Religious Tolerance before It Was Hip ; Medieval Muslims, Jews, and Christians Built a Rich Culture

Article excerpt

Once upon a time long ago in a place on the edge of the known world, Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived together in peace and created a vibrant, extraordinary civilization.

A fairy tale for our troubled times? Much more intriguing, this is a true story brimming with striking characters as well as prodigious achievements and blunders, with thought-provoking lessons for today.

Bringing to life a time and place largely overlooked in Western histories, "The Ornament of the World" describes an era in medieval Spain from 750 to 1492 when the three monotheistic faiths clashed, intermingled, and produced a rich, tolerant culture.

Arabic was the lingua franca, and Jews and Christians held prominent positions in Muslim government and society. So great was the flourishing of the arts, philosophy, and science that Andalusia was seen by Christians in northern Europe as the intellectual center of the continent.

Through its magnificent libraries and culture of translation, Andalusia dramatically reshaped European history, helping bring an end to the Dark Ages.

But this thriving world was brought to a tragic close by the forces of cultural puritanism and religious orthodoxy, spurred largely from the outside by Muslims from North Africa and Christians from northern Europe.

Maria Rosa Menocal, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale University, tells this dramatic story through a series of vignettes that evoke the differing cultural epochs of the 700-year period and introduce influential figures from the three faiths.

Most crucial to her tale is a young Muslim prince of the Umayyad family, which ruled the Islamic Empire in the 8th century. When the rest of his family was murdered by a rival clan in 750, Abd al- Rahman fled his home in Damascus across North Africa to the backwater of Cordoba, on the Iberian peninsula. There, his vision and leadership gave birth to a new civilization.

"The Umayyads, who had come pristine out of the Arabian desert, defined their version of Islam as one that loved its dialogues with other traditions," Menocal says. "This was a remarkable achievement, so remarkable in fact that some later Muslim historians accused the Umayyads of being lesser Muslims for it."

The author attributes this embrace of complexity to the perpetuation within the Arab imagination of both the Islamic faith and the intense love of language and poetry that were part of Arabia's pre-Islamic tradition.

Most Jews and Christians living in Iberia were "Arabized," embracing the language and much of the culture it fostered. But they were not required to give up their faith, although some did convert. The status of Jews, who had led "an abysmal existence under the Visigoths," improved dramatically, and many rose to high positions. …