The book reviewed below by Thomas Bertonneau follows on the heels of Emmet Scott’s work, and adds further layers of well-documented information debunking the notion of the “Golden Age of Al-Andalus”.
Dario Fernández-Morera’s Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Spain
Reviewed by Thomas F. Bertonneau
In The Twilight of the Idols (1888), Friedrich Nietzsche expressed his wish to philosophize with a hammer, that is, to make smithereens of the false images that leeringly prevent a candid vision of life, the world, and history. Nietzsche wrote that “there are more idols than realities in the world.” He wished, with his instrument, preliminarily, to “test” the idols — expecting to detect “as a reply that famous hollow sound which speaks of bloated entrails.” If that were the sign, the hammer might come fully into play. Like the supreme iconoclast of the German language, Dario Fernández-Morera, a Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Literature at Northwestern University, has decided to test a certain gallery of idols, the much-revered ones connected with a persistent, but, in light of accessible knowledge, dubious legend. The old legend of Islamic Spain (for that is the story in question), of its tolerance and enlightenment, and of its convivencia of all peoples, has gained new currency with the rise of the anti-Western, anti-Christian ideology known as multiculturalism. The university departments of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies, having transformed themselves into publicity businesses for the new militant phase of Islam, their acolytes, politically correct to the core, have propagandized the utopian narrative of the Umayyads, Almoravids, and Almohads in Spain. Those same acolytes have either ignored the achievements of Visigothic Spain and its successor polities in the northern part of Hispania or have denigrated them by invidious, non-factual comparisons. Honoring the facts, which he has patiently gleaned in a decade of impressively disciplined study, Fernández-Morera has written The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise (ISI, 2016), which, with its handsome dust jacket, is nevertheless a warrior’s cudgel. The myth of that supposed paradise will not withstand its prodigious action.
The basic vocabulary of the Andalusian Myth reflects a mendacious agenda, as Fernández-Morera takes care to point out in his opening chapter, on “Conquest and Reconquest.” In modern accounts of Spain under the Muslims, scholars of the departments invariably refer to a geographical entity called Iberia. In a detailed summary of the historical background to the centuries of Muslim hegemony, Fernández-Morera reminds his readers that the Romans, who were active in the peninsula from the time of the First Punic War, never named it by any other name than Hispania. That same Hispania became a province of the Roman Empire, providing it with emperors and artists over the centuries, and playing a role within the imperial structure in the west only second to Italy. When the imperial administrative structure in the west broke down in the Fifth Century, and the Visigoths inherited the Roman mantle south of the Pyrenees, they too still called the region Hispania. Spain had thus been Spain to its inhabitants for nearly a thousand years before the Muslim invasion. After the invasion, Spain remained Spain to its Spanish-Christian inhabitants, as Fernández-Morera demonstrates by bringing into evidence documents from the period in question. The academic use of the term Iberia conveniently deletes these facts, just as it deletes the spiritual resistance of the actual Spaniards (the Spanish-Roman-Christian-Gothic people of Spain) during the relevant centuries to their militant overlords of another religion. Fernández-Morera therefore prefers the terms “Spain, medieval Spain, and Islamic Spain” to Iberia. Indeed, Fernández-Morera characterizes both the Muslim attempt, beginning already in the Eighth Century, to replace standing Latin toponyms with Arabic labels and the modern recursion to that replacement-nomenclature as imperialistic gestures. He writes that medieval Spaniards “considered the lands conquered by Islam to be part of Spain, not part of Islam, and therefore they did not use the term Al-Andalus,” the Muslim name for the subdued region.
