Islamic Spain in Middle Ages no paradise for Christians, Jews, women

There is a widely held belief that in Spain, during the European Middle Ages, Islam, Christianity and Judaism co-existed peacefully and fruitfully under a tolerant and enlightened Islamic hegemony. Dario Fernandez-Morera, associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Northwestern University in the US, with a PhD from Harvard, has written a stunning book that upends this myth.

The myth itself has been a comforting and even inspiring story that has underpinned the so-called Toledo Principles regarding religious tolerance in our time. It has buttressed the belief that Islam was a higher civilisation than that of medieval Europe in the eighth to 12th centuries and that the destruction of this enlightened and sophisticated Andalusia should be lamented.

The great Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, a century ago, saw it that way. US President Barack Obama and The Economist magazine have both very recently cited Muslim Andalusia as evidence that Islam has been a religion of peace and tolerance. In short, the myth of Andalusia has been a beacon of hope for working with Islam in today’s world with a common commitment to civilised norms.

This vision was spelled out in Maria Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (2002) and reinforced by David Levering Lewis’s God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 (2008). But it has deep roots. Edward Gibbon, in his famous 18th-century history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, wrote in glowing terms of the 10th-century Umayyad caliphate in Spain as a beacon of enlightenment, learning and urban living, at a time when Europe was plunged in bigotry, ignorance and poverty.

As someone who has long taken this vision for granted, it came as a considerable shock to me to discover that the conventional wisdom is quite unfounded. In The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, Fernandez-Morera systematically refutes the beguiling fable. The picture he draws is starkly different from the conventional one, troubling in what it reveals and compelling in its arguments.

If we are to satisfactorily resolve current disputes about Islamophobia and the future of Islam as a world religion, this book is required reading. International reviewers have greeted it as a desperately needed corrective to delusion and propaganda. That will invite pushback from those who either remain committed to the myth or believe it is too important a beacon to allow it to be extinguished.

However, Fernandez-Morera argues trenchantly that we must shake off the sense of the superiority of Islam to medieval European culture. He makes the point, for example, that, given Islam’s antipathy to graphic art and music, had Europe been Islamised in the 8th century, we would never have had Gregorian chant, orchestral music or opera. No Bach, Mozart, Beethoven or Verdi. No Caravaggio, Michelangelo or Titian. Ponder that, at least as a thought experiment.

He shows that the Muslim invaders of Spain in the 8th century did not arrive as a higher civilisation conquering Visigothic barbarians. They arrived as barbarians intruding on a strongly Romanised, Catholic and materially sophisticated culture. As other scholarship has shown, the Arabs in the 7th and 8th centuries were barbarian invaders every bit as much as the Germans or Bulgars in Europe. They plundered, enslaved and sacked from the Middle East across North Africa and eastwards to Central Asia and India. As the great Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun would put it in the 14th century, war in the name of religion was integral to Islam.

Secondly, Fernandez-Morera argues that Islam was not the vehicle through which classical Greek learning was preserved, as is so often claimed. It was chiefly Constantinople that archived and protected the patrimony of Greek antiquity, philosophical, medical and mathematical. The Arabs acquired all this through Greek Christian scholars translating the classics for them. Greeks from the east and Christians in the west later revived such learning for themselves. Meanwhile, the rise of Islam had disrupted the flow of trade and ideas between the Greek east and the Latin west, thus harming rather than fertilising European civilisation.

Even these background theses will strike many readers as controversial, but they are only the beginning. The real thrust of Fernandez-Morera’s critique of the myth of Andalusia is that Islam in Spain, far from setting a high bar of tolerance, was characterised by plunder, domination, the harsh application of sharia law, the persecution of Christians or Jews who openly avowed their non-Muslim beliefs, and the violent suppression of ‘‘heresies’’ and apostasy within the Muslim community.

He also points out that the Christian and Jewish communities tended towards dogmatism, enclosure against the other religions and the fierce persecution of both heretics and apostates. Andalusia has been extolled as a convivencia, he remarks, but in reality it was what he dubs a precaria co-existencia between the three monotheistic religions that eventually dis­integrated.

Chapter four, The Myth of Umayyad Tolerance: Inquisitions, Beheadings, Impalings and Crucifixions, and chapter five, Women in Islamic Spain: Female Circumcision, Stoning, Veils and Sexual Slavery, reveal what has been airbrushed from history. The Moroccan Muslim feminist Fatema Mernissi and others have laboured to argue that the sexual slaves in Andalusian harems were somehow ‘‘free’’ women. Fernandez-Morera draws attention to the considerably greater freedom of women in Christian Spain, by contrast, in terms of everyday outdoor work and access to political power.

The myth of Andalusia has been based on neglect of primary sources and selective adulation of worldly Muslim rulers, as if they were representative of the clerical ulema and Muslim masses. In fact, as Fernandez-Morera shows, both mullahs and masses tended to bigotry and anti-Semitism. There were anti-Semitic pogroms every bit as violent and irrational as those in Christian Europe. And many Christians were expelled from Muslim Spain.

