The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise
  • Book Title:
 The Myth Of The Andalusian Paradise
  • Book Author:
Dario Fernandez-Morera
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  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Conquest and Reconquest
  • Chapter 2. The Effects of the Jihad
  • The Destruction of a Nascent Civilization
  • Chapter 3. The Daily Realities of al-Andalus
  • Chapter 4. The Myth of Umayyad Tolerance
  • Inquisitions, Beheadings, Impalings, and Crucifixions
  • Chapter 5. Women in Islamic Spain
  • Female Circumcision, Stoning, Veils, and Sexual Slavery
  • Chapter 6. The Truth about the Jewish
  • Community’s “Golden Age”
  • Chapter 7. The Christian Condition
  • From Dhimmis to Extinction
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Select Bibliography
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index
  • About the Author


On the intellectual level, Islam played an important role in the development of Western European civilization by passing on both the philosophy of Aristotle and its own scientific, technological, and philosophical tradition.… Religious tolerance remained a part of Islamic law, although its application varied with social, political, and economic circumstances.

Bert F. Breiner and Christian W. Troll, “Christianity and Islam,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, ed. John L. Esposito (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

[In the Middle Ages there emerged] two Europes—one [Muslim Europe] secure in its defenses, religiously tolerant, and maturing in cultural and scientific sophistication; the other [Christian Europe] an arena of unceasing warfare in which superstition passed for religion and the flame of knowledge sputtered weakly.

David Levering Lewis, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and Julius Silver Professor of History at New York University, God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570–1215 (New York: W. W. Norton, 2008), 335

Muslim rulers of the past were far more tolerant of people of other faiths than were Christian ones. For example, al-Andalus’s multi-cultural, multi-religious states ruled by Muslims gave way to a Christian regime that was grossly intolerant even of dissident Christians, and that offered Jews and Muslims a choice only between being forcibly converted and being expelled (or worse).

—“Islam and the West: Never the Twain Shall Peacefully Meet?” The Economist, November 15, 2001

The standard-bearers of tolerance in the early Middle Ages were far more likely to be found in Muslim lands than in Christian ones.

Tony Blair, then prime minister of Great Britain, “A Battle for Global Values,” Foreign Affairs,

January/February 2007

This book aims to demystify Islamic Spain by questioning the widespread belief that it was a wonderful place of tolerance and convivencia of three cultures under the benevolent supervision of enlightened Muslim rulers.

As the epigraphs throughout this book illustrate, the nineteenth-century romantic vision of Islamic Spain has morphed into today’s “mainstream” academic and popular writings that celebrate “al-Andalus” for its “multiculturalism,” “unity of Muslims, Christians, and Jews,” “diversity,” and “pluralism,” regardless of how close such emphasis is to the facts. Some scholars of the Spanish Middle Ages have even openly declared an interest in promoting these ideas.1

Demythologizing this civilization requires focusing a searching light on medieval cultural features that may seem less than savory to modern readers and that perhaps for this reason are seldom discussed. The first two chapters of this book examine how Spain was conquered and colonized by the forces of the Islamic Caliphate. Some scholars have argued that the Muslim takeover was accomplished largely through “peaceful pacts”; some even refuse to call it a “conquest,” preferring to call it a “migratory wave.” Other scholars argue that the conquest was carried out by force.2

Neither side is entirely right. The Muslim conquerors used force to defeat the resistance of the Christian Visigoth kingdom, a nascent civilization. But they also granted pacts to those Visigoth lords and Christian leaders who saw it as advantageous to accept the offered “peace” and become dhimmis (those Christians and Jews living in subaltern status in Islamic lands) rather than face the consequences of resisting. Behind the “peaceful pacts” was always the threat of brutal force.

The remaining chapters of this book examine fundamental aspects of Islamic Spain that are rarely highlighted: religious and therefore cultural repression in all areas of life and the marginalization of certain groups—all this in the service of social control by autocratic rulers and a class of religious authorities.

The proponents of a harmonious and fruitful convivencia sometimes adduce as proof the mutual influences among Muslims and non-Muslims and their military alliances.

