Was Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain an Interfaith Eden?

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise debunks a romanticized view of Muslim-ruled Spain.

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise

Muslims, Christians and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain

By Dario Fernandez-Morera

ISI Books, 2016

336 pages, $29.95

To order: isibooks.org


No contemporary historian who wished to remain in the good graces of his colleagues would marvel about the way in which Spanish conquistadors lifted the Aztecs and Incas from their dark ages of ignorance and superstition. Nor would any scholar rhapsodize about how the colonization of India by the British brought civilization to a backward society. Much less would any of today’s historians claim that black slaves in the U.S. South lived happy and contented lives under the benevolent protection of their enlightened masters.

Yet these are the sort of things that contemporary historians routinely say about the Islamic conquest and subjugation of Spain during the medieval period. According to numerous scholars, Muslim-ruled Spain — al Andalus — was a beacon of enlightened tolerance in an otherwise darkened Europe. For example:

[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, God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215.

Peace, harmony, tolerance and a flowering of science and culture: That’s the way academics, journalists and politicians often portray Islamic Spain. The problem is, it’s not true. In The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, historian Dario Fernandez-Morera explodes this romanticized version of history and shows in great detail that the facts are otherwise.

Drawing on an abundances of primary sources, Fernandez-Morera shows that repression rather than tolerance was the norm for Islamic Spain. In addition to numerous massacres and the destruction of churches, Spain’s Muslim rulers indulged in beheadings, impalings and crucifixions. During this age of “enlightenment,” inquisitions were common, and so were book burnings. The law of the land was sharia (Islamic law), and harsh punishments (usually death) were administered for blasphemy, apostasy, heresy, witchcraft, sodomy and adultery. Theft, however, was dealt with more leniently. The much-vaunted Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes) “approvingly observed that Malik and al-Shafi [founders of two of the most important schools of Islamic jurisprudence] agreed on the appropriateness of amputating the right hand of the thief, then the left foot in case of reincidence, then the left hand if the thief stole for a third time, and then his right foot if he stole again.”

And then, of course, the Golden Age of Islam was built on a massive slave trade:

Al-Andalus became a center for the trade and distribution of slaves: young female sexual slaves … male children castrated to become eunuchs in the harems; male children brought up in barracks to be slave warriors.”

The Caliph Abd al-Rahman III had a harem of 6,300 women, which in plain language means that he possessed a great many sex slaves. Yet, as Fernandez-Morera observes, “some ingenious academic specialists” have argued that “sexual slavery under Islam actually promoted women’s liberation.”

In fact, this idealized view of the harem has a long history in the West. Throughout the 19th and even into the early 20th century, romanticized depictions of harem life were a favorite theme of European and American painters. Although artists have moved on to other subjects, Western scholars still have a very tolerant attitude towards Islam’s “peculiar institution.”

There was, of course, no equivalent institution in the “benighted” Christian world. And Christian women in Christian lands were not excluded from public life, as were Muslim women in Islamic Spain. The Visigoths who ruled Spain prior to the Muslims had female rulers, so did the Spanish Catholics who eventually forced the Muslims out. Isabella, queen of Castile and Leon, is only the most famous of a number of female rulers who governed in Spanish provinces during the long period of the Reconquista.

There was some flowering of Islamic civilization in Spain, but much of it, as Fernandez-Morera points out, was due to the contributions of Jews and Christians and the Greek-Roman culture they had inherited. Likewise, there was some tolerance. But Christians and Jews were tolerated mainly because their taxes (the jizya) paid for the maintenance of Islamic society. The Christian dhimmis of Spain were very low on the social scale and were subject to numerous restrictions and humiliations, but, being largely parasitical, the Islamic system depended on them. The word “dhimmi” means “protected,” but, as the author points out, the dhimmi system operated like a mafia “protection” racket. In other words, “pay us and we will protect you from what we will do to you if you fail to comply.”

That modern academics are able to interpret this repressive scheme as evidence of enlightened tolerance doesn’t tell us much about the actual conditions in medieval Spain, but it does tell us a lot about modern academics. They are, it seems, quite willing to subordinate historical truths to their ideological agenda. Part of that agenda is to further the multicultural myth that all cultures are equally beneficent. The other part is to discredit Christianity, particularly of the Catholic variety. As the author observes, today’s fantasy view of Islamic Spain is really a continuation of the Catholic-bashing school of history that emerged in the Enlightenment and led to a “tilting of the narrative against Catholic Spain.”

Finally, there’s the money factor. Scholars who don’t toe the multicultural line don’t get funded. And this is particularly the case in Islamic and Middle-East studies departments, where much of the funding comes from Islamic nations such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is an important book, not only for what it says about the corruption of scholarship, but for its relevance to current affairs. The questions the author raises about Islamic Spain are not merely academic questions. They apply very much to the modern world. Recently, it was reported that several Christians in the Syrian town of al-Qaryatain were killed for breaking the terms of their “dhimmi contracts” — perhaps one of the reasons that we are so unprepared for such news is that we’ve been deprived of crucial knowledge about Islamic history.

William Kilpatrick is the author of

Christianity, Islam and Atheism:

The Struggle for the Soul of the West.

For more on his work and writings,

visit his website, TurningPointProject.com.