Historians, journalists, and even politicians uphold the Muslim kingdom in medieval Spain – “al-Andalus” – as a multicultural paradise, a place where Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived in harmony.
There is only one problem with this popular account: it is a myth In this groundbreaking new book, Northwestern University scholar Dario Fernandez-Morera tells the full story of Islamic rule in medieval Spain.
The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise shines light on hidden history by drawing on an abundance of primary sources that historians have ignored, as well as archaeological evidence only recently unearthed. This supposed beacon of peaceful coexistence began, of course, with the Muslim’s violent conquest of Spain.
Far from promoting peace and religious tolerance, Muslim rulers maintained their power for centuries through brute force. Fernandez-Morera documents the many ways in which Islamic rule led to religious and cultural repression – including the subjugation of Spain’s Christian population.
The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise provides a desperately needed reassessment of medieval Spain, proving that the Muslims were not, in fact, benevolent rulers. As professors, politicians, and pundits continue to romanticise the Islamic occupation, Fernandez Morera sets the historical record straight – showing that a politically useful myth is a myth nonetheless.
The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise Quotes
The oft-repeated assertion that Islam “preserved” classical knowledge and then graciously passed it on to Europe is baseless. Ancient Greek texts and Greek culture were never “lost” to be somehow “recovered” and “transmitted” by Islamic scholars, as so many academic historians and journalists continue to write: these texts were always there, preserved and studied by the monks and lay scholars of the Greek Roman Empire and passed on to Europe and to the Islamic empire at various times.
Overlooked, too, is that the Visigothic Code of Law was, for its time, an impressive document that combined Visigoth practices with Roman law and Christian principles, and that evidences a guiding desire to limit the power of government many centuries before Magna Carta.
Tariq and other Muslim leaders helped themselves to these “fruits” of their conquest. Al-Kortobi reports that when Musa went to Damascus to pay homage to the caliph, he brought with him “all the spoil … consisting of thirty skins full of gold and silver coin, necklaces of inestimable value, pearls, rubies, topazes, and emeralds, besides costly robes of all sorts; he was followed by eleven hundred prisoners, men, women, and children, of whom four hundred were princes of the royal blood.
When asked how it was possible for him to know all that he did, he [Cyril] drew an analogy between the Muslim reaction to his erudition and the pride of someone who kept sea water in a wine skin and boasted of possessing a rare liquid. He finally encountered someone from a region by the sea, who explained that only a madman would brag about the contents of the wine skin, since people from his own homeland possessed an endless abundance of sea water. The Muslims are like the man with the wine skin and the [Greeks] like the man from the sea because, according to the saint’s concluding remark in his response, all learning emanated from the [Greeks].
The direct translations from the Greek enjoyed by Western scholars contrast with the twice-removed translations used by the likes of the Córdoban Ibn Rushd (“Averroes”) and the Persian Ibn Sina (Latinized “Avicenna,” from the Greek Aβιτζιαvoς), which were Arabic translations made by Christian scholars from Syriac translations also made by Christian scholars from those classical Greek texts preserved by the Greek scholars of the Christian Greek Roman Empire.
In fact, the term Byzantine Empire was invented in 1557 by the German scholar Hieronymus Wolf, who as a Protestant would not have been sympathetic to Eastern (or Orthodox) Christians, to indicate that these culturally Greek people of the Eastern Roman Empire were not Romans, and somehow not even Greeks. His scholarly decision may also have been influenced by the fact that the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne and his successors had claimed the name Roman for itself.
However, the word Byzantine hides this continuity. It is a word even less justifiable to designate the inhabitants of the Christian Greek Roman Empire of the Middle Ages than the word Indian is to designate the sixteenth-century inhabitants of the Americas or the word Iberia (now almost universally adopted among specialists in the English-speaking scholarly world) is to designate medieval Spain. The word Indian is an involuntary error resulting from an unavoidable lack of knowledge about an existing continent, but the words Byzantine and Iberia are artificial academic constructions resulting from ideology.
Professional self-preservation as well as political correctness and economics has affected academic research in certain fields of study, in contrast to the fearlessness demonstrated by professors when unmasking horrors in such dangerous areas of investigation as Christian Europe (the burning of witches! colonialism!) and Catholic Spain (the ubiquitous Spanish Inquisition!). Islamic Spain is no exception to the rule. 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 specialists 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.
Those who portray Islamic Spain as an example of peaceful coexistence frequently cite the fact that Muslim, Jewish, and Christian groups in al-Andalus sometimes lived near one another. Even when that was the case, however such groups dwelled more often than not in their own neighborhoods. More to the point: even when individual Muslims, Jews, and Christians cooperated with one another out of convenience, necessity, mutual sympathy, or love, these three groups and their own numerous subgroups engaged for centuries in struggles for power and cultural survival, manifested in often subtle ways that should not be glossed over for the sake of modern ideals of tolerance, diversity, and convivencia.
It is significant that Muslim leaders punished their own if they suspected a lack of Islamic zeal. Muslim warriors could be punished with death for apostasy, which contributed to the fervor of the invaders. According to al-Qutiyya, when Musa Ibn Nusayr’s son was named governor, he married the wife of King Rodrigo and began adopting Christian ways—and military leaders cut his head off in the mihrab of a mosque and sent his head to the caliph.
However, medieval Islam did not display interest in all aspects of Greco-Roman civilization: Islam remained inimical to classical art, drama, and narrative. Moreover, as we saw in chapter 1, during the early Muslim conquests there was a conscious destruction of the monuments of the pre-Islamic past. And in Spain, historian al-Andalusi tells us that such rulers as the Umayyad Abd Allah (888–912) and the dictator Muhammad Ibn Abu Amir al-Mansur (c. 938–1002, known to Christians as Almanzor) had precious books of ancient Greek and Latin poetry, lexicography, history, philosophy and law burned for their presumably impious content.
Excavations in the ruins of the immense royal city of Recópolis (near Zorita de los Canes in the province of Guadalajara), built by the Visigoth king Leovigild, have shown a topographic imitation of Constantinople, the existence of an aqueduct, a palatial basilica (likely an imitation of the Greek Christian basilica of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople), commercial and residential centers, paved streets, coin manufacturing, sturdy buildings constructed with stones extracted with Roman technology from local stone quarries, and other features usually associated with thriving Greek-Roman cities.
They tore down many others to use their superior construction materials, including marble, gold, and silver (traditional Arabic architecture used poor construction materials such as plaster, wood, and brick, evident in Andalusian palaces such as the Alhambra, and this is one of the reasons why Ibn Khaldun claimed that the constructions of the Arabs were not solidly built and quickly fell into ruins).