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Maria Rosa Menocal: Ornament of the World - an assessment,
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This review is from: The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Paperback)
This intriguing book deals with the religious situation in Spain during some 800 years of mediaeval Spanish history. The author, a professor at Yale, is well versed in the subject and is acquainted with relevant literature in which she is a professional. She writes for the general reader rather than the specialist, and her style is to pick on a series of episodes or portraits of key individuals and write these up rather like a kind of superior journalism. This approach makes for some repetition which is confusing to the reader who is unacquainted with the period.
The theme of the book is that in particular under Ummayad rule and the Caliphate of Cordoba, there was an acceptance by all concerned of contrasting religious faiths and a consequent harmony which in our own day we do well to learn from. The degree to which the author believes in her theme, and her growing enthusiasm for it, is shown by her occasional use of the term 'interfaith' as the book concludes to describe the Muslim years. To say the least of it, this is surprising. Others who have studied and described the Muslim Spanish centuries have come to quite different conclusions. In my judgement, the theme is seriously over-presented. There was nothing like interfaith in mediaeval Spain. There was no inter-religious tolerance, as distinct from inter-cultural penetration, as we understand it. There is a large body of contrary evidence which Menocal either does not mention or brushes aside. This is serious because the study of mediaeval Spanish life and culture is a minority interest and not many have the background to challenge the theme of a book highly praised in Christianity Today magazine.
We receive the impression that the high level of conversion from Christianity to Islam (perhaps 20% by 800AD; 50% by 1000AD; 90% by 1200AD) is due to a perception of the superiority of Islamic culture to current Christian culture: but it is far more likely that conversion was a reaction to the cultural, social and political subjection to which the dhimma system steadily reduced the Christian communities. This subjection has documentary evidence from the period and also has been replicated throughout the areas around the Mediterranean which Islam has come to dominate.
Entirely absent from the book is any appreciation of the issues of truth which are raised when different faith communities attempted to live in one social and political unit. There is no discussion of theology and creed at any point in the book. By implication, such matters are, or at any rate were, of no moment. This explains Menocal's negative approach to the various Berber invasions of Islamic southern Spain and the invaders' thoroughly intolerant view of the presence of Christians and Jews in Muslim regions. But the Berber rejection of non-Muslim communities was driven by a perception of what was true in terms of the Quran and its subsequent traditions, and was thus far closer to genuine Islamic practice than had been the attitudes of the easygoing, pleasure-loving rulers of early centuries. In the same way, the Christian obverse of the Berber attitude, bitterly criticised as the book draws to a close, can be interpreted in part as a Catholic conception of what the truth of the Catholic interpretation of Christianity required.
Ornament of the World is a politically correct, postmodern book in which there is no value given to the possibility of truth, distinctive truth, arising from religious belief: and it is therefore assumed without question that those who act from motives of distinctive belief are necessarily less human, less humane than those who are prepared to "live with contradiction" which is one of the author's frequent phrases of commendation. The end of the book brings the theme up-to-date: an epilogue is written after the destruction of the World Trade Centre on the 11 September 2001. Unless we can get back to the life and times of mediaeval Spain, it is implied, we are in for this sort of trouble more and more. But mediaeval Spain does not teach the lesson which this message requires it to and thus provides a false hope for those who accept it. At this level, the message of the book is quite serious as well as false.
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Initial post: 7 Mar 2008 20:50:33 GMT
P. Worden says:
Why does a customer not hesitate to put her/his name to these opinions. It makes the whole piece worthless. Please Amazon refuse to print anonymous submissions
Posted on 5 Oct 2015 23:26:20 BDT
I have to agree with this review. The book makes a pleasant read but is underpinned by a rather hopeful optimism for a lost 'Golden Age' that lacks the necessary analysis to back it up. This lack of critical analysis will annoy anyone with an interest in the history of the Peninsular.
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