María Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval SpainThe Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by María Rosa Menocal

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In a time of national or international crisis, we understandably have an instinct to rush toward those new works of popular nonfiction sold as solutions to our most urgent problems. Reading the works hailed as salvific during previous social calamities is counterintuitive—why read those dated books?—but may prove more enlightening, especially when we consider that our time, too, will soon be dated. These older books will instruct us that peril is perennial. They may also show that fashionable solutions are evanescent, on the one hand, or, more charitably, that in rushing from crisis to crisis, from X solution to Y solution, we have let some good ideas get away from us. The Ornament of the World, the late Yale philologist’s María Rosa Menocal’s popular valentine to al-Andalus, released in 2002, between the attacks of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, illustrates the latter principle: this is a book we could stand to reread in 2020, not despite but because it challenges certain recently hardened orthodoxies.

In a postscript, Menocal notes that she completed her manuscript shortly before 9/11 and did not revise in light of the attack. Her occasion for writing a popular book on al-Andalus—about which she had already published extensively as a literary scholar—seems to have been the wars in the Balkans and the travails of Salman Rushdie, both discussed in her epilogue as disheartening modern violations of the Andalusian spirit. These events, even before the fall of the Twin Towers, portended for some commentators a civilizational clash between Islam and the West, and therefore invited an exploration of a historical moment notable for amity among Muslims, Christians, and Jews, and notable too for the rich internal diversity of Islamic culture in the period.

Menocal was not a historian and The Ornament of the World is not a history. It gives the entire history of Muslim Spain in its first chapter, a brief and cursory treatment that may leave the non-specialist reader—and I am such a reader—lost in the flurry of names across the sweep of centuries. The historical high points, in her treatment, are as follows.

The internecine feuds in eighth-century Damascus among Muhammad’s literal and figurative heirs led to an East/West split in the House of Islam. The Abbasid dynasty founded the famous caliphate in Baghdad, site of a well-known cultural renaissance spanning what we know as the “Middle Ages,” informed in part by the caliphate’s inheritance and translation of ancient Greek thought, a legacy then lost to Europe. The heir to the Umayyad dynasty fled to Spain—al-Andalus in Arabic—then under what Menocal portrays as the squalid misrule of the Visigoths, and founded what was eventually proclaimed a rival western caliphate centered on the city of Cordoba. Given the multi-ethnic and multi-religious composition of the Iberian Peninsula at this time, and given Islam’s conception of Christians and Jews as fellow “people of the book,” Cordoban culture was distinctly tolerant, allowing the peaceful co-existence of the rival monotheisms.

Moreover, the Arabic translations of Greek philosophy made their way west from Baghdad to al-Andalus, which furthered a cultural atmosphere of pluralism, tolerance, and sophistication that would become a model for northern Christendom. Though the Umayyad Caliphate was overthrown in a civil war in the early 11th century, it was succeeded by the taifa kingdoms, or independent Muslim principalities throughout the Iberian Peninsula, that in part, Menocal shows, carried on the best of Andalusian cosmopolitanism. Al-Andalus came to an end with the Christian reconquest of Spain in 1492, an event marked by the forced conversion—or else expulsion—of Muslims and Jews. Andalusian culture was finally exterminated in the subsequent century by the Inquisition’s hostility toward any cultural or religious plurality—the Arabic language, for instance, was banned—and its proto-racist ideology of “pure blood,” which targeted Christians thought to be descended from Muslim and Jewish converts.

Menocal’s summary chapter is labelled “A Brief History of a First-Rate Place,” an allusion to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s aphorism, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” just as Andalusia held in productive tension not only the three major monotheisms but also nascently secular aesthetic and scientific cultures derived from pagan Greek and Arab sources. The rest of the book, under the rubric “Palaces of Memory,” offers fragmentary portraits of notable people, places, and events that encapsulate Andalusian history with poetic headings, such as “The Mosque and the Palm Tree,” “Love and Its Songs,” and “The Church at the Top of the Hill.” With this mosaic structure, Menocal owes an artistic debt to the late 20th century’s most celebrated literary novelists—she favors magical realism as a modern Andalusian inheritance and singles out Rushdie and Borges for praise; we might also think of Calvino, Ondaatje, Morrison, and Winterson—though I must observe that it’s a debt her often slangy prose can’t always pay.

