Pick up a map of Europe, and you may notice that Spain will resemble an almost round fruit hanging from the sturdy trunk of mainland Europe. Geographically Spain flanks one side of the continent, but in terms of cultural capital, it held sway as the centre of the world for centuries. At its height, the regions we call now call Andalusia in Southern Spain created an incredibly sophisticated society which paved the way for Paris and London to intellectual centres later on. Maria Rosa Menocal’s “The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain” explores a golden age in Europe founded in far flung deserts of Arabia should be of upmost importance in our collective consciousness.
History often recalls the victors. In this sense, the victories that flow in European veins are essentially Christian by identity. However, an alternative view of Europe exists via a voyage with the founding father of Western culture. Not Shakespeare or Machiavelli, but a runaway prince from Damascus fleeing the slaughter of his family. Muslims had already reached Europe as far as France, but Abdul Rahman would first consolidate and then transform the Iberian Peninsula to include all its members of society at the highest levels. Menocal attributes the poetic zeal of Al-Andalus because the Muslims did not remain a ‘ruling people apart’, but chose to open high society for all. This included bath houses, running water, public libraries and lamp lit streets. London would not see similar amenities accessible for the public till the Victorian era.
Rather than thinking of three religions living side by side, Menocal argues that citizens under the rule of Islamic Spain saw themselves as one culture, with different shades of the Abrahamic faiths relegated to the bottom rung of the ladder in terms of importance. At the centre of free participation was the Islamic ideal of the ‘Dhimma’, or the protected minority who paid tax in return for security and religious freedom. This may seem a repressive mode of taxation from our modern perspective of freedom, but if we take into considering a history of brute repression in Europe, early Islam had breathed fresh life into social mobility. In contrast with Judaism and Christianity, Islam had a model from its birth on how to deal with its co-religionists. This principle of Sharia Law (now a word which is misinterpreted with extreme contemporary readings) would ultimately shape a shared space whereby special contributions could be made at local level. Menocal highlights the example of a building which incorporates horseshoes arches, Islamic geometry and Arabic calligraphy. Not a mosque, but a church on a hilly peak in Toledo, celebrating the affinity Christians shared with their fellow Muslims.
Jews also prospered under Islamic rule in Spain. Once hidden out of sight by the Visigoths, the Umayyad’s embraced Jewish philosophers, medical experts and poets. However, the analysis of Jewish prosperity runs deeper than mere positions. Cultural innovations included urban, flexible languages; Hebrew was revitalised not just as a language for the synagogue, but secular love poetry and letters. The most celebrated of Andalusian Hebrew poets was arguably Samuel the Nagid, a warrior who would lead his Muslim army one day and write Hebrew poetry the next. Unthinkable now, yet languages were no barrier to interfaith and multicultural influences.
In 855, a conservative Christian by the name of Alvarus lamented the loss of Latin as a spoken vernacular. His observation was accurate in many ways. Long before the locals converted to the religion of the victorious rulers, Christians were already seduced by the flexibility and prestige Arabic had brought with it. Latin had stagnated as a language of liturgy. Alvarus disdained at the renunciation of the language of the Church, recalling that ‘for every one who can write a letter in Latin to a friend, there are a thousand who can expresses themselves in Arabic with elegance and write better poems in this language than the Arabs themselves’. This is evidence which suggests that local Iberian Christians connected with the prevailing Arab-Islamic culture sweeping before them. Young Spaniards – Muslims, Christians and Jews – readily embraced Arabic because it represented technological and scientific advancement, with unerring access to the bulging libraries of Cordoba and Toledo. In truth, the process was a generational game which consolidated positive views of Islam and Arabic culture within the Spanish Christian consciousness. As a result, conversions were not a matter of bloodshed or force which has been prevalent in popular culture. Sons and daughters raised by Christian mothers embraced their new faith because they had been accustomed to a mother tongue connecting them innovation and an empire which spanned much of the known world all the way to the Chinese border, bringing possibilities once unheard of.
Rosa explores a wealth of subjects interconnected with this magnificent culture which seduced all; the power to inspire technological innovations, such as the Astrolabe; the first Latin translation of the Qu’ran by the Abbot of Cluny, and the irony of powerful Castilian monarchs that created Christian monuments adorned specifically in Arabic calligraphy and Islamic plasterwork.
The siege mentality which broke Spain’s and Europe’s finest multicultural society ended up laying the seeds for mono-faith, monolingual nations. And yet, even amidst the tragic hour before the expulsion for the last Muslims and Jews of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella donned Moorish robes, perhaps a sign that they had been seduced by the evocations of the Al-Hambra and Spain’s Islamic heritage. To boot the non-conformists out of Spain and feel comfortable with personal contradictions shows some acknowledge of a past where contradictions within society showed strength.
Contradictions in society though, are either feared or not allowed anymore. Even more reason why the ‘Ornament of the World’ should be remembered beyond the footnotes of history.