Three Cultures or One? Synopsis

Three Cultures or One? Synopsis

Muslims, Jews, and Christians and the Art of Coexistence in Medieval Spain

María Rosa Menocal

R. Selden Rose Professor of Spanish and Portuguese
Director, Whitney Humanities Center, Yale University

For Iberian medievalist María Rosa Menocal, the Christian occupation of Toledo in 1085 marks a significant historical moment: it was the decisive halfway point in what would become known as the "Reconquest," the Christian kingdoms' long campaign to dominate the peninsula whose conquest by the Arab Muslims began in 711. In spite of this seemingly polarized Christian-Muslim struggle, the mid-point of the "Reconquest" marks a period of cultural hybridity and the "seamless marriage of presumed opposites." The Christian Church of San Román, for example, constructed after the taking of Toledo, nevertheless bears glorified Islamic images and Arabic script, revealing the extent to which the lines of this cultural conflict were profoundly blurred.

Medieval Iberian identity has long fascinated Menocal, particularly the role that religious belief plays in cultural identity. Like the Church of San Román, another topic of Menocal's investigations has been the jarcha, a form of classical Arabic poetry, within which a new form of verse begins to emerge known as the moaxaja, textual interludes composed in "romance," considered an early form of Castilian. Though jarcha and moaxaja together constitute a single poetic form, they have been separated and funneled into discipline-specific study in a way that mirrors and perpetuates the "perennial war" of the cultures embodied in the notion of the "Reconquest."

Menocal approaches the 12th century with what many would consider a "heterodox" point of view. The real importance of the "reconquest" of Toledo by Castilians is, for her, not that it is the end of their Arabization, but rather the beginning. Such an idea runs counter to the mythology of the Castilians as a people who, ensconced in the north of the peninsula, had been unconquered and untouched by Arab culture, and, as such, styled themselves the rightful reclaimers of the land invaded by the Muslims.

In stark opposition to this mythology, Toledo--the vital center of the nascent Castilian empire--would develop a three-culture landscape that Menocal considers "inimical to the role of champions in the anti-Islamic cause." Under the 13th-century rule of Alfonso X, the Wise, who created a School of Translators to render in Castilian and Latin countless scientific, philosophical, and literary texts from the Arabic, Toledo came to have a bona fide "culture of translation" that also generated a highly successful export industry of learned texts to the West.

The concept of strengthening sovereignty through the appropriation and adaptation of other cultures was not an idea inherited from the Germanic Visigoths—whom the Arabs had conquered—though the Castilians were anxious to claim them nominally as their principal cultural ancestors. Instead, this concept came from the Umayyads, for whom poetry and cultural integration had been fundamental aspects of empire.

Abd al-Rahman, survivor of the massacre of the Umayyads in Damascus by the Abbasids, fled to the West, beginning anew in Córdoba. The Great Mosque of Córdoba is a testament to the values of his culture that privileged "different kinds of translation and conversion": in addition to traditionally Arabic forms, the mosque also incorporates Romanic and Visigothic elements, including the Visigothic horseshoe-shaped arches that would later, ironically, come to be known as the foremost icon of Islam in Spain.

Umayyad Córdoba gave rise to a syncretic civilization in which Jews and Christians alike spoke Arabic as their native tongue and lived in Arabized society as their maternal culture. Cultural documents from the period defy our notions of paradigmatic cultural opposites. The "Beatus" manuscripts, for example, which purport to decry Islam, are detailed in a painting style that is "unambiguously" Arab. A depiction of one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, a Christian defeating the snake of Islam, would nevertheless seem Muslim to the unknowing eye.

This hybrid Arabized culture absorbed indigenous groups in multi-ethnic acculturation, leaving a Christian minority with an apocalyptic sensibility. Alvarus, for example, was an outspoken critic of Islamic culture and urged Christians to reject the Arabic language and Arabized culture alike. Many Christians, however, considered their Arabized culture to be their own and rightfully Christian. These "mozarabs" ("wanna-be-Arabs") maintained their Christian faith without renouncing their love of Arabized Cordoban culture. Though "Reconquest" history would ultimately "sanctify" the mozarabs as its resistance fighters, Menocal urges that they be seen as representative of a more "complex cultural truth" and a crucial component of the cultural hybridity that led Toledo to be called the "Jerusalem of the West" in the 12th and 13th centuries.

This "golden age" of cultural harmony and production in the 11th and 12th centuries was made possible by declarations of political and religious independence in preceding years. In the 10th century, the Umayyads proclaimed themselves the true Caliphate of the Muslim world; the Jews, at around the same time, set themselves apart from the Eastern rabbis in Baghdad. At the time of the Muslim schism, Córdoba's post of foreign minister was occupied by a Jew, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, attesting to the degree of intercultural commingling that flourished in Arabized Umayyad culture.

Civil war would soon rip the Caliphate into 23 independent city-states, each opposed to the next, paving the way for rich cultural production, on the one hand, and political strife, on the other. Ismael ibn Nagrila, known in Hebrew letters as Samuel the Nagid, was the Jewish general of his Muslim city-state's armies who is also known as the innovator of a new Hebrew lyric form. Menocal emphasizes that such innovations were made possible by a process of "cultural symbiosis" in which Jewish codes of propriety were mitigated by the admixture of an Arabized sensibility, which distinguished clearly between poetic expression—even that of illicit love—and piety.

The invasions of the orthodox Muslim Almohads and Almoravids, however, destabilized this culture of religious tolerance and cultural hybridity. The majority of the Arabized Jewish population took refuge in Castilian territory, particularly in Toledo, enriching the cultural fusion that was then thriving in that center of translation and philosophical Arabic studies.

Toledo's cultural hybridity is evident in the affinities of its philosophical thinkers from the three faiths, Ibn Rushd, Maimonides, and Aquinas, who Menocal argues had more in common with each other than they did with those of their own religions who insisted on fundamentalist monotheistic belief. The tomb of Fernando III of Castile, father of Alfonso X, reflects this cultural cohabitation: emblazoned on its sides are inscriptions in Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, and—the newcomer at the time—Castilian.

Menocal traces this cultural pluralism to the "adab" ("belles-lettres") tradition of the Islamic world. Alfonso X's 13th-century Toledo was very self-consciously "new-Umayyad" in its vision of empire as a translatio imperi achieved through the absorption of multiple cultures.

Once again, this imperial model is in marked contrast to the rigid concept of the "Reconquest," an understanding of cultural dynamics that resonates more with the enemies of this hybrid culture, defenders of the "pure identity" of all faiths. The story of the Umayyad legacy is entirely another than such fundamentalism, and, for Menocal, bears the all-important message that "culture should always be able to trump ideology."

Ibn 'Arabi of Murcia, a 12th-century Sufi, is the author of the following love poem that, in Menocal's eyes, sums up the tolerant and inclusivist cultural values of the Umayyad tradition:

    A white-blazed gazelle
    Is an amazing sight,
    Red-dye signaling,
    eyelids hinting,
    Pasture between breastbones
    And innards.
    A garden among the flames!
    My heart can take on
    Any form:
    Gazelles in a meadow,
    A cloister for monks,
    For the idols, sacred ground,
    Kaaba for the circling pilgrim,
    The tables of a Torah,
    The scrolls of the Qur'an.
    I profess the religion of love;
    Wherever its caravan turns
    Along the way, that is the belief,
    The faith I keep.