Again, Menocal was not a historian and this book is not a history: it’s a kind of nonfiction fabulism for the general reader, intended to make a point, and my sense is that professional historians have accused its author of oversimplification and romanticism. Historians may deplore Menocal’s novelization-by-other-means, but then non-historians, even ones highly educated in other fields, are hardly going to comb through the records themselves to extract sense from our omni-chaotic past. Writing and reading popular history as fiction may be regrettable, but, like many regrettable things, it is also inevitable. The question is what moral Menocal expects us to take from her story and what we can do with it in our own time.

Her main thesis is that almost all the cultural achievements we tend to think of as modern and western came through al-Andalus. It was from the love songs of pre-Islamic Arabia, transformed into popular Andalusian song and then brought in the form of singing girls to the court of Aquitaine, that the Troubadours learned the art of the lyric that became modern European poetry; it was the popular oral storytelling of Persia, Baghdad, and Cordoba, later assembled into written collections with narrative frames such as Petrus Alfonsi’s 12th-century Priestly Tales, that birthed the modern secular fiction of Boccaccio and Chaucer. The idea of vernacular literature itself, so important to the later development of the European nations, was given impetus by the clash of languages on the Iberian Peninsula and the development of modern forms of Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin.

Furthermore, Andalusia reintroduced the whole corpus of Aristotle into European civilization, immensely enriching medieval Christianity in the process, as well as inspiring an incipient culture of reason and science, a culture demonstrated most endearingly in the name of Abelard and Heloise’s son: Astrolabe, named for “an instrument capable of accurate astronomical measurements, which enabled astronomers to calculate the positions of the stars and, thus, relative time,” a tool introduced from al-Andalus to Europe in the 11th century. Just as the architecture of pre-Gothic Christian churches owed its style to Islamic design, almost every aspect of European arts and sciences bear the stamp of Islam’s Spanish Golden Age.

What followed the reconquista, by contrast, was a much diminished European ethos of “single-language and single-religion nations” that denied their own enlivening inner plurality. Our vaunted modernity may be regressive, while the so-called Middle Ages was a genuine renaissance under the aegis of Islam. Menocal doesn’t assign blame for this fall from her Andalusian utopia to any one group or faith. She shows fundamentalist elements existing in all three of the monotheistic religions that threaten to challenge any pluralist or secular culture, from fanatical Spanish Christians resentful of Muslim rule to Berber invaders practicing a “purer” form of Islam than the Umayyads. She captures the inner struggle between intolerant faith and complex secularity most poignantly in her portrait of Judah Halevi, the 12th-century Jewish poet, heir to the Andalusian reinvention of Hebrew from a pious to a lyrical language, who eventually renounced poetry and all his own works in the name of faith:

He repented not merely for himself; he also denounced a culture, his culture, which he saw as decadent, and he wrote treatises against the very poetry that he had once brilliantly composed and performed. Halevi’s defection caused disquiet and discomfort among the vast majority of Jewish intellectuals and literati of the twelfth century, most of whom took for granted that civilized people—like themselves, and unlike so many of their unwashed Jewish and Christian brethren to the north—could as a matter of course do things like read philosophy in Arabic and recite reams of poetry in Arabic and, more recently, in Hebrew, too, if they were Jews. […] Halevi was rejecting—and this was precisely what his own community found so inexplicable—the very premise of the commensurability of the two, poetry and religion.

While Menocal ostensibly celebrates religious diversity, Ornament gives a strong sense that religion itself is an obstacle to a “first-rate” intelligence or society. As I’ve already noted, she tends to portray much of what was glorious in al-Andalus as descending either from pre-Islamic Arabian aesthetics or pre-Christian Greek philosophy—that is, from the robust pagan cultures monotheism half-destroyed and half-digested. This Yale scholar really seems to advocate the development in Andalusia of a disinterested, nonpartisan, politically and religiously non-aligned, scientific- and aesthetic-minded academic culture of a type that was endangered by profiteers without and ideologues within when she was writing and which has, two decades later, almost entirely been vanquished by the same forces.