But this argument overlooks that mutual influences, coexistence in the same territory, cooperation, military alliances and even intermarriage, and productive and fascinating artistic results frequently obtain as a matter of course in places where different cultures have been antagonistic—from Spanish and Portuguese Latin America to British India to French Algeria to the American West to even the slaveholding American South—without this in any way diminishing the fact of conflict between cultures or the existence of some groups who dominate and others who are dominated.

Of course there was convivencia, in this rather banal sense, between conquerors and conquered, but this cannot be considered characteristic of Islamic Spain: it is characteristic of cultural clashes between hegemonic and hegemonized groups most everywhere.3

This book’s interpretive stance is Machiavellian, not Panglossian. Those who portray Islamic Spain as an example of peaceful coexistence frequently cite the fact that Muslim, Jewish, and Christian groups in al- Andalus sometimes lived near one another. Even when that was the case, however, such groups dwelled more often than not in their own neighborhoods.

More to the point: even when individual Muslims, Jews, and Christians cooperated with one another out of convenience, necessity, mutual sympathy, or love, these three groups and their own numerous subgroups engaged for centuries in struggles for power and cultural survival, manifested in often subtle ways that should not be glossed over for the sake of modern ideals of tolerance, diversity, and convivencia.


The Umayyad Caliphate collapsed in the eleventh century.… In 1085, Alfonso VI, Christian king of Leon and Castile, captured Toledo; unlike the Franks, he knew better than to impose Catholicism on the people at the point of a sword.… The spirit of tolerance that the Arabs had created survived their departure. It took nearly four more centuries to get … to the religious intolerance of the Spanish Inquisition.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Philosophy, Princeton University, “How Muslims Made Europe,” New York Review of Books, November 6, 2008

It is not easy to explain the existence of this “culture of forgetting” that has allowed the fashioning of a certain kind of Islamic Spain. It can hardly be explained by linguistic ignorance, since the primary medieval Latin, Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew sources required for a good general understanding of Islamic Spain have been translated into accessible Western languages such as Spanish, French, English, and German, in some cases more than once; and in any event, many scholars of Arabic and Islamic studies also engage in this hagiographic fashioning.

Perhaps writers have thought that the artistic achievements of al-Andalus cannot withstand a more realistic appraisal of its society. Perhaps it has to do with what economists call “stakeholder interests and incentives,” which affect the research of academics in the humanities no less and perhaps even more than those in the sciences.4

Perhaps it has to do with what psychologists call “motivated blindness,” which inhibits an individual’s ability to perceive inconvenient data.5 Perhaps it has to do with the “innocence of intellectuals.”6 Perhaps it is simply the result of shoddy research by a number of university professors repeated by many journalists.

Or perhaps since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment the critical construction of a diverse, tolerant, and happy Islamic Spain has been part of an effort to sell a particular cultural agenda, which would have been undermined by the recognition of a multicultural society wracked by ethnic, religious, social, and political conflicts that eventually contributed to its demise—a multicultural society held together only by the ruthless power of autocrats and clerics.7

This ideological mission would then be the ultimate reason for the tilting of the narrative against Catholic Spain prevalent since the Enlightenment and the writings of Voltaire and Edward Gibbon. Briskly selling, beautifully illustrated books have contributed to this intellectual construction.8

 In the past few decades, this ideological mission has morphed into “presentism,” an academically sponsored effort to narrate the past in terms of the present and thereby reinterpret it to serve contemporary “multicultural,” “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.

Thus it is stupendous to see how some academic specialists turn and twist to downplay religion as the motivating force in Muslim conquests, and even to question the invasion of Spain by Muslim Arab-led Berbers as the conquest of one culture and its religion by another.

