The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain
Maria Rosa Menocal
In the middle of the eighth century, Abd al-Rahman left his home in Damascus, escaping as the sole survivor of the massacre of his family, the Umayyads, who had first led Muslims into Syria. After five years, the young man settled in a place he called al-Andalus, the Arabic word for Iberia. Al-Rahman built himself a palatial home after the fashion of his childhood residence and established the Muslim capital of the West in al-Andalus. In this splendid historical survey, Menocal, director of the Whitney Center at Yale, narrates the story of Islam's development in the West as well as the tale of how Christianity, Judaism and Islam once flourished side –by side, tolerating one another and borrowing language, art and architecture from each other.
Surveying the major Spanish cities of the Middle Ages—Toledo, Córdoba, Seville and others—Menocal demonstrates that despite the intractable differences among these three religions they shared a belief that their contradictions could be productive and positive. In Córdoba, for example, Muslims treated the dhimmi, as Jews and Christians were called, with great respect. They were not forced to convert to Islam, as were pagan peoples, and in return Christians and Jews were prohibited from proselytizing Muslims. Although the glory of this medieval world of religious tolerance could not outlast the Crusades or the Inquisition, Menocal shows that even today, especially in art and architecture, traces of this world remain. Engaging prose and lucid insights provide glimpses into a little-discussed chapter of religious history.