Restoring the Andalusian-Arabic Tradition in Western Civilization: An Homage to Maria Rosa Menocal

Restoring the Andalusian-Arabic Tradition in Western Civilization: An Homage to Maria Rosa Menocal

Maria Rosa Menocal, The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History: A Forgotten Heritage (Second Edition, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003, First Published in 1987)

In the earlier part of the 20th century the study of Sephardic/Andalusian history and culture was a very important and valued part of Jewish and general studies.  The seminal works of Harry Wolfson and S.D. Goitein reconstructed a conceptual and historical Mediterranean universe that was filled with poetry, philosophy, economic and social advancement, and a great thirst for applying rational and scientific principles to the sacred traditions of the great monotheisms of the Classical period.  Wolfson and Goitein produced important studies of Levantine culture and society that showed not a static and inert civilization, but a deeply learned and innovatively dynamic community of scholars and religious sages who spearheaded the great luminescence of the Arabic hegemony over knowledge and culture in the medieval world.  Against those scholars who saw the term “Sephardic” as one which indicated Hispano-Christian Latinity, Goitein and Wolfson both well-understood that Sephardic meant, first and foremost, the Jewish ties to Arab-Levantine civilization.

The relationship of Arabic civilization and culture to what was termed the “Dark Ages” in Europe has been a deeply contentious issue that has served to create divisions and confusion in the study of Modern culture and its Renaissance and Enlightenment antecedents.  The question remains, how exactly was it possible, as scholars have said, that the entire Greco-Roman patrimony was somehow “lost” for many centuries and then was “mysteriously” rediscovered at the time of the great Renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries.

Were there no lines which could be seen as connecting the Classical world with the Renaissance of Dante, Petrarch and Cervantes?

How is it that the texts of Plato and Aristotle were missing from the Europe of the Dark Ages and then somehow all of a sudden emerge in the age of Aquinas?

Back in the late 1980’s, a scholar of medieval Hispanic culture and literature teaching at the University of Pennsylvania attempted to provide answers to these questions in a groundbreaking and seminal work whose significance and importance has only increased over the years since its first edition.

The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History was one of the first books that I read in my long and arduous reclamation of my own cultural past.  When I first read the book in 1990 – when it was re-issued in paperback – the book came to me as a startling revelation: Menocal had clearly showed, in the wake of Edward Said’s arguments in his study Orientalism, that Jews and Arabs were written out of history by a Europe that wished to display its own achievements as being utterly and completely unique to its own civilization.

The polemic over Western civilization became quite acrimonious in the years that Said and Menocal were writing their books.  After many centuries of Western imperialism and political hegemony over the Eastern world, the very idea that Arabic civilization could have formed a bedrock platform upon which the Western culture was scaffolded was an idea that could not even be entertained.  The great achievements of the massive efforts of the Sephardic Jews and Andalusian Arabs to translate and transmit humanist culture and philosophy were elided in favor of a new historical model which served to erase scholastic giants such as Moses Maimonides, Averroes, Ibn Hazm and many others who were associated with the creation of Arabic culture and civilization in its Golden Age.

This polemic was predicated upon a Eurocentrism that sought to erect false and misleading barriers between Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe which was seen as reconstructing the classical civilization of its Greco-Roman past with nary an antecedent other than its own grit and perseverance. 

The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History is a book constructed along the lines of an argument that is predicated upon a close reading of POETRY and poetic influence.  Such an argument might appear esoteric and narrow until we come to realize that poetry was a lingua franca in the pre-modern world that corresponded to the popular culture of our own times.  The emergence of an Arabic vernacular poetry in Spain in the form of the zajal and the muwasshaha created a popular and populist cachet that served as the rock and roll of its time (a theme that Menocal would explore in her Shards of Love, another great study of the glories of the Sephardic past).

Poetry, intrinsic to the emerging Sephardic/Andalusian culture, was something that, as Menocal skillfully shows, paved the way for the Courtly love poetry of the Renaissance in Europe.  Prior to the absorption of this Arabic poetry, European culture produced an epic literature along the lines of Beowulf and the Arthurian canon.  The development of the love lyric in the Troubadour tradition in France and Italy was an outgrowth of the love poetry that was written in Arab Andalusia:

I believe that we can justify a very different reading of the narrative of medieval Europe from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries.  Our reading of that text would tell us a story rather different from the one we have grown up with of the role and the fate of the Arabs who became Europeans at that time but who never lost their own language or cultural patrimony.  Our reading would note that at one time or another during the Middle Ages the intellectual and artistic centers of unconquered Christian Europe literally teemed with the activity sparked and fueled by continued contacts with al-Andalus and its material, cultural, and intellectual offspring.  The parts of Europe never conquered by Islam were nevertheless strongly affected through the more complex, and often more compelling, mechanisms of cultural and intellectual imperialism.

