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Convivencia Contested

Al-Andalus between Historical Memory and Modern Politics

The former Ben Shoshan synagogue in Toledo, now known as Santa Maria la Blanca. Built in the twelfth century for Jewish patrons by Moorish architects in the Mudejar style highly influenced by North African precedents, the building was converted into a church after the Christian conquest of Toledo.

Samuel C. Barry


Beginning in the year 711 CE, Muslim armies based in North Africa took control of the vast majority of the Iberian peninsula, supplanting the Christian, Germanic Visigoths, who had themselves assumed power in the region in the wake of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The Muslims named the land al-Andalus, and for the next five centuries, Islamic religious and legal discourse and Arabic cultural and intellectual trends were preeminent on the peninsula.1

By the middle of the thirteenth century, however, Christian armies had regained control of most of what is now modern Spain and Portugal. The final defeat of the Naṣrid Emirate of Granada in 1492, followed by the expulsion or assimilation of all moriscos (Spaniards of Muslim descent) by the seventeenth century, rendered Muslim Iberia a historical memory, albeit one with enduring importance and influence both within the successor states of Spain and Portugal and beyond.

Perhaps the most prominent use of the memory of al-Andalus in European and colonial contexts has been in discourse surrounding issues of religious toleration. Although there were deviations both toward and away from full inclusion of Jews and Christians in this Muslim society on the part of particular rulers and dynasties, the dictates of Islamic law establishing non-Muslim “People of the Book” as protected, second-class citizens (dhimmīs) were generally observed. Although practices governing dhimmīs in al-Andalus likely did not differ significantly from those established in other parts of the pre-modern Muslim world, they do contrast sharply with the policies toward non-Christians adopted both by the pre-Islamic Visigoths and by the Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms established after 1492, where religious toleration tended very much to be the exception rather than the rule.

In combination with the widely-regarded intellectual and artistic accomplishments of the period, as well as the role of al-Andalus in conveying luxury goods and fashionable trends from the Muslim East, the historical memory of this religious tolerance came to be contrasted with a vision of a stern, centralizing Roman Catholicism during the Reformation and Enlightenment.2 Following the development of this contrapuntal perspective can thus provide an important key to understanding the political and religious history of the Iberian peninsula and European modernity more generally.hertel

In The Crescent Remembered: Islam and Nationalism on the Iberian Peninsula, Patricia Hertel compares various historical approaches to the period of Muslim rule in Iberia adopted in Spain and Portugal at both scholarly and popular levels of discourse.3 The chapters are arranged according to the type of discourse examined, presenting the Spanish view on a given topic first before proceeding to discussion of the Portuguese understanding of that subject. The point/counterpoint format that results usually works well, especially given the unequal power dynamic obtaining between the two countries. At times, however, the Portuguese sources offer too little material to produce a clear distinction.

In the first chapter, “Islam as a Historical Enemy,” Hertel compares the importance of the historical memory of Muslim rule for the development and maintenance of national consciousness in each of these two countries. Given Spain’s status as the dominant political power on the peninsula, the Spanish sources usually refer their national identity back to the Visigoths. From this perspective, Muslim rule of Spain often appears as a lengthy and continually resisted occupation by a foreign power. Furthermore, the potency of the religious division between Islam and Catholicism in this single, extended struggle tends to cast the Spanish experience as a battle in a wider “clash of civilizations.” For the Portuguese, on the other hand, national identity derives largely from the distinction from Spain,  and to a lesser degree from other Iberian nationalities. In this light, in Portuguese sources, the battles fought against Muslim occupiers do not appear very different from those fought to establish Portugal against fellow Christian powers.