Failing to take seriously the religious factor in Islamic conquests is characteristic of a certain type of materialist Western historiography which finds it uncomfortable to accept that war and the willingness to kill and die in it can be the result of someone’s religious faith—an obstacle to understanding that may reflect the role played by religious faith in the lives of many academic historians. This materialist approach has also generally prevailed in scholarly analyses of the Crusades.9

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In Spain, the reality of al-Andalus is better known, thanks to the work of historians like Luis A. García Moreno, Francisco García Fitz, Manuel González Jiménez, Miguel Ángel Ladero Quesada, and Antonio Domínguez Ortiz; legal scholars like Ramón Peralta; Arabists like María Luisa Ávila, Soha Abboud-Haggar, Serafín Fanjul, Ana Fernández Félix, María Isabel Fierro, Mercedes García-Arenal, Teresa Garulo, Felipe Maíllo Salgado, Manuela Marín, Celia del Moral, Cristina de la Puente, Joaquín Vallvé Bermejo, and María Jesús Viguera Molins; and popularizers like César Vidal.

Nonetheless, even in Spain, rhapsodic accounts predominate, perhaps traceable to a nineteenth-century Spanish historiography that did not distinguish among “Muslim,” “Arab,” “Berber,” “muladi,” “dhimmi,” “Slav,” and other cultural and ethnic categories but fashioned instead a simple and wonderful entity called civilización hispano-árabe.

 The twentieth-century polemics between the literary scholar Américo Castro and the historian Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz on “the  nature of the Spaniards” fell victim  to this starry-eyed intellectual conflation. Castro did not cite Islamic legal texts from al-Andalus or anywhere else, and he made no use of archaeological materials.10 These lacunae prompted him to repeat inherited shibboleths about tolerance and convivencia. Sánchez-Albornoz was better informed, but lack of familiarity with legal texts was also evident in his writing.11 Thus, for Sánchez-Albornoz, too, Muslim women in al-Andalus enjoyed an enviable “freedom” when compared to Muslim women elsewhere.

In Germany, Italy, and France, the works of scholars such as Adel Theodor Khoury, Roberto de Mattei, Alfred Morabia, and Sylvain Gouguenheim are exceptions to the rule, but they have struggled against the resistance of experts in university departments.12 Significantly, none of these books were published by university presses.

Gouguenheim’s case is instructive. Gouguenheim argued that medieval Islamic culture remained, with the exception of science, construction techniques, and some aspects of philosophy, generally unreceptive to the spirit of Greek civilization.

Among other things, it was indifferent or antagonistic to such fundamentals of that civilization as representational sculpture and painting, drama, narrative, lyric, and political theory and practice. Even in philosophy, Islam remained in part a stranger to the Greek spirit. Gouguenheim’s book also reminded its readers that Greek texts had not been “lost,” to be graciously “discovered” and “transmitted” by the Islamic empire, but in fact had been preserved, transmitted, and commented upon in the Christian Greek Roman Empire (usually referred to as the “Byzantine” Empire);

that the translations of Greek scientific and philosophical texts into Arabic were done by Greek-speaking Christians from the conquered lands of the Christian Greek Roman Empire; that Aristotle had been translated in France at the abbey of Mont Saint- Michel before translations of Aristotle into Arabic (via the Syrian of the Christian scholars from the conquered lands of the Christian Greek Roman Empire) surfaced in Islamic Spain; and that there was a continuity between Greek and European civilization, via the Christian Greek Roman Empire, that did not require Islam’s appearance on the historical scene.

Gouguenheim’s book was considered so threatening to the educational establishment that “an international collective of 56 researchers in history and philosophy” found it necessary to sign an open letter, published in the Marxist newspaper Libération, attacking his work.

 His book was said to offer nothing that was not already well known to scholars. The demonization of Gouguenheim and the apparent need for acts of academic exorcism of his work continued when the Sorbonne University organized a scholarly colloquium to denounce his book, and then his own school declared publicly that it did not share his views.

Among the milder scholarly epithets used to describe his book have been “ignorant” (ignare), “a polemic disguised as scholarship,” “full of conceptual incoherence,” “a diatribe,” “a plundering book” (saccageur), “a work scientifically dishonest,” “a dishonor to its publisher,” “an amateurish work based on compilation and a priori assumptions,” “a sad case,” “a work of fear and hatred,” “cultural racism,” “embarrassing,” “discredited,” “a dereliction of historical deontology,” “a product of retrograde Catholic ideology,” “not qualified to go against the consensus of specialists regarding medieval Islam and Christianity,” and, of course, “Islamophobic” and part of a contemporary “scholarly Islamophobia” (islamophobie savante).

