The Ornament of the World

by María Rosa Menocal
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Last Updated on April 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 882

Menocal suggests that the catalyst for most of the events that happen in her history began with the death of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad. Little is recorded on the Arabs and nomads that lived in the desert; however she claims that one of the first goals of the new religion established by Muhammad was to stamp out pagan polytheism in the desert. Further, this new religion, recorded in the Quran, also embraced the language and poetry-loving nature of those cultures that lived in the desert. When Muhammad died in 632, he left behind the monotheism of Abraham and what was supposedly a direct recitation of God’s word. He further left behind a developing culture around the stories and morals of the Quran, but he left no clear sense of how this culture should be governed. With this lack of clarity came many disputes that divide the Muslim community to this day.

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After Muhammad’s death, four successors, or caliphs, were chosen from his family members and companions. The fourth caliph, Ali, was assassinated, and this began the rule of the Umayyad dynasty, composed of both Arabs and Muslims. Menocal explains that they moved their capital from Medina to Damascus and used the remains of previous civilizations (Greek, Roman, Aramaean, Christian) to build up the city. They also built up their army, and by 711, they controlled most of what the Roman empire had controlled in its height. As the empire expanded from the Near East to India, it revitalized many crumbling civilizations. Despite this expansion, the Umayyads were massacred by the Abbasids, who claimed caliphal legitimacy through Muhammad’s uncle, Abbas.

Previously, the Iberian Peninsula had been ruled by the Romans from 200 BCE to approximately 400 CE. However, in 410, Rome fell to the Visigoths, and there was very little to culturally unify Hispania. With little clear political or religious leadership, it was easy for the Muslim armies to take Spain in the early eighth century. For the next 300 years, the Umayyads would work to rebuild the same cultural unity in Iberia that was once held by Rome, although they never controlled all of Hispania, as Christian outposts held in the north of the country. Despite these holdouts, the Muslim empire repopulated much of Spain, introduced new farming techniques, and opened trade routes. They also succeeded in converting many others to Islam, which further grew the empire, with people of various ethnicities living under one religious creed.

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In 909, however, a breakaway group of Shiites, claiming to be descended from Ali, suggested that they were the legitimate heirs to Islam. Before this, the Umayyads generally recognized Abbasidian authority. However, in 929, with the rise of this new threat, the Andalusian population of Islam felt the need to officially recognize Umayyad Abd al-Rahman III as the legitimate caliph of the entire Muslim world, even over the Abbasid empire, which led to more rivalry among different groups claiming legitimacy. However, Menocal does not yet discuss these rivalries. Instead, she chooses to discuss Cordoba and Andalusia at the beginning of the tenth century. The city was bustling with commerce, public infrastructure, and hundreds of thousands of books, which Muslims all but worshiped, in libraries. While these libraries housed much information about Islam, they also preserved information about the Latin West. These libraries also increased commerce, raising paper production and leading to an early tourism industry.

Unfortunately, this prosperity was short-lived. Attacks on Christian strongholds to the north and civil wars within Muslim factions created a time of strife for Cordoba. Claiming to be the legitimate seat of Islam created many enemies. In 1009, Madinat al-Zahra, an ornate city palace outside of Cordoba, fell at the hands of rival Berber Muslims, who over the course of 250 years had become far more conservative than their Andalusian counterparts. With the official fall of Cordoba in 1031, several cities rose to prominence trying to claim the prestige of Cordoba. At this time, some Jewish-run cities came to power, and Christians began to spread south, claiming cities as their own. As a result, many cultures were intermingling. Further, the Normans were expanding from Italy, also an Islamic state at the time, and in 1095, Pope Urban II began the crusades to take the Holy Land from the Muslims. By 1085, Toledo had been taken over by the Christian monarch Alfonso VI, and it seemed that Islamic reign in Spain was ending.

However, only a year after the takeover of Toledo, a Muslim group comprised of fundamentalists, the Alamoravids, annexed a large part of Andalusia and began ruling with religious fanaticism. As the rest of Latin Europe began adopting the progressive thought of the former Andalusians, Andalusia was becoming more repressive. This led to great unrest among the Andalusian Muslims as Jews and Christians fled the area. Shortly thereafter, an even more fundamentalist group, the Almohads, took control, but due to their fundamentalism, they could not create the political or cultural unity that had spread through Andalusia three centuries prior. By the end of the eleventh century, the similarly fundamentalist Pope Innocent III was waging war on those deemed not Christian enough. In 1212, Christians began overrunning the Almohads and, by 1250, controlled much of Andalusia. Although Menocal acknowledges that the next 200 years were spent dismantling Islamic culture in Spain, she states that this topic is outside the scope of her book.

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