Ornament of the World
This book will provide scant comfort to two loud and voluble constituencies in the contemporary world: Islamophobes and Wahhabis. By the former, I refer to those shallow types who use the horrors of Islamic extremism as a pretext to attack all of Islam and the civilization it has fostered. The latter denotes Muslims – including many in the U.S. – who justify terrorism on the basis of the fundamentalist death cult that rules Saudi Arabia. Both Islamophobes and Wahhabis seek to erase from history the evidence of centuries of pluralism within Islam -- and of coexistence between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
This study of medieval Spain, written for a nonacademic audience, shows that a powerful Islamic society and its committed Christian opponents were once capable of contending in arms, for mastery of a rich territory, without losing their sense of mutual respect. Al-Andalus, the southern Iberian province in which Arab governance was consolidated, produced some of the greatest cultural achievements of Islamic civilization; architecture and philosophy are the best known. The very same region – and its fabled cities, Córdoba, Granada, and Sevilla – also nurtured the Jewish intellect, and provided a prosperous home for Christians.
Cohabitation of the three Abrahamic faiths was found throughout the Iberian peninsula during the 782 years of Muslim-Christian rivalry on its soil. Although the Christian waged a military struggle – the Reconquista – to regain control, Muslims continued for generations to reside in areas the Christians retook; Christians lived largely unmolested in the shrinking Muslim zone; and Jews flourished on both sides of the divide.
This was because, contrary to the legends maintained by Islamophobes and Wahhabis alike, neither the Muslim nor the Christian rulers of Spain originally saw their conflict as a religious one, and few among them practiced forcible conversion of the other. Their campaigns were wars over land, not faith, and both sides applied the principle enunciated in the Koran: There must be no compulsion in religion, and conversions should be left to the individual conscience, as expressions of God's will.
Muslim rule in Europe began in the year 711, when Berbers from North Africa, led by Syrian Arabs, crossed the strait named thereafter for their commander, Tarik ibn Ziyad. (Gibraltar is derived from "Jebel al-Tarik," the rock of Tarik.) The Christian rulers of Hispania – descendants of the Visigoths – were decadent and narrow in their outlook, and were supplanted by the new force of Islam. The great phase of Islamic al-Andalus began in 755, when a young Syrian noble, Abd al-Rahman, arrived in the land. Abd al-Rahman was the only survivor of the Umayyads, a Damascus-based dynasty that had ruled the global Islamic community for the previous hundred years. In 750, the Umayyads were overthrown and their ruling family slaughtered by the Abbasids, who moved the center of the House of Islam to a city they founded, Baghdad. Abd al-Rahman established a new Umayyad lineage in Cordoba, an old Roman town.
A long interfaith and intercultural dialogue ensued, until 1492, when the Catholic rulers, Ferdinand and Isabel, conquered Granada. The Muslims were granted the right to maintain their religion as a condition of their surrender of the city. But one of the first decrees of the Catholic rulers, issued only months after Granada's capitulation, ordered the expulsion of Jews unwilling to convert to Christianity. The Andalusian Muslims inevitably shared the same fate. Most of the Jews left for the Ottoman Empire, where they again flourished, while the Muslims resettled in Morocco.
Both communities of the expelled preserved deep cultural memories of their time in the Iberian sun. The Jews and their descendants, known as the Sephardim, have kept the use of the Spanish language up to the present day; I have heard it spoken and sung in Sarajevo. The Arabs of North Africa still love the music and other customs they call Andalusian. And Islam left a deep impress on Spanish Catholic culture: Flamenco music, and a form of improvised religious verse known as saetas, perpetuate Arab styles of melody and lyric.
María Rosa Menocal, who teaches at Yale, has chosen to tell this story through a series of vignettes describing outstanding individuals and events.
