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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 9    Issue 09   16-30 September 2014

Maria Rosa Menocal

Professor A. R. MOMIN

Maria Rosa Menocal, a renowned scholar of medieval Europe who passed away in October 2012 following a long battle with melanoma, will be fondly remembered for her scholarly and sensitive writings, which highlighted the wide-ranging influence of Arabic on literary traditions in medieval Europe and the creation of a shared, vibrant cultural universe in Islamic Spain.

Maria Rosa Menocal was born in Havana, where her father was living in exile, in 1953. Her parents, Enrique and Rosa Menocal, came to Philadelphia to meet their relatives when she was seven. She received her BA from the University of Pennsylvania in 1973, Masters in French in 1975 and PhD in philology in 1979. She began her academic career as an assistant professor of Romance languages at Yale University in 1980 and became Sterling Professor of the Humanities in 1986. In 2001 she was appointed Director of the Whitney Humanities Centre at Yale. Her untimely death after lost a long and painful battle with melanoma occurred on October 15, 2012.

Menocal had an exceptional flair for languages and was well-versed in Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, Provencal, Portuguese, French, Italian and English. She was deeply committed to intellectual and inter-cultural dialogue and exchange. During her tenure as Director of the Whitney Humanities Centre (2001-2012), Menocal appointed as many as 285 fellows from extremely diverse disciplinary backgrounds with a view to foster an environment of intellectual exchange and collaboration.

Menocal’s special field of interest was the intellectual and cultural history of medieval Europe, especially that of the Iberian peninsula. In European historiography, the Middle Ages are generally looked upon as a period of darkness and barbarism. This is only partially true. While large parts of the continent in the medieval era were indeed steeped in superstition and cultural backwardness, certain regions, like the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily and Venice, experienced dazzling prosperity, cultural efflorescence and unprecedented scientific and technological development. Menocal pointed out that “the medieval period in Europe has been, and continues to be, grossly misrepresented in almost all of our histories.” On the other hand, the place and role of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in European historiography have been vastly and disproportionately exaggerated. In fact, the roots of the Renaissance can be traced, several centuries earlier, to medieval Spain and, to a lesser extent, Sicily. Jacob Bronowski, an eminent scientists and historian of science, has perceptively remarked that the Renaissance was originally conceived not in Italy but in Islamic Spain in the 12th century.

A distinguished British anthropologist and historian Jack Goody, in his stimulating and thought-provoking books The Theft of History (2006) and Renaissances: The One or the Many? (2010), argues that all literate societies, especially China, India and the Islamic world, experienced a renaissance at some point in their history, that there were many or multiple renaissances in human history, and that the efflorescence of science, medicine and art during the Renaissance was not unique to Europe. Goody points out that what is important about the European Renaissance is the intercultural transfer of knowledge and the confluence and hybridization of ideas, science and technology, which reconnected Europe to the Orient – through Andalusia, Sicily, Venice, Genoa and the Levant trade.

In much of the European historiography of Hispano-Arabic culture, Islamic and Jewish influences have been perceived as rather baneful. Menocal notes that this problem is embedded in a deeply-entrenched bias against Islam and argues that European scholars in general and literary and cultural historians in particular are still reluctant ‘to accept as plausible and admissible an image of our own civilization, at one of its formative moments, as critically indebted to and dependent on a culture (Islam) that was for sometime regarded as inferior and, by some lights, as the quintessence of the foreign and the Other.’

In her ground-breaking work The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage (1987), Menocal drew attention to the undercurrents of racism and chauvinism in European literary and cultural history. She pointed out that ethnocentric bias for centuries has ‘prevented mainstream European scholars from recognizing the large influence of Arabic, Islamic and Andalusian cultures on the development of European medieval literature.’ She persuasively argued that scientific, cultural and literary advances in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire were in large measure due to the contribution of Muslim scientists, translators and intellectuals to the preservation and dissemination of the Greco-Roman heritage. She emphasized that Arabic influences in medieval Europe were not confined to literature but encompassed music, science, philosophy, architecture and the arts.

