The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain by Darío Fernández-Morera.
Book Review by Michael Isenberg.
“Few periods in history have been more misrepresented than that of Islamic Spain.” So writes Darío Fernández-Morera, Associate Professor at Northwestern University, in his recent book, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise.
Works like María Rose Menocal’s The Ornament of the World, which I reviewed in Part I of this series, depict Muslim Spain, or al-Andalus as the Muslims called it, as a warm memory where enlightened rulers were the epitome of rationality and tolerance. It was a “Golden Age” when Jews and Christians were able to practice their religions freely, achieve great things in poetry, philosophy, and commerce, and rise to dizzying heights in a Muslim-dominated society.
But Fernández-Morera begs to differ. According to him, the Muslim era in Spain (711-1492) was a time of brutal invasions followed by brutal suppression of rebellions. Bigoted Muslim jurists joined forces with bigoted ordinary Muslims to martyr Christians and conduct pogroms against Jews. Cultural accomplishments, such as they were, were highly overrated and primarily borrowed from the Christian world.
Fernández-Morera doesn’t dispute the existence of the glittering royal palaces, as presented by Menocal, with their legions of poets, scientists, and highly-placed Jewish and Christian officials. But he argues that you can’t infer from court life what life was like for the average Jew or Christian living under Muslim rule. “This selective approach is as scholarly defective as would be assessing the everyday life and moral preferences of twentieth-century American families based on a reading of the historical records left behind by Hollywood actors and American artistes and literati,” he writes.
The picture he paints of the daily grind for the typical non-Muslim, especially Christians, is grim. “A basic fact is lost in discussions and arguments about the details of the life of the Christian dhimmis in Spain, the so-called Mozarabs, and about how much or how little they benefited from Islamic ‘toleration’—namely, that they were by definition a subaltern group, a fourth- or fifth-class marginalized people in a hierarchical society, and that they were the victims of an extortion system, the dhimma, that gave them the choice that gangsters give to their victims: pay to be protected, or else.”
Fernández-Morera concedes that life for Spanish Jews was somewhat better than for Spanish Christians. “It is true, then, that the Jewish community experienced better living conditions under Spain’s Muslim conquerors than under the Catholic Visigoths. It is also true that, as a result, for some centuries Andalusian Jewry thrived, producing a brilliant cultural output.
“But none of this mean that Islamic Spain represented a beacon of tolerance…the Muslim masses resented the Jewish community’s influence and visible material success, particularly given that this largely urban minority was relatively well educated and prosperous when compared with the poor and illiterate non-Jewish masses. This resentment contributed to several anti-Jewish riots, pogroms, assassinations, and expulsions, and eventually to a precipitous decline in status during the Almohad rule [1147-1238].”
In other words, yes, the Jews experienced persecution in Muslim Spain. But it happened because they were so successful!
But even more than catalogs of atrocities, Fernández-Morera relies on catalogs of laws to make his case—in particular the so-called Ordinance of Omar. In addition to requiring Jews and Christians to pay a special tax, the jizyah, the ordinance required them to wear distinctive clothing as a badge of their inferior status. They could not build their homes or houses of worship higher than the Muslim buildings. They were prohibited from riding horses, and they could only ride a donkey if they used a wooden saddle. They were required to make way for a Muslim if they were to meet him on the road, and were banned from ringing church bells or otherwise making noise during their religious ceremonies.
Relying so heavily on the law puts Fernández-Morera on shaky ground. He is aware of this. “One should not assume that legal systems indicate how the law is applied or obeyed. Anyone can find examples in his own time and place where the written law does not reflect what some individuals do, or rulers choose to enforce, or judges decide." But he argues in his defense that these examples "do not lessen the importance of taking into account the legal system of a given culture in order to understand its customs, ethics, and beliefs.”
He is right, of course, that where tolerance reigned, it happened in spite of the shari’a, and over the objections of the ulama—the Muslim intellectuals. For example, toleration was especially common during the Taifa period (11th century) when central authority broke down and al-Andalus split into numerous petty kingdoms. These periods of “not unlikely violations of Islamic mores…which are often praised today… marked the nadir of Islamic rule in Spain—as ulama then pointed out and ulama today still do. [emphasis Fernández-Morera’s].”
Nevertheless, in my humble opinion, Fernández-Morera dismisses the tolerance that existed in al-Andalus too readily. Yes, it violated the shari'a. But it still existed.
In fact, I think Fernández-Morera is too ready to dismiss any evidence contrary to his hypothesis. In this he is guilty of the defective, selective approach of which he accuses his opponents. His dismissals are often accompanied by unbecoming sarcasm. Nearly every time he mentions the scholar and jurist ibn Rushd, he refers to him as “the great philosopher Averroes,” in sarcastic quotation marks. In a chapter on the status of women in al-Andalus, he scoffs at the idea that female intellectuals were common, and quotes Maria Luis Avila: “We must avoid allowing ourselves to be impressed by these one hundred and sixteen ‘learned’ women.” I submit that when you have 116 examples of something, you don’t get to dismiss it as anecdotal. It’s officially a thing.
Despite these shortcomings, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is a serious work of scholarship—there are nearly a hundred pages of end notes—a marked contrast to the nearly non-existent citations in The Ornament of the World. Myth is an important book in that tells a side of the story that the others leave out.
Fernández-Morera recognizes that his conclusions aren’t politically correct. In the introduction, he laments the harsh reception academia provides to anyone who questions the established wisdom about al-Andalus. “Such questioning would also risk an end to travel to Muslim countries to do research, a loss of funding for the heretical scholars and their universities (not only from grant-giving institutions but also from governments such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Libya under Gadhafi, and Turkey), ostracism as graduate students, and difficulty finding university positions (assuming the scholars were able to complete a PhD in a department of Middle East Studies)…University presses do not want to get in trouble presenting an Islamic domination of even centuries ago as anything but a positive event, and academic specialist would rather not portray negatively a subject that constitutes their bread and butter. In addition, fear of the accusation of ‘Islamophobia’ has paralyzed many academic researchers.”
Here I agree with Fernández-Morera 100%. As we see in nearly daily headlines, hostility to freedom of speech is rampant on college campuses, and this extends far beyond the Islamic Studies department. I salute the courage of Fernández-Morera in fighting back by writing the The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise and giving the world a more truthful, more complete picture of Muslim Spain.
So who's right? Was Muslim Spain the Ornament of the World, as Menocal claims, or is Fernández-Morera correct in arguing that's a myth? I’ll reveal that answer in Part III.
Michael Isenberg writes about the Muslim world, medieval and modern. His forthcoming novel, The Thread of Reason, is a murder mystery that takes place in Baghdad in the year 1092 and will be the first in a series that depicts how the Muslim world committed cultural suicide during the Middle Ages.
Photo: The Martyrdom of Saint Eulogius of Cordova, by unknown artist.
Photo: The Martyrdom of Saint Eulogius of Cordova, by unknown artist.