How golden was the Golden Age in medieval Spain? Is the idea of convivencia - the harmonious age of interfaith cooperation under tolerant Muslim rule - nothing more than wishful thinking? Rabbi Marc Angel reviews in Jewish Ideas Daily a new myth-busting book by Dario Fernandez-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise.
While various scholars have pointed to problems and low points during
Islamic rule in Spain, Dr. Fernandez-Morera goes much further. His bold
argument is that the notion of Islamic tolerance of Jews and Christians
is a myth—it is simply not true. The idea of convivencia—the mutual
cooperation and harmony among Muslims, Christians and Jews in Medieval
Spain—belongs more to the realm of propaganda than to history.
The author quotes numerous scholars who shower praise on Islamic
tolerance, on the remarkable “Golden Age” in interreligious cooperation.
But he argues that these authors were engaging in “political
correctness,” the fashionable presentation of a tolerant and benevolent
Islam. He draws on writings of people who lived in Islamic Spain, people
who described what life was actually like in their times. He draws on
extensive scholarly sources, on archaeological discoveries, as well as
on the abundant secondary literature of more recent scholars.
Dr. Fernandez-Morera notes that the famed Umayyad dynasty were
followers of the Maliki school of Islam which had little love for
non-Muslims. The early Muslim conquerors of Spain and their successors
systematically razed churches or turned them into Mosques. They imposed
Islamic law on Christians and Jews—known as People of the Book—which
made it very clear that the minorities were to be subservient to
Muslims. Although granted relative freedom to conduct their communities
according to their own religious traditions, Christians and Jews were
“dhimmis”—an underclass of “protected people” who had to pay a special
tax for the privilege of living under Islamic hegemony.
Dr. Fernandez-Morera writes: “In short, Islamic Spain enjoyed no
harmonious convivencia; rather, Muslims, Christians, and Jews had a
precarious coexistence. Members of the three communities had to come
into contact now and then. Sometimes they did business, or collaborated
with one another, or dwelled near one another.” (p. 117) Of course, as
in all societies, kinder people interacted more kindly with those of the
other groups. And of course, there are examples of periods of relative
quiet. And there were individual Jews and Christians who rose to
positions of power and influence. Nonetheless, the massive reality was
that “dhimmis” were subject to ongoing humiliation, segregation, and
The “dhimmi” regulations imposed a special tax on Christians and
Jews. Various rules were intended to humiliate “dhimmis” and remind them
of their subservient positions. Writing about restrictions placed on
Jews in Islamic Spain, Dr. Fernandez-Morera notes that Jews “must not
ride horses. They must show deference to Muslims. They must not give
court evidence against a Muslim…They must not proselytize….They must not
dress in such an ostentatious manner as to offend poorer Muslims….” (p.
While Jewish communities continued to exist in Islamic Spain,
Christian communities declined and ultimately disappeared. “By the end
of the twelfth century, as a result of flight (or ‘migration’) to
Christian lands, expulsions to North Africa, executions and conversions,
the Christian "dhimmi" population had largely disappeared from
al-Andalus. When Christians entered Granada in 1492, there were no
Christian "dhimmis" in the city.” (p. 208).
Professor Fernandez-Morera’s book has a clear point of view. He is
especially interested in highlighting the strengths and virtues of
Visigothic Spain before the arrival of the Muslims in 711. He praises
the Christian re-conquest of Spain. Had it not been for the
“Reconquista,” Islamic rule might not only have prevailed over all of
Spain, but might have spread further into Europe. This would have led to
the fostering of religious discrimination, the low status of women, the
inhibiting of intellectual freedom; it would have precluded the
emergence of the Renaissance, and would have left the Western world in
the same general condition as the rest of the Muslim world.
While some of the arguments of Dr. Fernandez-Morera seem
over-stretched and even polemical, the overall impact of his research
and his book must make one stop to think more carefully about the
“Andalusian Paradise” and convivencia. Are scholars and politicians
perpetuating this myth because it serves a useful purpose, because
they—and we—want to believe it? How nice it would be to know that there
was a time and place when Muslims, Christians and Jews worked side by
side in mutual respect and kindness. How nice to think that it is
possible for Islamic rule to be tolerant and benevolent.
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