On June 4, 2009, in a speech delivered in Cairo, Egypt, President Barack Obama informed his largely Muslim audience that “Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance. We see it in the history of Andalusia . . .” He was not speaking of the southern region of Spain that bears that name today, but rather the Caliphate of Córdoba, known as al-Andalus, which flourished between 756 and 1031. In the last century or so, this period in Spanish Muslim history has been celebrated as a time of enlightenment and tolerance, set against the Dark Ages of bigotry and violence that characterized the Christian West. Such black-and-white characterizations of peoples and cultures are rarely accurate. Medieval al-Andalus was a product of its times, adhering to norms found in other Muslim kingdoms that were just as intolerant (to use an anachronistic term) as Christian ones. The “paradise” of convivencia that is so often invoked by politicians and popular authors is indeed a myth, and the world needs a good book to replace it with a dispassionate analysis of the evidence and a clear description of the people and events.
The “paradise” of convivencia that is so often invoked by politicians and popular authors is indeed a myth.
This is not that dispassionate book. It is instead a blistering indictment of the Umayyad Caliphate and its Muslim successors in Spain, as well as the modern academics who produced the myth. It begins by describing the eighth-century conquest of much of the Iberian peninsula by Muslim warriors, who wiped out what the author describes as a vibrant Christian Visigothic culture. He rightly criticizes academic historians who have soft-pedaled or denied altogether the religious nature of this war. The Arab and Berber invaders waged vigorous jihad to expand the Dar al-Islam at the expense of the infidel Dar al-Harb. The author rejects the popular notion that jihad was first and foremost an inner struggle for medieval Muslims to live an exemplary life. Instead, virtually all of the legal and religious texts from the period describe jihad only in terms of holy war—an obligatory duty for all faithful men.
Very little evidence survives from the short-lived Visigoth kingdom. Nonetheless, based on a treasure horde, the author concludes that it was “magnificent.” Scholars who do not share this view are not merely contradicted, but scorned. For example, the distinguished historian Thomas F. Glick of Boston University is accused of “antipathy to anything connected to Christian Spain” because he noted, based on the testimony of Isidore of Seville, that mining activities declined in pre-Islamic Spain, suggesting a similar decline in the overall economy. The author counters this assertion with the judgment of the “historian Emmet Scott,” who discounts Glick’s reasoning, chalking it up to “bad faith.” Yet Mr. Scott is only a “historian” if one’s definition includes people who like to write about history. Unlike Glick, Scott is not a trained historian but, according to his publisher, “an independent writer and researcher.” It is perhaps unsurprising that he rejects Glick’s view on the late seventh century, since in his book, A Guide to the Phantom Dark Age, Scott claims that the years between 615 and 915 never happened at all.
Maliki legal commentaries, commonly used in Muslim Spain, suggest that, far from a tolerant paradise, the Caliphate’s norm was to treat subject Christians as impure inferiors. Although elites might cross religious lines, common people stuck to their own neighborhoods. Women in Muslim Spain, Fernández-Morera contends, were treated poorly by modern standards, and even by medieval Christian standards. At times, though, the accusations outpace the evidence. Female circumcision was described in Maliki commentaries as unnecessary, albeit honorable. There is no clear evidence concerning its practice in Spain, yet the author still takes to task those scholars who have “prudently tiptoed around” the issue. Professional historians are trained to approach topics cautiously when evidence is lacking. This author, however, insists that female circumcision was “probably” practiced widely. His evidence: “how many fathers (or mothers) do not want their little girl to grow up to be an honorable woman . . . ?”
Virtually all of the legal and religious texts from the period describe jihad only in terms of holy war.
Since many of the practices that the author attributes to Muslim Spain were not specific to it, he draws liberally from events well beyond the peninsula. Major Christian churches, for example, were usually destroyed or converted into mosques after a Muslim conquest—hardly an act of tolerance. In Córdoba the church of St. Vincent was demolished to make room for the construction of the fabulous Great Mosque. Ranging far afield, the author describes the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque in Constantinople in 1453 as a “desecration.” He complains that the building, today a museum, has large medallions bearing Muslim prayers and a mihrab “to remind all visitors to the ‘secularized building’ that this is a Muslim, not a Christian site.” Drawing comparisons to a church captured centuries later by Turks seems a stretch. And a fair description of Hagia Sophia would note that a mosaic of the Virgin and Child towers over that offending mihrab, while mosaics of Christ and the saints are scattered throughout the former church. Given the scorn the author heaps on these conversions it is startling to hear Ferdinand III’s transformation of the Great Mosque of Córdoba into a Christian church described not as a crime, but “poetic justice.” Indeed, the author complains that tour guides still refer to it as a mosque “quite contrary to the fact.”
Names and naming are an important theme in this book. The author rejects the oft-used “Iberia,” since it is ancient rather than medieval. It has become popular among intellectuals, he believes, because it “avoids offending non-Christian sensibilities.” Why “Spain” is more Christian than “Iberia” is not clear, but the author is certainly correct that the latter is an anachronism. The author also believes that, in a “standard colonialist move,” Muslim conquerors renamed places, as a means of eradicating the previous cultures. Thus Spain became al-Andalus, a practice repeated with countless place names across the peninsula and the Muslim world. Yet each of the examples the author provides, including “Istanbul,” was either a foreign hearing of the original name or an attempt to translate the original name into Arabic or Turkish. Even al-Andalus was likely derived either from the Greek for Atlantis or from a reference to the Vandals, who conquered the peninsula before the Visigoths. In either case, it appears that the Muslims were attempting to retain current names, or at least thought names generally unimportant.
Professional historians, the author maintains, have willfully distorted the facts.
As one may have gathered, this is a book only partially about medieval Spain. It is also a powerful condemnation of modern scholars individually and the culture of the academy in general. Professional historians, the author maintains, have willfully distorted the facts, transforming a brutal conquest of Spain into a “migration” or “exertion,” and an oppressive culture into a society of tolerance and wisdom. All of this is “an academically sponsored effort to narrate the past in terms of the present and thereby reinterpret it to serve contemporary ‘multi-cultural,’ ‘diversity,’ and ‘peace’ studies, which necessitate rejecting as retrograde, chauvinistic, or, worse, ‘conservative’ any view of the past that may conflict with the progressive agenda.” It is certainly fair to note that most academics, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, identify themselves as “progressive.” Similarly, one may assume that this disposition colors some of their approaches to history, leading to a magnification of the sins of the West, while downplaying those of everyone else. The antidote to these prejudices, though, is a solid analysis of surviving material and a reasoned narrative that contextualizes Muslim Spain into its own period, rather than ours. Many of the raw materials for such a project are here. But they are often lost in the currents of a polemical treatise that seems as focused on unearthing modern conspiracies as it is on setting the medieval record straight. The author believes that “money from Islamic nations has compromised Islamic and Middle East studies in Western universities,” presumably because scholars in those fields do not agree with him. Yet, if academics are already blinded by their “Christianaphobia,” as the author also contends, is it really necessary to bribe them as well?
This is a book that will change few minds. Professional scholars will dismiss it as an angry screed, unworthy of serious attention. Readers who already take a dim view of Islam and its history will have that view confirmed. Those few academic historians who happen to be conservative—like myself—will delight in the pointed jabs against left-wing politics in the academy, but I suspect will also remain unconvinced by the conspiracy theories. Like most myths, that of the Andalusian paradise will resist all attempts to excise it. What is needed is a finely honed scalpel, expertly wielded—not a blunt mallet.