Among the many shocks to my settled beliefs in reading this book was learning of the atrocities committed, publicly and privately, by Muslim rulers I had long seen as models of enlightened despotism, notably Abd al-Rahman I (731-788) and his descendant two centuries later Abd al-Rahman III. Both committed abhorrent deeds of torture and murder.

Far more shocking is Fernandez-Morera’s documentation of the harsh sharia law in Spain under the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, something endorsed even by the celebrated 12th-century philosopher from Cordoba, Averroes (Ibn Rushd). It was neither pluralist nor ‘‘secular’’. It offers no model at all for what we might want or do now in civil society.

I learned things reading this book that I wish were not true, but the documentation is voluminous and compelling. There are occasional errors of fact and some surprising omissions — no discussion, for example, of the great library of Cordoba or of its other public amenities in the 10 century — but the overall impact is profound. His book will surely run into hostility, but Fernandez-Morera is a formidable scholar.

The classic works of Patricia Crone or John Wansbrough on the origins of Islam are the best comparison with what Fernandez-Morera has achieved. They demonstrated that the Koran as a canonical text dates from long after the traditional death of Mohammed and the hadiths (sayings attributed to Mohammed) were overwhelmingly just made up by storytellers long after he was gone.

In Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam, Crone argued that the traditional story of Mecca as a great spice-trading centre where Mohammed founded Islam from whole cloth (‘‘revelations’’) does not stand up to scrutiny. The actual history of early Islam and the traditional religious ­account of it diverge radically. Yet this extraordinary finding has never sunk in. It is, understandably, resisted strenuously by Muslim believers and an academic establishment that makes a living out of writing about that traditional story.

Meccan Trade and the Rise of Islam and books like it are vital works. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is one of these books. Rather than accepting conventional or politically correct views about either Islamic Spain or the rise of Islam ‘‘in the full light of history’’, read these probing works of historical scholarship.

We do need the ‘‘cultural secularism’’ that Menocal and others think they can point to in Muslim Andalusia. We do need to find a way for those who still adhere to the old religions to live in reasonable harmony. We should want a tolerant, cosmopolitan order here and abroad. What we cannot do any longer is take Muslim rule in Spain as our model for accomplishing that laudable goal. We need to invent something new. There is no Andalusian golden age to emulate.

Paul Monk is a consultant, writer and speaker. He is the author of Opinions and Reflections: A Free Mind at Work 1990-2015.

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

  • SDMatt

    I’ve mentioned Fernandez-Morera here a number of times; a number of his short but excellent essays are available if you Google his name.

    The book is dense but good. For example:

    Previously, in 797, the Umayyad ruler had carried out the famous beheadings of the “Foso,” during which he wiped out the elite of Toledo’s unruly Christian converts to Islam. Ibn Hayyan describes the emir’s ingenious ruse: [Al-Haqam I] organized a banquet in which he would honor the notable people of Toledo.… He ordered that the guests entered through one door and exited through another, presumably to avoid bottle necks at the banquet. And he put in practice his plan against them, for he had already placed men inside the Alcazar with their drawn swords, so that as soon as one of the Toledans entered and crossed the door he would be taken to the brink of a deep pit that the ruler had prepared and then his head would be cut off.… And their bodies were thrown into the pit, but the Toledans, who were arriving in large numbers, did not realize what was happening and thought that they were exiting through a door, until many of them were exterminated. Finally … [they] realized what was happening … and fled. And the massacred reached 700 men. And [the people of the city] were impressed by a catastrophe that humiliated them for a long time. 36

  • ismiselemeas

    Within only a couple of years of the reconquista Columbus discovered the new world, Cervantes wrote Don Quixote and Spain had entered her Golden Age. The Spanish Inquisition needs to be revisited as well, the Jewish diaspora were on the wrong side of history there.

  • Very informative post.

    I’m pretty sure that only the Spanish Inquisition (which no one expected) was bad.

    • ismiselemeas

      I’m no defender of the church but most of what is known is greatly exaggerated or completely false. Ferdinand and Isabella deemed it necessary to root out fifth columnists who were potentially plotting for the return of the Moors, largely Jews in the civil service. Torquemada himself was rumoured to be a converso, everyone was ratting each other out to curry favour with the new administration. The death toll was probably around 0.1% of the usual toted estimate of 40,000.

      • It was, for many, a more impartial arbiter than civil inquisitions.

        It’s how things wee done back then.

        Still better than four male witnesses.

      • Maybe in Europe, but I think the New World inquisition was pretty bad because it was enforced — rather perversely — on the Indigenous people in a number of places.

        • Renewnews

          well, think about the ‘religion’ they were trying to stamp out in Mexico and related areas, the ripping out of hearts by the thousands….. cannibalism…

      • Waffle

        You are right about the reasons for the Spanish Inquisition, which went into effect about 1482. However, there were no unbaptized Jews in the civil service. The massacres of 1391 (by Christians) had caused many of them to convert. During the 1400’s a series of repressive acts prevented Jews from holding lucrative and prestigious positions in the civil service.

