Saturday, May 23, 2009

Book Report: "Ornament of the World" by Maria Rosa Menocal

"The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain"asserts that the history of modern life passed through medieval Andalusia and does a good job of making the case.

The subtitle to Maria Rosa Menocal's engaging volume is "How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain," but that doesn't say the half of it.

Which is fine, because the subtitle that can do justice to this alternately sweeping and efficient book probably doesn't exist.

In fact, the featured period of tri-partite harmony is but a brief one in the book, shattered by the kinds of antagonisms that sustain our state of violent tension today.

In those days of European ignorance and atavism, Menocal writes that, "Arabic beckoned with its vigorous love of all the things men need to say and write and read that not only lie outside faith but may even contradict it -- from philosophy to erotic love poetry and a hundred other things in between."

Menocal explains how the prophet Muhammad would not perform miracles, given that the Quran, the book off God's revelations, was the true miracle.

Latent in the Arab's linguistic passion was a respect for the Christian and Hebrew reliance on scriptures.

Pagans subjected to the Arabic invasions covered in this book were required to convert, while the two "Peoples of the Book," were granted religious freedom under a covenant known as the dhimma.

Under the prescriptions of the visionary Abd al-Rahman, founder of Al-Andalus (Arab moniker for the region of southern Spain),"the Muslims did not remain a ruling people apart. Rather, their cultural openness and ethnic egalitarianism were vital parts of a general social and political ethos within which the dhimmi could and did thrive."

If it doesn't sound much like the Afghani Taliban you know only too well, that's because there are Muslims, and then there are Muslims.

The good ones were the Umayyad.

How they became the faction they did (descendants of Muhammad's brother-in-law's sister's mother or something) is not so important as the fact another faction, the Almoravids, did them in on behalf of an Islamic intepretation more in-line with that which mystifies today.

The authoress maps out the rising tide and recession of ambulant Islam, the countercharge of Christian warriors, the religiously confused alliances of enemies when battles of family succession and greed intervened to rent the otherwise clear lines of battle asunder.

And the point of these events, for Menocal, is how the cultures involved were affected and transformed.

"Ornament of the World" is mostly about an assortment of intellectuals, dreamers, poets, and philosophers who informed these transformations, mostly forgotten, but sometimes lionized down the years.

"Ornament" details the Jewish intellectual Hasdai's rise to the exalted position of foreign secretary in the Cordoban caliphate because he, "spoke and wrote with elegance and subtlety, and because the vizier possessed a profound knowledge of everything in Islamic Andalusia culture and politics that a caliph needed in his public transactions."

Much the same happened to a wealthy merchant of Malaga now known to history as Samuel in the taifa of Granada. Another star of Arabic letters, his appointment as The Nagid established him as leader to the city's Jews.

South and West of Granada, in the hamlet of Niebla, lived Ibn Hazm, a contemporary of the Nagid, and an exile from the Almoravid sacking of Cordoba's imperial city, Madinat al-Zahra.

Ibn Hazm remained dedicated his countless writings to the tolerant glories of Umayyad Cordoba, where he had thrived in younger days.

Considered alternately by scholars as embittered or sad, "He was, in any case, an astounding intellectual, his life a fitting tribute to and a noble and melancholy end point for the caliphate he never ceased to long for and lament, as if it had been a lost lover."

That caliphate fell to a malevolent force that, Menocal writes, "was often rooted in what they considered the Andalusians inappropriate relations with the Jews and Christians."

Which is not to single out Arabs as the sole possessors of intolerant habits.

Upon the Christian conquest of Granada, the famed Ferdinand and Isabella granted dhimma-like rights to their Muslim subjects. But they turned out to be paper promises.

Unfortunately for us, hundreds of years on, the results are still being reaped.

Menocal demonstrates the cultural contortions involved in this subjugation by dissecting Miguel de Cervantes' strange set-up to "Don Quixote" as the work of an Arab historian, found in the Jewish quarter of Toledo, and translated for him by a Christian Arab.

She turns something most of us shrug and pass over into a stark political statement on Cervantes' part, and necessarily alters one's consideration of El Quixote. It is worth the price of the book.

Cervantes' literary arrangement demonstrates how, in the end, the Catholic monarchs, "chose to go down the modern path, the one intolerant of contradiction. The watershed at hand was certainly the rise of a single-language and single-religion, a transformation that conventionally stand at the beginning of the modern period and leads quite directly to our own."

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