Book review: The Fairy Tale of Al-Andalus


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 theirprophet 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.

…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… The ulamas issued edicts against drinking wine, making music in public, or enjoying any kind of entertainment. The chapter on “The Myth of Islamic 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.”