The subsequent chapters examine Spanish and Portuguese understandings of the Muslim past from various perspectives. The second chapter, “Islam as an Object of Research,” traces the development of the study of Islam and Arabic culture as an academic discipline in the two countries. In contrast to the more martial concerns of the writers examined in the previous chapter, here a more humanistic tone prevails in the consideration of the cultural and artistic accomplishments of al-Andalus. Among other things, scholarship in this vein has had the tendency to emphasize the common Spanish ethnicity of medieval Andalusian Muslims and Christians. In both this chapter and the subsequent one, “Islam as a ‘Colonial Other,’” the Portuguese material is much scantier for various reasons, most prominent among them being the contrasting colonial concerns of the two nations. The following chapters treat more popular presentations of Islam in school textbooks and local festivals. These provide interesting insights and examples while largely extending the themes developed in the earlier chapters.

The contrasting colonial experiences of these two countries provide insight into the complex interplay between the exercise of imperial power abroad and the maintenance of domestic national identity, as well as the importance of historical writing in these processes. Due to Spain’s imperial presence in Morocco, the land from which Muslim conquerors of al-Andalus repeatedly emerged in medieval times, the already quite robust Spanish narratives of national conflict with the Moors were reinforced by modern events.4 On the other hand, while the Portuguese Empire did rule over Muslim subject-peoples, these were primarily non-Arabs hailing from sub-Saharan Africa and India. Thus, even explicit attempts to utilize the Muslim heritage of Portugal in shoring up the empire had the tendency to fail on account of their conflation of the Arabic language with Islam as a global religion. Hertel works to relativize Iberian national founding-myths by emphasizing these and other contrasts.

francomoros

Francoist Islamophilia. (L) Portrait of Franco as crusader, with Christ depicted as a white knight with sword drawn overhead – and attended by both a friar and a soldier of the Moroccan Protectorate. Detail, Arturo Reque Meruvia, Alegoría de Franco y la Cruzada, 1948 (Archivo Militar, Ávila). (R) Postcard image of a Spanish officer and soldiers of the Fuerzas Regulares Indígenas, colonial recruits called upon to support Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

The variety of primary sources cited by Hertel gives the reader an impression of thoroughness. This is particularly important in the Spanish context, as it allows Hertel to emphasize the nuances and continuities of dynamic and complex scholarly and cultural developments along with their political and social ramifications. Her thoroughness sometimes leads to counterintuitive results. For example, a consistent theme of the book is that Iberian liberals have tended to adopt a more open attitude toward the Muslim past, facing opposition in doing so from conservatives seeking to maintain a more integral Catholic identity. However, the period of the Spanish Civil War represents an inversion of this pattern: at that time, General Francisco Franco and his africanistas (as both Spanish scholars concerned with Morocco and soldiers stationed there were known) often adopted a quite positive view of Islam and Muslims, against which the left-wing Spanish Republicans arrayed disparaging anti-Muslim and anti-African stereotypes. A similarly open attitude toward the Muslim past was also displayed in the propaganda of the contemporaneous Portuguese Estado Novo, the state established by António Salazar in 1933. It is normal to associate both of these fascist regimes with the traditionalist Catholic right wing in their respective countries. However, these regimes’ greater openness to the Muslim past of the peninsula highlights the importance of distinguishing clearly between Iberian fascism and traditionalist Roman Catholicism there.

Although the efficiency of Hertel’s methods lead her to investigate thoroughly this counterintuitive development in Spanish attitudes toward Islam, her treatment of it points to the most important flaws found in the work. Rather than allowing Francoist Islamophilia to stand as a matter of historical record, Hertel repeatedly takes pains to depict this attitude as a cynical ploy aimed at gaining military and political advantage. For example, on page 51, Hertel writes, “Within the institutions founded after the Spanish Civil War to emphasize the historical link between Spain and the Arab world—an attempt to provide a scholarly foundation for Franco’s claim to Morocco—Arabists mostly dealt with topics concerning al-Andalus” [emphasis mine]. Although I do not intend to dispute the fact itself here, the urge to insinuate motivations for the Francoists’ engagement with the Muslim past is subdued, if not absent, from her treatment of earlier liberal movements in similar directions. While Hertel notes the usefulness of liberalism for the Spanish colonization of Morocco, she does not raise the question of liberals’ ulterior motivations for adopting more positive views of Islam with a similar degree of insistence and clarity.

