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Book Review: The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (Darío Fernández-Morera)

This book is ferociously erudite, but tinged with obsession.  True, nearly all modern academic and popular mention of Muslim Spain endorses an easily disproved falsehood—that Muslim Spain was a golden land of tolerance, offering unique scientific and cultural advancement.  So I suppose that the opposite falsehood, that Muslim Spain was a nasty land of unbroken intolerance where nothing was accomplished, in a sense merely balances the scales.  But a reader of The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise still feels like he’s once again only getting part of the picture, and getting berated into the bargain, rather than getting what most readers really want, which is an analysis that is as objective as possible.

It is no secret that it is difficult today to get a straight story about any aspect of historical Muslim world.  Most offerings range from laughably false and whitewashed pro-Islam (anything by Karen Armstrong or many other authors) to one-note, one-sided vitriol against Islam (anything by Robert Spencer).  This difficulty exists because Islam today lies at the intersection of numerous political squabbles, ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to European ideological multiculturalism, to numerous breeds of oppression theory, to fears of terrorism and of a resurgent Islam in a clash of civilizations.  Therefore, nearly all publications since 1980 or so have a distinct ideological tinge (as do many earlier, originating in anti-Catholicism, such as Runciman’s histories of the Crusades).  It would be nice if for any period in Muslim history, authors would simply address the reality of what happened, not imposing the template of their politics on either the substance of, or the focus upon, the actions of the protagonists.  Thus, in medieval Spain, rather than talking about whether Abd al-Rahman I was tolerant, or intolerant, we should talk about what he did, and why.  But, unfortunately, that is not this book.  Oh, we are told what he did, but only the parts that show he was intolerant.  Which is doubtless true, but I doubt he was as much a one-trick pony as the author tells us.

Darío Fernández-Morera painstakingly frames his book in direct opposition to the lumbering philo-Muslim herd of recent decades.  Each chapter, and sub-chapter, is headed by quotations from eminent scholars, the purpose of which is to set the substance of those quotations, and those scholars, up for being demolished in the succeeding pages.  This is a very effective device, for it, as the Marxists say, heightens the contradictions.  And Fernández-Morera does, indeed, accomplish the demolition he seeks.  Thus, there is never any doubt about his purpose, which he achieves with the focus of Ahab.

More precisely, the author’s purpose is not just to undermine the myth of a golden age of tolerance; it is to focus on the domination of the Maliki school of Islam in Muslim Spain, and to claim that in effect, Muslim Spain often functioned as a type of hierocracy, where Maliki clerics held substantial political power.  (The traditional view of most Muslim systems is not that they were theocratic, or hierocratic for that matter, but that they were caesaropapist—that secular rulers had very significant religious power.)  Maliki clerics in Spain were not interested in tolerance, or anything at all resembling what modern Western liberals want.  That is—the secular rulers of Muslim Spain may, or may not, at any given time have been doctrinally flexible in their personal lives, drowning themselves in wine and concubines (though concubinage is generally accepted in Islam, theoretically), but the actual conduct of broader society was dictated by the legal thought and practice of inflexible and intolerant Maliki clerics.

Fernández-Morera begins with various framing and definitional matters.  If one concept characterizes the book, it’s that convivencia, the propagandistic term often used to conclude with little evidence that there was a wonderful spirit of mutual tolerance throughout Muslim Spain, is wholly bogus.  As the author points out, that there were mutual influences among different groups in Muslim Spain shows nothing—mutual influences always exist under every conqueror.  Thus, “This book’s interpretive stance is Machiavellian, not Panglossian. . . . Even when individual Muslims, Jews, and Christians cooperated with one another out of convenience, necessity, mutual sympathy, or love, these three groups and their numerous subgroups engaged for centuries in struggles for power and cultural survival, manifested in often subtle ways that should not be glossed over for the sake of modern ideals of tolerance, diversity, and convivencia.”  And again, just because certain secular rulers lived dissolute lives does not mean that was the norm for regular people (any more than, I might add, that just because Charles II had lots of mistresses polygamy was the norm in Restoration England).  If the author had limited himself to proving this thesis, rather than stamping on the idea that there was ever any element of convivencia in Muslim Spain, his book would have been very successful.