Islamic Spain and, to a lesser extent, Sicily were the centres of gravity of Arabic influences in the medieval period through which Arabic learning passed to the Christian world. Arabic was the lingua franca of Andalusia’s educated Christians, Muslims and Jews for many centuries. In Toledo, Arabic was the common language of an international community of scholars, many of whom came from different parts of Europe to delve into the scientific and literary treasures of the Arabic language. Toledo became the preeminent centre for the dissemination of Arabic learning and culture across large parts of Europe. Menocal showed that William of Aquitaine, the Duke of Aquitaine and Gascony between 1086 and 1126 and the earliest troubadour, Peter the Venerable, who commissioned the first Latin translation of the Quran and Frederick II, king of Sicily, played a central role in the dissemination of Arabic influences in medieval Europe. She also highlighted the influence of Arabic learning, poetry, music and philosophy on Dante, Cervantes, Marco Polo, Boccaccio and Petrarch. Menocal elaborated and expanded the thesis of Asin Palacios that Dante’s Divine Comedy was essentially inspired by the Islamic tradition relating to the nightly ascent of the Prophet Muhammad to heaven (mi’raj). Dante came across this tradition through some Islamic texts that were translated in Toledo in the 13th century. Menocal also focused on the presence of Arabic cultural influences at the universities of Paris and Bologna. Shortly after the 13th century, the translation into Latin of Averroes’s (Ibn Rushd’s) commentaries on Aristotle’s works ushered in an intellectual revolution in European universities, especially those of Paris and Bologna.

Menocal’s contribution to the etymology and cultural context of troubadour, a style of lyric poetry whose major thematic component was courtly love, which flourished in Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and France in the High Middle Ages (1100-1350), is particularly significant. In 1928, Julian Ribera, a Spanish Arabist, suggested that the word troubadour was derived from the Arabic taraba (to sing or entertain by singing). At that time, the suggestion was dismissed by Romance philologists as unworthy of discussion or serious attention. Menocal demonstrated, on the basis of her intimate knowledge of Arabic, Provencal and Spanish, that the troubadour style originated in Andalusia’s musical traditions and that its etymology was distinctly Arabic. She showed that the troubadours derived the subject matter of their poetic style – courtly love – and their sense of form from Andalusian sources.

Menocal showed that Arabic, which was the native language of the Andalusian Jews, had a profound influence on Hebrew. For the first time, Hebrew, which was used as an exclusively liturgical language of Jewish worship and ritual, began to be transformed as a versatile language, as a vehicle of a vibrant poetry, under the influence of Arabic.

The Arabic Role in Medieval History had a profound influence on medieval and philological studies in North America and Europe. It was translated into Arabic. In 2007, an international conference in commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Arabic Role in Medieval History was held in Toronto. The papers presented at the conference were collected in a volume A Sea of Languages: Rethinking the Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History, which was edited by Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Karla Mallette and published by Toronto University Press in 2013.

Menocal co-edited, with Raymond P. Scheindlin and Michael Sells, The Literature of Al-Andalus, which was published in the Cambridge History of Arabic Literature Series in 2006. The volume deals with the efflorescence of literature, music, philosophy and architecture in the multicultural milieu of the Iberian peninsula.

Menocal published another important work, Shards of Love: Exile and the Origins of the Lyric, in 1994. The volume focuses on the literary contributions of a wide range of poets and authors, including Ibn Arabi, Judah Halevi, Dante and Eric Clapton, and shows how their literary sensibilities were enriched and deepened by intercultural encounters. In 2008, Menocal wrote, in collaboration with art historian Jerrilynn Dodds and Arabist and historian Abigail Krasner Balbale, The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture.

This lavishly illustrated book focuses on the cultural history of Castile in the wake of the reconquest of Toledo in the 11th century. The authors argue that Castile’s ‘layered and diverse’ identity was deeply rooted in a cultural milieu that was marked by wide-ranging interactions and exchanges, as well as contestations and confrontations, between Christians, Muslims and Jews. The Arts of Intimacy was named the Best Book of 2009 by Marina Warner in the Times Literary Supplement and won the Albert Outler Prize given by the American Society of Church History for 2010-11.

