Book review – The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise

An important book by Darío Fernández-Morera demonstrates just how much our understanding of the past can be distorted by unsound, or dishonest, approaches to history. [1]  

In his book, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (2015), he demolishes, point by point, the widely held belief that under Islamic rule Spain enjoyed a golden age of culture, learning and religious tolerance. Using evidence from Christian, Muslim, and Jewish sources, Fernández-Morera, of Northwestern University (USA) reveals the works of many modern academics to be, at best, imaginative fantasies and, at worst, deliberate falsifications of the past for ideological reasons.

This article was first published in Calx Mariae. It is reprinted here with permission. Photo: Roderic, last king of visigothic Spain (source)

I will focus on two key points in this column: the nature of the invasion and the supposed toleration showed to Christians.

In 711 AD Muslim armies entered Spain. Within ten years almost the whole of Spain was under Islamic rule. How had this happened?

The traditional view is that the conquest of Spain was a natural continuation of the extensive military conquests won by Arab armies over the course of the seventh century. Motivated by zeal for their new religion, Islamic armies conquered Persia and much of the Eastern Roman Empire, including north Africa and most of what we now consider the Middle East. All these lands had been conquered in the pursuit of jihad, holy war, which was understood, in the words of a modern professor of Islamic studies, to mean “to make war in order to outspread the Islamic religion and implement its law throughout the entire world, and its reward is paradise.”[2]

Many modern scholars have been keen to deny the religious nature of the conquest of Spain. They base this on a modern interpretation of the Arab word jihad, alleging that it refers primarily to an interior struggle rather than to military conquest. Therefore, this line of argument goes, as jihad doesn’t mean holy war, the invasion of Spain could not have been a jihad.

“The pursuit of jihad as Holy War,” writes Richard Hitchcock “is not a motivating factor relevant to the clashes between Muslims and the people they vanquished in the first century of Islam, at least not as far as the conquest and subsequent occupation of the Iberian peninsula is concerned.” [3]  

In fact, the writings of medieval Muslim scholars supply abundant testimony that (i) they considered jihad to mean holy war and (ii) that the invasion of Spain was a jihad.

The eighth century legal treatise al-Muwatta, by Imam Malik Ibn Anas, the founder of the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, and one of the most influential Islamic scholars of all time, discusses jihad only in the martial sense. And so too, writes Fernández-Morera, do the succeeding works of that school. [4]

For example, the Risala, a Maliki text that was very influential in Islamic Spain states “[Christians and Jews] either accept Islam or pay the jizya; if not, they are to be fought.”[5] And the historian of Muslim Spain, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), explained “the holy war is a religious duty because of the universalism of the Muslim mission and the obligation to convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force.”[6]

The position adopted by academics like Hitchcock is untenable, as Fernández-Morera notes:

“These scholars may be more or less knowledgeable of the true meaning of Islam than learned medieval Muslim scholars, who were closer to Islam and its origins, but this possibility of an erroneous interpretation of jihad by the medieval Muslim scholars does not change those medieval interpretations of jihad as the religious obligation to force the infidels to convert or die, or in the case of Christians and Jews, to convert, pay a special tax, or die – as evidenced in countless medieval documents that various forms praise and justify war against the infidel for the sake of the true religion.”[7]

The modern interpretation also runs into the problem that the Muslim chronicles speak quite freely of the invasion of Spain as a jihad. The historian Ibn al-Qutiyya (d.977) narrates how a Muslim commander, Tariq, was inspired by dreaming of Muhammed and before battle reminded his troops of the rewards of dying during jihad. Another early Muslim leader is described by a tenth century historian, al-Khushani, as “a courageous champion of jihad… burning in his desire to hurt the polytheists [an abusive term for Christians, due to belief in the Trinity].” And there are many other examples.[8]

In accord with the principle of jihad, all those who resisted Islam could be killed or, in the case of women and children enslaved, including in sexual slavery. Massacres of those who resisted were commonplace – as at Seville, Cordoba, Merida and Orihuela. Even if Christians surrendered there was no guarantee that they would be spared. Toledo, the capital, surrendered but the Muslim leader nonetheless execute elderly members of the nobility.[9]

