Revisiting Medieval Spain: What Ever Happened to Luis de Torres?

On August 3, 1492 Luis de Torres set out on the adventure of a lifetime– the discovery of the New World with Christopher Columbus.  But, in addition to generally being apprehensive about this uncharted journey’s risks, I think that Luis was very depressed and had mixed feelings about representing Christian Spain as part of the Columbus expedition.  Just a few weeks prior to setting sail, Luis de Torres was forced to leave his homeland because he was a Jew.

A few interesting facts about Luis–

Luis joined the expedition as Columbus’ translator because he, like every well-educated Christian, Muslim, and Jew in Al-Andalus (Spain), was fluent in Arabic– which was the principal language for the conduct of commerce and scholarly research in  philosophy, religion, and the sciences.

Luis de Torres and every other Jew on the Iberian peninsula had to leave the country (or convert to Christianity, more on this later), as a result of the historic edict expelling the Jews from Christian Spain signed by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand on March 31, 1492, just three months after the capitulation of Granada to the two monarchs. Granada (home of the Alhambra palace which I visited this past July) was the last remaining Islamic state in Spain and had enjoyed protection from the Christian monarchs for 250 years.

Luis de Torres was the first person to engage in a diplomatic mission between the Europeans and the native Americans of the new world–  when Columbus unexpectedly reached Hispaniola (modern day Cuba) instead of Arabic-speaking Mongols in India, he sent Luis de Torres to meet with the Taino tribal chief.  Luis therefore has the distinction of being the first European diplomat to meet with a native American leader.

I found this personally amusing because I was born and raised in Puerto Rico; the Puerto Ricans are descendants of the Tainos; I learned all about their history in elementary school; and practically the entire congregation of Shaare Tzedek (my childhood synagogue in Puerto Rico) consists of Cuban Jews.  So how’s that for a small world?

The story of Luis de Torres is just a minor anecdote in an important and illuminating book about religious tolerance between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain. "The Ornament of the World", published in May 2002 and written by Maria Rosa Menocal, who is the R. Selden Rose Professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale, rectified a serious hole in my knowledge of medieval history.  I’m still scratching my head about why I did not properly learn until now that the period from roughly 760 to 1492 was actually one of great learning and enlightenment in Europe– a time of significant progress in science, mathematics, and music.

When viewed from the vantage point of the religiously pluralistic society of Al-Andalus that took root under the inspired leadership of the great Umayyad prince, Abd Al-Rahman, the European world was hardly in a Dark Age during those important centuries of development.

On the contrary, poetry flourished, and the avid translation of religious, scientific and other classic philosophical texts (in particular Greek philosophy) into Arabic established the preconditions for future generations to successfully access this treasure trove of knowledge through the vast libraries of Cordoba.

At the end of "The Ornament of the World", Menocal makes some important concluding points.  I have excerpted several passages below:

The "founding father" of Western Islamic culture [Abd Al-Rahman] was in fact the survivior of a coup in Damascus that changed the course of Islamic history– and he and his descendants established themselves in Spain, where their rather promiscuous and open cultural vision and their lenient application of the dhimma covenant established itself so deeply that by the midlle of the tenth century we see … a prosperous and library-filled Islamic sopciety within which the Christian primate is not only thoroughly Arabized (which at the time meant also a level of education in the classical tradition, including Greek philosophy, that was unimaginable in the Christian West) but a respected and successful member of the Islamic community.  And the Jewish community was even more successful and prominent.

Most important, however, is that Muslims, Christians, and Jews did not have separate cultures based on religious differences but rather were part of a broad and expansive culture that had incorporated elements of all their traditions, a culture that all could and did participate in regardless of their religion. . . . It was, in other words, a culture that rejected religious or political correctness as the basis for any sort of aesthetic or intellectual value.

The first thing that this tells us is that these three religions have a shared history that is itself a part of European history and culture.  And that this was not merely a grudgingly shared moment but instead a very long and illustrious chapter in the history of the West. The fact that it eventually died– which many people point to in order to diminsih it or to claim that enmity is the only possible condition for these three monotheistic faiths– in no way negates the many rewards, social as well as cultural, of that age.

The second crucial thing it tells us is that the enemies of that kind of tolerance and cultural coexistence were always present and came from quarters within all three faith communities. . . . it was then (as it is now) clearly a matter of differing interpretation of the same scripture and the same religious traditions.

"The Ornament of the World" is an important book that is useful to any student of history and to anyone interested in understanding the roots of religious tolerance– and persecution– between the three Abrahamic faiths.  The ironic parallels between the religious conflicts that plague us today and those that defined medieval Spain may leave some feeling that much of Western society has not made much progress since 1492.  Spain, in particular, is still paying the price for violently and irrevocably excising the cultural and ethnic diversity which was at the root of its unparalleled socio-economic success for well over 600 years– during a time of intellectual darkness for much of the rest of the world.

Looking forward, I would like to think that the globalization of information and the increasing transparency in its dissemination will help the pendulum to swing faster in the direction of religious pluralism and tolerance and away from the ignorance and fear bred by orthodoxy. 

As I wonder why, until recently, I had no sense for the realpolitik and shifting alliances of the Christian warrior Rodrigo Diaz ("El Cid") or of the fact that the large body of the great Rabbi Maimonides’ work was originally written in Arabic (except for the Mishneh Torah, which was first written in Hebrew), I think that my own ignorance may be  symptomatic of the way the West treated much of Islamic cultural and intellectual history before 9/11.

Menocal usefully points out that Osama Bin Laden’s own jihadist exhortations to recapture the past glory of the Islamic empire of Al- Andalus reflect a similar ignorance of the period’s true history.  Someone should send him a copy of the book– maybe he’ll learn something, too. 




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