        So rather than plotting a return of the Moors, the more likely cause was jealousy. Old Christians resented the plum positions occupied by the New Christians.

        However, for whatever reason, we have a tendency to call these converts “Jews”. By the time the Inquisition went into effect, they were already into their 3rd an 4th generation of conversion to Christianity. Most of them adapted quite comfortably to their new religion, unlike the Moriscos (Muslim converts) who never did and eventually were expelled.

        Funny thing about the courts of the Inquisition — they tended to go after those with large estates as the Inquisition was self-financing and prisoners had to pay for their room and board.

        I think the Inquisition still holds a lot of traction because the ultimate punishment — being burned alive at the stake– was so horrific, even for people of the time.

        • ismiselemeas

          Which is why I used the term “converso”. It refers specifically to your description. The native Spaniards were rightly concerned about the loyalty of the remnants of the Moorish civil service. Ferdinand and Isabella demanded complete loyalty in order to reset patriotism, an exhibition of this loyalty was the willingness to convert or face the consequences which was expulsion. Columbus sailed out through boat loads of expelled citizens.

          • Waffle

            By the time The Catholic Monarchs came to the throne (1474), there were few unbaptized Jews left in Spain. The purity of blood laws (1449) also had the effect of excluding anyone with Jewish or Moorish blood from obtaining government work. Plus (and most important) the reconquista was rapidly closing in on the last Muslim stronghold, Granada, which finally fell on January 5, 1492.

            Columbus’ first sailing (near the beginning of August 1492( coincided with the expulsion which took place on the Jewish date of the 9th of AV (also the date of the destruction of the temples — a fast day on the Jewish calendar).

            Many stories, lots of myths. Lots of slogging to get through the erroneous “histories”.

  • Tokenn

    I’m reading Morera’s book right now….highly recommended. The overall take is that Islamic jihadis virtually wiped out the strongly Roman-influenced and thriving Visigothic civilization in the Iberian Peninsula and replaced it with a repulsive theocracy/clerical dictatorship that was no better than any other branch of Muslim rule…probably worse than some.

    • xavier

      And severely damaged the Castilians’ adherence to the rule of law. A Crusader kingdom the military had to be on the forefront so the laws couldn’the always be adhered to. Contrast that with the Catalan who booted the Moslems out by the 900s and by 1200 had reconquerir València and the Balerics

  • xavier

    If anyone can read Catalan I suggest Mira’s El fi dels moriscos del Regne de València (Bromera) i haven’t read but I did read his interview when the book was published. He was adamant that it was necessary to expel them as the constituted a continuing clear and present danger.He also sneers at the while convivència myth

    • Patti Springer

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    • You speak Catalan? — very cool. I’m bilingual in Castillian (Latin American castellano) but Catalan is like speaking another language — had a friend from Barcelona and couldn’t make hide nor hair of it. Maybe reading is easier ’cause I at least understood the title you referenced.

      • xavier


        That’s because it is despite the common origins 😉

        Think of if as a mix of Spanish with French spelling and semi French sounding pronunciation or French with an Iberian pronunciation 🙂

        • That’s probably it — my French is likewise bad orally, easier to read ’cause the grammar is much the same as Spanish.

          Ever come across Basque (Euzkada)? Now that’s definitely not a Latin language. Picked up a few words when I was translating for some Basque musicians who were performing here (they also spoke Spanish so translated to English). Must say I had an absolute blast with those people.

          • xavier


            I’m familiar with Basque. You’really right it’seems a language isolate and agglutivery.

            The base word used suffixes and prefixes to build vocabulary
            Most likely that’she how language started until humans hit on the idea of changNgi sounds to create new words

          • Studied a couple of (practically extinct) tribal dialects as a hobby. My linguistics terminology at this point has gone down the memory hole (only a couple semesters academically) but I remember sentence construction and modifiers that had no equivalent in other systems.

            You must be a pro — I found linguistics to be pure science, very demanding discipline, every position of the tongue, etc. analyzed to the nth degree.

            (I’d tell you the name of the tribes but I sometimes use the vocabs for passwords — unbreakable for dictionary attacks. 🙂 )

          • xavier

            Nope just superficially well read 😉


            Agreed but it took 7 centuries and the damage is permanent

  • canminuteman

    Even if it was a golden age, which I don’t buy,so what? They were still a foreign invasion who the natives didn’t want.

  • mickeycz

    I’ve had people chirp “Islam gave us algebra!” when I point out the absolute dearth of art and beauty in Islam (leaving out love and compassion). The word came from the Arabic but the concepts in great part came from India after the blood-soaked massacring conquest there of an ancient culture. Complete with the burning of thousands of years of library collections. Brahmagupta I think was the name of the Hindu mathematician.

  • mickeycz

    Islamic dominance is incompatible with our values and comparative studies need to be encouraged instead of being PC about it. Then we need to study what is being done in Angola and other locales that are strongly addressing the issues Islam brings.