Fernández-Morera remarks another verbal sleight-of-hand in contemporary discourse about Spain under the Muslims: that discourse tends to treat the invasion, conquest, and exploitation of native wealth and resources of Spain as a non-event — something that casually happened — perhaps during a collective blink, after which the Muslims were mysteriously and benevolently there — but without a motive and without an agenda and meanwhile lacking any context, things that might permit an assessment of it. Fernández-Morera addresses the dodge by emphasizing the actual context of the original cross-Gibraltar incursion and its sequels, so disastrous for Spain: It belonged to Islam’s violent jihad across North Africa and took place simultaneously with Islam’s campaigns of terror and conquest in Christian Anatolia. “Muslim and Christian chronicles tell us,” Fernández-Morera writes, “and archeological evidence corroborates, that, in the second half of the Seventh Century, the Islamic Caliphate’s armies from Arabia and the Middle East swept through North African coastal areas held by the Christian Greek Roman Empire.” These regions had been bastions of Christianity since the Third Century and, like Spain itself, productive provinces of the Empire. The Muslim armies that marched out of newly-subdued Egypt under the banner of their prophet set the pattern of jihad by besieging and capturing cities, killing all adult males who refused conversion, and taking women and children into slavery; they burned and demolished churches and synagogues. Such grabuge, rapine, et saccage honored the commands of Allah and venerated through imitation the life of the “perfect man.” As Fernández-Morera writes, “Jihad was so widely understood as Holy War in Islamic Spain that the famous work on jihad as Holy War by Abu Ishaq al-Farazi… remained popular in Spain long after it had ceased to be edited in other lands.”
That last quoted sentence points to another recurrent feature of Fernández-Morera’s exposition: His reliance on Spanish-Muslim sources for indications of how the conquerors and hegemons of Spain understood their own offices and functions. While it is possible to find a few mitigating discussions of jihad in Islamic religious discourse elsewhere than in Spain — among Sufis, perhaps, or other mystics — in Spain nevertheless the centuries-dominant Maliki school of religious commentary entertained no ambiguities with respect to the term. Thus, as Fernández-Morera writes, “extant letters from Islamic Spain that use the word jihad display no other meaning but Holy War (‘al-jihad’).” Thus again, “in Islamic Spain, Muslim clerics regarded as particularly worthy the combination of personal virtue and a willingness to make war against the infidels — jihad.” Such dedication to regular violence against infidels meant that during the period of Islamic domination leaders not only felt obliged yearly to conduct campaigns against the dhimmis and raids outside the borders of the realm, but they positively relished doing so. Fernández-Morera’s research has revealed, for example, that “Maliki jurisprudence advised holy warriors to spare from destruction during jihad only bees, small children, women, decrepit old men, and monks and hermits who lived by themselves and posed no threat.” As the conquest of the Visigothic principalities took a mere decade, and as the final phase of the Reconquista happened only at the close of the Fifteenth Century, the call for jihad implies hundreds of years of internal campaigning against any recalcitrance about dhimmitude, whether real or imagined.
That Spain endured the ordeal of more than seven hundred years under various Muslim regimes is a fact known to most literate people, although poorly, and only in the distorting form of the Myth. Few people, however, know anything about what preceded Islam in Spain. Here too The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise serves superlatively in the educational cause. Before Islamic Spain there was Visigothic Spain. Now a general misunderstanding prevails concerning the early Medieval Period of the West: That, for example, it was a “Dark Age,” illiterate, impoverished, and superstitious, dominated by ragged Teutonic barbarians, who could at best plunder the ruins. It is possible to trace this picture of the immediate Post-Roman centuries to the Eighteenth Century and to writers of the Enlightenment such as Edward Gibbons, for whom the Glory that was Rome succumbed to spiritual sapping by Christianity and barbarization by unshaven foreigners. As Gibbon saw things, Christianity was fundamentally incapable of building or preserving a civilization. The story is a persistent one that suits the requirements of political correctness; it is also as false as the Myth of the Andalusian Paradise. As Henri Pirenne showed in his study of Mohammed and Charlemagne (1937), Classical Civilization, Christianized but vital, went on in many places around the Mediterranean for centuries after the legendarily baleful date of 476, in France, Italy, and Spain. The polities were Gothic monarchies, but the general pattern was that, whether or not the king was effectively autonomous, he accepted formally that he was a vice-regent of the actual emperor in Constantinople. In Marseilles or Ravenna or Saragossa life went on according to longstanding and fully civilized customs. Indeed, when the Gothic kings saw themselves as the rescuers and continuators of the Romans, they had justification in doing so.