The Ornament of the World

In 711 a group of Arabs and Berbers from North Africa crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and set on the conquest of the Iberian peninsula. In less than a decade most of the peninsula was brought under Muslim control. Muslim rule over the Iberian Peninsula lasted, intermittently, for nearly eight centuries, from 711 to the fall of Granada in 1492. On the eve of the Muslim conquest, Spanish society was reeling under the oppressive Visigoth kingdom and political instability and social fragmentation were at their height. It is hardly surprising that the collapse of the Visigoth kingdom was welcomed by the Spanish people. Muslim rule brought about political stability and economic revival through the introduction of new irrigation methods and new crops, plants and fruits. Muslim rulers introduced the production of silk in the country, especially in the towns of Almeria, Malaga, Seville and Granada. Trade routes were substantially expanded, which facilitated extensive trading across the Mediterranean, and strengthened the supply of water to cities as well as for irrigation.

Al-Andalus in 1035

Menocal’s book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, published in 2002, can be regarded as her masterpiece. It has been reprinted and translated into 11 languages. A documentary film Cities of Light has been inspired by Menocal’s book. Kikim Media has produced another documentary film based on the book, which is likely to be ready by the end of 2014. The Ornament of the World focuses on the creation of a vibrant shared cultural universe in medieval Spain involving the contributions of Muslims, Jews and Christians living in an Islamic polity. It recounts a fascinating saga that spanned nearly eight centuries, marked by political and military cooperation, exchange and collaboration in architecture and art and literary, cultural and philosophical syncretism.

Menocal points out that the distinctive features of Al-Andalus were ethnic pluralism, religious tolerance and a cosmopolitan, secular culture. The demographic composition of medieval Spain was distinctly multiethnic. Abd al-Rahman I, who established the first Umayyad caliphate in Cordoba, was half-Syrian and half-Berber (on his mother’s side). Most of his descendants had Christian mothers who had converted to Islam. While the ruling class consisted of Arabs, the bulk of the soldiers comprised Berbers from North Africa. The native Christian population consisted of Celto-Iberians, Romans and Visigoths. Large numbers of native Christians embraced Islam with the establishment of Muslim rule and in the later period. There were substantial communities of Jews, who had arrived in Iberia with the Romans and were persecuted and enslaved by the Visigoth rulers.

The eight centuries of Muslim rule over the Iberian peninsula were marked by a layered history of not only confrontations and conflicts but also of political and military cooperation between Muslim and Christian rulers, artistic collaboration and the creation of an amazing cosmopolitan ethos and a culture of tolerance, harmonious coexistence and cultural symbiosis that frequently transcended religious distinctions and differences. The celebrated Spanish-American historian Americo Castro famously described the composite culture of medieval Spain as convivencia or living together. This syncretistic culture had wide ramifications and was manifested in science and technology, architecture, music, philosophy, language and literature, arts and crafts and popular culture. Christians and Jews enthusiastically took to Arabic as a vibrant language of poetry and elegance and soon lost touch with Latin. Almost all the Christian texts and liturgy were translated from Latin into Arabic and became a part of the community’s religious life. In Castile, Jews often sponsored Christians at their baptism, while Christians did likewise at Jewish circumcision ceremonies. Christians would bring Muslim friends to Mass and even hired Muslim buskers to play music in churches during night vigils.

Moorish Spain’s expansive, accommodative culture was reflected in the appointment of Jews and Christians to high offices by Muslim rulers. Jews had suffered humiliation and persecution during the reign of Visigoth rulers. Muslim rulers provided them with an honourable place in society, guaranteed the protection of their religious and cultural identity and afforded them opportunities for material prosperity and cultural progress. Hasdai ibn Sharput, a prominent Jewish scholar, became a vizier in the court of Abd al-Rahman III, ruler of Cordoba from 912 to 961. He was sent as the head of an official delegation by the caliph to the Byzantine emperor to engage in delicate diplomatic negotiations. One of the important documents in the Cairo Geniza is a letter written by Hasdai ibn Sharput to Empress Helena of Byzantium, praising the kind treatment of the Jewish community by the caliph of Cordoba. Samuel ha-Nagrid, the head of Granada’s Jewish community and a gifted poet and writer in Arabic, became prime minister in the Muslim kingdom of Cordoba in the 11th century and led many a successful campaign against other Muslim kingdoms. The Mozarab bishop of Elvira, Racemundu, was a member of the caliph’s delegation to the court of Constantine in 949. In 955 he was sent as the caliph’s envoy to the court of the German emperor Otto I.

