There is a widely held belief that in Spain, during the European Middle Ages, Islam, Christianity and Judaism co-existed peacefully and fruitfully under a tolerant and enlightened Islamic hegemony. Dario Fernandez-Morera, associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Northwestern University in the US, with a PhD from Harvard, has written a stunning book that upends this myth.
The myth itself has been a comforting and even inspiring story that has underpinned the so-called Toledo Principles regarding religious tolerance in our time. It has buttressed the belief that Islam was a higher civilisation than that of medieval Europe in the eighth to 12th centuries and that the destruction of this enlightened and sophisticated Andalusia should be lamented.
The great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, a century ago, saw it that way. US President Barack Obama and The Economist magazine have both very recently cited Muslim Andalusia as evidence that Islam has been a religion of peace and tolerance. In short, the myth of Andalusia has been a beacon of hope for working with Islam in today’s world with a common commitment to civilised norms.
This vision was spelled out in Maria Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (2002) and reinforced by David Levering Lewis’s God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 (2008). But it has deep roots. Edward Gibbon, in his famous 18th-century history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, wrote in glowing terms of the 10th-century Umayyad caliphate in Spain as a beacon of enlightenment, learning and urban living, at a time when Europe was plunged in bigotry, ignorance and poverty.
As someone who has long taken this vision for granted, it came as a considerable shock to me to discover that the conventional wisdom is quite unfounded. In The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Fernandez-Morera systematically refutes the beguiling fable. The picture he draws is starkly different from the conventional one, troubling in what it reveals and compelling in its arguments.
If we are to satisfactorily resolve current disputes about Islamophobia and the future of Islam as a world religion, this book is required reading. International reviewers have greeted it as a desperately needed corrective to delusion and propaganda. That will invite pushback from those who either remain committed to the myth or believe it is too important a beacon to allow it to be extinguished.
However, Fernandez-Morera argues trenchantly that we must shake off the sense of the superiority of Islam to medieval European culture. He makes the point, for example, that, given Islam’s antipathy to graphic art and music, had Europe been Islamised in the 8th century, we would never have had Gregorian chant, orchestral music or opera. No Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Verdi. No Caravaggio, Michelangelo or Titian. Ponder that, at least as a thought experiment.
He shows that the Muslim invaders of Spain in the 8th century did not arrive as a higher civilisation conquering Visigothic barbarians. They arrived as barbarians intruding on a strongly Romanised, Catholic and materially sophisticated culture. As other scholarship has shown, the Arabs in the 7th and 8th centuries were barbarian invaders every bit as much as the Germans or Bulgars in Europe. They plundered, enslaved and sacked from the Middle East across North Africa and eastwards to Central Asia and India. As the great Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun would put it in the 14th century, war in the name of religion was integral to Islam.
Secondly, Fernandez-Morera argues that Islam was not the vehicle through which classical Greek learning was preserved, as is so often claimed. It was chiefly Constantinople that archived and protected the patrimony of Greek antiquity, philosophical, medical and mathematical. The Arabs acquired all this through Greek Christian scholars translating the classics for them. Greeks from the east and Christians in the west later revived such learning for themselves. Meanwhile, the rise of Islam had disrupted the flow of trade and ideas between the Greek east and the Latin west, thus harming rather than fertilising European civilisation.
Even these background theses will strike many readers as controversial, but they are only the beginning. The real thrust of Fernandez-Morera’s critique of the myth of Andalusia is that Islam in Spain, far from setting a high bar of tolerance, was characterised by plunder, domination, the harsh application of sharia law, the persecution of Christians or Jews who openly avowed their non-Muslim beliefs, and the violent suppression of ‘‘heresies’’ and apostasy within the Muslim community.
He also points out that the Christian and Jewish communities tended towards dogmatism, enclosure against the other religions and the fierce persecution of both heretics and apostates. Andalusia has been extolled as a convivencia, he remarks, but in reality it was what he dubs a precaria co-existencia between the three monotheistic religions that eventually disintegrated.
Chapter four, The Myth of Umayyad Tolerance: Inquisitions, Beheadings, Impalings and Crucifixions, and chapter five, Women in Islamic Spain: Female Circumcision, Stoning, Veils and Sexual Slavery, reveal what has been airbrushed from history. The Moroccan Muslim feminist Fatema Mernissi and others have laboured to argue that the sexual slaves in Andalusian harems were somehow ‘‘free’’ women. Fernandez-Morera draws attention to the considerably greater freedom of women in Christian Spain, by contrast, in terms of everyday outdoor work and access to political power.
The myth of Andalusia has been based on neglect of primary sources and selective adulation of worldly Muslim rulers, as if they were representative of the clerical ulema and Muslim masses. In fact, as Fernandez-Morera shows, both mullahs and masses tended to bigotry and anti-Semitism. There were anti-Semitic pogroms every bit as violent and irrational as those in Christian Europe. And many Christians were expelled from Muslim Spain.
Among the many shocks to my settled beliefs in reading this book was learning of the atrocities committed, publicly and privately, by Muslim rulers I had long seen as models of enlightened despotism, notably Abd al-Rahman I (731-788) and his descendant two centuries later Abd al-Rahman III. Both committed abhorrent deeds of torture and murder.
Far more shocking is Fernandez-Morera’s documentation of the harsh sharia law in Spain under the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, something endorsed even by the celebrated 12th-century philosopher from Cordoba, Averroes (Ibn Rushd). It was neither pluralist nor ‘‘secular’’. It offers no model at all for what we might want or do now in civil society.
I learned things reading this book that I wish were not true, but the documentation is voluminous and compelling. There are occasional errors of fact and some surprising omissions — no discussion, for example, of the great library of Cordoba or of its other public amenities in the 10 century — but the overall impact is profound. His book will surely run into hostility, but Fernandez-Morera is a formidable scholar.
The classic works of Patricia Crone or John Wansbrough on the origins of Islam are the best comparison with what Fernandez-Morera has achieved. They demonstrated that the Koran as a canonical text dates from long after the traditional death of Mohammed and the hadiths (sayings attributed to Mohammed) were overwhelmingly just made up by storytellers long after he was gone.
In Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, Crone argued that the traditional story of Mecca as a great spice-trading centre where Mohammed founded Islam from whole cloth (‘‘revelations’’) does not stand up to scrutiny. The actual history of early Islam and the traditional religious account of it diverge radically. Yet this extraordinary finding has never sunk in. It is, understandably, resisted strenuously by Muslim believers and an academic establishment that makes a living out of writing about that traditional story.
Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam and books like it are vital works. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is one of these books. Rather than accepting conventional or politically correct views about either Islamic Spain or the rise of Islam ‘‘in the full light of history’’, read these probing works of historical scholarship.
We do need the ‘‘cultural secularism’’ that Menocal and others think they can point to in Muslim Andalusia. We do need to find a way for those who still adhere to the old religions to live in reasonable harmony. We should want a tolerant, cosmopolitan order here and abroad. What we cannot do any longer is take Muslim rule in Spain as our model for accomplishing that laudable goal. We need to invent something new. There is no Andalusian golden age to emulate.
Paul Monk is a consultant, writer and speaker. He is the author of Opinions and Reflections: A Free Mind at Work 1990-2015.