In the face of such violence, and the breakdown of the Visigothic state, many reached peaceful accords with the invaders to try to avoid such atrocities. These accords were made under threat of violence and universally violated by Muslim conquerors at a later date. But this hasn’t stopped some academics from using them as evidence that the conquest was “largely peaceful.”[10] One of the most dishonest claims made by proponents of the “myth”, such as David Nirenberg, is that “we should think of the Muslims, in some way, as a migratory wave, just like the Visigoths, except two hundred [sic] years later.”[11]

This is an extraordinary distortion of the truth. Muslim and Christian chronicles alike agree on the violent and destructive nature of the invasion, recording massacres, enslavement, especially of young women as sexual slaves, looting, the burning of towns, the desecration of churches and relics and the destruction of homes, vineyards and orchards.[12]

Christians and Jews were presented with only three choices: death, conversion to Islam, or the acceptance of second-class social status as dhimmis accompanied by payment of the jizya, a tax “imposed on the people of the Book to humble them” as Malik Ibn Anas wrote. The jizya was “protection money” paid by dhimmi, which mean “beneficiaries of the contract of protection”. Refusal to pay would result in execution or enslavement. Payment of jizya was accompanied by ritual humiliation:

“The dhimmi, standing, would present the money to the Muslim collector who would be sitting up higher on a sort of throne; this Muslim bureaucrat would hold the dhimmi by the throat telling him ‘Oh dhimmi, enemy of Allah, pay the jizya that you owe us for the protection and tolerance we grant you’; the other Muslims present would imitate the collector, pushing around the dhimmi and whoever other dhimmis accompanied him. To this amusing spectacle should be admitted any Muslim who wanted to enjoy it.”[13]

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We can well imagine what modern historians would have to say of Christians who gave non-Christians the choice between death, conversion or enforced social humiliation accompanied by financial extortion. How hypocritical then is the stance that they adopt towards the jizya, pretending that this “protection money”, extorted through fear of violence and death, was in fact a genuine act of protection by the Islamic state: “the new Islamic polity not only allowed Jews and Christians to survive but, following Quranic mandate, by and large protected them”.[14]

Or, as another puts it, “Jews and Christians, who were ‘People of the Book’ were treated well, aside from taxes”.[15] Conversion to Islam – under threat of death, slavery or social degradation – is described by another academic as “the harmonious process of conversion to Islam and consolidation of the majority group”, the existence of small numbers of surviving Christians who resisted conversion is to this author “an indication of the spirit of tolerance which characterizes the history of al-Andalus [the Muslim name for Spain].”[16]

Such academics tend to downplay the violence of the invasion, not least because the “myth of the Andalusian paradise” would be greatly undermined if they acknowledged that it was founded on massacre, rape and slavery. In addition, denying that Spain was brutally conquered is a way to deny legitimacy to “the Reconquista”, the reconquest of Spain by the Catholic kingdoms in the later middle ages. A third reason, is that presenting the invasion as a combination of migration and peaceful takeover helps them to make the achievements of Islamic Spain look exceptional, by downplaying the achievements of the society brutally overrun by the invasion.

Spain was one of the most prosperous provinces of the Roman empire. Invaded by a number of Germanic peoples in fifth century, it was the Visigoths who finally established themselves. Initially Arian, but ruling a Catholic Hispano-Roman population, the Visigothic king Recared was received into the Catholic Church in 589, followed by the aristocracy. Despite the devastation caused by the invasions of the fifth century much of the Roman infrastructure remained intact and eighth century Visigothic Spain was flourishing.

Medieval Muslim chronicles note the awe with which the Arab invaders entered cities such as Toledo, Seville and Cordoba. Medieval Muslim historians had an honesty that many modern academics lack, recording in detail the artistic achievements of the Spanish and contrasting it with the Arab invaders, who, by contrast, as Ibn Khaldun put it “were barely coming out of their nomadic existence” and who “despised culture.”[17] The spiritual and intellectual richness of Spanish culture is made manifest in the life and works of St Isidore of Seville (560-636 – pictured below).

