Andalusia, or The Legend of Islamic Spain


Review of The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain, by Darío Fernàndez-Morera

Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2016

Why is history important? Some say it offers lessons which are to be heeded. Others see history as inherently flawed, with shortcomings that are to be exposed and decried. Others still take the approbative approach and ferret out particular instances that are then held up as exemplary antecedents. Such strategies, though popular, only create myths and are therefore deeply flawed, for they deny history its real purpose, which is to establish the truth of things through the working of reason.

Instances of such myth-making are plentiful. One instance is the myth of Islamic Spain, or utopian Andalusia: A successful and harmonious society, where urbane and wise Muslim rulers transformed the rude and barbaric Visigothic chiefdoms into an Elysian realm filled with tolerance for all faiths. This is termed the convivencia, harmonious co-existence. Both instances are retro-projections of contemporary desire, in that historical precedents are sought in order to justify current notions of the ideal society -- in this case, multiculturalism. Worthy as such endeavors might be, they deny the truth of history. In the case of Andalusia, Darío Fernàndez-Morera, a professor of Spanish Medieval literature and history at Northwestern, takes up the task of separating fact from fiction. He does so eloquently and thoroughly by drawing upon the latest European scholarship (most of which remains untranslated into English), as well as documentary and archaeological evidence.

In fact, Muslim Spain was a dystopia. Fernàndez-Morera places the Muslim conquest of Spain within the context of jihad, as evidenced by Ibn Khaldun: “In the Muslim community, holy war [jihad] is a religious duty because of the universalism of Islam and the obligation to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force. Therefore, the caliphate and royal authority [political and religious power] are united in Islam.” Those that refused to be persuaded could live as dhimmis, insecure subalterns, who were to pay the required protection tax (jaziya), which in itself was no guarantee of tolerance. Anti-Christian pogroms were frequent, in which crucifixions, impaling, and beheadings were frequent, and Christian children were taken and raised as Muslims. At times, Jews allied themselves with Islamic authority, but this did not alter their subaltern status. Thus, in 1066, the Jews of Granada were slaughtered by Muslim mobs, while the Karaites were systematically annihilated throughout Andalusia. In the words of Maimonides, the Jewish philosopher who witnessed atrocities: “Never did a nation [the Muslims] molest, degrade, debase, and hate us as much as they.”

Women were segregated, veiled and lived in subservience to a male relative or a husband, while stoning of women for adultery was the rule of law (the sharia). Furthermore, female sexual slavery abounded, in a legally sanctioned form. Captured Christian women were much prized throughout the Muslim world, and their traffic was highly profitable.

The dystopian reality was in part the consequence of sharia, as interpreted for application in society by four official schools of jurisprudence. In Andalusia, the Maliki School prevailed, and was known for its severity towards non-Muslims. The Andalusian jurist Ibn Abdun wrote in 1100: “[Jews and Christians] must be detested and avoided. It is forbidden to accord them with the greeting, ‘Peace be upon you. Satan possesses them, leading them to forget God’s warnings. They belong to Satan. A distinctive sign must be worn by them so that they may be recognized and this sign may become a source of shame for them.” Thus, Christians wore a blue patch, and the Jews a yellow one. Documentary evidence also suggests a mass exodus of non-Muslims from Andalusia to Christian territories to the north. By contrast, in the Middle East and Egypt, where a different school of jurisprudence held sway, non-Muslims were less severely persecuted.

Much is also made of Andalusia as a place of free-thinking, where philosophy flourished through inter-religious dialogue. Maliki jurisprudence, in fact, effectively negated such indulgence. In the Islamic world, philosophy was only a personal pastime for a select few whose musings had no influence in directing human life, for that was the prerogative of sharia, which alone prescribed what one was to do and how one was to live. In Islam philosophy is simply not needed. This is made clear by the two thinkers associated with Andalusia, namely, Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Maimonides. Averroes was a jurist, a dispenser of sharia, while Maimonides fled for his life because he was Jewish. Indeed, the works of both only gained popularity when Christian Europe discovered and translated them in the thirteenth century, for the West has always needed philosophy to guide social and personal life.

Further, the term “Islamic Spain” assumes that Muslim rule was stable and enduring from the eighth century on to the fifteenth, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella drove the last Muslim ruler from Granada in the Reconquista of 1492. But history tells a different story. The initial Muslim incursion in 711 AD did indeed reach up to the Douro River, but the conquered land soon broke apart into minor Islamic chiefdoms (taifas) that fought with each other for control of resources. From the time of Pelagius of Asturias, and the Battle of Covadonga in 722 AD, Christian reclamation (Reconquista) of territory was continuous and permanent. Thus, by the eleventh century Islamic rule shrank to just north of Madrid. By the thirteenth century it extended only as far as Seville. By the fourteenth century only the cities of Malaga and Granada remained Muslim. And by 1492, there was only Granada, which was allowed to exist because it produced good revenue for Ferdinand. But when its Muslim ruler began negotiating with the Ottoman Turks, whose empire was on the rise, Ferdinand took possession of Granada (the final act in the long Reconquista) to deny the Ottomans a foothold in Spain.

As for the architectural legacy of Islamic Spain, the Visigothic contribution is often ignored. Indeed, the Visigoths were hardly “barbaric,” for they created a vibrant, sophisticated society, where art and architecture thrived. Archaeological evidence points to extravagant buildings which were destroyed by the Muslim invaders. The Visigoths were part of Romanitas, or “Roman-ness,” that deeply influential and permanent context of Greco-Roman learning and culture which extended throughout the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Central Asia, and out towards India. Islam too arose and expanded within this Classical context (as the recent work of the Inarah group of scholars clearly shows). The French philosopher Rémi Brague has observed that Islam has always been a great digester of cultures. Thus, “Islamic” architecture is Greco-Roman esthetics redeployed. The iconic Alhambra, built at a time when Islamic rule had all but vanished from Spain, is also an exuberant gasp of a long-buried Visigothic civilization. Ideas do not simply disappear. There is never wholesale cultural amnesia.

Thorough and insightful as Fernàndez-Morera’s analysis is, he might also have addressed the major problem of Arabic documentary evidence for the Muslim invasion of Spain in 711, since it is late. Thus, the Chronicle of the Moor Rasis is found only in a fifteenth-century recension, while the famous work of Al-Maqqari (Nafh al-tib) dates from the seventeenth century. As is usual with most ancient sources, including Arabic sources, the past is recounted for laudatory purposes rather than with a view to chronology and fact. Furthermore, Fernàndez-Morera’s analysis would have benefited from the work of Johannes Thomas, whose recent study of Andalusia (yet to be translated) is ground-breaking.

All that said, the book indisputably succeeds at exploding the myth of Andalusian multicultural harmony. The historian Serafín Fanjul, writing in Spanish, has famously observed that the convivencia was in reality brutal apartheid. Fernàndez-Morera’s much-needed book has at last set the record straight for the English-speaking world. Truth alone must be the concern of history.

Posted on 20 April 2016

NIRMAL DASS teaches at Wilfrid Laurier University. His latest book is The Deeds of the Franks and Other Jerusalem-Bound Pilgrims, (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2011), a translation of the earliest narrative of the First Crusade.