Perhaps the strongest charge Hertel levels against Spanish liberals is that during the colonial wars in Morocco, the descriptions of Muslims and Africans in their newspapers were “interchangeable” with those of the conservatives.5 However, the ease with which liberal views of Islam were put to use for the ends of the mission civilisatrice at least suggest worldly motivations lurking behind these ideas comparable to those that Hertel claims motivated the Francoists. If, in this regard, Spanish writers were following precedents established elsewhere, the geographical limitations of the work could excuse Hertel’s hesitation to include what might be regarded as an important desideratum, namely a critique of the development of liberal views of al-Andalus and their deployment in domestic, colonial, and post-colonial contexts.

Although not perhaps a major flaw in what is otherwise undoubtedly a valuable contribution to the modern history of the Iberian peninsula, this discrepancy has the effect of obscuring a potentially important historical link between liberal and anti-clerical disdain for traditional religious views and the subsequent strengthening of nationalism on the right wing of Spanish politics. That is to say, it seems possible to imagine that liberalism effectively displaced religious identity as the core element of Spanish political life, and thus rendered off-limits its partitive, integrating force. Fascism then replaced religion with an externally-focused and assimilative imperial identity, which liberalism had helped to form in very significant ways. In such a case, the fascist positivity toward Islam that Hertel adduces would appear to be a token of the ideology’s derivation not from traditionalist Roman Catholicism, but rather from liberalism.

fernandez-moreraDarío Fernández-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain purports to be just such a critique of liberal views of Muslim Spain.6 (Portugal goes almost entirely unmentioned in the book.) The heavily annotated book is divided into seven chapters treating subjects like jihād, Umayyad policy toward dissenters, the Christian and Jewish communities of al-Andalus, and the treatment of women in these societies. In the introduction, Fernández-Morera frames the work as a demythologization of a certain view of Islamic Spain that he links to nineteenth-century romanticism.

Beyond his initial, very cursory description of the set of views against which he addresses his polemic, Fernández-Morera relies heavily upon a device of setting brief quotations at the head of each chapter and section to characterize the opinions of his supposed intellectual opponents. These tend to be general statements, derived from academic works or political addresses, that compare the level of religious diversity that prevailed in Islamic Spain with that found in contemporary Christian European states, or that downplay the importance for Spanish history of controversial aspects of Islam. However, Fernández-Morera rarely if ever addresses these quotations (or the detailed arguments that in many cases one must assume underlie them) directly.

The subject matter that is discernible in the quotations sometimes diverges drastically from the topics of the chapters they introduce. For example, on pages 94-95, at the beginning of a section entitled “The Maliki School of Islamic Jurisprudence” that appears in the chapter “The Daily Realities of al-Andalus,” Fernández-Morera provides the following quote from The Economist:

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).7

Despite being drawn from a non-academic source, the historical account provided in the quote seems relatively unobjectionable. In contrast to later Spanish policies regarding non-Christians, the regimes of al-Andalus usually did allow Jews and Christians to continue to practice their religion, even if in a highly attenuated form. Given that the section it introduces concerns the Mālikī school of jurisprudence which came to predominate in al-Andalus, we might expect Fernández-Morera to compare Mālikī attitudes to other Islamic schools and sects with that of the Spanish kingdoms toward non-Catholic Christians, a point of some weakness in the account given in the quotation from The Economist and something that Fernández-Morera remarks upon only later in the book. However, the section at hand merely provides a general survey of the history of the Mālikī school in Iberia. The epigraph thus appears to have been randomly selected to appear in this place.