Islamic studies professors brandished the “argument from authority” against Gouguenheim by gleefully pointing out that he was not an “Arabist” but an ideologically motivated interloper, who had no business in a scholarly field not his own—and then combed his book in a remarkably thorough search for errors, slips, or bibliographical inaccuracies.

But then no Arabist or Islamic studies academic expert would have been likely to write a book questioning the claims made by Arabists and Islamic studies academic experts regarding the beneficial influence of medieval Islam on Christian Europe. A hermeneutics of suspicion would point out that such questioning would endanger the attractiveness of the field of research that provides a living for the Islamic studies experts, and that such questioning would also risk an end to travel to Muslim countries to do research, a loss of funding for the heretical scholars and their universities (not only from grant-giving institutions but also from governments such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Libya under Gaddhafi, and Turkey), ostracism as graduate students, and difficulty finding university positions (assuming the scholars were able to complete a PhD in a department of Middle East Studies).

Critics have documented the way money from Islamic nations has compromised Islamic and Middle East studies in Western universities.13

Gouguenheim’s case is redolent of that of the great Spanish Arabist Francisco Javier Simonet (1829–1897) more than a century earlier: Simonet’s monumental work on the “Mozarabs” could not find a publisher during his lifetime because of the opposition of influential “liberal” Spanish Arabists who objected to Simonet’s “Catholic” and “conservative” views on Islamic Spain.14

Doubtlessly, professional self-preservation as well as political correctness and economics has affected academic research in certain fields of study, in contrast to the fearlessness demonstrated by professors when unmasking horrors in such dangerous areas of investigation as Christian Europe (the burning of witches! colonialism!) and Catholic Spain (the ubiquitous Spanish Inquisition!).

Islamic Spain is no exception to the rule. University presses do not want to get in trouble presenting an Islamic domination of even centuries ago as anything but a positive event, and academic specialists would rather not portray negatively a subject that constitutes their bread and butter. In addition, fear of the accusation of “Islamophobia” has paralyzed many academic researchers.

The publication of a book on Muhammad cartoons by Yale University Press illustrates all these problems. Initially, the book was to be accompanied by cartoons of Muhammad published in Denmark, which many Muslims had protested by killing at least two hundred people around the world between 2005 and 2006 alone.

But comments on the manuscript’s material by some academic experts in history and religion prompted the Yale University administration to cancel the publication of the cartoons—as well as an illustration, by the nineteenth-century artist Gustave Doré, of a passage in the Divina Commedia where Dante places Muhammad in hell. So in 2009 the book on the Muhammad cartoons was published by Yale University


God’s universe, in al-Andalus, had three principal and interlocking features which are at the heart of its importance for us, and which were in its own time at the heart of that culture’s extraordinarily vigorous well-being: ethnic pluralism, religious tolerance, and a variety of important forms of what we could call cultural secularism—secular poetry and philosophy—that were not understood, by those who pursued them, to be un- or anti-Islamic.

María Rosa Menocal, R. Selden Rose Professor of Spanish and Portuguese and Director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University, “Culture in the Time of Tolerance: Al-Andalus as a Model for Our Time,” Yale Law School Occasional Papers (Year 2000, Paper 1)

Scholars who celebrate, for example, the presumed laxity of religious and moral restraints enjoyed by the people of al-Andalus, or these people’s ability to be both religious and capable of writing delightfully erotic heterosexual and homosexual poetry, may do so not simply because they operate in a particular historical, political, and educational context with its resulting ideology, fears, and taboos; their work may also reflect the more technical factor of limiting oneself to the examination of certain kinds of documents.

Wide-eyed visions of a wonderful because morally loose al-Andalus extrapolate from the dissolute lives of some Muslim rulers and their court intellectuals to the everyday life of the Muslim (or Jewish, or Christian) masses.