The architecture of Islamic Spain reflects an ingenious amalgamation and synthesis of forms and styles drawn from a variety of sources, including Moroccan, Romanic and Visigothic. The horseshoe-shaped arches that came to be associated with the architecture of Andalusian mosques and palaces were appropriated and adapted from Visigothic buildings.

It is significant to note that the entire corpus of the writings of the famous Jewish philosopher of Al-Andalus, Moses Maimonides (d. 1204), is in Arabic, with the sole exception of his Second Law or Mishneh Torah, his encyclopaedic compendium of Jewish law. Maimonides was greatly influenced by Arabic philosophy, especially by the views of Al-Farabi (Alfarabius) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna). His philosophical works, in turn, had a profound impact on medieval scholasticism.

A testimony to the pervasive cultural symbiosis that took place in medieval Spain is provided by the example of the Mozarabs (from the Arabic must’arab), Christians who had imbibed a great deal of Islamic influences in their language, culture and literature. From the 9th to the 11th century, The Mozarabs – described as “wanna-be-Arabs” by Menocal -- celebrated the Eucharist not in Latin, the liturgical language of Western Christendom, but in Arabic. Among the remnants of Toledo’s polymorphous culture that have survived the ravages of time is a Latin-Arabic glossary intended for teaching Mozarabs their sacred language in Arabic, as well as several bilingual Latin-Arabic epigraphs on Mozarab tombstones.

In consequence of the pervasive Islamic influence on Spanish culture, a large number of Arabic words found their way into local languages and dialects. Castilian, for example, was literally born out of Arabic. Under the influence of Arabic, a hybrid genre of folk songs combining the Romance vernaculars and Arabic developed in medieval Spain. Hundreds of Arabic words, including names of fruits, vegetables and animals, names of musical instruments and the technical vocabulary in architecture and carpentry, are still in use in the Spanish language. Even today, most of Spanish family names betray their Arabic origin.

Menocal points out that the process of cultural symbiosis and hybridization that was set in motion shortly after the Muslim conquest of the Iberian peninsula did not come to an end with the reconquest of Toledo and other cities by the Christian kings. In fact she argues that the reconquest of Toledo by Castilians was not the end of their Arabization but rather the beginning.

At the close of the 11th century and the early part of the 12th, Toledo became the intellectual hub of Europe. Even after it was reconquered by Alfonso VI in 1085, Arabic remained the language of culture and learning. The city boasted scores of fine libraries with vast collections of Arabic books, which served as vibrant centres of intellectual activities, including translations of Arabic works into Latin. Johannes Hispalensis, archbishop of Toledo (1152-66), sponsored translations of the works of Avicenna and other Muslim scholars and established the famous Toledo School of Translators.

The libraries and schools of Toledo attracted many scholars from different parts of Europe, including Robert of Ketton, Robertus Anglicus (the first European translator of the Quran), Michael Scot and Daniel Morley. In the 12th and 13th centuries, thousands of Arabic books, including Aristotle’s works with commentaries by Jewish, Muslim and Christian scholars, were translated into Latin in Toledo. An early set of astronomical tables was drawn up in Toledo, as an encyclopaedia of star positions. Interestingly, the tables were Christian, but the numerals were Arabic. Menocal points out that what is significant to note is that a Christian city played a pivotal role in the transmission of Islamic legacy to Europe.

