The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain

The Ornament of the World, by Maria Menocal, is a fascinating but
flawed book about Muslim culture in medieval Spain. The exciting parts of
the book are the stories of cultural influence among Muslims, Jews, and
Christians. These cultural influences shed light on some fundamental
chapters in history that are told often but explained poorly.
* You may have learned in European history class that medieval Arab
culture preserved Greco-Roman classical knowledge during the Europe’s
dark ages. Menocal’s book tells the story how classical works of science
and philosophy, preserved in Arabic, were transmitted to Christian
Europe. In the 8th-10th centuries, most of the Iberian peninsula was
ruled by the Umayyad dynasty, with Cordoba as its capital. The Umayyad
rulers, in competition with the Abbassid Caliphate based in Baghdad,
established Cordoba as a center of higher learning, building an
extensive library and funding leading scholars.
In the 11th century, the Umayyad government fell, the Iberian peninsula
became divided into dozens of warring city-states, and Christian rulers
from the North of Spain gradually increased their domains. The
Christian-controlled areas continued to be heavily influence by Muslim
culture. Alfonso IV of Castile, ruler of the Taifa of Toledo, wanted to
publicize this learning within Christian Europe, and funded the
translation process. Jewish and Arab scholars read texts in Arabic, and
recited them out loud in Castilian. Christian scholars listened to the
spoken Castilian and wrote in Latin.
* If you studied European literature, you probably have some
recollection of the troubadours of Provence, who pioneered the poetry of
courtly romance. In the 11th to13 centuries, a seemingly remote region
in the south of today’s France, heretofore known for bloody turf wars
between rival Frankish feudal lords, suddenly produced a flowering
musical and literary culture. Where did this surge of civilization come
The region of Provence is located on the Northeast side of the
Pyrenees. The constant warfare among the citystates of the Iberian
peninsula offered attractive opportunities for free-lance Frankish
knights, who crossed the mountains to seek their fortune, and helped to
conquer Muslim cities. These knights were captivated by the music and
poetry of Andalusian culture, and returned to Provence, bringing with
them groups of professional singers of Arabic songs, traditions of
stylized lyric poetry, and romantic conceptions of love.
* If you have a basic background in Jewish history and philosophy, you
may recall the Kuzari, medieval work by Judah Halevi. The frame-story
of the Kuzari is the correspondence between a Jewish scholar and the
King of a central Asian tribe called the Khazars, who requested an
explanation of various beliefs and philosophies; in order to introduce
the best tradition to his people. The Kuzari includes logical “proofs”
of the existence of God, and arguments for the superiority of revealed
religions truth to philosophies based on reason.
Menocal tells more of the story. The correspondence with the Khazars
was conducted several generations earlier, in the 10th century, by
Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the foreign minister to the Umayyad caliph Abd
al-Rachman III. That correspondence compared Judaism with Christianity
and Islam. Halevi lived and worked two hundred years later, and was a
student of Moses Ibn Eza, philologist, poet, and fan of the Andalusian
culture, in a time when all three monotheistic faiths struggled with the
implications of Greek philosophy. Halevi spent most of his career as a
peripatic scholar and poet in Jewish intellectual circle. Later in his
life, he had a change of heart, and advocated a return to Judaism cleansed of the corruptions of
secular life and philosophical influences. He wrote the Kuzari arguing
that philosophy is incompatible with faith, wrote beautiful poems about Israel in exile, yearning for God, and he died on a pilgrimage to crusader-controled Jerusalem.
Menocal writes in a romantic and nostalgic style that derives in part
from her subjects own elegaic esthetic, and from her own nostalgia for
the world of Andalusia. Sometimes the style works, especially when
describing works of architecture built as monuments and memorials. She
describes the initial design of the Alhambra palace gardens: “The first
gardens built on the red hill by those exiles from Cordoba were, like
Abd al-Rahman’s palm tree, the echoes and reconstructed memories of a
mourned homeland.”
Sometimes the romantic language is overwrought and awkward, as in these
description of the writing of Shmuel Hanagid, the vizier of Grenada,
military general, Jewish communal leader and Hebrew poet. “The third
poem, to praise the third victory, had flowed most easily of all, and he
could now more effortly flex those new muscles that sang of arms and men
and God… In that loving and revolutionary embrace by a powerful and
supremely self-assured man, Heberew was redefined, and cultivated as a
language that could transcend the devotional and theological uses to
which it had lately been limited.”
Particularly irritating is the use of purple prose to cover the lack of
information. For example, the author describes the libraries of Cordoba
as follows: “The rich web of attitudes about culture, and the
intellectual opulence that it signified, is perhaps only suggested by
the caliphal library of, by one count, some four hundred thousand
volumes, and this at a time when the largest library in Christian Europe
probably held no more than 400 manuscripts.”
An impressive collection of books, to be sure. But who read those books?
What classes of society were literate? What role did higher education
play in society? What was a typical curriculum? Were the books mostly
copies of classical manuscripts, or did they include new scholarship?
No answers, just vague sentences such as: “Just as essential to the
social and cultural project embedded in those libraries was a series of
attitudes about learning of every sort, about the duty to transmit
knowledge from one generation to another, about the interplay between
the very modes of learning that were known to exist…”
The book provides context for a better understanding of the history of
Christian, Muslim, and Jewish cultures, sheds light on a fascinating
historical period, and whets ones appetite for more information. It is
definitely worth reading.

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