St Isidore of Seville

It is only by feigning ignorance (or by being genuinely ignorant) that modern academics can make a assertions like this: “a Muslim empire… accomplished what the Visigoths never could: they lifted Spain from her Dark Ages gloom and depression.”[18]

The conquest of Spain left the Catholic majority subjugated and humiliated, their numbers dwindling as more and more either converted to Islam, were expelled or fled to the free Catholic kingdoms in the north, or were martyred. Those who converted, and their descendants after them, were inferior in social status to the descendants of Arabs. By the end of the twelfth century there were hardly any Christians left in al-Andalus. This, we are expected to accept, was the result of a society where “Muslim tolerance of People of Book was high” and which “nourished a complex culture of tolerance”.[19]

In Islamic Spain there was one law for Muslims, another for Christians. Muslims could testify against Christians, Christians could not testify in legal matters concerning only Muslims. Whoever calumniated a Muslim would be flogged; whoever calumniated a non-Muslim would not be flogged. A Christian would be executed for the death of a Muslim, but a Muslim would not be executed for the death of a Christian, unless “treacherous.” Christians were encouraged to convert to Islam, but converts to Christianity would be executed. Christians could not exercise political power, carry weapons, ride horses in Muslim areas, bring up their children in the faith if married to a Muslim, or breach any one of many other prohibitions of this nature.[20]

Christians were forbidden from celebrating their religion publicly by means of processions, they were forbidden from entering certain areas of towns and cities because they were deemed “unclean”. They were rarely allowed even to repair their churches, never mind build new ones, and clear evidence demonstrates that many churches were destroyed despite the blithe assertions of many “scholars” to the contrary.

Yet Professor Maria Rosa Menocal, and other such academics, can write, in defiance of all the evidence, that medieval Islamic Spain “had three principal and interlocking features which are at the heart of that culture’s extraordinarily vigorous well-being: ethnic pluralism, religious tolerance and a variety of forms of what we could call cultural secularism”.[21] For academics like Maria Rosa Menocal, the writing of history no longer has any intrinsic connection with the evidence actually provided by historical sources. The past can now be presented in whatever manner is convenient for their own agenda.

For many academics, hatred or contempt for the Catholic faith lies at the heart of their propagation of “the myth”. This contempt can be seen in the attitude towards Christians martyred by the Muslims in Spain. Hugh Kennedy, for example, contrasts the “tolerance and essential reasonableness of the Muslim authorities” with the “self-inflicted martyrdom” of Christians in Cordoba who insisted on publicly proclaiming the divinity of Christ in response to the execution of a young man guilty only of professing Christ and stating his belief that Islam was a false religion. Nearly fifty men and women were publicly executed for expressing their Catholic faith – some were beheaded and some boiled alive.

Perhaps if they professing any other religion than that of the Catholic Church they would, as Fernández-Morera suggests, be praised by modern academics as adopting “a policy of nonviolent resistance”.[22] Instead they are mocked as “fanatic Christian fringe.”[23]

For today’s academics, the “myth of the Andalusian paradise” is a useful tool for pushing the ideology of multiculturalism. It is very helpful for them to be able to point to at least one society where Christians and Muslims were able to live peacefully together for centuries, and under Islamic rule no less. As no such society has ever existed, they have found it necessary to invent one.

The “myth” is a clear example of how the academic establishment can endorse a particular view of the past not because the historical evidence leads us towards it, but because it is useful for achieving certain political ends.

There is increasing awareness that the mainstream media daily propagates “fake news” in place of real information about current affairs. We also must be fully alive to the dangers posed by the “fake history” being taught in universities by academics with no concern for truth, and repeated by those who gladly adopt the false narratives as their own.

To disentangle historical truth from manufactured falsehood we must be fully aware of (i) how different approaches to the study of the past shape the narratives we are reading and (ii) how the past should really be approached if we are to learn something valuable and true about the past.

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[1] Darío Fernández-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain, (Wilmington, 2016)

[2] Myth, p24

[3] Richard Hitchcock, Professor Emeritus of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, quoted in Myth, p23.

[4] Myth, p24

[5] Myth, p25.

[6] Myth, p26.

[7] Myth, p243

[8] Myth, p31-36.

[9]  Myth, p38.

[10] Myth, p241.

[11] David Nirenberg, Professor of Medieval History and Social Thought at the University of Chicago, quoted in Myth, p19.

[12] Myth, p40

[13] Myth, p210.

[14] Maria Rosa Menocal, quoted in Myth, p206

[15] Myth, p217.

[16] Rafael Valencia, quoted in Myth, p225.

[17] Myth, p65.

[18] Chris Lowney, quoted in Myth, p57.

[19] Jane Smith, Maria Rosa Menocal, quoted in Myth, p206.

[20] Myth, p211-12.

[21] Myth, p8.

[22] Myth, p231.

[23] Myth, p208

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