The 3,300 descendants of Toledo’s Mozarabic community today still proudly call themselves Mozarabs. In November 1982, during a brief stopover at Toledo, Pope John Paul II was greeted by representatives of the city’s surviving Mozarabic community and presented with a 10th century prayer book of the community, written in the Arabic script, which began with the Islamic invocation Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim (In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate).

In the 1360s, Peter the Cruel decided to build a splendid palace for himself at Seville. Craftsmen, artists and masons were brought in from Granada to build the palace, which was called Alcazar (from the Arabic al-qasr). The architecture and ornamentation of Alcazar is inspired by those of the Alhambra. This is particularly reflected in the profusion of arabesque and Arabic calligraphy. Adorning the walls of the Alcazar is the Islamic invocation “There is no absolute power but Allah.”

Alcazar, built by Peter the Cruel, was inspired by the Alhambra

Interior of Alcazar

It is interesting to note that the coins issued by Alfonso VI in Castile in the 11th century, Alfonso VIII in the 12th century, Alfonso X in the 13th century and Pedro de Castilla in the 14th century bore the inscriptions ‘Emperor of the two religions’ and ‘Protector of three faiths.’ When King Ferdinand III passed away in 1252, his son Alfonso X had him buried in a tomb that was built inside Seville’s great mosque, which was turned into a cathedral. The tomb bore inscriptions in four languages: Arabic, Hebrew, Latin and Castilian.

Gold dinar minted by Alfonso VIII of Castile has inscriptions in Castilian and Arabic.

Hebrew and Arabic inscriptions on the tomb of Ferdinand III

The architectural features of the San Roman church, built by the Castilians of Toledo in the 11th century, bear the unmistakable influence of the architecture of the Great Mosque at Cordoba, particularly the distinctive horseshoe arches with alternating red-and-white voussoirs and fine Arabic calligraphy around the window niches. The Arabic calligraphy in the church might lead a casual visitor to assume that the church building was previously a mosque, which was later converted into a church. However, the fact is that this building was never a mosque. In fact it was built as a church to commemorate the defeat of the Muslims in 1085. The amazing thing about the Arabic calligraphy is that it is fake; it was inscribed in imitation of Arabic calligraphy as an artistic ornamentation.

Fake Arabic calligraphy in San Roman church in Toledo

In 1360, Samuel Halevi Abulafia, a prominent Andalusian Jew, built a synagogue in Toledo, now known as the El Transito synagogue. On the walls there are inscriptions in Hebrew as well as Arabic, which are intertwined with the floral patterns in the stucco panels. What is even more amazing is that the complex stucco ornamentation of the synagogue includes verses from the Quran.

El Transito synagogue in Toledo

Hebrew and Arabic inscriptions at the synagogue built by Samuel Halevi Abulafia in Toledo

Medieval Spain’s mosaic culture was also reflected in the Mudejars, Muslim artisans who had submitted to Christian rule in the wake of the Reconquest. The Mudejars, who specialised in the construction of churches, cathedrals and synagogues, were in great demand all over the peninsula for the decoration of churches, palaces and private homes. Their architectural designs, motifs and decorations reflected an ingenious synthesis of Islamic and Spanish traditions. Spaniards carried the polymorphic legacy of Moorish Spain to far-off lands in the course of their colonial expansion. Thus in Tlaxala, Mexico, they built a church with a wooden ceiling in the Mudejar style.

Alhambra Palace in Granada

Alhambra Palace

Granada, the last of the Muslim kingdoms of Spain, fell in 1492. Curiously, when Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon marched up the hill to take possession of the royal palace, they were dressed in Arabic-style ceremonial attire.

Menocal’s writings, which are imbued with a deeply humane approach, not only make a valuable contribution to medieval and philological studies but also have much relevance for our troubled times. They provide a much-needed antidote to the myopic and misguided thesis of the clash of civilizations advanced by Samuel P. Huntington. Her work also exposes and critiques the deep racist, ethnocentric and Islamophobic undercurrents that pervade much of European historiography in general and the historiography of medieval Spain in particular. Furthermore, she showed that present-day multiethnic societies have much to learn from the efflorescence of cultural hybridization and symbiosis that was witnessed in medieval Iberia.

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