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The Ornament of the World:  Muslim Spain and religious freedom

Written By | Dec 31, 2020
The Ornament of the World, PBS, Documentary, Muslims, Jews, Spain

muslims in the court of alfonso X.jpg

History often surprises those who are unfamiliar with its ever-changing currents.  In recent years, many have come to believe that there is an ancient enmity between Islam and Christianity and, in particular between Islam and Judaism.  The conflict between Israel and Palestinians has encouraged this false view of history. A new PBS documentary, “The Ornament of the World,” explains that for 800 years Muslims controlled Spain.

A period which ended in 1492 when the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella took power, Spain had an openness to religious diversity which was extraordinary.

While some have argued that Muslim-Jewish enmity is a long-standing phenomenon, the historic record tells a far different story.  When Jews were being harshly persecuted in Christian Europe, they often found a golden age in Muslim lands.

The title of this film is taken from the book “The Ornament of the World” by Professor Maria Rosa Menocal of Yale University.

Discussing the story of Jews under Muslim rule in Spain, she writes:

“Throughout much of the invigorated peninsula, Arabic was adopted as the ultimate in classiness and distinction by the communities of the other two faiths.  The new Islamic polity not only allowed Jews and Christians to survive, but, following the Qur’anic mandate, by and large protected them, and both the Jewish and Christian communities in al-Andalus (Arabic for Spain) became thoroughly Arabized within relatively few years of Abd al-Rahman’s arrival in Cordoba.  In principle, all Islamic politics were (and are) required by Qur’anic injunction to tolerate Christians and Jews living in their midst.  But beyond that fundamental prescribed posture, al-Andalus was, from these beginnings, the site of memorable and distinctive interfaith relations.  Here the Jewish community rose from the ashes of an abysmal existence under the Visigoths to the point that the emir who proclaimed himself Caliph in the tenth century had a Jew as his foreign minister.”

There was no place else in Europe where the three religions lived together so freely.

In the tenth century, Cordoba was the largest city in Europe.  It had a unique system of sewers and running water.  It was that one medieval city that did not suffer from a bad odor.  It became a major center of rabbinical learning.

Living in the heart of the Arab world, Jews first served their apprenticeship in the sciences of Islamic intellectual masters and in time became their collaborators in developing the general culture of the region.  A striking example of this breadth of interest was Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimonides, 1135-1204), a native of Cordoba.

Many Illustrious Jewish figures arose.

Samuel Ha-Magid was born in 993 in Cordoba.  He was a Talmudic scholar, grammarian, poet, philologist, warrior, and statesman.  For two decades he was a political adviser to the Vizier of Granada.  Before his death, the Vizier recommended to the Caliphs that Joseph be made the new Vizier, which he was.

Living in the heart of the Arab world, Jews first served their apprenticeship in the sciences with Islamic intellectual masters. In time, they became their collaborators in developing the general culture of the region.  What chiefly characterized Jewish thought in this period was its search for unity, the attempt to reconcile faith with reason, theology, and philosophy, the acceptance of unity with freedom of inquiry.

In Arab countries in the Near East and North Africa, where there existed this free intermingling of cultures, there blossomed a rich and unique Jewish intellectuality in Arabic.

Beginning in the tenth century, especially in the kingdom of Cordoba under the enlightened Omayyad caliphs Abd-al-Rahman and his son Al-Hakin there appeared a galaxy of Jewish scholars, historians, philologists, grammarians, religious philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers, doctors, and poets.

During the 11th century, Ubn Usaibia, a Muslim scholar, listed 50 Jewish authors writing in Arabic on medical subjects alone.

As Karen Armstrong writes in “A History of God,”:

 “The destruction of Muslim Spain was fatal for the Jews. In March 1492, a few weeks after the conquest of Granada, the Christian monarchs gave Jews the choice of baptism or expulsion.  Many of the Spanish Jews were so attached to the home that they became Christians, though some continued to practice their faith in secret…Some 150,000 Jews refused baptism and were forcibly deported from Spain.  They took refuge in Turkey, the Balkans and North Africa.  The Muslims of Spain had given Jews the best home they ever had in the diaspora, so the annihilation of Spanish Jewry was mourned by Jews throughout the world as the greatest disaster to have befallen their people since the destruction of the Temple in CE 70.”

Jane S. Gerber, in her book “The Jews of Spain,” points out that,

“In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries…it was the Ottoman Empire, then at the zenith of her power, that alone afforded the exiles a place where their weary feet could find rest…Her sultans—-Bayozid ll, Melmet ll, Suleiman the Magnificent—-were dynamic and enlightened rulers who were delighted to receive the talented, skilled Jewish outcasts of Europe…Bayazed ll, responding to the expulsion from Spain, reportedly exclaimed, ‘You call Ferdinand a wise king , who impoverishes his country and enriches our own.’  He not only welcomed Sephardic exiles but ordered his provincial government to assist the wanderers by opening the borders.  Indeed, the refugees would find the Ottoman state to be powerful, generous and tolerant.”

Several years ago, I visited Cordoba, Seville, Granada, Toledo, and other places in once Muslim Spain.  I observed many of the remaining reminders of the golden age of Muslim-Jewish cooperation and amity.

They serve to illustrate the lack of historical understanding of those who present the current impasse over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the latest in a long history of strife between Muslims and Jews.  The real story is far different and far more hopeful.

It may provide us with a genuine road map for the future.  PBS has performed a notable service in telling the story of Muslim Spain and the coexistence it fostered between Jews, Christians, and  Muslims.


Read more by Author Allan Brownfeld

Allan C. Brownfeld

Allan C. Brownfeld

Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.