The Ornament of the World, Essay Example

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Western multiculturalists now started to imagine utopias of cultural and ethnic diversity, as they liked to put it, in which distinct cultures and civilizations would coexist harmoniously. It was difficult, not to say impossible, to find an historical precedent for such a utopia, since all known civilizations have insisted on the primacy of their own culture, but some commentators have thought to identify such a unique society in medieval Spain.

As early as in the mid-nineteenth century, historians and writers evoked a mythical paradise in medieval Al-Andalus, which was declared to have achieved a culture of genuine tolerance, compared with which all the rest of Spanish history might be seen as a decline. Most recently such an image of tolerance and cultural cross-fertilization has been eloquently evoked in a work by the Harvard literature professor Maria rosaMenocal, The Ornament of the World.

Menocal paints southern Spain under the Islamic Umayyad dynasty as a “first-rate place” of tolerance, in which Islamic respect for the “people of the Book” fostered beneficent interfaith relations. She demonstrates some of the ways people of different religions and cultures can interact in the same place.

In this idyll, Christians and Muslims quarrel more among themselves than they do with each other, while cooperating with Jews in creating a unique multicultural paradise. There is, of course, always a serpent in the Garden of Eden, and in Menocal’s case it takes the form of the fanatical Islamists of the two successive Moroccan empires that invaded the Iberian Peninsula in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The intolerant domination of this hostile and unenlightened Other is perceived as beginning to put an end to the Andalusi utopia, though it is presented as considerably oppressing enlightened Muslims more than anyone else. Menocal’s book, with its presented as cultural history, exerted a strong appeal in the contemporary world, with its pretensions to the multicultural.

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