The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spainby Maria Rosa Menocal
A brilliant and fascinating portrait of medieval Spain explores the golden age when Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in an atmosphere of tolerance. of photos. 3 maps.
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The Ornament of the World
By Maria Rosa Menocal
Little, BrownCopyright © 2002 Maria Rosa Menocal
All right reserved.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MID-EIGHTH CENTURY, AN INTREPID young man named Abd al-Rahman abandoned his home in Damascus, the Near Eastern heartland of Islam, and set out across the North African desert in search of a place of refuge. Damascus had become a slaughterhouse for his family, the ruling Umayyads, who had first led the Muslims out of the desert of Arabia into the high cultures of the Fertile Crescent. With the exception of Abd al-Rahman, the Umayyads were eradicated by the rival Abbasids, who seized control of the great empire called the "House of Islam." This sole survivor was undoubtedly too young-he was in his late teens or early twenties-to be terrified at the odds against him, nor was his flight westward, toward what was the farthest frontier of the Islamic territories, as arbitrary or hopeless as it might have seemed. The prince's mother was a Berber tribes woman from the environs of today's Morocco, which Arab conquerors had reached some years before. From this place, which the Muslims called the Maghrib, the "Far West," the descendants of the Prophet and his first followers had brought women such as Abd al-Rahman's mother back east as brides or concubines for the highest-ranking families, to expand and enrich the bloodlines.
The Abbasid massacre of the Umayyads in Syria took place in 750. Abd al-Rahman reappeared in the Far West five years later, and when he finally reached that distant land, he found that many of his Berber kinsmen had themselves emigrated from there. These non-Arab nomads, who in antiquity had settled between the Sahara and the Mediterranean west of the Nile, had been largely converted to Islam and partially Arabized with the westward expansion of Islam in the seventh century. Beginning in 711, the Muslims-here the Berbers under the leadership of the Syrian Arabs-had pushed across the small sliver of sea that separates Africa from Europe, the Strait of Gibraltar, to the place the Romans had called Hispania or Iberia. Unlike Abd al- Rahman, who crossed the formidable desert as a political refugee, the Berbers of the Maghrib, along with the Syrians who rode at the head of the troops, were driven by military expansiveness and ambition, as well as by that sense of adventure and the desire for a better life that have motivated pioneers throughout history.
Abd al-Rahman followed their trail and crossed the narrow strait at the western edge of the world. In Iberia, a place they were calling al-Andalus in Arabic, the language of the new Muslim colonizers, he found a thriving and expansive Islamic settlement. Its center was on the banks of a river that wound down to the Atlantic coast, the Big Wadi (today, in lightly touched-up Arabic, the Guadalquivir, or Wadi al-Kabir). The new capital was an old city that the former rulers, the Visigoths, had called Khordoba, after the Roman Corduba, who had ruled the city before the Germanic conquest. It was now pronounced Qurtuba, in the new Arabic accents heard nearly everywhere. The governor of that amorphous and fairly detached frontier "province" was understandably taken aback by the unexpected apparition of this assumed-dead Umayyad prince. Out in these hinterlands, after all, so far from the center of the empire, the shift from Umayyad to Abbasid sovereignty had, until that moment, made little real difference in local politics.
The local politics had been shaped perhaps most of all by the often murderous rivalries between the majority Berber rank and file and the Arab leadership, rivalries within this community of Muslims whose animus would decisively dominate the politics of al-Andalus-the name used for the ever-shifting Muslim polities of Iberia, never quite the whole of the peninsula-for half a millennium. The emirs (emir, or amir, is the Arabic word for "governor") of these Andalusian frontier territories, the westernmost edge of an empire that in the east was then reaching China, had been "clients" of the Umayyads, fairly autonomous representatives of the rather remote central government. Recent word of the Umayyads' overthrow in Damascus was largely of symbolic importance to Muslims in the west. This was especially so for the majority Berbers, for whom all Arabs were overbearing and brash overlords. Granted, the Arabs had brought the Revelation of the True Faith to these southwestern reaches of the ruined Roman basin-but they had persisted in treating the Berbers as inferiors, even after most had proven to be enthusiastic converts.
