Religious tolerance before it was hip

Medieval Muslims, Jews, and Christians built a rich culture

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. We meet, for example, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, the Jewish grand vizier of Cordoba in the mid-10th century, who conducted foreign relations for the caliph.

The "ornament of the world" was the name given to Cordoba by 10th-century Saxon writer Hroswitha. By then it was a wealthy city of thousands of shops and mosques, gardens and palaces, running water, paved and well-lit streets. The caliph's library (one of 70 in the city) contained "400,000 volumes at a time when the largest library in Christian Europe probably held no more than 400 manuscripts."

From Andalusia came the tales that spawned a new form of literature in Europe, the songs that inspired the early troubadours of France, and architectural marvels of the world. The region also provided Europe with Latin translations of the works of the Greeks, including all of Aristotle.

Most illuminating is the way the society transcended religious differences and embraced complexity even in periods of political instability. The Umayyad dynasty came to an end in 1013 when Berber armies from North Africa sacked Cordoba, and Andalusia split into dozens of city states. Yet the multifaceted cultural life flourished for another 450 years.

Menocal makes clear the era was not free of violence and oppression – there were massacres and martyrdoms. The Berbers' stricter version of Islam spurred conflicts even among Muslims. And the Christian "crusader" mentality from Europe spurred wars to "reconquer" the peninsula, starting in the 13th century.

Yet symbolic of the Andalusian ethos is the 1252 tomb of Ferdinand III, Christian king of Seville, which was covered with inscriptions in Arabic, Latin, Hebrew, and Castilian. And the Jewish synagogue in Toledo, with its intricately carved writing in Arabic as well as in Hebrew.

Menocal wonders what might have happened had Ferdinand and Isabella, after conquering Granada, the last Muslim-ruled city, in 1492, rejected pressures from the church and chosen not to take the extreme step of expelling from Spain all Muslims and Jews who refused to covert. They then gave full sway to the Inquisition.

"Ornament of the World" captures the sweep of a unique civilization, from poetry to scientific and social achievements. One yearns at times to stop for a more intimate look at daily life and the exceptional individuals who shaped the society. But this elegant and ambitious book comes at a propitious time, restoring a lost history just when its lessons most resonate with the choices that must be made today.

• Jane Lampman writes about religion for the Monitor.

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