We can understand that a Eurocentric approach to history and culture would seek to hide this notion of Arabic influence.  The idea that there is a monolithic Western civilization has been embedded within our general study and even within the parochial teaching of Jewish culture and history.  Within the Jewish framework the idea that its traditions and its culture are uniformly and homogeneously Ashkenazic/European has been a new and dangerous standard that has served to eviscerate the very conceptual heart and the intellectual core of Jewish knowledge in both its scholastic as well as populist aspects.

The forced repression of the Sephardic/Andalusian model has had religious repercussions.  Modern Judaism has adopted increasingly more and more obscurantist forms of behavior be it in its fundamentalist or its nationalist aspect.  This Ashkenazi-based Judaism is one that has – like its Western counterpart – closed itself off from a pluralistic way of seeing its own origins and historical epistemologies.  In the case of modern Judaism the suppression of the Sephardic paradigm has been a complete and unmitigated disaster; as Western culture seeks to open itself to new and multiple ways of seeing and interpreting its past as that past functions to service the present, Judaism is now beholden to reductive ways of dealing with its own history – serving to create new and often dangerous mentalities that cause fear, paranoia and an existential hermeticism that has caused to isolate Jews from the general culture at a time when that culture has turned expansive and pluralist.

After the publication of The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History a number of equally important landmark studies were published that took on many of the priorities of the Menocal book: Ammiel Alcalay’s After Jews and Arabs, Ross Brann’s The Compunctious Poet, and Victor Perera’s The Cross and the Pear Tree all re-explored the richness of the Sephardic past in ways that served to put that culture on a firm footing for the contemporary age.  The great series of historical novels by the Arab writer Amin Maalouf on aspects of the Andalusian and Arab world further provided evidence of this rich and varied culture.  These books were enriched by the paperback reprinting of Goitein’s A Mediterranean Society in 1999.

As Menocal points out in her new afterword to the book, 1992 saw the publication of a number of new studies that have illuminated the world of Muslim Spain.  The most important of these, the two-volume anthology of scholarly essays edited by Salma Khadra Jayyusi called The Legacy of Muslim Spain has now been complemented by Menocal’s own popular study The Ornament of the World and the masterful volume of scholarly essays edited by Michael Sells, Raymond Scheindlin and Ms. Menocal The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: The Literature of Al-Andalus.  In addition, we can point to the wonderful popular study released last year by Richard Rubenstein Aristotle’s Children which bookends Professor Menocal’s Ornament.  The latter two books study the history of Muslim Spain as it relates to the emergence of the European Renaissance.

The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History was one of the most important books in my own intellectual formation.  Its brilliantly formulated arguments restored the glory of the Sephardic/Andalusian past and provided a more scientific and reasonable foundation for our understanding of the richness and depth of Western civilization.  Rather than giving in to the Eurocentric prejudice of much of Western scholarship, the book tore loose from the shackles of racism and obscurantism to reconstruct what in essence was “The World of Our Fathers”; a phrase that once signified the Yiddish roots of Jewish culture but in reality served a student such as myself to reconnect the lines that have anchored Jewish culture in the Middle East and Levant.

This seminal and brilliant book is the first chapter to a story that Menocal has completed with the publication of The Ornament of the World.  She has told this epochal story with great fluidity and stylistic grace backed with a fierce critical and scholarly rigor.  Her writing is a marvel of passion and fiery enthusiasm that sparks the reader to delve deeper into this brilliant and dazzling cultural universe where poets and philosophers were an innate and fundamental part of a humanistic culture that had not abandoned its traditional religious past, but served to exalt that past while blazing new paths in rationalism and scientific inquiry.

For those who seek models of thoughtful spirituality and enlightened religiosity, the writings of Maria Rosa Menocal are a beacon in a sea of darkness.  Her sense of what we have repeatedly identified as “The Levantine Option” has made her in her own right a seminal figure in the ongoing struggle to reclaim our Mediterranean past at a time of great strife and confusion.

The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History is a landmark of the first order and its republication is a cause for great joy and celebration.  We will forever be in its debt.

David Shasha