 The hedonistic ways of the taifa monarchs of the eleventh century have been particularly entrancing to some English-speaking academics, who pay little regard to the fact that, as Spanish Arabists like Serafín Fanjul and Felipe Maíllo Salgado have pointed out, the average Muslim’s life in al-Andalus was marked by clerical supervision of detailed religious observance, and often by family, tribal, and blood feuds.15

This selective approach is as scholarly defective as would be assessing the everyday life and moral preferences of twentieth-century American families based on a reading of the historical records left behind by Hollywood actors and American artistes and literati, or assessing the everyday life and moral preferences of twentieth-century Saudis based on the historical record left behind in Europe by some princes and princesses of the Saudi royal family. Such evidence, though quite fascinating and perhaps of great aesthetic value, is not indicative of how the vast majority of a population lives or what its beliefs and moral preferences are.

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 A different approach is needed for a better understanding of a civilization. As the brilliant Muslim political thinker Ibn Zafar wrote in the twelfth century, “[Priority must be given] to what is real rather than approximation.”16

Some recent scholars in the English-speaking world have done excellent work, but with the exception of Emmet Scott they have either concerned themselves mainly with the Jewish experience or not adopted the approach of the present book, which looks at these cultures synchronically and comparatively, examining literary, historical, legal, religious, biographical, archaeological, and other cultural materials in order to show a humanity both suffering and inflicting suffering.17 All too often, books in English do not show a mastery of the work of Spanish scholars.18

This book examines certain cultural aspects of the condition of Muslims, Jews, and Christians in medieval Islamic Spain in order to throw light upon the mental structures and the collective representations of this society. It does not pass judgment on today’s Muslims, Jews, or Christians, or on their religions. It does not support a “clash” between present-day civilizations, although it does not adopt as its goal to “build bridges” either.

It 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 before trying to find reassuring or disturbing similarities between the two.

 And it rejects all anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish, and anti-Christian viewpoints. Or, as modern critical jargon would put it: readers should keep in mind that the texts examined are “historically situated cultural constructs.”19

This book does not attempt to examine the possibility, entertained by many Western experts on Islam and by some modern Muslim scholars influenced by Western thought, that, for centuries, intelligent and learned ulama (clerics) and Muslim rulers either misunderstood the Quran or purposely distorted it in various ways, including through the invention of ahadith (traditional narratives of Muhammad’s sayings and deeds, or sunnah), because of “prescriptions of gender and power,” or because of their patriarchal interests, or because they were shaped by the socioeconomic forces of their time, or for some other covert reason that today’s scholars somehow are not subject to and can therefore unmask and explain disinterestedly.

Nor does the book attempt to examine the assumption that truth is on the side of those among today’s Western expert interpreters who argue, in what has become a veritable literary subgenre, not only that the Quran does not really mean what for centuries fuqaha (experts on Islamic law) variously thought it meant but even that sharia has nothing to do with Muhammad’s teachings and that Islamic texts can be reconciled with Western notions of political, religious, and sexual liberty.20

This particular understanding of the Quran may be true, but, to borrow Cervantes’s words, “it matters little for our story.” What matters much for our story is that, for the culture of medieval Islam in al-Andalus, the

important texts were not so much the Quran as the religious laws as interpreted by the ulama of the Maliki legal school; that for the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence that dominated al-Andalus, as was also the case generally for other schools of law in classical Islam, the ahadith and their sunnah were as authoritative as the Quran;

that, in fact, Maliki ulama in al-Andalus accepted the famous saying of such respected traditionists as al-Awzai (ca. 704–774) and Yahya Ibn Abi Kathir (d. 748) according to which the Quran is in greater need of the sunnah for its elucidation than the sunnah is of the Quran21; and that Islamic texts were not open to interpretation by just any individual believer but must be mediated by properly qualified clerics.22

 Without “questioning” or “interrogating” the “subjectivities” of the scholars of the Maliki school of jurisprudence in al-Andalus, this book takes seriously and at face value their interpretations and practices, including their belief in a divine revelation independent of changing socioeconomic or historical conditions. This understanding of Islamic law as something transcendent and not subject to innovation was shared even by the great alim (meaning “wise” or “learned”) Ibn Hazm, not a friend of Malikism.23 For all these traditionists and enemies of innovation, and despite their individual rivalries and differences, Islam did not need to be and must not be “adapted” to new circumstances.

