The Ornament of the World || A quick book review
The Ornament of the World || A quick book review

The Ornament of the World || A quick book review

  1. Name: The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians created a culture of tolerance in Medieval Spain.
  2. Author: Maria Rosa Menocal
  3. Genre: History
  4. Book Post No. : 47

Every once in a while, a piece of art comes along which transports you to another place, another era, another mood. Be it a movie, a music track, a song or a book. ‘The Ornament of the world’ is one such book. The last time a non fiction book had such an impact on me was when I read William Dalrymple’s ‘City of Djinns’.

How do I describe this feeling? Perhaps the word “Anemoia” best describes it. It means “Nostalgia for a time or a place one has never known”. This book is deeply evocative and paints a nostalgic picture of the golden age of Al Andalus, a region in Spain (Iberian peninsula) which was ruled by Muslim rulers during the medieval era (around 700s to 1492). The people of the three religions i.e. Islam, Christianity and Judaism who lived in this time and place created a culture of tolerance that is unrivalled in history. The accomplishments made during this time in literature, art, architecture, music and many other areas have influenced mankind in more ways than one. The general perception in the west is that it has developed largely independent of other influences but that couldn’t be more wrong. The author, Maria brings out the best of those times in the pages. I can sense the love the author has for that time period. Its beautiful to see that kind of passion just flowing out the pages of the book.

~ 720 AD

This book is different from the usual books on history that I am used to reading. Usually the narration takes place in a linear way recounting the events and milestones. This book does not rush along the timeline, instead, like someone leisurely strolling in a garden while soaking up the sights and beauty of the flowers, it stops and lingers in the time period its talking about, all the while bringing out its essence. It has a series of chapters or vignettes from the era it talks about, each focusing on a different topic. Architecture, poetry, literature, music, translation and many others. There is a chapter called ‘Mother Tongues’ which talks about the complex issues of languages of that time. This is relevant even today.

I have asked many of my friends here in Canada (only after asking if they are open to talk about religion) if they know how similar Islam and Christianity is. Almost all of them were surprised to hear this question. To them both were completely different religions and had no connection whatsoever. This surprised me. Both these religions along with Judaism have so much in common. In fact the three of them are called by the term ‘Abrahamic religions’. Ill leave it to the reader to find out what makes them so related to each other as that point is not the focus of this post. (This book about a city that has played a major role in the development of all three will be quite useful: Jerusalem by Simon Sebag Montefiore.) It feels so incredible to me that people do not know this fact. It points to the chasm that has developed over centuries among the adherents of these religions. Add to that the rampant Islamophobia these days. That makes books like this very important in the current world view. It offers a strong counter to the common stereotypes of Muslims as intolerant destroyers.

~ 1000 AD

Maria talks about many interesting personalities throughout the book some of which are:
Samuel Nagid, a Jewish scholar and poet who served as the Prime Minister to the King of Granada making him one of the most influential Jews in Islamic Spain.
Judah Halevi, a Jewish poet and philosopher who lived in Toledo.
Abd ar Rahman 1, the Muslim founder of the Umayyad dynasty in Al Andalus after a near extinction of the Umayyad dynasty in their original homeland of Baghdad. He was the one who made Al Andalus what it later became. He also built the world famous Great Mosque of Cordoba.
Under the rule of his descendent Abd ar Rahman III, who was known as a great humanist and patron of arts, Cordoba became the most important intellectual center of Western Europe.
Maimonides, A Jewish philosopher, astronomer and physician who was also one of the most famous Torah scholars of the middle ages.
Ibn Rushd, who is known in the west as Averroes, was a Muslim polymath and is known as the Father of Rationalism.
Alfonso X of Castile, Christian King of Castile, Leon and Galicia, he promoted translation of Arabic documents which encouraged the development of Spanish science and technology.
Ibn Khaldun, one of the greatest social scientists of the Middle Ages and is considered the father of the historiography, sociology and economics. He has been called one of the most prominent Muslim scholars.

These are but only a few names from the many Maria talks about in the book.

There is also a lot of discussion about some of the most famous structures ever built like the Alhambra, the palace in Granada, the now destroyed Madinat Al Zahra, a palace city on the outskirts of Cordoba, the stunningly beautiful Cordoba mosque, Alcazar in Seville, the Church of San Roman and many others. One of my favorite lines from the book comes when Maria is describing the Cordoba mosque. She says, while talking about the mosque,

Talking about literature a lot of famous works are mentioned some of which are One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), Don Quixote (though written in the 1600s it has a fascinating connection with Al Andalus), Muqaddimah, Book of the Khazars, The Decameron, Incoherence of Philosophy, Incoherence of the Incoherence, Guide for the perplexed etc.

Overall, this is a magnificent book that I enjoyed reading and it has contributed significantly in my understanding of Spanish history as well as about contribution of Muslims to the world we live in now. I would definitely add this to my personal library. Having said that it is pertinent here to mention that its common sense to know that no period in history was perfect. There are lots of negatives from this society and the time period but Maria does not mention any of those. Its up to the reader to keep that in mind while reading this book.

PS1: Readers who are interested in knowing more about some of the famous personalities from the Golden Age of Islam can read post I wrote many years ago: Top Five Muslim Scholars you should know

PS2: Some day I wish to write something as evocative as this book. I would like readers of my own work to feel like how I felt while reading this book. Some day. Inshallah!

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