Islamic Spain

Maria Rosa Menocal is a professor of Spanish history at Yale and the author of the beautiful book on Arabic Spain, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Wanting to learn more about what happened to the Muslims in Spain after the Reconquest, I had written her asking for a recommendation. She suggested two books by L.P. Harvey, “Islamic Spain: 1250-1500” and “Muslims in Spain: 1500-1614.”

It turns out I had read the first book several years ago and still had it. Upon rereading it, I wound up with a couple questions so I wrote Harvey

“At the suggestion of Yale’s Prof. Menocal, I am rereading your Islamic Spain 1250-1550 (and looking forward to the next volume, which I’ve located). I had asked her where I might read about the fate of Moors in Spain after the dissolution of the Nasrid kingdom. (This in turn was inspired by reading Ford’s Handbook and its description of several villages as being ‘full of Moors’ or something to that effect.)

“Thinking and reading about these things has caused two questions to pop into my head that I find have started to colonize my imagination. These questions may be answered in the next volume of your history, or, admittedly, may be more poetic than historical. But I thought it couldn’t hurt to drop you a line anyway.

“So here are the questions:

“When did the last native Arabic speaker in the Iberian peninsula likely die? (In my poetic imaginings the question was really, “On what day did the last native Arabic speaker in the Iberian peninsula die?”)

“When was the last Islamic prayer likely uttered (out loud or silently) in the Iberian peninsula by a native?

“Impossible questions, perhaps, which is why they may be more poetic than historical. But there they are.”

Harvey responded:

“I am glad to see that Ford still has the capacity to set people thinking. They don’t make guide books like that any more. I am afraid that my answer to both your queries is I just do not know. And although they are both interesting questions, I cannot think how one would set about finding the answers. One has to accept that not all things are knowable.”

At first I was somewhat irritated by the response. Islamic Spain is peppered by statements that one thing or another or unknowable. However, I think it may be a response to the tendency of some historians to caulk the cracks in history by “creatively” imagining what might have happened. It may also be a response to the belief that man, being the measure of all things, in time will be capable of measuring all things. OK, fair enough. But, being a Self-Proclaimed Poet, I am not constrained by the same concerns.

While rereading in that book about the situation for Muslims who dwelt on the estates of Christian nobles and, later, about the intensification of religious violence between Christians and Muslims, as well as Jews, this thought came to mind:

There are too many examples, including modern ones (Bosnia for instance), of people of different cultures living together in peace in the same city or village, sometimes for centuries, often developing an interdependency and even friendships, who suddenly turn on one another, killing their neighbors, imprisoning them, assaulting and raping them, stealing their possessions and property. Why does this happen? How could it happen? Are there always fault lines beneath the surface? Is every instance specific and is it impossible to generalize? I’d like to see a study on this. There must be one, I presume.

After sending Harvey my questions, through the PR department at UCP, I remembered that some blogs were reviewing books. I had had an offer of a review copy previously, but was not interested in that particular book. Harvey’s new volume (Muslims in Spain) was a different matter, however. So, I offered to write a post on the book if the promotions manager would send me a comp copy. To my surprised, she agreed right away. The book came today and I’m going to start reading it immediately. I’ll post about it when I’m finished.

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