Even when more carefully chosen, these brief, general quotations are unable to bear the weight of sustained argumentation. Fernández-Morera’s reliance upon this device thus has the effect of leaving the object of his polemic almost completely undefined. Therefore, while the book purports to oppose a certain modern perception of Spanish history, it is in fact concerned almost entirely with the history of al-Andalus itself, and not with any ‘myth’ concerning it. In the same section on the Mālikī school cited above, Fernández-Morera betrays this intention by quoting Gibbon to the effect that “the laws of a nation form the most instructive part of its history.”8 The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise may thus be said to be an alternative history of al-Andalus framed as a polemic. This dual character renders the book unserviceable as a work of either genre. Consequently, a crucial opportunity to examine critically the scholarship of a field of profound importance is lost.

granada

Two visions of the fall of Granada, the climax of the Reconquista. (Top) Felipe Bigarny (d. 1542), Baptism of the Moors, 1522 (Royal Chapel of Granada Cathedral). (Bottom) Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz (d. 1921), La capitulation de Grenade, 1882 (Senado de España, Madrid).

Proceeding as though writing a polemic, Fernández-Morera selects for his historical subjects those areas of Andalusī life that display the strongest contrast between modern liberal ideals and the precepts of Islamic and Jewish law. The resulting picture of Muslim Spain is thus necessarily a very partial one that emphasizes beheadings, female circumcision, and the appropriation of church property. The continuous stream of positive assessments of Muslim Spain given in the quotations is presented as implicit justification for the book’s extremely negative slant while substituting for sustained scholarly argumentation. This approach in effect leaves unaddressed a question that such a book could reasonably be expected to address as its primary concern: Why do liberals and liberally-minded scholars often express positive views of Muslim Spain? If, upon critical examination, these views were proven to be unfounded, such an inquiry would only increase in urgency. In The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, however, the unresolved tension between Fernandez-Morera’s cherry-picked quotations and the primary sources he cites seems merely to serve as an emotional appeal to a certain stereotype of liberal sensibilities.

At times, the systemic flaws of The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise are matched by its poor treatment of historical specifics. The most obvious from this writer’s perspective is Fernández-Morera’s poorly-sourced, inaccurate portrayal of the Greek-Syriac/Arabic translation activity undertaken between the sixth and tenth centuries. Fernández-Morera asserts solely on the basis of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges that the use of Syriac intermediaries in the production of Arabic translations from the Greek must necessarily have rendered these versions less accurate than those produced solely from Greek exemplars.9

Such an inference might seem reasonable at first glance. However, detailed consideration of the Arabic translations of Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, the most famous of the Arabic translators as well as one very closely tied to Syriac intellectual circles, shows that the translator often used Syriac sources to improve the accuracy of his Arabic renditions of Greek works and to streamline the process of translation.10 Furthermore, the use of Syriac exemplars allowed for the direct transfer to Ḥunayn’s Arabic translations both of sophisticated techniques developed for translating Greek into Syriac over centuries and of advances in medical diagnosis and technique made by Syriac doctors.11 Ḥunayn’s use of Syriac sources and exemplars thus should be considered an important element of his translations’ historical success.

Notwithstanding his various attempts to avoid central historical questions, Fernández-Morera does eventually make an argument of some moderate interest. The author ultimately is forced to concede that the Andalusian regimes’ application of Islamic law generally accommodated the Jewish communities in Spain better than did the Christian kingdoms that preceded and followed Muslim rule in Iberia. He then proceeds to assert that this relative diversity led to a high level of social disorder that contributed directly to the Muslim kingdoms’ dissolution. In the Epilogue, he writes, “In Islamic Spain there was no tolerant convivencia, but a precaria coexistencia.”12 If this was the case for the strongly-hedged tolerance of Muslim Spain, where religious identity, ethnicity, and sex served as important markers of social hierarchy, what hope can there be for the existence of a multi-cultural “paradise” in any place and time on Earth, past or future?

Despite its many appeals to contemporary liberal sensibilities, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise thus betrays a deep disquiet regarding the long-term prospects of religious and social toleration. In this sense, the book confirms precisely what it set out to disprove, namely the importance and validity of the history of Muslim Spain as an example for those concerned with the establishment and sustainability of societies that maintain any degree of religious diversity. The peculiar root of this concern, however, much less the sorts of scholarly ramifications that may be expected to derive from it, remains substantially uninvestigated.

 

SAMUEL C. BARRY is an independent scholar. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Manchester in 2016. Prior to that he was trained in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Department of Religion at the University of Georgia.