Menocal concludes her narrative with Cervantes, writing Don Quixote over a century after the reconquista. This complex metafiction is not only about the relation between stories and real life, but it also purports to be a translation, made in Toledo’s old Jewish quarter, of a found Arabic text. Cervantes, in other words, invented the “modern” and “European” novel, with all of its skepticism and perspectivism, out of the fragments left by a totalitarian culture’s destruction of Muslim Spain:

The story of sixteenth-century Spain, which is usually told as the story of its remarkable American empire, or the explosion of a modern literary aesthetic in texts that rival Shakespeare’s, is no less the tragic story of the forced extinction of the two other religious cultures that had once made up Spain. But this tragic story—the story of forgetting a past in Toledo where there is a church with an homage to Arabic writing on its walls, and where there is a sumptuous fourteenth-century synagogue built to look like Granada’s Alhambra, and where Europe’s richest libraries and most industrious translators of philosophical and scientific texts once sat—is inseparable from the other stories of the age that culminates with Don Quixote de La Mancha. […] The modern novel is forged out of very real Inquisitorial fires out of a historical calamity that can only be alluded to covertly, and it asks us, among other things to contemplate the ways in which fiction can be a refuge, not only in the sense of an escape from reality but in the sense of a hiding place.

From Cervantes and his parodic inquisition of the books in Don Quixote is only a short step to our own multicultural magical realism—and to the bonfire of vanities that almost consumed Salman Rushdie. Finally, Menocal wants to say, there can be no absolute line drawn between Christian and Islamic and Jewish traditions, between Arab and European “races,” since all were so intermingled in medieval Spain that every signature European “innovation” passed through or came out of Arab institutions and every aspect of Muslim culture was enriched by Jewish and Christian additions. A timely moral for 2002.

How timely is her message in 2020? Not very. Maybe some blame must attach to the book itself for this. It’s hard to miss the blurbs on the paperback from Fouad Ajami and Christopher Hitchens, two of the foremost intellectual proponents of the Iraq War. Was Menocal’s sometimes evasive universal humanism serviceable not to the Umayyad empire but to the American one? Was its cosmopolitanism a justification for bringing enlightenment at gunpoint? That the Muslim rulers of al-Andalus practiced slavery, for example, she passes over in only one or two references, and that al-Andalus was a colony established by the invasion and dispossession of a native population she portrays as straightforwardly uncivilized does not seem to trouble her glowing account of Cordoba. Or consider her observation that Christopher Columbus’s translator, among the first Europeans to talk with a Native American, was Luis de Torres, a Jewish converso and hence survivor of Ferdinand and Isabella’s expulsion of the Jews. By the logic of some perverse translatio imperii, it was al-Andalus, not Spain, that settled the Americas. Menocal doesn’t go so far as to make such a claim or celebrate such an equivocal development—though Hitchens certainly would go so far—but neither does she ask any of the hard questions about how, as Walter Benjamin famously observed, every document of culture is a document of barbarism.

On the other hand, the abuses or weaknesses of an ideology do not render its genuine truths wholly moot, nor prevent its adversaries from committing highly questionable excesses of their own. For example, a pedagogical chart from the National Museum of African-American History and Culture recently went viral on social media. The chart enumerated the “aspects and assumptions of whiteness and white culture in the United States,” and included under whiteness such traits as “emphasis on scientific method,” “objective, rational linear thinking,” “no tolerance for deviation from single god concept,” and “written tradition.” Is this chart saying that in a white-dominated culture, these traits—some good, some bad, some context-dependent—will be stereotypically associated with white people? Or does it more disturbingly posit a kind of inverse white supremacy in which some universal and indispensable human endowments, such as the rational faculty, belong to whites alone? In either case, The Ornament of the World would serve as a needed reminder that every attribute I quoted from the chart was overwhelmingly present in al-Andalus, more so than in Northern Europe at the time, and could therefore just as well be captioned “Arab” or “Muslim” as white.