With Abd al-Rahman's arrival in 755, the fate of the House of the Umayya was no longer a distant and abstract matter but the center of local political turmoil. The wild turn of events, and its consequences, can perhaps only be imagined by conjuring the image of Anastasia, and what might have happened if she really had reappeared one day in Paris and unambiguously claimed the survival of the Romanovs. Abd al-Rahman was in some ways the quintessential Arab, the heir and descendant of the desert warriors who were the companions of the Prophet himself, and yet he was no less a Berber, the child of one of their own tribes women. This made it easy for him to claim the loyalty of the soldiers and settlers in this fertile and promising new land. The vexed emir of al-Andalus saw at least some of the handwriting on the wall and offered the young man permanent refuge in the capital city as well as his daughter's hand in marriage. But the grandson of the caliph, the successor to the Prophet and the supreme temporal and spiritual leader of the Islamic world, could not be so easily bought off. Abd al-Rahman assembled forces loyal to him, Syrians and Berbers combined, and one day in May 756, a battle just outside the city walls of Cordoba decisively changed the face of European history and culture. Abd al-Rahman easily defeated his would-be father-in-law and became the new governor of this westernmost province of the Islamic world.
Technically Abd al-Rahman was nothing more than the governor of a frontierlike outpost at the edge of the caliphate, and the caliphate was now under the control of the Abbasids, the regime that had not only overthrown but also slaughtered Abd al-Rahman's family. But during those half-dozen years since the bloody coup, the Abbasids had moved the capital of the Islamic empire farther east, to Baghdad, away from any lingering traces of Umayyad legitimacy. Abd al-Rahman's improbable and triumphant resurrection as a viable leader was a disturbing loose end, since he was himself the living and vital memory of that legitimate past, with its direct links to the beginnings of Islam itself. Despite whatever dismay the Abbasids might have felt about the Umayyad who got away, they let him be, no doubt reckoning that in the permanent exile in that backwater to which he was condemned, Abd al-Rahman was as good as dead.
But this young man was, for nearly everyone in those outer provinces, the legitimate caliph, and he was not about to spend the rest of his life in embittered exile. He built his new Andalusian estate, Rusafa, in part to memorialize the old Rusafa deep in the desert steppes northeast of Damascus, where he had last lived with his family, and also, no less, to proclaim that he had survived and that this was indeed the new and legitimate home of the Umayyads. Although it would be two more centuries before one of his descendants actually openly declared that Cordoba was the seat of the caliphate, al-Andalus was transformed and now anything but a mere provincial seat. Here, on the western shores of the Roman empire's great inland sea, and at the front door of what was not yet truly Europe, a real contender had arrived and settled in.
This book tells the story of how this remarkable turn of events, which actually had its origins in the heart of the seventh century in what we call the Near East, powerfully affected the course of European history and civilization. Many aspects of the story are largely unknown, and the extent of their continuing effects on the world around us is scarcely understood, for numerous and complex reasons. The conventional histories of the Arabic speaking peoples follow the fork in the road taken by the Abbasids. At precisely the point at which the Umayyad prince sets up his all-but-declared caliphate in Europe, the story we are likely to be told continues with the achievements of the Abbasids, who did indeed make Baghdad the capital of an empire of material and cultural wealth and achievement.
Even the histories traditionally told within the Muslim world rarely take the Umayyad path, and they spend relatively little time in al-Andalus, despite the fact that al-Andalus represents, in one form or another, the presence of Islam in Europe for the subsequent seven-hundred-odd years, some three times the present duration of the American Republic. From the normative perspective of the history of Islam or of the Arabic-speaking peoples, al-Andalus is reckoned more a nostalgic curiosity than anything else-and mostly, in the end, a failure, because Islam did not survive as one of the religions of Europe and because by 1492, Granada, the last Islamic city-state in Europe, was quashed and the "Moors" (the disparaging Christian term for Muslims), along with the Jews, were driven out of Spain. Worse, for us, in the stories that constitute our European heritage, the chapters about the "Middle Ages," when all these events take place, typically describe a time that was dark and barbaric. In the popular imagination, and even in the vision of most well-educated people, the very adjective "medieval" (which itself comes from the expression "in the middle," thus signaling a placeholder between two legitimately freestanding eras, the classical and the modern) is often a synonym for an unenlightened, backward, and intolerant culture.
But if we retell the story beginning with the narrative of that intrepid young man who miraculously evaded the annihilation of his line and migrated from Damascus to Cordoba, which he then made over into his new homeland, we end up with an altogether different vision of the fundamental parameters of Europe during the Middle Ages. This is a vision still evident today, in the lasting influence of this complex, rich, and unique civilization. When one walks past synagogues on the Upper West Side of New York City, buildings created by devout German Jews in the nineteenth century, one notices their clear and intentional allusions to mosques-to take one conspicuous and lovely example among hundreds. Yet where are the stories in our education that reveal to us why this is so?