 

[1] See Hugh Kennedy, Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of al-Andalus (London: Routledge, 1996).

[2] For a contemporary, popular restatement of this perspective, see María Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2002).

[3] Patricia Hertel, The Crescent Remembered: Islam and Nationalism on the Iberian Peninsula (Eastbourne, UK: Sussex Academic, 2014).

[4] See Sebastian Balfour, Deadly Embrace: Morocco and the Road to the Spanish Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[5] Hertel, The Crescent Remembered, 74.

[6] Darío Fernández-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2016).

[7] The original source is “Islam and the West: Never the Twain Shall Peacefully Meet?”, The Economist, November 15, 2001.

[8] Fernández-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, 95.

[9] Fernández-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, 73. This story, “La busca de Averroes” (“Averroës’ Search”), is a kind of thought experiment dealing with the difficulties inherent in translation of terms like “tragedy” and “comedy” which are specific to the cultural milieu in which the source-text was written, but which are absent from that in which the translator works. Borges clearly did not intend the story to be a scholarly commentary upon the virtues of either the Arabic or the Latinate scholarly traditions. He does not mention Syriac in it at all. Jorge Luis Borges, “Averroës’ Search,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Viking, 1998), 235-241.

[10] I consider this question in detail in my doctoral thesis “The Question of Syriac Influence upon early Arabic Translations of the Aphorisms of Hippocrates” (University of Manchester, 2016.)  This line of argumentation is prefigured in, for example, Henri Hugonnard-Roche’s “L’intermediaire syriaque dans la transmission de la philosophie grecque à l’arabe: le cas de l’Organon d’Aristote,” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 1 (1991): 187-209, 198-200.

[11] Ḥunayn’s own descriptions of scores of his Syriac and Arabic translations are found in his Epistle on what has been Translated of the Works of Galen and what has not been Translated. A new edition of this work has recently been published: John Lamoreaux (ed. and trans.), Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq on his Galen Translations (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2015).

[12] Fernández-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, 236. For a critical overview of the development of the concept convivencia in the historiography pertaining to Iberia, see Maya Soifer, “Beyond Convivencia: Critical Reflections on the Historiography of Interfaith Relations in Christian Spain,” Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies 1 (2009): 19-35.

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Convivencia Contested

Al-Andalus between Historical Memory and Modern Politics


Samuel C. Barry


Beginning in the year 711 CE, Muslim armies based in North Africa took control of the vast majority of the Iberian peninsula, supplanting the Christian, Germanic Visigoths, who had themselves assumed power in the region in the wake of the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The Muslims named the land al-Andalus, and for the next five centuries, Islamic religious and legal discourse and Arabic cultural and intellectual trends were preeminent on the peninsula.1

By the middle of the thirteenth century, however, Christian armies had regained control of most of what is now modern Spain and Portugal. The final defeat of the Naṣrid Emirate of Granada in 1492, followed by the expulsion or assimilation of all moriscos (Spaniards of Muslim descent) by the seventeenth century, rendered Muslim Iberia a historical memory, albeit one with enduring importance and influence both within the successor states of Spain and Portugal and beyond.

Perhaps the most prominent use of the memory of al-Andalus in European and colonial contexts has been in discourse surrounding issues of religious toleration. Although there were deviations both toward and away from full inclusion of Jews and Christians in this Muslim society on the part of particular rulers and dynasties, the dictates of Islamic law establishing non-Muslim “People of the Book” as protected, second-class citizens (dhimmīs) were generally observed. Although practices governing dhimmīs in al-Andalus likely did not differ significantly from those established in other parts of the pre-modern Muslim world, they do contrast sharply with the policies toward non-Christians adopted both by the pre-Islamic Visigoths and by the Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms established after 1492, where religious toleration tended very much to be the exception rather than the rule.