Those mocking the chart, too, could benefit from Menocal’s narrative. Many of them, associated with the so-called Intellectual Dark Web and therefore heirs to that atheist-rationalist movement the aforementioned Christopher Hitchens inspired in the mid-2000s, derided the chart’s racial essentialism as an example of “postmodernism.” Yet Menocal declares that postmodernism—Borges, Rushdie—is in its pluralism, skepticism, and aestheticism the avatar of Andalusian culture in our time. As a number of social media users pointed out, the ideas in the chart may come from the “axiological” theories of Edwin J. Nichols, not a postmodern philosopher but rather an industrial psychologist, which is to say a management consultant, whose fourfold division of “philosophical aspects of cultural difference” is so reductive it has to be seen to be believed. Needless to say, Nichols puts the European (“Counting and Measuring”) and the Arab (“Union of opposites”) into different categories, as if the “European” didn’t have to learn all about counting and measuring from the “Arab,” and as if almost a millennium’s worth of “European” artists, from the Troubadours forward, didn’t try to introduce some “union-of-opposites” spiritual intuitions to western readers. With antiracists like these, we hardly need racists.

Management, that dimension of power that Menocal admittedly neglects, explains why so many of those who claim to advocate for antiracism today may be vulnerable to the corruption of their ideals to repressive and violent ends, just as Hitchens may have found a warrant for war as “liberation” in Menocal’s utopia. Menocal’s liberal and belletrist literary mosaic can be rephrased in the power-conscious idiom of the postmodern humanities, and perhaps should be, so that readers can be on their guard against the moral decay to which all values are subject if not scrutinized.

Take, for instance, Klaus Theweleit, famous anatomist of fascism’s Male Fantasies, who likewise published in 2002 an essay on the breakdown of pluralist societies titled “Playstation Cordoba, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Etc.: A War Model,” translated from the German by Thomas Pepper in issues 54 and 55 of the journal Cultural Critique. Theweleit, like Menocal, focuses on Andalusia, but via a film on the subject by the Egyptian director Youssef Chahine. Chahine’s Destiny shows the polity to have been undone by a collaboration between enemy fundamentalists from within and without. In other words, internal and external totalitarian enemies incite and exploit plural societies’ inevitable social divisions, heightening them to conflagration, so that they can rule in the aftermath.

Chahine constructs all of this as the basis of a kind of political model: scientific, knowledgeable, artistic, and commercially successful hybrid societies, essentially pleasure oriented, but not in a manner primarily under the aegis of sin; cultures with a strong and open female presence, and, in addition to all of this, a tendency toward secular religiosity and the development of philosophy as of art—all of this is destroyed by playing on, as well as by sowing and making use of, individuals’ feelings of guilt about their trespasses. Inasmuch as the internal conflicts—which themselves are always occurring between different groups of a society—are heated up and intensified by means of a fundamentalist order setting itself up as a military counterforce, all of these groups somehow, step by step, become ready for armed conflict, and the whole thing finally blows up in an ethnic pogrom. […] What is important and central here is the banding together of fundamentalists from both sides for the purpose of the extinction of the worldly, hybrid culture.

Theweleit’s “war model” may explain why today’s so-called multiculturalism is so different from the cosmopolitan Andalusian spirit Menocal describes. As respectable academic and journalistic books under review on this website—Saunder’s Cultural Cold War, Spahr’s Du Bois’s Telegram—have argued, much of what we today consider multiculturalism or antiracism was born at midcentury in those old-money WASP strongholds, the CIA and the State Department, as psychological operations with the goal of disarticulating and discrediting communist universalism. And leftists, it should be said, play on exactly the same divisions to exactly the same end from their own seats of influence in the universities and activist networks. No ideology is free from the will-to-power. The logic is the classic thinking of the powerful or would-be powerful in every time: divide and rule. Theweleit tartly denounces the result: “the ethno-zoological parceling up of humanity into little peoples made into enemies and divided into ‘races,’ each penned up and feeding from its own church trough, claiming universal validity for its own swill.”

The Ornament of the World, by contrast, shows us what is better than the division of humanity or the pursuit of power, what the university used to enshrine, and what so often remains when the names of kings and caliphs and their wars have long been forgotten: astronomy and philosophy, literature and song—even if only in palaces of memory.



  1. John, this is a piece of maximal effort. Thank you for your civic-mindedness and the will you choose to impose upon the internet without fear yet with precision.

Comments are closed.