In the chapter on “The Effects of the Jihad,” Fernández-Morera characterizes the Visigoths in Spain as “the most Romanized of all the peoples that took over the Roman Empire,” adding that, “they played an important role in the making of Western civilization.” The Visigothic princes of Spain were educated men who spoke Latin as well as they spoke their own Germanic tongue. The Muslim conquest, in Fernández-Morera’s words, “interrupted the process of cultural and ethnic fusion of Christian Hispano-Romans and Visigoths, and therefore the emergence of a new Christian Hispano-Gothic civilization.” Although the earliest kings tended to espouse the Arian version of Christianity, and although the people were largely of the Nicene profession, the kings refrained from interfering in religious matters, while nevertheless seeing to the maintenance of existing churches and the building of new ones. In 589, six years before Pope Gregory sent Augustine on a mission to convert the still-heathen Anglo-Saxons of Britain, Spanish King Recared converted to Catholicism. Christian Hispano-Gothic civilization shows the marks of enlightenment and tolerance that its replacement does not. On the material level, the Goths committed themselves to civic renewal. As Fernández-Morera writes, “recent discoveries of urban archeology have underlined the importance of Visigothic architecture in Spain, its magnificent metallurgy, [and] its great city of Recópolis.” Christian Hispano-Gothic civilization produced a code of law the precepts of which demonstrate “a guiding desire to limit the power of government many years before the Magna Carta.” In contrast with their much-altered situation once Muslims ruled, “Visigoth women enjoyed a [noteworthy] degree of autonomy in the public sphere.” That would have been consistent with both Late-Roman society and Romanized Gothic society elsewhere than in Spain, where women were visible, active, and in possession of rights. As Fernández-Morera points out, Christian Hispano-Gothic civilization can even count female monarchs in its list of rulers.
Contemporary critical thinking, as it likes to call itself, remains mired for ideological reasons in the falsehood of Visigothic benightedness and poverty. Fernández-Morera quotes Muslim sources to the opposite effect. The historian al-Maqqari recorded the impression made by Córdoba on its captors: The city was replete with preserved Roman and Greek buildings as well as newer buildings, including a royal residence that, in al-Maqqari’s words, as quoted by Fernández-Morera, “were so magnificently decorated as to dazzle… the eyes of the beholders.” Christian Hispano-Gothic civilization cultivated scholarship as well as the arts and could boast a secular literature. In the same chapter on “The Effects of Jihad,” Fernández-Morera makes the case that far from endowing a lost Greco-Roman heritage on their Germanic inferiors, the barbarous Muslims learned much of what they subsequently knew about medicine and other sciences from the Goths, who were the actual conscious custodians of the Classical achievement. The Muslims in Spain supposedly innovated in poetry. Fernández-Morera shows that a much-touted verse-innovation, the muwassahah, originated as a device of Christian Hispano-Gothic popular song. In matters of High Culture, the Visigoths had appropriated the canons of Roman education directly from their precursors and indirectly through continued communications with the Greek-speaking Roman Empire of the East. Visigothic scholars continued the project of the Greek and Latin Church-Fathers in reconciling paganism with Christianity. Muslim rule naturally brought the cessation of all such activities. It is once again documentable through Muslim sources that the destruction of Christian Hispano-Gothic civilization in Spain was the deliberate and implacable policy of the invader-conquerors.
Fernández-Morera suspects that modern ignorance of Christian Hispano-Gothic civilization in Spain is the result of another, contemporary, and equally deliberate policy. Professor of medieval history at Boston University Thomas F. Glick furnishes Fernández-Morera with a telling example. Glick, claiming “the economic regressiveness of Visigothic Spain,” asserts that the Visigoths abandoned various Roman-era mining enterprises. Relying on Emmett Scott, Fernández-Morera can assert contrarily that no archeological evidence attests to the claim; but, oppositely, that the evidence suggests that the mines and quarries remained in operation as active components of the Visigothic economy until the conquest. “Indeed,” writes Fernández-Morera, “Glick… seems to have no idea about such cities as the Visigoth Recópolis, the magnificent treasures of wrought gold and jewelry that the Visigoths buried to protect them from the rapaciousness of the Islamic invaders, or any of the other achievements of the Hispano-Roman-Visigothic culture.” In sum, “Too many of those scholars who make pronouncements on Islamic Spain display an ignorance of — or perhaps even a blatant disregard for — what the primary sources and archeological findings show.”