In combination with the widely-regarded intellectual and artistic accomplishments of the period, as well as the role of al-Andalus in conveying luxury goods and fashionable trends from the Muslim East, the historical memory of this religious tolerance came to be contrasted with a vision of a stern, centralizing Roman Catholicism during the Reformation and Enlightenment.2 Following the development of this contrapuntal perspective can thus provide an important key to understanding the political and religious history of the Iberian peninsula and European modernity more generally.hertel

In The Crescent Remembered: Islam and Nationalism on the Iberian Peninsula, Patricia Hertel compares various historical approaches to the period of Muslim rule in Iberia adopted in Spain and Portugal at both scholarly and popular levels of discourse.3 The chapters are arranged according to the type of discourse examined, presenting the Spanish view on a given topic first before proceeding to discussion of the Portuguese understanding of that subject. The point/counterpoint format that results usually works well, especially given the unequal power dynamic obtaining between the two countries. At times, however, the Portuguese sources offer too little material to produce a clear distinction.

In the first chapter, “Islam as a Historical Enemy,” Hertel compares the importance of the historical memory of Muslim rule for the development and maintenance of national consciousness in each of these two countries. Given Spain’s status as the dominant political power on the peninsula, the Spanish sources usually refer their national identity back to the Visigoths. From this perspective, Muslim rule of Spain often appears as a lengthy and continually resisted occupation by a foreign power. Furthermore, the potency of the religious division between Islam and Catholicism in this single, extended struggle tends to cast the Spanish experience as a battle in a wider “clash of civilizations.” For the Portuguese, on the other hand, national identity derives largely from the distinction from Spain,  and to a lesser degree from other Iberian nationalities. In this light, in Portuguese sources, the battles fought against Muslim occupiers do not appear very different from those fought to establish Portugal against fellow Christian powers.

The subsequent chapters examine Spanish and Portuguese understandings of the Muslim past from various perspectives. The second chapter, “Islam as an Object of Research,” traces the development of the study of Islam and Arabic culture as an academic discipline in the two countries. In contrast to the more martial concerns of the writers examined in the previous chapter, here a more humanistic tone prevails in the consideration of the cultural and artistic accomplishments of al-Andalus. Among other things, scholarship in this vein has had the tendency to emphasize the common Spanish ethnicity of medieval Andalusian Muslims and Christians. In both this chapter and the subsequent one, “Islam as a ‘Colonial Other,’” the Portuguese material is much scantier for various reasons, most prominent among them being the contrasting colonial concerns of the two nations. The following chapters treat more popular presentations of Islam in school textbooks and local festivals. These provide interesting insights and examples while largely extending the themes developed in the earlier chapters.

The contrasting colonial experiences of these two countries provide insight into the complex interplay between the exercise of imperial power abroad and the maintenance of domestic national identity, as well as the importance of historical writing in these processes. Due to Spain’s imperial presence in Morocco, the land from which Muslim conquerors of al-Andalus repeatedly emerged in medieval times, the already quite robust Spanish narratives of national conflict with the Moors were reinforced by modern events.4 On the other hand, while the Portuguese Empire did rule over Muslim subject-peoples, these were primarily non-Arabs hailing from sub-Saharan Africa and India. Thus, even explicit attempts to utilize the Muslim heritage of Portugal in shoring up the empire had the tendency to fail on account of their conflation of the Arabic language with Islam as a global religion. Hertel works to relativize Iberian national founding-myths by emphasizing these and other contrasts.

francomoros

Francoist Islamophilia. (L) Portrait of Franco as crusader, with Christ depicted as a white knight with sword drawn overhead – and attended by both a friar and a soldier of the Moroccan Protectorate. Detail, Arturo Reque Meruvia, Alegoría de Franco y la Cruzada, 1948 (Archivo Militar, Ávila). (R) Postcard image of a Spanish officer and soldiers of the Fuerzas Regulares Indígenas, colonial recruits called upon to support Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

