Was the Golden Age in medieval Spain a myth?

Did the medieval Andalusian Golden Age of Jews, Muslims and Christians, much vaunted by interfaith projects and Arab sources, really exist, or is it a myth? Recent research by Fernando Dario Morera and others has  put the Golden Age in question.

A recent Dialogia conference held in Israel examined the myth and the reality. Sociologist emeritus professor  Shmuel Trigano argued that the myth was created by German Wissenshaft scholars in the age of emancipation. More recently it has been exploited to foster multiculturalism in contemporary Europe. The French education system aims to imbue its large number of Muslim students with pride in their heritage. The myth of a multi-culti paradise is generally instrumentalised to facilitate the absorption of  large numbers of Muslim immigrants into Europe.

The three religions, Trigano asserted, did not live with each other, they lived alongside each other. The Jews were isolated in their ghettoes or mellahs in the shadow of the royal palace. Potentates granted them protection in return for their loyalty. Medieval kings could rely on the Jews and trusted them not to betray them. Some rose to high office, such as the vizirs Shmuel ibn Nagrela Hanagid  and his son Yosef. Like Yosef, who  was crucified and 4,000 of his coreligionists massacred in 1066, they could come to a violent end.

Yet a sort of ‘intellectual myopia’ has taken hold and the mantra ‘Islam saved Jews’ has been propagated by Bernard Wasserstein and others. The jizya tax on the dhimmi  Jew and Christian was a ransom, said Trigano. Maimonides even converted to Islam to survive at a time of Islamic fundamentalism. We know he did this because he taught at the university of Kairouan. – only Muslims could.

Shmuel Hanagid, visit of Cordoba

Emeritus professor Raphael Israeli said that history was a matter of interpretation. The lachrymose version, as promoted by Bat Ye’or, David Littman and Paul Fenton, saw black stains on the carpet of history, while others emphasised the carpet itself.

There were times when Jews took refuge in Christian lands : at the battle of Tortosa in 1212, the Christian King Alfonso V1 defeated the fundamentalist Almohads.

Jews collaborated with the Muslim conquest because they were better treated under Islam than under the Visigoths. They helped the Muslims control the non-Jewish majority. But the Muslims ended up hating Jews as much as Christians, Israeli said. Good relations between the Muslim and Jewish elites masked persecution of the Jewish masses.

Israeli emphasised that the Taifas, the Arab principalities in Seville and Granada, for instance, were outside the Caliphate and depended heavily on Jews. This explains why Shmuel ibn Nagrela (Hnagid) was appointed vizir of Granada. But jealousy caused the tragic murder of his successor Yosef and the massacre of most of the Jews.

Writer and researcher Bat Ye’or saw the immutable dhimmi laws as part of the jurisprudence of holy war, or jihad. The propaganda of the golden age myth  resurfaced from time to time throughout history  in various incarnations, for pragmatic reasons. For instance, Arab nationalism tried to unite Christians and Muslims in the 19th century in order to frustrate the emergence of a Jewish homeland. The UK promoted the myth of Turkish tolerance of minorities as a counterweight to the interests of Russia and Austria. Christians took up the myth to reinforce their support of Arab nationalism. Today,  a Palestinian version of the myth – the multicultural one-state solution – is employed as a weapon against Israel.

Ephraim Herrera focused on the pogrom of Granada in 1066. Pogroms were not frequent in the Muslim world – why would they be needed  when Jews were already subhuman?  In 912 Abdul Rahman III had ignored the dhimmi rules to appoint a Jewish vizier in Cordoba – Hasdai Ibn Shaprut. Another Jew, Shmuel ibn Nagrela Hanagid, was appointed in 1013 to serve his Berber ruler. In 1030 he was named vizir responsible for tax collecting. Although he had the support of the ruler’s son Badis, there was growing mass opposition to a non-Muslim in a position of power. As Ibn Hazm wrote at the time, Hanagid was resented for  employing only other Jews.  His son Joseph succeeded him 1033. He soon attracted enemies who disliked the fact his palace was built outside the Jewish quarter. In the face of increasing jealousy and rumour that he was plotting to kill Badis,  a frenzied mob captured Joseph, crucified him and killed 4000 out of 5,000 Jews. The Golden Age happened despite Islam and in opposition to it, not thanks to it.

Eliezer Cherqui spoke about the great Aristotelian philosopher and scholar Averroes (Ibn Rusht), a contemporary of Maimonides. Ibn Rusht (1126 – 1198) became a cadi (judge) and was a paid functionary of the fundamentalist Almohad regime. Although he came to a bitter end and his works were burnt (only Hebrew translations survived) his work testified to the fact that cultural symbiosis bore no relationship to politics. The Almohads decimated the non-Jewish communities of North Africa yet little historiography is devoted to them. Cherqui concluded that Islam symbolised divine unity, and  can brook no diversity. No other religion can claim legitimacy. The only hope of Israel ever being accepted by the Muslim world is to find in the Koran verses that say Israel is being re-established according to the divine will.

Emeritus professor Paul Fenton argued that the Spanish Inquisition was inspired by 140 years of Almohad persecution, massacre and forced conversions. Witnesses describe the existence of crypto-Jews, outwardly Muslim. The Christians disappeared completely in North Africa. The New Muslims were still treated as dhimmis and were forced to wear special clothing or distinguishing signs until 19th century. As a result of bildiyeen conversions in the 15th century there are still residents of Fez who sport Jewish names like Cohen and Shabbat.


  • Seem to recall reading a book by Andrew Bostom that mentioned a French (?) Rabbi pushing back against the notion Jews were treated better under Islamic rule than under Christendom.

    Also appear to recall the myth of the so-called "Golden Age" originating within the context of emancipation as a way of shaming Europe for not living up to their own standards with regards to their Jewish populations as inspired by Biblical values compared to Jews under Islamic rule, though to be fair there was not much difference between them (and at least European colonialism helped emancipate Jews living in MENA – whereas similar demands by the Jews to the likes of the Ottomans fell on deaf ears at best).


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