US government seeks to prevent people from certain countries associated with radical Islamic beliefs from entering US soil.

Under the circumstances, many people wonder if peaceful coexistence will ever be possible at all. But perhaps such an idea is not an impossible daydream. After all, history reveals that there were times when Christianity and Islam coexisted somewhat peacefully side by side, even though battles and clashes between them were inevitable. That is to say, after conquering a city, the winners did not destroy their enemies’ palaces, cathedrals or mosques. Instead, they integrated the enemies’ architecture and culture into their own.

Spain is a good example. At the Nasrid Islamic Palaces in Granada, for example, you can find a rich mixture of Christian and Islamic influences. The palaces are supported and decorated by Christian pillars with Islamic arches, which achieve a beautiful harmony between the two architectural styles. In the courtyard of Nasrid, you can even find 12 lions symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel, constructed in a Christian style.

In 1492 when Muhammad XII, sultan of the Emirate of Granada, surrendered to King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, the Nasrid Palaces were not attacked and thus remained intact. Although Christian kings later altered the palaces, they did not annihilate the Islamic palaces; rather, they mixed the two radically different forms of architecture and culture, thereby accomplishing the unique harmony called the Nasrid style. Also, instead of demolishing the Islamic palaces, Christians built the Palace of Charles V next to the Nasrid Palaces, so that they stood serenely side by side.

At Mezquita, the famous mosque in Cordoba, Spain, tourists are mesmerized by the astonishing beauty created by the mixture of Christian and Islamic architecture and culture, called the Mudejar style. Spain owes thanks to the Mudejar, the Muslim community protected by the Christian kingdom after the Spanish conquest, which contributed greatly to the exuberant mixture of Christian and Muslim traditions on the Iberian Peninsula.

Inside the Mezquita, there are numerous magnificent Christian pillars with Islamic arches, which exhibit grandeur, sublimity and exquisite beauty. At the center of the mosque is a Catholic cathedral, built in the 16th century with the permission of King Charles V, who was persuaded by cardinals and bishops. Later, when he saw the cathedral inside the mosque, King Charles lamented, “They have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city!” Still, however, people today can see at the Mezquita in Cordoba a unique scene of harmony between the two religions, cultures and architectural styles.

That tradition of reconciliation still persists in Spain. Even today, people in Spain celebrate both Christmas and Three Kings’ Day, which falls Jan. 6, thereby commemorating the harmony between Christianity and Islam. The Biblical Magi who visited the baby Jesus in the barn were from the East, presumably either from Arab countries or from Persia. In many cities in Spain, a huge monthlong sale begins Jan. 6 in all the stores to celebrate the holiday.

Looking around the Nasrid Palaces and the Mezquita, I cannot help but brood over the grim situation of South Korea as it is hopelessly torn by two mutually antagonistic political ideologies. In our small country, people are consumed by deep grudges, loathing and resentment. Our political leaders only superficially chant “unity,” but it is a hollow slogan. In reality, they are only interested in unity within their own factions, while shunning and excluding outsiders.

In the previous administration, a newspaper columnist arrogantly wrote, “The argument that we need a left wing to fly is sheer nonsense.” He was wrong. It always takes two wings to fly, the left and the right wings. The problem is that if you depend on one wing only, you cannot fly well. If you hate one wing and thus destroy it, you cannot keep flying. Simply look at birds or airplanes, and you will notice that it is the balance between the two wings that enables them to fly. Unfortunately, however, we stupidly try to destroy the other wing as if it were an archenemy. If this continues, we will surely fall and crash to the ground. Our right-wing government made that mistake and fell down. Now our left-wing government seems to be repeating that mistake. If we cannot achieve harmony and peaceful coexistence between the two wings, we will all go down together and will never be able to fly again.

Korea should learn from Spain’s capacity for embracing two antagonistic religions and civilizations. Perhaps it is a dream that is too romantic and fragile to realize. Someday, however, I do hope that the seemingly impossible dream of reconciliation comes true in Korea too.

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of Malaga in Spain. He can be reached at -- Ed.