This book gives special attention to primary sources (medieval Christian, Muslim, and Jewish chronicles; literary works; religious and legal texts; and biographies), and usually quotes them verbatim so that non scholars can read these materials (which in modern publications on Islamic Spain frequently are not part of the narrative and often not even part of the notes) and decide for themselves whether the widespread hagiographic interpretations of Islamic Spain are warranted or not.

 Unless otherwise indicated, assertions in this book are abundantly supported by these medieval Christian, Muslim, and Jewish primary sources, which are either quoted in the text or cited in the notes.

One may disagree with and instinctively reject one, two, three, or four of these sources, whose assertions contradict comfortable beliefs, or one may raise questions about what these testimonies really mean in order defensively to undermine their authority; but after a while the sheer number of assertions from so many different sources becomes difficult to refute and their cumulative effect even harder to dispel. As far as the available documentary evidence and the limited space have allowed, this book follows the hermeneutic criterion of multiple attestations: thus, for example, the more widely distributed a particular religious or legal teaching and its accompanying practice are across sources, the greater the probability that such teaching and practice permeated everyday life; and the more in agreement antagonistic sources—say, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian—are on a particular cultural or historical proposition, the greater the truth value of that proposition.

All sorts of arguments have been made to question the validity of the Muslim sources: some Western scholars today describe them as texts embellished by legends, serving political and religious agendas, and written too many centuries after the events.24

 But dismissing Muslim chronicles presents problems. One is that the chronicles claim to use earlier materials closer to the events described, and that some of the Muslim chronicles probably date from less than two centuries after the conquest.

Another problem is that some scholars who doubt the accuracy of the Muslim sources have often employed them to make claims regarding the splendor of the civilization of Islamic Spain and also to reduce the figure of traditional Christian heroes such as El Cid to impious warriors and mere mercenaries. One cannot have it both ways.

Finally, disregarding primary sources because they may contain embellishments and legends, or serve a political and religious agenda, can leave scholars with limited working material and deprive them of a great deal that legends, fiction, embellishments, and political and religious agendas can tell about a culture, and even about historical happenings.

In any event, as even the professor of Hebrew studies Norman Roth admits, “A detailed analysis of these sources results in a remarkably coherent and generally consistent account of the invasion and conquest of Spain.” The scholar of Islamic and Arabic studies Tarif Khalidi’s examination of the various factors that affected the writing of the medieval Muslim chronicles confirms their historical usefulness.25

Fortunately, even if we correctly regard parts of the Muslim chronicles as possible falsifications at the service of religion, we can check their narratives against other important primary sources. This book gives particular attention to the Christian sources and archaeological findings, among which are the earliest and possibly most accurate accounts of the Muslim conquest and its aftermath. Christian sources such as the Chronica mozarabica of 754 and the Chronica Byzantia-Arabica of 743 date from only a few decades after the conquest and can confirm or contradict the Muslim chronicles.

As Luis A. García Moreno has observed, Christian sources, including Latin hymns such as Tempore belli, have been all too often neglected in the study of the Islamic conquest of Spain. Christian accounts offer the additional interest of having been written from the perspective of the defeated.

Another way to check the veracity or, at times, the falsity of the Muslim chronicles is through archaeology. Thus, archaeological evidence from North Africa in the region of Cyrenaica points to the destruction of churches along the route the Islamic conquerors followed in the late seventh century, and the remarkable artistic treasures buried along the routes leading to the North of Spain by fleeing Visigoths and Hispano- Romans during the early eighth century consist largely of religious and dynastic paraphernalia that the Christian inhabitants obviously wanted to protect from Muslim looting and desecration.

Most of the important primary sources have been translated from medieval Latin, Spanish, Arabic, and Hebrew into one or more Western languages. The English-speaking readers of this book, who may lament having to look at all this material in translation, can find consolation in the fact that they are no worse off than the celebrated Córdoban Muslim cleric Ibn Rushd (“Averroes”), a polymath who achieved lasting fame by commenting on the technical and difficult texts of Aristotle without knowing Greek and after reading them in twice-mediated translations.

