Volume > Issue > The Andalusian Illusion

The Andalusian Illusion

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain

By Darío Fernández-Morera

Publisher: ISI Books

Pages: 358 pages

Price: $29.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the seventeenth century.

American universities with departments of Islamic Studies or Middle Eastern Studies often receive funding from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Turkey. Critics have documented the way this funding has served the political agendas of those nations by inducing scholars in the field to teach blatant myths. For example, it is now common for such scholars to claim that Spain was conquered peacefully in A.D. 711 by treaties with the Moors, who then lifted Islamic Spain, or al-Andalus, out of the so-called Dark Ages and contributed significantly to the development of European civilization. These same scholars can be found postulating that Islamic Spain was an exemplar of religious tolerance and diversity, and that women there had a surprising degree of freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth. In this well-documented book, Darío Fernández-Morera, an associate professor in the departments of Spanish and Portuguese at Northwestern University, shows how Spain was, in fact, conquered in the most barbaric manner and ruled for centuries under an intolerant legal system called Malikism, a form of Sharia.

To debunk the prevailing myths, Fernández-Morera quotes at length from vital primary sources, among them medieval Islamic, Jewish, and Christian chronicles, religious and legal texts, and biographies. He points out that these sources — although they have all been translated into Western languages — are often not cited in the notes of contemporary scholarly works. This is especially true of Christian sources like the Chronica Mozarabic (754) and the Chronica Byzantia-Arabica (743), which were written only a few years after the Islamic conquest of Spain in 711 and are “too often neglected” today.

Fernández-Morera opens each chapter with quotes from eminent academics who, safe from Sharia law in their endowed chairs at prestigious universities, heap fatuous praise on Islamic Spain. One is reminded of the Rolls-Royce communists of yesteryear, those Western ideologues who, safe from the gulags, would heap praise on the U.S.S.R. By contrast, the scholars who refuse to follow the party line on al-Andalus — e.g., Theodor Khoury, Roberto de Mattei, and Alfred Morabia — are not published by university presses. French scholar Sylvain Gouguenheim was denounced when he had the chutzpah to provide evidence that Greek texts had not been lost and then transmitted to Europe by Muslims, but had been preserved and transmitted by Victorinus, Boethius, the monks of Mont Saint-Michel, William of Moerbeke, and the Christian Greeks. A colloquium was organized in France to exorcize Gouguenheim’s book Aristote au mont Saint-Michel (2008) as “a product of retrograde Catholic ideology,” and a petition made the rounds accusing him of Islamophobia.

One myth debunked by Fernández-Morera is that Muslims lifted Spain from the Dark Ages and civilized it. Yet Spain was already civilized at the time of the Muslim conquest and had “produced more Latin writers and emperors” than any other province of the Roman Empire. Muslim chronicles tell of how amazed the invaders were in 711 to see the splendor of Spanish cities. They had never looked on such a high degree of civilization. Córdoba, for example, had an aqueduct, paved streets, coin manufacturing, stone buildings, and a palace which, Muslim chronicler Ibnu Bashkuwal tells us, was full of the “wonderful remains of the Greeks, Romans, and Goths.” Most of the arriving jihadists could not even read or write, but Spain had already produced encyclopedias like the Liber Glossarum and had scientific schools in Seville and Toledo, as well as an artistic center in Mérida. It had produced scholar-saints like Isidore of Seville, the “most widely cited author of the European High Middle Age.”

Such was the culture the Muslim invaders destroyed, smashing statues, wiping out representational art, and burning libraries that contained ancient poetry, drama, history, philosophy, and law. It wasn’t the first time jihadists had destroyed libraries: Medieval Muslim historian Abd al-Latif al-Baghdadi, among others, recounts that the great library of Alexandria was burned with the permission or by order of the second caliph, Umar, in 642 during the Muslim conquest of Egypt, and hundreds of thousands of Greek manuscripts would later be destroyed in the conquest of Constantinople in 1453. In the conquest of Spain, countless churches were plundered and burned till the invaders reached Poitiers, where they were finally defeated in 732 by Charles Martel.

Another myth Fernández-Morera debunks is that of the peaceful conquest of Spain by treaties. Muslim historians report that several of the tabiun, the direct disciples of Mohammed’s Companions, directed the jihad against Christian Spain, which suggests it was a religious war. Terror awaited the city that resisted: nobles and older men would be crucified, and young men and infants cut to pieces. Yes, there were treaties, but they were deceptive, as Muslim historians like Ibn Abd al-Hakam attest. According to Islamic law, such deceit was justified. Muslim historian Majid Khadduri states that Mohammed and his successors reserved “the right to repudiate any treaty or arrangement which they considered as harmful to Islam.” And so, those cities that negotiated with and agreed to pay tribute to the conquerors gained only a temporary security.

