Medieval Spain was no Golden Age

 The Moorish palace at Granada, the last city to fall to the Reconquista

Dario Fernandez-Morera is a brave man. in his book, The Myth of the Andalusian paradise, he has taken on the formidable task  of exploding the myth of interfaith harmony in medieval Muslim Spain. But was what followed much better? asks Lyn Julius in Standpoint magazine. 

2008 France was rocked by a fierce controversy when a medievalist
academic named Sylvain Gouguenheim published an essay. Contrary to
majority opinion, “Aristotle at St Michael’s Mount” argued that Muslim
Spain in the Middle Ages had not acted as a conduit for the transmission
of classical Greek texts to the West. Syriac Christians, rather than
Arab Muslims with barely a knowledge of Greek, he contended, had ensured
the preservation of Greek civilisation.

Hundreds signed
petitions and letters to the press, rounding on Gouguenheim and accusing
him of Islamophobia. Few academics came out in his defence. His ideas
fell foul of the politically-driven agenda to promote “Golden Age” Spain
as a brilliant period of interfaith coexistence. The witchhunt
demonstrated the dangers of attempting to dislodge prevailing myths.

Fernández-Morera, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Northwestern
University, must be commended for daring to wade into this hazardous arena. He has come well-armed: his The
Myth of the Andalusian Paradise
has 95 pages of notes, and the
lionisers of political correctness will not find it easy to penetrate
chinks in his bibliographical armour of primary and secondary sources,
many not published in English.

In an exhilarating and
unput-downable read, Fernández-Morera debunks the fashionable myth that
Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together (convivencia) under
“tolerant” Muslim rule. He prefaces each chapter with a quote by
scholars, politicians and respected publications extolling the
Andalusian paradise. World-class academics — hailing from Yale, Harvard,
Chicago, Princeton, London, Oxford — look like fools in their
apologetics for jihad: the violent Muslim conquest of Spain
euphemistically described as a “gentle migratory wave”.

The very renaming of Spain (from the Latin Hispania) as al-Andalus
in order to avoid offending non-Christians is one of several “hegemonic
manoeuvres” to disguise a dystopia built on slavery and Islam’s
“imperialist system” of strict separation and subordination for
non-Muslims. According to Fernández-Morera, coexistence was never more
than precarious. Jews and Christians lived as subaltern dhimmis who paid a jizya tax to live under Muslim protection. But, the author claims, the dhimmi system was never other than a Mafia-style protection racket.

ensure their survival, non-Muslim communities built a wall of
exclusionary practices “for fear of the Other”. Strict rules ensured
that no heresy could be tolerated. Thus the Karaites of Spanish Judaism
died out.

Throughout the six centuries that Islam ruled Spain, it
was always under external pressure from the Christian Reconquista.
Insurrections by muladis, Christian converts to Islam (in the notorious Massacre of the Ditch, 5,000 muladis
were beheaded and crucified), plagued the “paradise of al-Andalus”.
Gradually the Christians clawed back every inch of Muslim Spain (from
which Christians had been systematically expelled). Only the city of
Granada was beyond their reach until it was retaken in 1492.

Maliki school of jurisprudence prevalent in Spain was conservative and
intolerant: the much-vaunted age of Ummayad “tolerance” was
characterised by persecution, beheadings and crucifixion. In true
colonialist style, the Muslim conquerors did their best to erase local
place names and languages. They ruthlessly destroyed churches and built
mosques on top of them.

Naturally, Fernández-Morera echoes
Gouguenheim’s theory that Byzantine monks were already translating Greek
texts into Latin. It was “baseless” to say that Islam preserved
classical knowledge and passed it on to Europe. In fact Islam slowed
down the exchange of science, art and poetry. Many of the so-called
Muslim luminaries of the Golden Age turn out to be of non-Muslim or
non-Arab ancestry, if not themselves Christians and Jews.

controversially, Fernández-Morera contends that the pre-Islamic
Visigoths have received an unfairly bad rap: they had already laid
medieval Spain’s rich cultural foundations. The Visigothic anti-Jewish
restrictions, designed to lead to the disappearance of Judaism, were
often worse than the dhimmi regime’s, causing Jews to side with
the Muslim conquerors, but Fernández-Morera claims that the Visigothic
anti-Jewish rules were often ignored.

If it were not for the
Reconquista, Spain would have become a “ham and drink-free” zone.
Western civilisation would have stopped at the Pyrenees. It took several
centuries for Christian Spain to achieve its own literary Golden Age.

But this was also the age of the Spanish Inquisition, and so many of the glorious literary figures cited by the author are conversos
from Judaism, or have Jewish ancestry, that Fernández-Morera’s
concluding paragraphs are a whitewash. The Spanish Christian Golden Age
seems only to have replaced one cruel and intolerant system by one even
worse — at least as far as Spain’s Jews were concerned.

By Darío Fernández-Morera

ISI Books, 336pp,

£25.50/ebook £6.59

Another review

One Comment

  • We can only guess how the Jews viewed the Muslim invasion. Heavily oppressed by the Visigoths, they must have had thoughts ranging from feeling that their situation couldn’t get much worse to the idea expressed in an old Islamic adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It seems in many cases the Jews welcomed the Muslims with hopes for a better life. Did the Jews actually help the Muslims in their driving out the Christians? There are no records that support this idea; however, polemical writing from the thirteenth century, such as that in the Chronicle of Lucas de Tuy (?–1249), claimed that the Jews delivered the cities into Muslim hands. The reality may be more accurately reflected in the Historia de rebus Hispaniae by Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada (c. 1170–1247), the archbishop of Toledo, where Toledo was described as being “almost of completely empty from its inhabitants,” not because of Jewish treachery, but because “many had fled to Amiara, others to Asturias and some to the mountains.”

    By the beginning of the tenth century (Figure 29), Jews were firmly invested in all areas of the society. When Abd al-Rahman III came to power, they saw how he was gathering leading Islamic scholars from around the world and building great libraries, and the Jews, having risen to important positions of power in the caliphate and within the context of the cultural patronage that they enjoyed, were able to emulate al-Rahman’s model by attracting the best Jewish scholars of the Bible, Talmud, Hebrew, literature, and linguistics, in addition to poets, philosophers, translators, and scientists to come to al-Andelus to build a world center of Jewish learning. The “Golden Age” of Spanish Jewry is most closely identified with the reign of Abd al-Rahman III, and in particular with the career of his Jewish councilor, Hasdai ibn Shaprut (915– c.975).

    Although his original position was a court physician, ibn Shaprut’s duties eventually came to include the supervision of customs and foreign trade and he was instrumental in creating a favorable environment for the advancement of Jewish scholarly pursuit. His position as the head of the caliphate’s commercial enterprises allowed him to use his influence to intervene with foreign rulers on behalf of foreign Jews (Figure 30). For example, he wrote to Princess Helena of Constantinople to request protection for Byzantine Jews, attesting to the fair treatment of the Christians of al-Andalus, intimating that such continued fair treatment was contingent on similar treatment of Jews in her kingdom………


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