Maimonides and “Tolerance” in Medieval Spain

Andrew Bostom gives a detailed account of why Maimonides fled Spain, to settle ultimately in Cairo, despite the supposed harmony of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity in medieval Spain. It’s a helpful correction to the impression left by Maria Rosa Menocal’s book, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, and especially by her subtitle. In the book, she beautifully, if somewhat selectively, describes a culture of tolerance lasting roughly from 750 to 1000. But her chapter “The Gardens of Memory” also describes its destruction, starting with the devastation of Madinat al-Zahra in 1009:

These sprawling palaces must have looked like the marvelous settings for tales in The Thousand and One Nights, but they were real enough, and symbol enough of what those soldiers had been sent to destroy…. But the violence that destroyed this iconic monument exceeded what mere paid soldiers would have inflicted. Its destruction was also fueled by deep resentments these foreign Muslim troops harbored against the Umayyads and everything they stood for. By the time they had done their work, the whole city of palaces and pools and wonders was in utter ruins. It was never restored or put back into use, nor has it ever been fully excavated. (pp. 91-92)

This marked the end not only of the Umayyad caliphate but of the period of Islamic tolerance—for tolerance was precisely what the Umayyads stood for. The full ruin of tolerance in Spain took some time. It had disappeared by the twelfth century; both Maimonides and Averroes (Ibn Rushd) had to live most of their lives in exile. Like its symbol Madinat al-Zahra, moreover, it was never restored or put back into use.

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