Discovering Sepharad/Al-Andalus: A Short Reading List

I guess it was the recent New York Times profile of the hateful extremist Pamela Geller that set me off again.

Though the controversy over the Park51 Islamic community center has died down slightly over the past few weeks, the way in which the culture of Islam has been demonized, particularly by radical Ashkenazi Jews like Ms. Geller who have successfully entered our mainstream media, remains a fixture in the current discussion.

In an attempt to ameliorate what I feel is a widespread ignorance about the important subject of Muslim Spain, called by Jews Sepharad and by Muslims Al-Andalus, I have prepared a short reading – and viewing – list for your consideration.



1. Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Little, Brown, 2002)

In the wake of 9/11 there was a pressing need for a book geared to a general audience that would present the history of Muslim Spain and its epochal achievements. The Muslim past was little-known to American readers and The Ornament of the World was a heroic attempt to provide a picture of a polyglot and cultured Islamic world that could act as a corrective to the many books that argued for Muslim barbarity. Menocal’s book was vilified in many Conservative quarters for being too romantic and optimistic a picture of the era. The post-9/11 march to demonize the whole of Arab-Muslim civilization was now on in earnest. But those readers who did examine the book carefully found a thoughtful and lucid exposition of a world that continues to dazzle us in its cultural achievements.

2. Chris Lowney, A Vanished World: Medieval Spain’s Golden Age of Enlightenment (Free Press, 2005)

Lowney, a former Jesuit who became a financial manager, came to the subject of Muslim Spain from a religious perspective. Seeking to provide a clear introduction to the emerging Interfaith Dialogue groups who sought to give a chance to peaceful discussion rather than hateful name-calling, A Vanished World covers much of the same territory as Menocal’s book, but uses a more pronounced religious context in which to explicate the history of Al-Andalus. The book is a rousing success that presents the old Sephardic world to a religious audience keen to better understand the rich cultural legacy that it can provide us at present.

Posted on November 22, 2010

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