sraymartin's review

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informative reflective slow-paced

3.5

muzzamilaminferrin's review

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4.0

A very engaging history of medieval Spain. Focuses on the intellectual history. Arranged in the form of a series of vignettes rather than a chronological history. Begins with the arrival of the first Muslim ruler from Syria and continues after the fall of the Umayyads to look at the ways Muslim Al-Andalus influenced later European culture. It is a fascinating history.

A couple of complaints:
(1) The author is telling a story of the pluralism and openness of the Umayyads which was replaced by the conservative Almoravids and then Almohads and contrasted by the less tolerant Christians in the rest of Europe at the time. In the interest of that narrative, I think she exaggerates the intolerance and backwardness of the North African Berber Muslims. I'm not an expert on this history, but the Almoravids seem to have been very conservative adherents to the Maliki madhab, but the Almohads, who were followers of Shafi'i, had a much more complex theology that incorporated various schools of thought.
(2) I felt the book was a bit unfair to the intellectual legacy of Al-Ghazzali. He was one of the most important thinkers in the history of Islamic theology and philosophy, yet the author dismisses him as a conservative who was roundly defeated by Ibn Rushd. It also was a little jarring for me personally that she referred to him as Algazel. Other Muslims were referred to by their Latinized names (Ibn Rushd as Averroes, Ibn Sina as Avicenna, etc) but since Al-Ghazzali is less well known outside of Muslim circles, I was a little put off by the use of Algazel. In general I think the decision to use Latinized names for Arab and Persian writers is a little weird since Arabic and Persian names aren't really that hard to pronounce.
(3) The author treats the history of the Islamic world after the fall of Al-Andalus as if it fell into anti-intellectual religious conservatism and never produced anything valuable afterwards. This ignores the cultures further East that continued to produce great works of art and writing including people like Rumi and Hafez in Persia, Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Nafis in Syria, Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Battuta in North Africa, etc.
(4) The afterword claims that the attacks on 9/11 were the result of religious intolerance on the part of Muslims. This is, in my view, both inaccurate and offensive. Although Bin Laden used religious language to justify his actions, they were political in nature, the result of injustices committed by a variety of actors including the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. While it's true that the loudest voices in Islam have taken a turn towards conservatism and intolerance, the majority of the world's Muslims do not support violence and the author's language in this section feeds Islamophobia. The final section made me realize that although I enjoyed the book and would recommend it, I have to add the caution that one of the main implications of the overarching narrative is a repeat of the tired neoliberal message of "good Muslim vs bad Muslim" in which "good Muslims" are secular and don't take their religion "too seriously" and any Muslim who resists assimilation into American secular culture is a "bad Muslim."

mihrchand's review

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4.0

Este libro significa tanto para mi. Es como he devuelto a los días de 2018 cuando era estudiante de Español. Un poco idealizado, sí. Pero aprendí tantas nuevas cosas, especialmente relacionadas con los judios de Al Andalus. Ojalá, un día, podría hacer investigaciones y escribir cosas sobre este tema.

bryanmwaters98's review

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challenging informative reflective slow-paced

2.75

jordanwaterwash's review

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informative slow-paced

3.5

librarianonparade's review

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4.0

I've long wanted to visit the Alhambra, one of the greatest remaining traces of the Islamic culture that once flourished in Spain. After reading this book, I want to visit all the more.

al-Andalus as it was named by Abd al-Rahman, last remaining heir of the Islamic Umayyad dynasty of Damascus, was a perhaps unique moment in time and space, a brief few centuries when Islam, Christianity and Judaism co-existed in relative peace. The Caliphate of Cordoa created a vivid, vibrant culture that lingered long after al-Andalus had fragmented into city-states, before being weakened by internal division between the more tolerant Islamic of the Umayyads and the new fanaticism of Berbers from North Africa, and subsequently conquered bit by bit by the Catholic monarchs of Spain.

This is not history as I've ever read it before - if I had to pick any one word to describe this book, it was be an elegy, of sorts. What Menocal has written here is a love song, her own 'memory palace' devoted to memorialising a time and a place long-since destroyed. It's an incredibly romantic, bittersweet read, and you can understand why the memories of al-Andalus have lingered for so long, why Arabs and Sephardic Jews still lament the loss of cities like Granada and Cordoba, why palaces like the Alhambra were built to serve as remembrances. al-Andalus itself was for Abd al-Rahman an evocation of his lost life in Damascus; the Alhambra was built to evoke Cordoba, and so on.

That said, I'm sure serious students of the era could pick apart a lot of this book, and a large amount of less romantic material must have been omitted or glossed over - no era in history could ever as been as idyllic as this! Whilst tolerance flourished to a degree, Jews and Christians in al-Andalus under the Caliphate of Cordoba were still very much second-class citizens; the word of a Muslim outweighed that of a Christian or Jew, and justice was very uneven. al-Andalus may have been an incredibly tolerant and culturally diverse society for its time, but it was no earthly paradise, I'm sure.

mattleesharp's review

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3.0

this was a book of almosts for me. i think as an entry point into this era of spanish history, this book is excellent. it opens with a broad overview that gives you a real feel for the "atmosphere" of medeival spain. it points out interesting historical tidbits along the way. it forces you to confront your probably racist assumptions about the way a muslim empire is run. and it introduces you to interesting characters in history through great little historical vignettes.

but it's an incredibly disingenuous book. even harold bloom can't help but lay in that little bit of criticism in his foreword. if you're familiar with the history or just a general skeptic, you start to get the feeling this book was written as a series of historical vignettes specifically as an act of omission.

i think there's value in that. i think a counter-narrative is important. i think advocacy in historical trade writing is a net positive. i found the book very readable and engaging. i would recommend it to anyone, but i cannot give it a great score on here, knowing it could have been much more.
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