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(Those translations existed thanks to Christian scholars at home in the Greek culture of the Middle East: for centuries the Philosopher’s works had been kept and studied in the Christian Greek Roman Empire, and Christian scholars under Muslim rule translated them from Greek into Syrian and then from Syrian into Arabic, the language in which all learned Muslims read Greek philosophy and science.)26

All translations into English are mine unless otherwise specified in the sources. To facilitate the reading by nonspecialists, I have generally avoided the use of diacritical symbols: thus Quran instead of Qur’an, taifa instead of ta’ifa, and Muhammad instead of Muhammad. The use of multiple-language sources, including translations printed in various countries in different centuries, has created occasional but I hope minor inconsistencies in the spelling of some words and personal names.


None of the Western coverage wondered what kind of Islam would come out of the new Granada mosque. How strict were its views on the Sharia? On the role of women? Even the most obvious question went unanswered: Would this mosque emulate the great intellectual Islam of the Andalusian Moors, with its pan-confessional humanism …?

The Islam of Moorish culture at its height was not pure but thoroughly evolved after eight centuries of collaboration with Jews and Christians. In fact, one could argue that the oft-bewailed missing “reformation” of Islam was under way there until it was aborted by the [Spanish] Inquisition. At any rate, Moorish Islam was anything but fundamentalist.

I use the terms Spain, medieval Spain, and Islamic Spain rather than Iberia, medieval Iberia, and Islamic Iberia. The use of the term medieval Iberia, standard in most academic specialized writing since the 1990s (before then, all scholarly research used the term medieval Spain), presents a number of factual and theoretical difficulties. Iberia is a pre-Roman and therefore premedieval term.

Romans, who variously dominated Spain from approximately 215 B.C. to the disintegration of the Western (or Latin) Roman Empire in the early fifth century A.D., called Spain Hispania. This is a Latin word (possibly borrowed from Carthaginian) that evolved into the medieval word Spannia and eventually into España. Thus the noun Spain resulted from a process of language evolution from “vulgar” Latin (the simpler Latin used by the Roman soldiers and merchants) that obtains for the various peninsular Romance dialects, such as Castilian, Navarrese, and Leonese, before the Castilian Romance dialect became the standard for the Spanish language.

Such a process can be seen in other Romance languages: the Tuscan Italian dialect gave rise to modern Italian, and the French dialect of the region of Paris  (île-de-France) gave rise to modern French. Phonologically, morphologically, syntactically, and mostly lexically, modern Spanish is, like French, Italian, Catalan, Portuguese, or Romanian, an evolved form of Latin, the language of the Western Roman Empire. Therefore it is a Romance language. The influence of other languages on Spanish has been mostly lexical. Thus only about 6 percent of the total vocabulary of Spanish is traceable to Arabic as a result of the Muslim conquest.

In contrast, about 30 percent of the vocabulary of English, which is a Germanic language, is traceable to French, a Romance language, as a result of the Norman conquest of 1066.27 By the time the Romans controlled most of Spain in the first half of the third century B.C. the land was already called in Latin Hispania, not “Iberia.”

Moreover, the highly Romanized Germanic Visigoths,28 who began to take over Spain from the Romans in the fifth century A.D., also referred to the land as Hispania, not “Iberia.” In the sixth century, the Visigoth scholar Saint Isidore, bishop of Seville, sang the beauty of Hispania, not “Iberia.” As the Spanish dialects gradually elbowed out Latin, the word Hispania evolved into the medieval Latin Spannia, and then into the Romance language word España. So Spain, not “Iberia,” was in the Middle Ages a universally recognized geographical entity.

In fact, as we will see in chapter 1, for centuries medieval Christians 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 and certainly not Iberia. The Arabist Joaquín Vallvé Bermejo has pointed out that medieval Christian chronicles always referred to the land occupied by Islam as Spain.29 The inhabitants of the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain referred to the Christians remaining as dhimmis in Islamic Spain as “Spani,” not “Iberians.” The Cantigas de Santa María of King Alfonso X (1221–1284), written in a mixture of Galician and Portuguese, refer to the lands occupied by the Muslims as part of the land “d’Espanna.”30

