Ornament of the World How Moslems Jews and Christians Created the Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain

Reviewed by Arthur Benveniste

Almost every day headlines announce another story of sectarian violence somewhere in the world And in most cases radical Moslems are involved Their advisories are Jews in Israel Hindus in Kashmir Christians in the former Yugoslavia and Christians and Animists in Sudan Travel the world and you will find churches converted into mosques or mosques and synagogues converted into churches Our history books are filled with stories of “heretics” and “apostates” being forcibly converted beheaded or burned at the stake Always to the “glory of God” It would seem that the various religions were doomed to challenge each other for all time

I write these words shortly after hearing of another suicide bombing in the Middle East

But Muslims Christians and Jews once lived together in harmony and prosperity It was in alAndalus beginning in the Eighth century and lasting until religious fanaticism ended it in the Eleventh Century This period of convivencia or living together was ushered into Moslem Spain by the Umayyad Dynasty and with it came one of the great Golden Ages of human history

Today in most of the industrialized world religious tolerance is the norm And even in centuries past there were examples of enlightened regimes that protected the rights of religious and ethnic minorities The level of tolerance of these governments may not reach the heights that we aspire to today but compared to the standards of their day they were indeed models of enlightenment

One such society was that of the Ottoman Turks Jews and Christians were classified as dhimmi or protected “People of the Book” who shared Abrahamic monotheism with Islam Through the millet system members of the religious minorities were restricted in many aspects of government and a few other areas of life but they were free to practice their own faith and within limits administered their own communities

The Convivencia in Spain existed a half millennium before that of the Ottoman Turks The religious tolerance of the time allowed a flowering of philosophy theology science and culture almost unknown at the time Indeed it was a Golden Age

This period of convivencia is the subject of Mará­a Rosa Menocal’s book

In the year 711 Moslem Berber tribesmen from North Africa crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain The Visagothic kingdoms of Spain had persecuted Jews since King Recaredo had become a Catholic almost two centuries earlier

In 750 the moderate Umayyad dynasty in Damascus was overrun by the radical Abbasids A massacre followed Abd alRahman the young sole survivor of the Umayyad monarchy set out with his followers across the desert toward the Maghreb the West In five years he arrived in southern Spain Al Andalus Soon the Califate of Cordoba is established and the Golden Age followed

In Ornament of the World Mará­a Rosa Menocal takes the reader through this golden age

Here the Jewish community rose from the ashes of an abysmal existence under the Visigoths to the point that the emir who proclaimed himself caliph in the tenth century had a Jew as his foreign minister Fruitful intermarriage among the various cultures and the quality of cultural relations with the dhimmi were vital aspects of Andalusian identity as it was cultivated over these first centuries

Menocal describes how the Arabs reintroduced Greek philosophy to a Europe which had lost it How the Jews were instrumental in the dialogue between the Moslem and Christian worlds How the magnificent Arabic literature and poetry influenced both Jews and Mozarabs (Arabic speaking Christians) into producing their own magnificent literature How Maimonides and Averroes tried to reconcile religion and rationalism and influenced later movements towards reform in the Catholic Church and helped bring on the Renaissance and Age or Reason How Jewish philosophy theology and literature blossomed to produce the works of Judah Halevi Hasdai ibn Shaprut Samuel the Nagid Isaac Abravanel and Nachmanides

Monocal then shows how a golden age can decline into centuries of intolerance persecution and finally Christian extremism culminating with the Edict of Expulsion and forced conversions under Ferdinand and Isabella

In 1031 the Umayyad Caliphate (or the Caliphate of Córdova) shattered into fifteen independent dynasties or Taifas The convivencia unraveled and the Christian kingdoms of the north found it easier to expand into Al Andalus

In 1086 the fundamentalist Almoravids of North Africa crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to help the Taifas fight the Christians By 1091 the Almoravids controled almost all of Al Andalus By 1150 the Almoravids were succeeded by the even more fundamentalist Almohad Dynasty which was dedicated to strict enforcement of Islamic rules and customs

It was Maimonides misfortune to have lived his early life in the Córdova of Almohad fanaticism His family was forced to adopt Islam After moving to Fez in Morocco then to Cairo Egypt he returned to the open practice of Judaism

In time the Christian kingdoms advanced pushing the Moslem states back to North Africa In 1492 all of Iberia came under Christian rule Soon all Jews and Moslems were forced to convert or leave Apostates faced the Inquisition But there was another Inquisition an “Inquisition of the Books” It is described by Cervantes in Don Quixote Writes Monocal:

It was not just the books of course but the knowledge of the languages of those books Arabic and Hebrew that had disappeared in Cervantes’ time – the very skills that had once made knowledge and the transmission of knowledge and learning possible :

And so a Golden Age faded away
Just weeks after Monocal finished writing this book the horrible events of September 11 2001 took place In her Postscript she describes how until then she like almost all Americans felt that the forces of “uncompromising religious intolerance : played little part in our lives”

Certainly the Greatest Golden Age in Jewish history was in the United States in the Twentieth Century It is still going on Will it last or fade away as did the Ornament of the World?

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