Rather than relying on secondary sources, Fernández-Morera uses mostly primary sources.  This is because of the corruption of the secondary sources, largely because of the Gulf states—their funding of Western university departments related to Islam is vast, but conditioned on toeing the pro-(Sunni) Muslim line (something academics under the spell of Edward Said and oppression studies have no problem with).  The author’s grasp of languages seems to be immense, which certainly helps him offer a lot of backup to his thesis.  There are a hundred pages of footnotes, most to primary sources.  The reader can’t, therefore, complain that the book contains falsehoods (unlike, say, every paragraph Karen Armstrong writes).  But he can complain of imbalance.

The author begins with “Conquest and Reconquest,” in which Fernández-Morera attacks the modern attempt to recast the Islamic conquest of Visigothic Spain as a mere “migration,” having no religious component or jihad element.  This modern argument is obviously on weak ground, since that would make the Muslim incursion into Christian Spain unique in Muslim history and contrary to Muslim theology.  Not that Fernández-Morera attempts to parse Muslim theology, which has many strands over many centuries.  His point is simpler—the actual conquerors of Spain told us exactly why they did it, over and over, and whether there is actually such a thing as jihad as inner struggle in Islam, no conqueror of Spain ever mentioned jihad in any context other than the physical conquest and domination of the Christians and Jews.

The conquest of Christian Spain was fast, accomplished through both war and short-term, quickly broken, treaties, though its speed was not without historical parallel—roughly ten years.  And the author notes something else not often mentioned today—the Arab conquerors, as well as the defeated Christians, again and again pointed out the critical role of the Jews in supporting the Arab conquest, including through administration of conquered cities as the Arabs moved on to new conquests.  This is hardly surprising—Muslim conquests throughout the Middle East were greatly helped not just by the weakness and disorganization of conquered societies, such as Sassanid Persia (and Visigothic Spain itself), but also by the frequent active cooperation of religious minorities, such as the Nestorian Christians in Egypt, who (especially in the early years of the Muslim conquests) saw Islam as just another Christian heresy, and one that would reduce taxes and let them practice their brand of Christianity in peace, thus one whose rule was preferable to the Greek Roman Empire.

It’s in this first chapter that some of the book’s defects as writing show up.  All too frequently the book reads like a flat recitation of facts and references, delivered in staccato fashion, with not-infrequent repetition of the same facts.  We are told repeatedly about tabiun (contemporaries of Muhammad’s companions, whose presence on campaign was regarded as highly desirable); that Ibn Khaldun disparaged Arab building techniques; and, most often of all, that the famous “Mosque of Córdoba” (now thankfully a cathedral) was built on the Basilica of St. Vincent, destroyed by the conquerors.  All these things are interesting, and even relevant, but being told once would have been enough, and the repetition either indicates bad editing or the edge of obsession—probably the latter, since most of these are used in service of a negative light being cast on the conquerors.  No doubt much they did was negative, but they must have done some neutral, or even good, things.  What those are, we are not told.

In the next chapter, the author’s main purpose is to establish that Visigothic Spain, far from being a backward society improved by superior Muslim culture, was in fact a flowering hybrid of Roman and Visigothic culture, largely destroyed by a mostly retrograde Islam, except for a few elements that survived (such as the Visigothic horseshoe arch, often described as an Islamic element).  This is a variation on the generally accepted modern view that the “Dark Ages” weren’t that dark at all.  I have a lot of sympathy for this view, and elements of it are surely true (including that it was not Arabs, rather it was mostly the Greek Roman Empire, that preserved the texts of Aristotle and other Classical writers, supplemented by Christian scribes under Islam).  On the other hand, both documentary and archaeological evidence of this period is slim, and the author, I think, tries to spin too much out of too little.  But what I have no sympathy for is his frequent references to, and reliance on, a secondary source:  Emmet Scott’s Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited.

