found expression in the often unconscious acceptance that contradictions—within oneself, as well as within one’s culture—could be positive and productive


ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MID-EIGHTH CENTURY, AN INTREPID young man named Abd al-Rahman abandoned his home in Damascus, the Near Eastern heartland of Islam, and set out across the North African desert in search of a place of refuge. Damascus had become a slaughterhouse for his family, the ruling Umayyads, who had first led the Muslims out of the desert of Arabia into the high cultures of the Fertile Crescent. With the exception of Abd al-Rahman, the Umayyads were eradicated by the rival Abbasids, who seized control of the great empire called the “House of Islam.” This sole survivor was undoubtedly too young—he was in his late teens or early twenties—to be terrified at the odds against him, nor was his flight westward, toward what was the farthest frontier of the Islamic territories, as arbitrary or hopeless as it might have seemed. The prince’s mother was a Berber tribeswoman from the environs of today’s Morocco, which Arab conquerors had reached some years before. From this place, which the Muslims called the Maghrib, the “Far West,” the descendants of the Prophet and his first followers had brought women such as Abd al-Rahman’s mother back east as brides or concubines for the highest-ranking families, to expand and enrich the bloodlines.

The Abbasid massacre of the Umayyads in Syria took place in 750. Abd al-Rahman reappeared in the Far West five years later, and when he finally reached that distant land, he found that many of his Berber kinsmen had themselves emigrated from there. These non-Arab nomads, who in antiquity had settled between the Sahara and the Mediterranean west of the Nile, had been largely converted to Islam and partially Arabized with the westward expansion of Islam in the seventh century. Beginning in 711, the Muslims—here the Berbers under the leadership of the Syrian Arabs—had pushed across the small sliver of sea that separates Africa from Europe, the Strait of Gibraltar, to the place the Romans had called Hispania or Iberia. Unlike Abd alRahman, who crossed the formidable desert as a political refugee, the Berbers of the Maghrib, along with the Syrians who rode at the head of the troops, were driven by military expansiveness and ambition, as well as by that sense of adventure and the desire for a better life that have motivated pioneers throughout history.

Abd al-Rahman followed their trail and crossed the narrow strait at the western edge of the world. In Iberia, a place they were calling al-Andalus in Arabic, the language of the new Muslim colonizers, he found a thriving and expansive Islamic settlement. Its center was on the banks of a river that wound down to the Atlantic coast, the Big Wadi (today, in lightly touched-up Arabic, the Guadalquivir, or Wadi al-Kabir). The new capital was an old city that the former rulers, the Visigoths, had called Khordoba, after the Roman Corduba, who had ruled the city before the Germanic conquest. It was now pronounced Qurtuba, in the new Arabic accents heard nearly everywhere. The governor of that amorphous and fairly detached frontier “province” was understandably taken aback by the unexpected apparition of this assumed-dead Umayyad prince. Out in these hinterlands, after all, so far from the center of the empire, the shift from Umayyad to Abbasid sovereignty had, until that moment, made little real difference in local politics.

The local politics had been shaped perhaps most of all by the often murderous rivalries between the majority Berber rank and file and the Arab leadership, rivalries within this community of Muslims whose animus would decisively dominate the politics of al-Andalus—the name used for the ever-shifting Muslim polities of Iberia, never quite the whole of the peninsula—for half a millennium. The emirs (emir, or amir, is the Arabic word for “governor”) of these Andalusian frontier territories, the westernmost edge of an empire that in the east was then reaching China, had been “clients” of the Umayyads, fairly autonomous representatives of the rather remote central government. Recent word of the Umayyads’ overthrow in Damascus was largely of symbolic importance to Muslims in the west. This was especially so for the majority Berbers, for whom all Arabs were overbearing and brash overlords. Granted, the Arabs had brought the Revelation of the True Faith to these southwestern reaches of the ruined Roman basin—but they had persisted in treating the Berbers as inferiors, even after most had proven to be enthusiastic converts.

With Abd al-Rahman’s arrival in 755, the fate of the House of the Umayya was no longer a distant and abstract matter but the center of local political turmoil. The wild turn of events, and its consequences, can perhaps only be imagined by conjuring the image of Anastasia, and what might have happened if she really had reappeared one day in Paris and unambiguously claimed the survival of the Romanovs. Abd al-Rahman was in some ways the quintessential Arab, the heir and descendant of the desert warriors who were the companions of the Prophet himself, and yet he was no less a Berber, the child of one of their own tribeswomen. This made it easy for him to claim the loyalty of the soldiers and settlers in this fertile and promising new land. The vexed emir of al-Andalus saw at least some of the handwriting on the wall and offered the young man permanent refuge in the capital city as well as his daughter’s hand in marriage. But the grandson of the caliph, the successor to the Prophet and the supreme temporal and spiritual leader of the Islamic world, could not be so easily bought off. Abd al-Rahman assembled forces loyal to him, Syrians and Berbers combined, and one day in May 756, a battle just outside the city walls of Cordoba decisively changed the face of European history and culture. Abd al-Rahman easily defeated his would-be father-in-law and became the new governor of this westernmost province of the Islamic world.