In the chapter on “The Daily Reality of Al-Andalus,” Fernández-Morera takes his hammer to the notion of a convivencia between the Islamic conquerors and their Christian dhimmi subjects. The notion of a convivencia communicates with the other notion (really a non-notion) that the Islamic invasion and takeover of Spain were together a non-event, but that once having (as it were) found themselves in Spain, the Muslims instructed the indigenes in the arts of civilization. Professor Glick makes another appearance in this chapter, arguing that Islamic Spain is the benign prototype, aborted in the Reconquista, of the multiculturally diverse utopia that liberals would like to conjure into existence and then impose on everyone else, whether everyone else agrees to it or not. As Fernández-Morera writes, “The daily realities of al-Andalus bear little relation to the fashionable mythology.” The realities express themselves in a single word: Sharia, or Islamic Law. The copious details that Fernández-Morera marshals in this chapter exclusively support the conclusion that Sharia never has and never will, and certainly never did in Spain constitute anything like a convivencia of Muslims and dhimmis. Drawing once again on Muslim sources, Fernández-Morera documents how, in fact, the imposition of Sharia in Spain was particularly acute and debilitating. Fernández-Morera writes, “As several Spanish and French scholars have pointed out, in no other place within the Islamic empire was the influence of Islamic clerics on daily life as strong as it was in al-Andalus.” The practical separation of Church and state, characteristic of the Visigothic dispensation, vanished into the assimilation of the state by the religion that is characteristic of Islam. The ulamas issued edicts against drinking wine, making music in public, or enjoying any kind of entertainment. The chapter on “The Myth of Umayyad Tolerance” amasses an encyclopedia of atrocities and oppressions that are entirely consistent with the picture that Fernández-Morera paints in the chapter on “The Daily Reality of Life in al-Andalus.”
Although of course they never will, feminists should read the chapter in The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise on “Women in Islamic Spain.” The familiar Islamic institutions suddenly impose themselves on the freedom of Western women — and on Muslim women who came with their men or arrived as brides of arranged marriages or whose Christian husbands made the existential decision to say the Shahada and submit. The rules largely confine women, whether Muslim or dhimmi, to the home; the law, through its ever-vigilant agents, assiduously polices them when they go out in public. As elsewhere under Islam, girl-children have their sex-organs mutilated. Except for their own internal affairs, there is no Christian law for dhimmis; Islamic law — of the Maliki School — applies to everyone. Women when accused of adultery, and therefore when inevitably convicted, because of the bias of Sharia in favor of the male, face death by stoning. The law-treatises fill out long sections with the sadistic details of how the executioners should carry out the sentence. In a summary, Fernández-Morera writes: “The twelfth-century expert on the Maliki School of Islamic jurisprudence in Spain, the Córdoban Ibn Rushd (known by Western scholars only as ‘the great philosopher Averroes’), confirms that the punishment for adultery in the case of a mushan woman must be stoning; and that no pit need be dug for the punishment (whereas, according to al-Shafi, a pit must be dug to stone a woman, but not a man).” A mushan, incidentally, is a free Muslim woman who is either a wife or a widow.
