Paul Monk

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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 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 dis­rupt- The Myth of the An­dalu­sian Par­adise: Mus­lims, Chris­tians, and Jews Un­der Is­lamic Rule in Me­dieval Spain By Dario Fer­nan­dez-Mor­era ISI Books, 336pp, $59.95 (HB) ed 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 Fer­nan­dezMor­era’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.

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