This is a 2012 book updating the thesis of Henri Pirenne, from the 1930s, that the Dark Ages were caused by the rise of Islam, because it ended trade and most contacts between Europe and the East, both in the Mediterranean and, to a lesser extent, overland, thus turning Europe temporarily into a backwater, when it was otherwise still flourishing after the fall of Rome.  This thesis certainly has something to it, although it tends to get little modern hearing, since it suggests that there could be something negative about the impact of Islam.  But Scott’s present-day book, which endorses and updates Pirenne, comes very close to endorsing the bizarre Phantom Time Hypothesis—that today is really 1720, not 2017, because Emperor Otto III and Pope Sylvester II inserted the years A.D. 614-911 into the calendar.  The supposed proof of this turns on a nearly complete lack of archaeological evidence for those centuries, which might support Pirenne, but given, say, Chinese records, the idea of phantom time is sheer stupidity (like most conspiracy theories positing multi-generational gnosis).  I read Scott’s book when it came out in 2012, and this was a disturbing element of the book.  Though Scott never directly endorsed the Phantom Time Hypothesis, instead tiptoeing around it, he was clearly sympathetic.  Looking around now, I see that Scott later, in 2014, wrote a book formally endorsing it.  Therefore, that Fernández-Morera cites Scott heavily does not, or should not, help his case—yes, Pirenne may well be right, but crackpots should be avoided, and the case for the flowering of Visigothic Spain being cut short not overstated.

The rest of the book is taken up with an encyclopedic rendering, in multiple chapters, of the bad behavior of Muslims toward Jews, Christians, and women in Muslim Spain.  Although no informed person really thinks that Muslim Spain was, for the 500 years of its existence (700 if you include the 200 years in which it was reduced to the rump of Granada) a model of tolerance, traditionally the earlier Umayyad dynasty, and the fragmented taifa kingdoms which followed it, have been regarded as more tolerant than the later Almohad and Almoravid dynasties.  Fernández-Morera will have none of this—relying largely on Maliki texts, and primary texts showing the actual application of the rigid Maliki rules, he insists that non-Muslims were uniformly treated poorly.  Yes, occasional Christians and Jews rose in the Muslim power hierarchy; and yes, for some periods the rules requiring constant humiliation of non-Muslims weren’t aggressively enforced.  But mostly they were, interspersed with pogroms and massacres of both Christians and Jews (the latter, in particular, came in for abuse because of their education and prosperity—some things apparently never change).  Women always had vastly more freedom and power in Europe than anywhere in Islam, including Muslim Spain.  And dhimmi status was the best Christians could hope for (when they weren’t being accused of being polytheists, because of belief in the Trinity, and killed outright)—which was only protection in the sense of “protection racket,” an organized form of monetary extortion in exchange for a temporary abeyance of violence against the person.

None of this is surprising to any educated person—the uniform history of Islam in power is that of a triumphalist religion, in which some, and some only, minority religions are allowed to exist, as long as they pay taxes and recognize the temporal authority of Islam over them.  I have no doubt that all the data, texts, and examples Fernández-Morera offers are both true and accurate.  All this is a valuable corrective to the philo-Muslim, anti-Christian view that normally dominates in the academy and in the media today, supplemented by outright lies often offered by American politicians as they declare their willing submission to Islam.  But this book offers only a one-dimensional picture, no different than the one-dimensional picture usually offered of Christian Europe as a nasty, intolerant place.  Sometimes it was; sometimes it wasn’t, and the same has to be true of Muslim Spain.  Any ambiguity in this book is always resolved against Islam.  The reader, or at least this reader, is unhappy not to get a complete picture.  Maybe the corrective is needed, but the reader is tired of being a kickball in the ideological wars.  Yes, the Reconquista was awesome, and should be celebrated, and isn’t celebrated enough today.  But that doesn’t mean we should endorse viewing history through a pinhole.

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