The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
by María Rosa Menocal
Little, Brown
315 pp.; $14.95, paper

Most Western European nations claim a continuous Christian heritage stretching back to the 5th or 6th century, but Spain—in this as in so many aspects of its history—is different.

The first Christian regime, that of the Visigoths, was violently ended by a dramatic invasion of Berber and Syrian-Arab Muslims in 711. Within two centuries these forces had wrought the same kind of profound cultural and religious conversion that had swept the eastern Mediterranean not long before: large numbers of Muslims had immigrated to Spain; indigenous pagans and Christians had converted to Islam; and in all but a few mountainous hinterlands, culture and politics were thoroughly Arabized. Córdoba now vied with Baghdad and Damascus as a center of Islamic art and letters.

In the 10th century, the Christian communities of the north began to expand southward, but only after 1200 did Christians gain the balance of political power in the peninsula. The last holdout of Muslim Spain, the Kingdom of Granada, fell to Christian armies in 1492. Since the Middle Ages, Christian Spaniards have made the "Reconquest" their national foundation myth, in which the centuries between 711 and 1492 are reduced to a protracted struggle between cross and crescent. While scholars have long since discarded this paradigm, like all origin myths, it has nourished too much compelling art and literature to die easily in the popular imagination.

María Rosa Menocal crafts her eloquent popular history of medieval Spain as an ever-so-gentle polemic against the myth of the Reconquest. Without denying that Muslims and Christians argued and fought, she emphasizes that for most of the early Spanish Middle Ages, religious conquest was rarely the dominant concern of either group. A scholar of medieval Arabic literature, Menocal highlights cultural and intellectual achievements, and the willingness of members of all three faiths to learn from each other (both Christian and Islamic lands were also home to sizeable Jewish communities).

This cultural openness was particularly evident during the Umayyad caliphate of Córdoba" (c. 900 - 1000). Christians and Jews lived peacefully in Muslim Córdoba (the "ornament" of the book's title), tolerated as "people of the book" and freely embracing Arabic as the language of poetry and philosophy. Menocal lovingly profiles the careers of such urbane men as Hasdai ibn Shaprut, a 10th-century Jew who served as political leader of Córdoba's Jewish community and vizier to the great caliph Abd al-Rahman III, while in his spare time translating Greek medical works into Arabic.

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In the process, she reminds us how indebted the Christian West is to Arabic culture (and Spain's medieval translators) for its Greek scientific, mathematical, and philosophical knowledge. These stories are already well known to historians, but Menocal renders them with a literary grace, an eye for aesthetic and psychological detail, and a sense of humor that combine to make this the most attractive survey of medieval Spain available in English.

All of this would have amply justified this book's positive reception without the events of September 11 (which occurred, Menocal's postscript informs us, weeks after she finished writing.) But the new reading tastes of the post-9/11 American public surely helped to catapult The Ornament to the best-seller lists.

Menocal's emphasis on Islam's peaceful side and on mutual toleration between Christians and Muslims complements the more critical views of scholars like Bernard Lewis. The same political backdrop, however, has encouraged some readers to oversimplify this book's message. Many early reviewers claimed to see in it a compelling moral for our times: Spanish Christians, Jews, and Muslims coexisted so peacefully for eight centuries that we should be ashamed of ourselves for failing to follow their example. Such a reading does gross injustice to the complexity and cruelty of this era.

To a degree, Menocal's own rhetoric invites such distortion—she does indeed call the Middle Ages "a golden age" and "a culture of tolerance"—but despite her obvious nostalgia for these times, her fond portrait still reveals plenty of warts. The exemplary Umayyad caliphate lasted less than two centuries. It was brought down shortly after 1000 by fanatical Muslim invaders from North Africa, the Almoravids and the Almohads, who persecuted and expelled Jews and Christians, burned the books of more tolerant Muslims, and helped to inflame a new anti-Islamic militancy in the Christian north. Menocal describes all of this, if not in great detail. Thereafter politics fragmented, and tolerance, like much else, varied from kingdom to kingdom.

Even at the best times and in the best places, the terms of toleration in Christian and in Muslim lands were distinctly un-modern. Religious minorities could not worship in public; marriage across faiths was forbidden (unless the minority bride converted, which was indeed one of the most frequent conversion patterns); and conversion to a minority religion was normally a capital offense. Particularly numerous among the minority populations throughout medieval Iberia were slaves, scarcely mentioned here among the largely aristocratic cast of characters.

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In calling medieval Spain a "golden age," Menocal does not mean an age of multicultural bliss, still less one of social equality. Her main point is essentially a philosophical one: at their best, the intellectual elites of this era eschewed fundamentalism and showed surprising sensitivity in the business of reconciling competing truths. Menocal's tolerant heroes were not skeptics, agnostics, or universalists, but thoughtful believers "willing to live with contradictions." We tend to think of this as a postmodern value, but Menocal shows that it was also a pre-Enlightenment one.

As the book's lucid forays into philosophy and theology emphasize, this was not just a matter of tolerating irreconcilable theological differences; for philosophers like the Christian Peter Abelard and the Muslim Averroes, it meant acknowledging the simultaneous truth of reason and revelation, although their respective findings might seem incompatible.

Historically, this way of thinking has found greater acceptance in modern Christianity and Judaism than in modern Islam, but one of the many merits of The Ornament of the World is to show how erudite members of all three faiths wrestled with such questions a millennium ago.

Kate Elliot van Liere is associate professor of history at Calvin College.

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