The discussion of “Women in Islamic Spain” maintains a connection with the discussion of Christian Hispano-Gothic civilization in the chapter on “The Effects of Jihad.” Here Fernández-Morera again demolishes a tenet of the Myth — the one that attributes to Islamic Spain an anomalous (for Islam) cult of the free and sexually appealing woman to whom refined rhapsodists compose remarkable erotic poems that anticipate the Troubadour poetry of Thirteenth-Century Provence. According to this idea, not only was Islamic Spain philosophically enlightened and socially tolerant; it also produced and honored an amazing anticipation of the modern liberated woman, highly cultured and smartly beautiful. If the idol rang hollow, and it does, its echoing emptiness would hardly come as a surprise. The women in question, Fernández-Morera demonstrates, were sexual slaves. If these girls could dance and sing, or if they could converse learnedly with men, that was because they had been instructed in these arts, in a way grimly consonant with their enslavement. The verses of praise therefore constitute proprietary, rather pornographic claims by lascivious slave-holders of young women who might best be described as sexual chattels. The contrast with Troubadour and Chivalric poetry, as practiced in Catholic Europe, could not be greater. In addition to describing the dire plight of women in Islamic Spain, Fernández-Morera does his readers the complementary favor of providing a description of the condition of women in Christendom and the Greek-speaking Roman Empire in the East.
The chapters on “The Truth about Jewish Community’s ‘Golden Age’” and “The Christian Condition” tell similar stories, massively documented, about the humiliating severity of life in dhimmi status. Concerning the Jews, Fernández-Morera documents how the Muslims cynically used them against the Christians by stationing them as tax-collectors and in other annoying offices, where they had no choice but to do Muslim dirty-work against the infidels. (This happened also in the Balkans and Central Europe. The Islamic contribution to Western anti-Semitism is another topic deserving of study.) Life under Islam proved so intolerable to Christians that eventually, as the Reconquista proceeded, the Catholic armies, on defeating the Muslim defenders, would discover that there were no dhimmis left. Christians had either to contrive to seek refuge in the north or in Italy or they had to convert. A certain grim humor inheres in this situation, at which Fernández-Morera subtly hints, but which he refrains from hammering into the ground. Dhimmitude in effect pays for Muslim domination; it forces non-Muslims who wish to practice their religion or simply keep to their inherited customs into a costly protection racket. Pay up or die! Islam makes life so intolerable for dhimmis that they fly from it whenever they can or convert, when that is the only alternative, until eventually there is no easy mark left for Muslims to tap financially or to scapegoat in order to relieve constant massive social tensions associated with the Religion of Allah.
The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise gains plausibility by its communion with other recent critical books about Islam and its impact on the West. When Fernández-Morera attacks the false picture of Visigothic Spain as a temporary polity of barbaric plunderers, he is taking up a counterargument that goes back at least to Pirenne’s Mohammed and Charlemagne. In a section of his concluding chapter on the early Medieval Period, under the subtitle of “Intellectual Civilization,” Pirenne writes of the “rapid… Romanization of the Burgundi, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, and Lombards.” Pirenne argues in his Conclusion, moreover, that “the Germanic invasions destroyed neither the Mediterranean unity of the ancient world, nor what may be regarded as the truly essential features of Roman culture as it still existed in the 5th century, at a time when there was no longer an emperor in the west.” Fernández-Morera’s specialized thesis about Visigothic Spain is perfectly consistent with Pirenne’s general thesis. Fernández-Morera’s history of Spain between the Muslim conquest and the Catholic Reconquista, is likewise consistent with Pirenne’s other conclusion, namely that what destroyed the Roman heritage everywhere that it had the opportunity to do so was — Islam.
In The Impact of Islam (2014), Emmett Scott devotes a chapter to “Islamic Spain.” Scott’s exposition is relevant to Fernández-Morera’s contention that the Myth reverses the objective achievements of Christian Hispano-Gothic civilization and the Islamic occupation that replaced it. Scott quotes from the English historian Moss, an early advocate of the Myth, about the quality and extent of architectural and artistic splendors of Umayyad Spain in the Eighth Century. “The picture Moss paints,” Scott writes, “was derived from medieval Arab chroniclers, who spoke of a city [Córdoba] of half a million inhabitants, of three thousand mosques, of one hundred and thirteen thousand houses, and of three hundred public baths — this not even counting the twenty-eight suburbs said to have surrounded the metropolis.” There is a problem, however, with this fantastic vision. Scott writes: “Over the past sixty years intensive efforts have been made to discover this astonishing civilization — to no avail. Try as they might, archeologists have found hardly anything, hardly a brick or inscription, for the first two centuries of Arab rule in Spain.” In The Impact of Islam and the earlier Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited (2012), Scott shows, on the other hand, how archeology has attested the ambitious and robust character of the Visigoths, not only in their desire to maintain inherited Roman monuments, but to build new ones incorporating elements of the Roman pattern.