The variety of primary sources cited by Hertel gives the reader an impression of thoroughness. This is particularly important in the Spanish context, as it allows Hertel to emphasize the nuances and continuities of dynamic and complex scholarly and cultural developments along with their political and social ramifications. Her thoroughness sometimes leads to counterintuitive results. For example, a consistent theme of the book is that Iberian liberals have tended to adopt a more open attitude toward the Muslim past, facing opposition in doing so from conservatives seeking to maintain a more integral Catholic identity. However, the period of the Spanish Civil War represents an inversion of this pattern: at that time, General Francisco Franco and his africanistas (as both Spanish scholars concerned with Morocco and soldiers stationed there were known) often adopted a quite positive view of Islam and Muslims, against which the left-wing Spanish Republicans arrayed disparaging anti-Muslim and anti-African stereotypes. A similarly open attitude toward the Muslim past was also displayed in the propaganda of the contemporaneous Portuguese Estado Novo, the state established by António Salazar in 1933. It is normal to associate both of these fascist regimes with the traditionalist Catholic right wing in their respective countries. However, these regimes’ greater openness to the Muslim past of the peninsula highlights the importance of distinguishing clearly between Iberian fascism and traditionalist Roman Catholicism there.

Although the efficiency of Hertel’s methods lead her to investigate thoroughly this counterintuitive development in Spanish attitudes toward Islam, her treatment of it points to the most important flaws found in the work. Rather than allowing Francoist Islamophilia to stand as a matter of historical record, Hertel repeatedly takes pains to depict this attitude as a cynical ploy aimed at gaining military and political advantage. For example, on page 51, Hertel writes, “Within the institutions founded after the Spanish Civil War to emphasize the historical link between Spain and the Arab world—an attempt to provide a scholarly foundation for Franco’s claim to Morocco—Arabists mostly dealt with topics concerning al-Andalus” [emphasis mine]. Although I do not intend to dispute the fact itself here, the urge to insinuate motivations for the Francoists’ engagement with the Muslim past is subdued, if not absent, from her treatment of earlier liberal movements in similar directions. While Hertel notes the usefulness of liberalism for the Spanish colonization of Morocco, she does not raise the question of liberals’ ulterior motivations for adopting more positive views of Islam with a similar degree of insistence and clarity.

Perhaps the strongest charge Hertel levels against Spanish liberals is that during the colonial wars in Morocco, the descriptions of Muslims and Africans in their newspapers were “interchangeable” with those of the conservatives.5 However, the ease with which liberal views of Islam were put to use for the ends of the mission civilisatrice at least suggest worldly motivations lurking behind these ideas comparable to those that Hertel claims motivated the Francoists. If, in this regard, Spanish writers were following precedents established elsewhere, the geographical limitations of the work could excuse Hertel’s hesitation to include what might be regarded as an important desideratum, namely a critique of the development of liberal views of al-Andalus and their deployment in domestic, colonial, and post-colonial contexts.

Although not perhaps a major flaw in what is otherwise undoubtedly a valuable contribution to the modern history of the Iberian peninsula, this discrepancy has the effect of obscuring a potentially important historical link between liberal and anti-clerical disdain for traditional religious views and the subsequent strengthening of nationalism on the right wing of Spanish politics. That is to say, it seems possible to imagine that liberalism effectively displaced religious identity as the core element of Spanish political life, and thus rendered off-limits its partitive, integrating force. Fascism then replaced religion with an externally-focused and assimilative imperial identity, which liberalism had helped to form in very significant ways. In such a case, the fascist positivity toward Islam that Hertel adduces would appear to be a token of the ideology’s derivation not from traditionalist Roman Catholicism, but rather from liberalism.

fernandez-moreraDarío Fernández-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain purports to be just such a critique of liberal views of Muslim Spain.6 (Portugal goes almost entirely unmentioned in the book.) The heavily annotated book is divided into seven chapters treating subjects like jihād, Umayyad policy toward dissenters, the Christian and Jewish communities of al-Andalus, and the treatment of women in these societies. In the introduction, Fernández-Morera frames the work as a demythologization of a certain view of Islamic Spain that he links to nineteenth-century romanticism.

