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.

3. David Levering Lewis, God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 (Norton, 2009)

The latest entry in the popular library on Andalusia comes from an unexpected place. Levering Lewis is an African-American scholar best-known for his definitive biography of the great thinker and social activist W.E.B. DuBois. But after 9/11 he too decided to go back in time and try to better understand the place of Islam in the European world. The result is a book that expertly traces the many intertwined paths that stretch from the Middle East, Persia, North Africa, and Europe during the period that begins with the Roman twilight and crests with the struggle between Islam and Christianity in the Mediterranean-European world. God’s Crucible provides a sharp counterpoint to those who mark the Arab-Islamic place in European history as negligible. It schools the reader in a complex yet surprising history that can illuminate the dynamic interplay that animated the medieval world and the role it played in Western civilization.

4. Richard E. Rubenstein, Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims, and Jews Rediscovered Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Dark Ages (Harcourt, 2003)

Using the motif of Hellenistic wisdom and how it was transmitted after the fall of Rome, Rubenstein traces a story of a profound Arabo-Islamic influence on the emerging European culture that is encapsulated in the Renaissance. The Renaissance does not come out of nowhere, and Aristotle’s Children brilliantly describes the process by which the ancient philosophical-scientific tradition snaked its way from dead empires to a later era. It recounts many European names now obscure to us and highlights the significance of the translation movement in Medieval Spain that brought Jews, Muslims and Christians together in institutions that served as incubators for the promulgation of this valuable wisdom.

5. “El Cid” (Anthony Mann, 1961)

Perhaps the greatest of the Hollywood historical epics, “El Cid” remains an important point of reference for the popular understanding of Medieval Spain. Telling the story of the military adventurer Rodrigo Diaz, a national hero in Spain for many generations, “El Cid” is perhaps the first expression of the idea of Convivencia for the general Western audience. In the film, a buff Charlton Heston and a lovely Sophia Loren look to save the polyglot, multicultural Spain from Muslim Berber fanatics who seek to destroy what the extremists see as an effete and secular realm that is opposed to the literal truth of Islam. The film, directed by the great stylist Anthony Mann, is a plea for compassion and tolerance in a sea of hate and fanaticism. It continues to have many important lessons to teach us today.

6. The Song of the Cid (Translated by Burton Raffel, Introduction by Maria Rosa Menocal, Penguin Books, 2009)

The national epic of Spain, the poem of the Cid is an epic work that shows us a Europe still enthralled by Arabo-Islamic culture. In the midst of his military exploits, the Cid is shown as a man whose life is informed by Arabic adab, a way of behaving that expresses moral fineness and altruistic ideals. The Cid is a complex man whose history provides us with a multi-layered figure whose nobility represents the courtly ideal in Medieval Europe. The poem remains one of the defining moments of European culture and presents a world where Muslims and Christians were intimately connected to one another.

7. Maria Rosa Menocal, Raymond P. Scheindlin and Michael Sells, editors, The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: The Literature of Al-Andalus (Cambridge University Press, 2000)

My one concession to the expensive world of specialist studies is this extraordinary collection of academic essays on the many aspects of literary creativity and social culture in Muslim Spain. The work is a comprehensive yet accessible volume written by expert academics that covers the most important aspects of Andalusian-Sephardic civilization. Framed by a brilliant introductory essay by Maria Rosa Menocal that places this civilization in its proper context, The Literature of Al-Andalus provides the reader with a dazzling array of scholarly studies which display a deep understanding and appreciation for the uniqueness of what was created in this brilliant cultural movement.

8. Peter Cole, translator and editor, The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain 950-1492 (Princeton University Press, 2007)

In an astonishing work of cultural reclamation, the poet and scholar Peter Cole has for the first time presented the English reader with a comprehensive selection of poems from the Hebrew poets of Sepharad. Poetry was the lifeblood of Arab literary creativity over many centuries, from the pre-Islamic period known as the Jahiliyya to the cutting edge modernism of Adonis and his school. An important part of the Jewish acculturation to the Arabic model was the adoption of this new poetic and literary sensibility. Amazingly, Cole’s anthology is the first such work in any language–including Hebrew–and reminds us that while this Hebrew-Arabic symbiosis was once central to Jewish self-understanding, today we have a whole new set of values that inform Jewish identity. The Dream of the Poem is a superb evocation of a culture rich in wondrous literary motifs and extraordinary poetic grace and power. It is a world of enchanted gardens, beautiful women and religious devotion that set new standards of excellence in Hebrew literature and remains the high point of Sephardic civilization.

9. Joel L. Kraemer, Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds (Doubleday, 2008)

Along with fellow Cordoban Ibn Rushd, better known in the West as Averroes, Moses ben Maimon took the Greco-Roman legacy and expertly adapted its ideals and values to a monotheistic context best described as Religious Humanism. Far from slavish imitation, the work of Maimonides transformed the ancient paganism and the primitive Jewish monotheism into a heady amalgamation of rationalism, ethical values, science and religious devotion into a triumphant synthesis that remains the summa of all Jewish thinking. The Andalusian-Sephardic orientation of Maimonides remains central to understanding the towering cultural edifice that was erected in Muslim Spain and the profound influence it had on the transmission of knowledge and civilization to the Christian West. Though contemporary religion has once again slid back into superstitious ignorance and literalist fundamentalism, the work of Maimonides continues to provide a brilliantly wise alternative to such ignorance.

10. Jose Faur, In the Shadow of History: Jews and Conversos at the Dawn of Modernity (State University of New York Press, 1992)

Muslim Spain was progressively eaten away by the military attacks of the Christian north which eventually ended the famed Convivencia and brought down on its Jews and Muslims a crushing blow of crusade and inquisition that led to the Expulsion edict of 1492 and the end of Sepharad/Al-Andalus as we know it. In a critically important study of the Jewish community and its handling of the Christian destruction of the old polyglot culture of Muslim Spain, Jose Faur focuses on the emergence of a class of Jewish converts to Christianity, known in Spanish as Conversos, and the role that they played in the historical development of European culture. Lamenting the dissolution of Maimonidean Religious Humanism in the wake of the Christian reconquest of Spain, In the Shadow of History tells the remarkable story of converted Jews whose skepticism and intellectual precociousness set the stage for the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Many of the emerging luminaries of European culture in the early modern period were descendants of the unfortunate victims of the Spanish Inquisition. Faur’s tells this tale with a clear concern for the way in which the old Sephardic legacy served to inform many of the later European intellectual and cultural movements that provide us with the basis of our modern civilization.

11. Robert Irwin, The Alhambra (Harvard University Press, 2004)

Written in the form of a tourist guide, Irwin’s book is far more than the usual ephemera. In the course of a breezy 200 pages, The Alhambra provides an expert summation of the history of Medieval Iberia touching on most of the key historical and cultural moments. The historical importance of the Alhambra palace is more known than understood. Built after the so-called Golden Age of Andalusian Islam, the Alhambra is a belated product that is in a sense the last great moment of European Islam. Irwin is an expert guide to this history and his reader is well-served by his great mastery of Muslim civilization.

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