This book aims to follow the road from Damascus taken by Abd al-Rahman, who, Aeneas-like, escaped the devastation of his home to become the first, rather than the last, of his line. It is about a genuine, foundational European cultural moment that qualifies as "first-rate," in the sense of F. Scott Fitzgerald's wonderful formula (laid out in his essay "The Crack-Up")-namely, that "the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time." In its moments of great achievement, medieval culture positively thrived on holding at least two, and often many more, contrary ideas at the same time. This was the chapter of Europe's culture when Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived side by side and, despite their intractable differences and enduring hostilities, nourished a complex culture of tolerance, and it is this difficult concept that my subtitle aims to convey. This only sometimes included guarantees of religious freedoms comparable to those we would expect in a modern "tolerant" state; rather, it found expression in the often unconscious acceptance that contradictions-within oneself, as well as within one's culture-could be positive and productive. Much that was characteristic of medieval culture was profoundly rooted in the cultivation of the complexities, charms, and challenges of contradictions-of the "yes and no," as it was put by Peter Abelard, the infamous twelfth-century Parisian intellectual and Christian theologian.
The very heart of culture as a series of contraries lay in al-Andalus, which requires us to reconfigure the map of Europe and put the Mediterranean at the center, and begin telling at least this part of our own story from an Andalusian perspective. It was there that the profoundly Arabized Jews rediscovered and reinvented Hebrew; there that Christians embraced nearly every aspect of Arabic style-from the intellectual style of philosophy to the architectural styles of mosques-not only while living in Islamic dominions but especially after wresting political control from them; there that men of unshakable faith, like Abelard and Maimonides and Averroes, saw no contradiction in pursuing the truth, whether philosophical or scientific or religious, across confessional lines. This vision of a culture of tolerance recognized that incongruity in the shaping of individuals as well as their cultures was enriching and productive. It was an approach to life and its artistic and intellectual and even religious pursuits that was contested by many-as it is today-and violently so at times-as it is today-and yet powerful and shaping nevertheless, for hundreds of years. Whether it is because of our cliched notions about the relative backwardness of the Middle Ages, or our own expectations that culture, religion, and political ideology will be roughly consistent, we are likely to be taken aback by many of the lasting testimonies of this Andalusian culture, monuments like the tomb of Saint Ferdinand in Seville. Ferdinand III is the king remembered as the Castilian conqueror of the last of all the Islamic territories save Granada, and yet his tomb is rather matter-of-factly inscribed in Arabic and Hebrew as well as in Latin and Castilian.
In the end, much of Europe far beyond the Andalusian world, and far beyond modern Spain's geographical borders, was shaped by the deep-seated vision of complex and contradictory identities that was first elevated to an art form by the Andalusians. "The ornament of the world" is the famous description of Cordoba given to her readers by the tenth-century Saxon writer Hroswitha, who from her far-off convent at Gandersheim perceived the exceptional qualities and the centrality of the Cordoban caliphate. Tellingly, Hroswitha coined the expression even as she wrote an account of a Mozarab Christian martyr of the tenth century.
Excerpted from The Ornament of the World by Maria Rosa Menocal Copyright © 2002 by Maria Rosa Menocal . Excerpted by permission.
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An excellent, beautifully written book about a complex period of history. Yes, it is slow reading, because the subject is a very detailed history; but it is important, and fascinating to understand this background to our current world. It is a shame that its rating is dragged down by an ignoramus like Mary-C, and 70% of a lazy book club looking for books with easier words. We all read for different reasons. Please be guided by the (more accurate) professional reviews regarding the worth of this book.
I am researching Medieval Europe and this book had been very helpful. As I am of Spanish origins I knew of all this since school. This has been a great refresher course. Thank you to Ms. Menocal. I also recommend Women at Work in Medieval Europe, it is an eye opener for the many still believing the Middle Ages where a dark period.
Menocal does a great job of weaving together history and theory to tell the tale of life in Andalusia. This thought provoking story is well worth the read.
If you have been wondering recently whether Christians, Muslims, and Jews can ever live side by side in peace, harmony, and cooperation, this book gives a resounding answer in the affirmative. This is a beautifully written account of a time when Muslim-ruled Spain was the most sophisticated (and tolerant) place in the known world. The well-researched stories of some the individuals that made up that fascinating society are both inspirational and thought-provoking.
Seventy percent of my book club rejected this book, as too difficult to read. I agree that it is difficult, as her use of English is not for the average person. As an example, she used the word, 'risible', when 'laughable' is more readily understood. Another example of her grandiose language is the word 'hermeneutical', which means 'explanatory'. This will discourage many readers from acquiring the wealth of knowledge that this book contains. With the aid of the internet, this book has opened doors to history that I was not aware of, pertaining to the Arabic, Jewish, and Christian cultures of that period of time.
Wow. Besides the fact that it was mind-numbingly boring, this book was so factually inaccurate that at times I found myself wondering if it was a misguided attempt at humor in the form of a political satire.