August 9, 2010


Before the Moor's Last Sigh: 'The Ornament of the World' by Maria Rosa Menocal and 'The Clash of Fundamentalisms' by Tariq Ali (Fouad Ajami, April 28, 2002, Washington Post)

Yale historian Maria Rosa Menocal has written an affecting portrait of that lost Iberian world. In her splendid account, it was effervescent but feeble, stalked by Muslim puritanism from across the Strait of Gibraltar and by Christian zealotry to the north.

Menocal didn't set out to write a book about Islamic tolerance against the background of the terror attacks of Sept. 11; she had finished her book shortly beforehand. In a brief set of remarks, she concedes the painful irony of her stories of tolerance in the aftermath of Sept. 11. In her portrait of that vanished time, zealots also make an appearance, and the timeless battle between the standard-bearers of reason and the preachers of holy vigilance plays out with fury.

The beauty of Menocal's work lies in her craftsmanship and patience, in her eye for the illuminating anecdote, for the stray life that catches a time and its wonder. For me, the redeeming gift of this book (and its unintended consoling message for the pockets of modernity in the Muslim world and their isolated, embattled standard-bearers) is the way a measure of intellectual and cultural brilliance survived the Andalusian regime's political troubles and political breakdown.

It was in Cordoba, Menocal tells us, during the terrible dark reign of the Almoravids of North Africa, that two great, towering intellects were born: Ibn Rushd (Averroes) in 1126, and Musa ibn Maymun (Maimonides) in 1135. Averroes's retrieval of and commentary on Aristotle and Maimonides's Guide for the Perplexed were to prove enduring works of scholarship and imagination. Both men, according to Menocal, shared a basic vision that can be characterized as the defense of human freedom. These two men of God and philosophy were constructing heroic defenses of a worldview that they were born into and that they were educated to take for granted. Yet this dream of reason and tolerance disappeared in their lifetimes. Both died in exile: Averroes in 1198 in Marrakech, Maimonides in 1204 in Egypt. For both, the Andalusian world became, in Menocal's turn of phrase, "a memory palace."

In truth, that golden age of Al-Andalus was relatively brief -- from the early years of the 10th century to the middle years of the 11th. Islam had stayed long in the Peninsula: Nearly eight centuries separate the Muslim conquest from the fall of Granada. The Jews had partaken of it all: There were seasons of bliss and times of terror. There were benevolent, worldly Muslim rulers who raised their Jewish courtiers to great heights of power, and there were preachers and mobs who cut them down whenever they could. There was Cordoba, on the banks of the Guadilquivir, the ornament of the world, secular to the core, and there were the merciless bands of zealots, fundamentalist warriors from North Africa, who had brought with them the ways of plunder and intolerance. By the early years of the 13th century, the Andalusians had effectively lost their political freedom. Cordoba fell to Christian forces in 1236, Valencia in 1238. Two years later, it was Seville's turn.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 9, 2010 5:21 PM
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