The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise
by Darío Fernández-Morera
The author of this volume—a professor of Spanish and Portuguese studies at Northwestern—wrote it with provocative intent. But whether The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise will stimulate the academic and media debate he desires cannot be predicted. Darío Fernández-Morera's arguments are undermined by the stridency of some of them, the novelty of others, and, for close readers, his failure to resolve ambiguities in Spanish Islamic history. He promises not to "pass judgment on today's Muslims, Jews, or Christians, or on their religions," a pledge coming after his opening promise to "demystify Islamic Spain." And he "advises readers to be cautious and keep in mind the differences that exist between the medieval and the modern worlds of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity." But he fails to do so himself.
It is undeniable that, among bien-pensant commentators, it has become habitual to romanticize the lives of local Muslims, Jews, and Christians during the nearly 800 years from the invasion of the Iberian Peninsula by Muslim Berbers in 711 to the fall of the last Spanish Islamic state, in Granada in 1492. The social arrangements that existed then are usually described as convivencia, a term to which the author returns repeatedly and unfavorably.
Fernández-Morera is touchy about that, and about other items in the contemporary academic vocabulary. He has fashioned as a usage "Christian Greek Roman Empire" to refer to the Byzantine territories in the Middle East and North Africa that Muslim armies subdued before their conquest of Spain. Byzantine power was also influential in pre-Muslim Spain, but Fernández-Morera appears intent on exaggerating it. Spain was mainly part of the Western Roman Empire. The author has also committed his own form of retrospective idealization in his treatment of the Christian Visigoths, a Germanic tribe who ruled Spain (originally as vassals of Rome) before the arrival of the Muslims. He evokes Visigothic Spain as a brilliant civilization, although he admits that the Visigoths were less than admirable in their treatment of the Jews among them.
The narrative here describes both Islamic and Christian states in medieval Spain as highly stratified. In Islamic territory, Muslims were supreme and the two non-Muslim "protected" communities—Jews and Christians—were subordinated, except when the necessities of the Islamic rulers required some relief of that humiliation, usually in individual cases. Generally, Muslim rule was strict in administering relations between the dominant faith and minority believers. Jihad was a constant—as was, from the Christian side, the military effort to regain control of the land, known as the Reconquista. Slavery was a well-established institution in Muslim Spain, and many prominent Muslims were descendants of converts to Islam or slaves granted their freedom.
Medieval Spain was not a modern state. That should be obvious.
Fernández-Morera correctly criticizes Anglo-Saxon academics for their poor knowledge of Spanish sources. He is effective in describing beheadings, massacres, destruction of churches, and other atrocious acts committed by Muslim rulers. But even he stipulates that "Islamic Spain enjoyed no harmonious convivencia; rather, Muslims, Christians, and Jews had a precarious coexistence." He returns to this admission near the close by declaring, "In Islamic Spain there was no tolerant convivencia, but a precaria coexistencia." This seems a manipulation of words: convivencia and coexistence are not so different from one another as to be necessarily opposed.
Between these reworded appreciations of the complexity of Spanish Islam, Fernández-Morera commits himself to unexpected polemics, occasionally contradicting himself in condemnation. While he affirms that Muslims adopted Greek science, technology, and philosophy, he complains that they ignored Greek "sculpture, painting, drama, narrative, and lyric" (his italics) because of religious prohibitions. Yet he repeatedly discounts Muslim poetry as an erotic product of moral laxity. Aesthetic achievements, he says, do not reflect the life of the mass of people. But that was true no less of classical Greece and the Roman dominions than of Islamic Spain. And one would not imagine, from reading this work, that Spanish Muslim literature and philosophy were influential among Jews and Christians inside, and outside, the peninsula.
The author is casual in his discussion of unpleasant aspects of the history of Christendom, deriding "the ubiquitous Spanish Inquisition!" as a topic and referring to the "so-called Dark Ages." Throughout, he endeavors to discredit the 12th-century Spanish Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd (known to the West as Averroës) mainly because he served as an Islamic law judge, which, Fernández-Morera alleges, is ignored by "some scholars today . . . who deal with him as the great and enlightened philosopher." As he treats Averroës, his tone becomes increasingly insulting.
Fernández-Morera arrives at a dangerous juncture when he takes up the position of Jews in Islamic Spain. As non-Muslims, Jews were subject to restrictions on their public life, but "It is true . . . that the Jewish community experienced better living conditions under Spain's Muslim conquerors than under the Catholic Visigoths. It is also true that, as a result, for some centuries Andalusian Jewry thrived, producing a brilliant cultural output." Nevertheless, "none of this meant that Islamic Spain represented a beacon of tolerance." Once again, a verbal artifice is at work.
The subject of Jews in medieval Spain leads Fernández-Morera to repeat accusations that, resenting their treatment by the Visigoths, the Jewish community supported the Islamic takeover of most of Spain and even guarded occupied cities for the Muslims. The Jews, he says, "continued to collaborate with the Muslim rulers," providing a counterweight to the majority of Christian subjects. But in pursuit of this curious allegation, Fernández-Morera, as he does with Averroës, does not hesitate to criticize the Islamic philosopher's contemporary, the great Andalusian rabbi Moses Maimonides, for his adherence to "exclusionary" laws similar to those imposed by Muslims and Christians. Religious restrictions on social interaction among Muslims, Jews, and Christians (in the view of Fernández-Morera) are definitive proof that convivencia is a myth. Thus, if medieval Spain, both Muslim and Christian, was lacking in modern tolerance, Fernández-Morera would seem to find equal blame among all who lived there.
When he turns to the conditions under which Christians lived, he reveals discomforting aspects of Visigothic rule. Unlike the Muslims, who taxed and employed Jews without seeking their conversion to Islam, the Visigoths intended "to make [the Jewish community] disappear." Visigothic laws against Jews included bans on performing circumcisions, practicing their dietary laws, or keeping books (such as the Talmud) considered inimical to Christianity. But here, too, the author insists that the removal of Visigothic anti-Jewish laws by Muslims "did not contribute to harmonious convivencia; the best that could be expected was some kind of grudging coexistence."
In choosing to handle a historical issue for which a scalpel would be the ideal imaginary tool, the author wields a metaphorical broadaxe, and his ire extends in many directions. Moreover, there are many missing pieces in this mosaic of Islamic Spain. But one question occurs: To defend the world today from the threat of radical Islam, do we need to dig up and scourge, in medieval style, the bones of Averroës?