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A Timely Look at a Rare Era of Relative Peace Among 3 Religions

THE ORNAMENT OF THE WORLD: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain; By Maria Rosa Menocal; Little, Brown: 316 pages, $26.95

July 06, 2002|JONATHAN KIRSCH | Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to the Book Review, is the author of, most recently, "The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People."

The rich and remarkable landscape that we behold in "The Ornament of the World" dates all the way back to the so-called Dark Ages, but the book itself could not be more timely or more encouraging. Maria Rosa Menocal, a Yale professor, shows us a rare moment in history when Muslims, Christians and Jews found a way to live with each other in peace and prosperity.

The tale begins with a man on the run: Abd al-Rahman was a prince of the family known as the Umayyads, and a survivor of the massacre carried out by their rivals for power in the Islamic world, the Abbasids.

He fled all the way from Syria to what is called al-Andalus in Arabic, the place we know as Spain, in 755, and he presided over the first stirrings of an Islamic civilization that flowered in the soil of Europe.

"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," insists Menocal. "This is a vision still evident today, in the lasting influence of this complex, rich and unique civilization."

Menocal, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese, is attuned to aspects of history that many professional historians tend to overlook. She pauses to quote Al-Rahman;


A palm tree stands in the middle

of Rusafa,

Born in the West, far from the

land of palms.

I said to it: How like me you are,

far away and in exile....


... and then she points out that love of language in general and poetry in particular is essential to understanding what we might well call, a la Thomas Cahill's bestseller about the Jewish people, "The Gifts of the Muslims."

"Perhaps nothing is more central to understanding the inherent complexity of medieval culture than the basic relationship between Arabic, as a language with a powerful pre-Islamic poetic tradition, and the Islamic order that springs from the same place," she explains. "This is the moment in which the distinctive taste for a complex notion of identity that allows (or, more likely, encourages) contradictions is born."

At the heart of Menocal's illuminating and even inspiring work is a notion that may seem profoundly contradictory at our benighted moment in history. A "century of Umayyad rule had spectacularly improved the Jews' everyday lives and social status," she writes. A "community not long before reduced to squalor and slavery was upwardly mobile now, halfway toward the day when a Jew would be the grand vizier of an Umayyad caliph."

Christians were not so comfortable: "The Jews' often loving relationship with Arabic culture contrasted from the outset with the attitude of the hierarchy and leadership of the Christian community," which saw itself enduring "unbearable cultural oppression."

Nor was the era free from violence and oppression--Menocal does not withhold the details of massacres and martyrdoms, exiles and exclusions, that afflicted both Christians and Jews during the "Golden Age" of Spain.

Still, even the Christian community was enriched by Islamic civilization, as Menocal points out.

She takes us to a hilltop church in Toledo that dates back to the 11th century, and she shows us how the architecture and decor of the Christian sanctuary resembles "those of the Great Mosque [of Cordoba]

"In this sacred place," she says, "Christians of the 12th century--who were supposedly engaged in unrelenting religious warfare against the Muslims--paid an unambiguous tribute to the culture of the enemy, and created a space in which to pray that surrounded them with visions of their remarkable intimacies."

The era that Menocal celebrates came to a final and tragic end in 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled the Jews from a "reconquered" Spain and criminalized the practice of Islam, a moment that marked "the true end of the Middle Ages," as Menocal puts it, and "the end of hundreds of years of open Islamic and Jewish participation in medieval European culture."

Still Menocal ends her book on an encouraging note. She wonders aloud what would have happened if Ferdinand and Isabella had possessed "the courage to cultivate a society that can live with its own flagrant contradictions." And, by showing us what was lost, she reminds us of what might be.

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