By Maria Rosa Menocal

 

The lessons of history, like the lessons of religion, sometimes neglect examples of tolerance. A thousand years ago on the Iberian Peninsula, an enlightened vision of Islam had created the most advanced culture in Europe . A nun in Saxony learned of this kingdom from a bishop, the caliph's ambassador to Germany and one of several prominent members of his diplomatic corps who were not Muslims; the bishop most likely reported to the man who ran the foreign ministry, who was a Jew.

Al Andalus, as the Muslims called their Spanish homeland, prospered in a culture of openness and assimilation. The nun, named Hroswitha, called it "the ornament of the world."

Her admiration stemmed from the cultural prosperity of the caliphate based in Cordoba , where the library housed some 400,000 volumes at a time when the largest library in Latin Christendom probably held no more than 400. What strikes us today about Al Andalus is that it was a chapter of European history during which Jews, Christians and Muslims lived side by side and, despite intractable differences and enduring hostilities, nourished a culture of tolerance.

This only sometimes meant guarantees of religious freedoms comparable to those we would expect in a modern "tolerant" state. Rather, it was the often unconscious acceptance of contradictions on an individual level as well as within the culture itself.

Much that was characteristic of medieval culture was rooted in the cultivation of the charms and challenges of contradictions — of the "yes and no," as it was put by Peter Abelard, the provocative 12th-century Parisian intellectual and Christian theologian. A century after his death, Abelard's heirs, Christian professors and students on the Left Bank of the Seine, were among the most avid readers of the two great philosophers of Al Andalus: one Jewish, Maimonides, and one Muslim, Averroes.

For many who came to know Andalusian culture throughout the Middle Ages, whether at first hand or from afar — from reading a translation produced there or from hearing a poem sung by one of its renowned singers — the bright lights of that world, and their illumination of the rest of the universe, transcended differences of religion. It was in Al Andalus that the profoundly Arabized Jews rediscovered and reinvented Hebrew poetry. Much of what was created and instilled under Muslim rule survived in Christian territories, and Christians embraced nearly all aspects of Arabic style — from philosophy to architecture. Christian palaces and churches, like Jewish synagogues, were often built in the style of the Muslims, the walls often covered with Arabic writing; one synagogue in Toledo even includes inscriptions from the Koran.

And it was throughout medieval Europe that men of unshakable faith, like Abelard and Maimonides and Averroes, saw no contradiction in pursuing the truth, whether philosophical or scientific or religious, across confessional lines. This was an approach to life — and its artistic, intellectual and religious pursuits — that was contested by many, sometimes violently, as it is today. Yet it remained a powerful force for hundreds of years.

Whether it is because of our mistaken notions about the relative backwardness of the Middle Ages or our own contemporary expectations that culture, religion and political ideology will be roughly consistent, we are likely to be taken aback by many of the lasting monuments of this Andalusian culture. The tomb of St. Ferdinand, the king remembered as the Christian conqueror of the last of all the Islamic territories, save Granada , is matter-of-factly inscribed in Arabic, Hebrew, Latin and Castilian.

 
The caliphate was not destroyed, as hpw our cliches of the Middle Ages would have it, by Christian-Muslim warfare. It lasted for several hundred years — roughly the lifespan of the American republic to date — and its downfall was a series of terrible civil wars among Muslims. These wars were a struggle between the old ways of the caliphate — with its libraries filled with Greek texts and its government staffed by non-Muslims — and reactionary Muslims, many of them from Morocco , who believed the Cordobans were not proper Muslims. The palatine city just outside the capital, symbol of the wealth and the secular aesthetics of the caliph and his entourage, was destroyed by Muslim armies.

But in the end, much of Europe far beyond the Andalusian world was shaped by the vision of complex and contradictory identities that was first made into an art form by the Andalusians. The enemies of this kind of cultural openness have always existed within each of our monotheistic religions, and often enough their visions of those faiths have triumphed. But at this time of year, and at this point in history, we should remember those moments when it was tolerance that won the day.

Maria Rosa MenocWhitney Humanities Center at Yale and author of "The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. al is director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale and author of "The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.

María Rosa Menocal was a Cuban-born scholar of medieval culture and history and Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University. Menocal earned a B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. Before joining the Yale faculty in 1986, she taught Romance philology at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 2002, Menocal wrote the book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, which has been translated into many languages, and includes an introduction by fellow Yale Sterling Professor in the Humanities Harold Bloom. The book focuses on tolerance in Medieval Spain within the Muslim and Christian kingdoms through political examples as well as cultural examples.

Menocal was director of the Yale Whitney Humanities Center for several years and was the co-editor of The Literature of Al-Andalus in the Cambridge History of Arabic Literatureseries.

She was the mentor of numerous scholars of medieval Iberia, including Howard Miller, Maria Willstedt, Lourdes Maria Alvarez, Ryan Szpiech, Nadia Altschul, and the author Carolina Sanin. She was elected a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America in 2011 and inducted into the Fellows of the Medieval Academy in March 2012. Menocal died on October 15, 2012, of cancer.

 

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