Technically Abd al-Rahman was nothing more than the governor of a frontierlike outpost at the edge of the caliphate, and the caliphate was now under the control of the Abbasids, the regime that had not only overthrown but also slaughtered Abd al-Rahman’s family. But during those half-dozen years since the bloody coup, the Abbasids had moved the capital of the Islamic empire farther east, to Baghdad, away from any lingering traces of Umayyad legitimacy. Abd al-Rahman’s improbable and triumphant resurrection as a viable leader was a disturbing loose end, since he was himself the living and vital memory of that legitimate past, with its direct links to the beginnings of Islam itself. Despite whatever dismay the Abbasids might have felt about the Umayyad who got away, they let him be, no doubt reckoning that in the permanent exile in that backwater to which he was condemned, Abd al-Rahman was as good as dead.

But this young man was, for nearly everyone in those outer provinces, the legitimate caliph, and he was not about to spend the rest of his life in embittered exile. He built his new Andalusian estate, Rusafa, in part to memorialize the old Rusafa deep in the desert steppes northeast of Damascus, where he had last lived with his family, and also, no less, to proclaim that he had survived and that this was indeed the new and legitimate home of the Umayyads. Although it would be two more centuries before one of his descendants actually openly declared that Cordoba was the seat of the caliphate, al-Andalus was transformed and now anything but a mere provincial seat. Here, on the western shores of the Roman empire’s great inland sea, and at the front door of what was not yet truly Europe, a real contender had arrived and settled in.


This book tells the story of how this remarkable turn of events, which actually had its origins in the heart of the seventh century in what we call the Near East, powerfully affected the course of European history and civilization. Many aspects of the story are largely unknown, and the extent of their continuing effects on the world around us is scarcely understood, for numerous and complex reasons. The conventional histories of the Arabic-speaking peoples follow the fork in the road taken by the Abbasids. At precisely the point at which the Umayyad prince sets up his all-but-declared caliphate in Europe, the story we are likely to be told continues with the achievements of the Abbasids, who did indeed make Baghdad the capital of an empire of material and cultural wealth and achievement.

Even the histories traditionally told within the Muslim world rarely take the Umayyad path, and they spend relatively little time in al-Andalus, despite the fact that al-Andalus represents, in one form or another, the presence of Islam in Europe for the subsequent seven-hundred-odd years, some three times the present duration of the American Republic. From the normative perspective of the history of Islam or of the Arabic-speaking peoples, al-Andalus is reckoned more a nostalgic curiosity than anything else—and mostly, in the end, a failure, because Islam did not survive as one of the religions of Europe and because by 1492, Granada, the last Islamic city-state in Europe, was quashed and the “Moors” (the disparaging Christian term for Muslims), along with the Jews, were driven out of Spain. Worse, for us, in the stories that constitute our European heritage, the chapters about the “Middle Ages,” when all these events take place, typically describe a time that was dark and barbaric. In the popular imagination, and even in the vision of most well-educated people, the very adjective “medieval” (which itself comes from the expression “in the middle,” thus signaling a placeholder between two legitimately freestanding eras, the classical and the modern) is often a synonym for an unenlightened, backward, and intolerant culture.

But if we retell the story beginning with the narrative of that intrepid young man who miraculously evaded the annihilation of his line and migrated from Damascus to Cordoba, which he then made over into his new homeland, we end up with an altogether different vision of the fundamental parameters of Europe during the Middle Ages. This is a vision still evident today, in the lasting influence of this complex, rich, and unique civilization. When one walks past synagogues on the Upper West Side of New York City, buildings created by devout German Jews in the nineteenth century, one notices their clear and intentional allusions to mosques—to take one conspicuous and lovely example among hundreds. Yet where are the stories in our education that reveal to us why this is so?