In Mohammed and Charlemagne Revisited, Scott concludes that in the post-imperial centuries, “evidence of every kind leads to the conclusion that Spain under the Visigoths, like North Africa under the Vandals, experienced not a decline but a great revival of culture and prosperity.” Here again Fernández-Morera’s exposition, which often calls on Scott, is entirely consistent with Scott; and, more importantly, with the facts, which the Myth itself ignores or downloads (so to speak) out of nothing when it feels the need of fictions to stand against evidence. One feature of the exposition in The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is that its author has prefaced each chapter extensively with quotations from purveyors of the Myth — and the farther one reads in the book, the more one recognizes not only the fatuity, but the mendacity of the claims contained in those quotations. But did Visigothic Spain, as Fernández-Morera claims, really help to shape Early-Medieval Europe beyond the Pyrenees? This position too can — and must — be vindicated. Why the claim is true is suggested by a passage from late Dominique Venner’s Histoire et tradition des Européens: 30,000 and d’identité (2011).
Venner recalls for his readers the admiration of the early Ninth-Century Catalans for the Emperor of the Franks, Charlemagne, after the retaking of Barcelona in 801. Venner writes:
La conquête musulmane de l’Espagne avait commencé au siècle précédent. Seules avaient échappé les régions montagneuses du nord et le petit royaume des Asturies. Établie par Charlemagne, la marche d’Espagne avait redonné l’espoir aux people de péninsule Ibérique de se libérer… Il n’est pas indifférent que La Chanson de Roland, œuvre fondatrice de là littérature française, ait pour thème l’un des premiers épisodes de la Reconquête. Roland le Preux fut célèbre dans toute Europe, bien au-delà des pays de langue romane. En lui s’accomplissait la figure spécifiquement du chevalier, l’homme “clair de visage et de cœur.”
The Muslim conquest of Spain had begun in the previous century. Only the mountainous north and the small kingdom of Asturias escaped it. Established by Charlemagne, the Spanish March had restored hope to the people of Iberian Peninsula to be free… It is significant that The Song of Roland, the founding work of French literature, takes for its theme one of the first episodes of the Reconquista. Roland the Doughty was famous throughout Europe, beyond the Romance language countries. In him was fulfilled specifically the figure of the knight, the man “clear of face and heart.”
Westerners would do well to remember that Islamic ambition, which knows no limit, did not experience any ultimate satisfaction in the domination of Spain but looked beyond the Pyrenees, sending an expedition into France that was famously repulsed by Charlemagne’s precursor, Charles Martel, at Poitiers in 732. “Martel” means “hammer,” making the Merovingian war-leader a kind of namesake of Nietzsche, whose philosophical cudgel in Twilight of the Idols forecasts Fernández-Morera’s book. Venner’s reminder that High Medieval Literature begins with La Chanson implies that the plight of Spain was central to the consciousness that produced that literature. Trans-Pyrenean Europe was, moreover, actively involved in Spain’s trauma under the Muslims, and the Franks, in particular, aided the Spanish cause when they could. Spain would repay the gesture, not least by its contribution to the victory over the Turkish armada at Lepanto in 1571.
Thomas F. Bertonneau has been a college English professor since the late 1980s, with some side-bars as a Scholar in residence at the Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal, as a Henri Salvatori Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, and as the first Executive Director of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics. He has been a visiting assistant professor at SUNY Oswego since the fall of 2001. He is the author of over a hundred scholarly articles and two books,Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities (1996) and The Truth Is Out There: Christian Faith and the Classics of TV Science Fiction (2006). He is a contributor to The Orthosphere and the People of Shambhala website, and a regular commentator at Laura Wood’s Thinking Housewife Website. For his previous essays, see the Thomas Bertonneau Archives.