The kingdom of Portugal (dating from the twelfth century) was, like that of Castile or León, a kingdom in Spain (not a kingdom in “Iberia”); so the use of medieval “Iberia” instead of medieval Spain to avoid offending the Portuguese (or the Catalonians) has no historical justification.31

 Even Muslims used the word Spain, not Iberia, to refer to the land they had conquered. The earliest Muslim coins in Spain, dating from the first half of the eighth century, show on one side the name Alandalus, in Arabic, and on the other the abbreviation SPAN, for “Spannia.”32

Prominent Muslim chroniclers, including the historian al-Tabari (839–923) and the geographer al-Masudi (d. 956), referred to Spain as Spain.33 Others, including the Arabic geographer al-Idrisi (d. 1165), the great Tunisian historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), and the Algerian historian al-Maqqari (c. 1578–1632), used the term Isbania or Ishbaniah—that is, Hispania España.34

 The historian Luis A. García Moreno has observed that “in a text containing Andalusian references, compiled by the encyclopedist of the Abbasid Caliphate Ibn Khurdadhbeh in the middle of the tenth century

…, the inhabitants of Córdoba are surprisingly called al-Isban, a simple Arabic transcription of the word Hispani.… So it does not seem that one can doubt that the mozarab [dhimmi] elite of these centuries still maintained the consciousness of being part of an ethnic-geographical identity called Spain, whose unity and political expression had been the Regnum Hispaniae, founded on the epic virtues of the Goths as the axis for this ideological reality.”35

It is true, however, that there was an effort among later Muslim historians, poets, and intellectuals in general, who were economically dependent on the Muslim rulers, to call the conquered land al-Andalus and praise it as an earthly paradise.36 This tactic is a well-known colonialist maneuver; changing geographical names in an occupied territory reinforces the conqueror’s authority.

In fact, as chapter 1 will show, the Muslim conquerors Arabized as many ancient names in the Spanish land as they could. The toponymic results of this methodical Arabization endure in southern Spain to this day. However, the subject population in Spain, as elsewhere in the Islamic empire, often clung tenaciously to the ancient names as part of their cultural resistance against the Islamization of their land.

One reason for the use of the artificial term Iberia in much of today’s academic writing is that it avoids offending non-Christian sensibilities. It is analogous to the ideological academic use of another artificial term, “C.E.,” short for “Common Era,” which many academic publications in English now demand instead of “A.D.,” or “Anno Domini” (“in the year of the Lord”); the same publications also insist on “B.C.E.,” or “Before the Common Era,” instead of “B.C.”—“Before Christ.”

Of course, the actual dating in such academic usage remains fixed to the birth of Christ—whose name, however, must not be spoken. In contrast, scholars of Islamic studies are, quite prudently, very respectful of the Islamic calendar and usually add to “C.E.” etc. the “hegira” dating—the Islamic calendar fixed to Muhammad’s journey from Mecca to Medina—or even use the hegira dating only.

Spain was part of the battle cry of the Reconquista (¡Santiago y cierra, España!),37 and many Muslims (including Osama bin Laden) have claimed a right of return to and rule in al-Andalus, which they consider— like Palestine, the entire Middle East, and other areas of the world once conquered by Islam—an inalienable “Islamic bequest” (Waqf). So historians now use either al-Andalus (following the Muslim propagandists) or medieval Iberia.

Another reason for the use of these words is to “de-essentialize” the idea of “Spain,” with its extremely undesirable Christian and European and Spanish “nationalistic” connotations, and make this entity open to academic reinterpretations as something “diverse,” something mixed of Christian, European, Arab, Jewish, African, and other such essences.

 In other words, this terminological legerdemain works against privileging Christianity and Europe but not against privileging the other essences.

This discursive legerdemain even includes doubting that the followers of the banners of medieval Christian kingdoms like León, Castile, Aragon, and Portugal had a sufficient religious, political, social, cultural, and ethnic connection with the conquered Catholic Visigoth kingdom to qualify them as reconquerors of a lost Christian realm in a religious, military, and political enterprise called La Reconquista—but not doubting that the followers of Islam in Spain had a sufficient religious, political, cial, cultural, and ethnic connection with Islam elsewhere to qualify them as part of an entity called “Islam.

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