This book aims to follow the road from Damascus taken by Abd al-Rahman, who, Aeneas-like, escaped the devastation of his home to become the first, rather than the last, of his line. It is about a genuine, foundational European cultural moment that qualifies as “first-rate,” in the sense of E Scott Fitzgerald’s wonderful formula (laid out in his essay “The Crack-Up”)—namely, that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time.” In its moments of great achievement, medieval culture positively thrived on holding at least two, and often many more, contrary ideas at the same time. This was the chapter of Europe’s culture when Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived side by side and, despite their intractable differences and enduring hostilities, nourished a complex culture of tolerance, and it is this difficult concept that my subtitle aims to convey. This only sometimes included guarantees of religious freedoms comparable to those we would expect in a modern “tolerant” state; rather, it found expression in the often unconscious acceptance that contradictions—within oneself, as well as within one’s culture—could be positive and productive. Much that was characteristic of medieval culture was profoundly rooted in the cultivation of the complexities, charms, and challenges of contradictions—of the “yes and no,” as it was put by Peter Abelard, the infamous twelfth-century Parisian intellectual and Christian theologian.

The very heart of culture as a series of contraries lay in alAndalus, which requires us to reconfigure the map of Europe and put the Mediterranean at the center, and begin telling at least this part of our own story from an Andalusian perspective. It was there that the profoundly Arabized Jews rediscovered and reinvented Hebrew; there that Christians embraced nearly every aspect of Arabic style—from the intellectual style of philosophy to the architectural styles of mosques—not only while living in Islamic dominions but especially after wresting political control from them; there 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 vision of a culture of tolerance recognized that incongruity in the shaping of individuals as well as their cultures was enriching and productive. It was an approach to life and its artistic and intellectual and even religious pursuits that was contested by many—as it is today—and violently so at times—as it is today—and yet powerful and shaping nevertheless, for hundreds of years. Whether it is because of our clichéd notions about the relative backwardness of the Middle Ages, or our own expectations that culture, religion, and political ideology will be roughly consistent, we are likely to be taken aback by many of the lasting testimonies of this Andalusian culture, monuments like the tomb of Saint Ferdinand in Seville. Ferdinand III is the king remembered as the Castilian conqueror of the last of all the Islamic territories save Granada, and yet his tomb is rather matter-of-factly inscribed in Arabic and Hebrew as well as in Latin and Castilian.

In the end, much of Europe far beyond the Andalusian world, and far beyond modern Spain’s geographical borders, was shaped by the deep-seated vision of complex and contradictory identities that was first elevated to an art form by the Andalusians. “The ornament of the world” is the famous description of Cordoba given to her readers by the tenth-century Saxon writer Hroswitha, who from her far-off convent at Gandersheim perceived the exceptional qualities and the centrality of the Cordobÿn caliphate. Tellingly, Hroswitha coined the expression even as she wrote an account of a Mozarab Christian martyr of the tenth century. For her, and eventually for most others 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. And I too use the expression generously; as this book’s title, it means to describe the culture that long survived and transcended the destruction of the caliphate of Hroswitha’s time, the culture that centuries later did produce the tomb of Saint Ferdinand, and did give a “Moorish” style to some of New York City’s nineteenth-century synagogues.

Rather than retell the history of the Middle Ages, or even that of medieval Spain, I have strung together a series of miniature portraits that range widely in time and place, and that are focused on cultural rather than political events. They will, I hope, lay bare the vast distance between what the conventional histories and other general prejudices would have us expect (that, for example, Christians saw the Muslim infidels as their mortal enemy and spent seven hundred years trying to drive them from Spain) and what we can learn from the many testimonies that survive in the songs people really sang or the buildings they really put up. These vignettes and profiles highlight stories that in and of themselves seem to me worth knowing and worth retelling as part of our common history. Beyond that, together, they point to some of the unknown depths of cultural tolerance and symbiosis in our heritage, and they may begin to suggest a very different overall portrait of this “middle” age. It would be foolish to try to replace all the older clichés with another equally simplistic new one—to suggest that this was a world devoid of all manner of intolerance and darkness. What age, no matter how golden, is? But how many among us know the stories that also make the Middle Ages a golden age, in fact a whole series of golden ages?

Before these stories can make much sense, the larger scene needs to be set. Before we can return to Cordoba in the spring of 756, we need to conjure up some vision of that strange land. Who were the fellow Muslims Abd al-Rahman found in alAndalus, and how had they come to be there? What was that place, Europe, where they lived? And just what did happen to that Islamic polity in medieval Europe during the hundreds of years before it disappeared altogether, leaving the world behind it transfigured? (Pg.23)

WE&P by: EZorrillaM.

“The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain” by Maria Rosa Menocal.

One response to “found expression in the often unconscious acceptance that contradictions—within oneself, as well as within one’s culture—could be positive and productive”

  1. I Appreciate this it made me feel like hope is still alive thank you