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.