The personalities evoked here include, among others, Abd al-Rahman; the Jewish diplomat and poet Samuel ha-Nagid, governor of the Hebrew community of Granada; Petrus Alfonsi, a Jewish convert to Christianity who traveled to England in the 12th century; the poet and chronicler Judah Halevi; the Arab philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd) of Cordoba; and his fellow Cordoban, the Jewish jurist Maimonides. The emphasis on prominent Jews might be interpreted as a subtextual cry of pain and protest against the fear and hatred separating, today, the offspring of Abraham's two sons – Ishmael, ancestor of the Arabs and Muslims, and Isaac, progenitor of the Jews.
The author presents her story in a smooth and affecting manner. Too often, though, she gives way to nostalgia. While this longing for an era of cultural interdependence that seems almost impossible to imagine now is perfectly understandable, it does weaken Menocal's narrative. She also betrays a superficial approach to a number of religious issues. To cite one example, she makes a superlative hero of Ibn Hazm, an 11th century Andalusian author known today for his Ring-Neck of the Dove, a classical exposition of the principles of love poetry. She writes that "the viciousness of many of [Ibn Hazm's] polemics, against all sorts of people and causes, led later Muslims to approach him gingerly, or not at all." But it's worse than that: Ibn Hazm was in fact one of the most extreme and irrational fundamentalists in Islamic history, and his influence is felt to this day.
He was a follower of the Dhahiris, an unorthodox school of literalist Islamic jurisprudence. Three commentators from the end of the 13th century said that "even those who greeted Ibn Hazm hated him. They disliked his ideas. They all agreed that he was a heretic. They could not speak well of him. They warned the rulers to beware of him. They told Muslims to keep away from him." G. F. Haddad, an historian of Islam, notes an example of Ibn Hazm's extreme literalism. Muhammad the prophet had said, quite sensibly: "Let no one urinate in still, non-running water, [and] then use it to bathe." From this, Haddad writes, In Hazm drew the following inferences:
* The interdiction to bathe applied only to the one who urinated; thus, anyone other than him may use that water to bathe.
* It applied only if one urinated into the water. He and anyone else might therefore use the water to bathe if the urine reached the water indirectly, for example after falling on high or nearby ground first, or being poured in it from a container.
* It applied only if one urinated in it, not defecated in it.
It would be difficult to imagine a more ridiculous expression of fundamentalist rigidity. Historian Bernard Lewis points out another unattractive aspect of Ibn Hazm: He composed a violent pamphlet against Judaism. Lewis comments that it is "the only known book of its kind," i.e., a Muslim polemic of the classic era against Judaism as a faith. (This anti-Jewish screed seems to have been motivated chiefly by its author's animus against his Hebrew competitors in poetry.) Ibn Hazm was also a ferocious bigot against Shi'a Muslims; his theology is akin to the ravings of bin Laden – whose followers look to him for guidance.
But Menocal is right in her assessment of Ibn Hazm's masterpiece of aesthetic philosophy. The Ring-Neck of the Dove shows that he truly understood the ordeal of human passion. His ultimate principle is that of the lover's utter subordination – and even prostration – before the beloved, whose social status is irrelevant. One may love a slave or an aristocrat with equal intensity.
Ibn Hazm brought together within himself, in discord rather than unity, conflicting aspects of the Muslim outlook: the two faces of Islam. Sorting out its dichotomies – between intellectual achievements and extremist outbursts, between separatism and pluralism – is the challenge that faces all who seek to understand Islam in our time. Throughout the course of Islamic history, the extraordinary power of Muslim monotheism has driven some to fanatical excess, yet its compassionate essence has moderated such tendencies. The Wahhabi extremism on display in Saudi Arabia could never survive among the "Andalusian" Muslims of Morocco, the Sufis of Uzbekistan, or Malaysian traditionalists. Muslims today must find their own way forward, but they should do so in the context of a global society based on religious coexistence. Jews and Christians can play a role in this quest, as they did in Spain half a millennium ago. This book details how such exchanges took place in the past, and does so in an engaging and accessible manner; it is a valuable contribution.