Islamic Spain was not an exemplar of religious tolerance. It was, in fact, a theocracy in which Sharia was strictly enforced. The legal system was Malikism, one of four schools of Sunni jurisprudence. The Maliki clerics prescribed death to Shiite Muslims and were intolerant even of those who followed the other three Sunni schools of law. Legal cases, decrees, and treatises of jurisprudence that survive from the era show that witches were killed, blasphemers crucified, sodomites and adulteresses stoned, thieves had limbs amputated, and those who drank wine were whipped, and after the fourth offense were killed. Scholars who create a fantasyland of enlightened tolerance in Islamic Spain overlook the inquisitorial legal system of Malikism.

That Islamic Spain was multicultural is yet another myth. It was closer to apartheid. Like the Jews in 1930s Europe, Christians had to wear a sign by which they would be “recognized to their shame.” They were not allowed to sit in the presence of Muslims, could not ride horses but only donkeys, sideways, and were obliged to pay the jizya, a monetary tribute levied against non-Muslim subjects, in a “humiliating” manner, such as while being throttled. Worst of all, Christians and Jews could not touch the water, garments, or food that would be used by Muslims, and they were forbidden even to walk across Muslim cemeteries lest they pollute the graves. The following legal case shows why Jews and Christians had to live in their own ghettos: A Jew bought a house on a Muslim street and started using the nearby well. His Muslim neighbors took him to court. The fatwa handed down stated that unless the Jew stopped using the well, his house would be taken away. Of course, a few elite Christians and Jews did serve in high office under Muslim rulers, but they did it in spite of Sharia, and their eminence raised much resentment among Muslims and Maliki clerics.

In the imaginary Andalusian paradise created by contemporary scholars, the Umayyad dynasty is held up as the pinnacle of enlightened tolerance. Fernández-Morera gives evidence, however, that the Umayyads “elevated religious and political persecutions, inquisitions, beheadings, impalings, and crucifixions to heights unequaled by any other set of rulers before or after in Spain.” For instance, between 851 and 859, Abd al-Rahman II and Muhammad I killed nearly fifty Christians who are now called “the Martyrs of Córdoba.” Most were beheaded, but a nun was cast into a cauldron of molten lead, a monk whipped to death, and a young soldier impaled. Ah, but today’s scholars don’t blame the “tolerant” Umayyads for these atrocities. No, not at all. They blame the martyrs for their “extremism.”

The Umayyad ruler Abd al-Rahman III, who had a harem of over six thousand sex slaves and fifteen thousand castrated slaves to guard them, used downright terror to keep the populace quiet: The gate of his palace in Córdoba was covered with crucified bodies and severed heads. Some paradise! Despite his overflowing harem, this monster was also a sodomite. When St. Pelayo, a Catholic hostage aged thirteen, resisted his advances, the despot tortured and beheaded the boy. How can educated men and women in the West admire this creature? Yet Fernández-Morera cites a professor at Harvard Divinity School who asserts that under his rule “Muslim tolerance of the so-called People of the Book was high, and social intercourse at upper levels was easy and constant.”

One disgusting side of al-Andalus overlooked by today’s scholars but discussed at length in Fernández-Morera’s book is slavery. Slaves were one of the chief exports of Islamic Spain, and there was a strong racist element in its brand of slavery.

Fernández-Morera debunks still another myth — that women in al-Andalus had a surprising degree of freedom. Not true. Under Malikism, a married Muslim woman left her house only with her husband’s permission, could not walk alone, had to stand in the presence of sitting men, and needed a male to speak for her. The only women who had any degree of freedom were, ironically, sex slaves. Meanwhile, in Catholic Spain, women owned farms, sold goods at the market, operated flour mills, herded animals, and cultivated vineyards, olive groves, and gardens. In religious life, they were elected abbesses, learned canon law, and attended medieval Church councils. They could even rule alone as queens in their kingdom. What a difference!

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise includes about a hundred pages of end notes, many citing those precious primary sources that date from the era of Islamic rule in Spain. Fernández-Morera’s bold citation of passages from eminent scholars who claim that al-Andalus was a paradise highlights how sorely this book is needed. We live in a time notable for, as Henri Peyre put it, la trahison des clercs (the treason of the experts).


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