Beyond his initial, very cursory description of the set of views against which he addresses his polemic, Fernández-Morera relies heavily upon a device of setting brief quotations at the head of each chapter and section to characterize the opinions of his supposed intellectual opponents. These tend to be general statements, derived from academic works or political addresses, that compare the level of religious diversity that prevailed in Islamic Spain with that found in contemporary Christian European states, or that downplay the importance for Spanish history of controversial aspects of Islam. However, Fernández-Morera rarely if ever addresses these quotations (or the detailed arguments that in many cases one must assume underlie them) directly.

The subject matter that is discernible in the quotations sometimes diverges drastically from the topics of the chapters they introduce. For example, on pages 94-95, at the beginning of a section entitled “The Maliki School of Islamic Jurisprudence” that appears in the chapter “The Daily Realities of al-Andalus,” Fernández-Morera provides the following quote from The Economist:

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).7

Despite being drawn from a non-academic source, the historical account provided in the quote seems relatively unobjectionable. In contrast to later Spanish policies regarding non-Christians, the regimes of al-Andalus usually did allow Jews and Christians to continue to practice their religion, even if in a highly attenuated form. Given that the section it introduces concerns the Mālikī school of jurisprudence which came to predominate in al-Andalus, we might expect Fernández-Morera to compare Mālikī attitudes to other Islamic schools and sects with that of the Spanish kingdoms toward non-Catholic Christians, a point of some weakness in the account given in the quotation from The Economist and something that Fernández-Morera remarks upon only later in the book. However, the section at hand merely provides a general survey of the history of the Mālikī school in Iberia. The epigraph thus appears to have been randomly selected to appear in this place.

Even when more carefully chosen, these brief, general quotations are unable to bear the weight of sustained argumentation. Fernández-Morera’s reliance upon this device thus has the effect of leaving the object of his polemic almost completely undefined. Therefore, while the book purports to oppose a certain modern perception of Spanish history, it is in fact concerned almost entirely with the history of al-Andalus itself, and not with any ‘myth’ concerning it. In the same section on the Mālikī school cited above, Fernández-Morera betrays this intention by quoting Gibbon to the effect that “the laws of a nation form the most instructive part of its history.”8 The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise may thus be said to be an alternative history of al-Andalus framed as a polemic. This dual character renders the book unserviceable as a work of either genre. Consequently, a crucial opportunity to examine critically the scholarship of a field of profound importance is lost.

granada

Two visions of the fall of Granada, the climax of the Reconquista. (Top) Felipe Bigarny (d. 1542), Baptism of the Moors, 1522 (Royal Chapel of Granada Cathedral). (Bottom) Francisco Pradilla y Ortiz (d. 1921), La capitulation de Grenade, 1882 (Senado de España, Madrid).

Proceeding as though writing a polemic, Fernández-Morera selects for his historical subjects those areas of Andalusī life that display the strongest contrast between modern liberal ideals and the precepts of Islamic and Jewish law. The resulting picture of Muslim Spain is thus necessarily a very partial one that emphasizes beheadings, female circumcision, and the appropriation of church property. The continuous stream of positive assessments of Muslim Spain given in the quotations is presented as implicit justification for the book’s extremely negative slant while substituting for sustained scholarly argumentation. This approach in effect leaves unaddressed a question that such a book could reasonably be expected to address as its primary concern: Why do liberals and liberally-minded scholars often express positive views of Muslim Spain? If, upon critical examination, these views were proven to be unfounded, such an inquiry would only increase in urgency. In The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, however, the unresolved tension between Fernandez-Morera’s cherry-picked quotations and the primary sources he cites seems merely to serve as an emotional appeal to a certain stereotype of liberal sensibilities.

At times, the systemic flaws of The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise are matched by its poor treatment of historical specifics. The most obvious from this writer’s perspective is Fernández-Morera’s poorly-sourced, inaccurate portrayal of the Greek-Syriac/Arabic translation activity undertaken between the sixth and tenth centuries. Fernández-Morera asserts solely on the basis of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges that the use of Syriac intermediaries in the production of Arabic translations from the Greek must necessarily have rendered these versions less accurate than those produced solely from Greek exemplars.9

Such an inference might seem reasonable at first glance. However, detailed consideration of the Arabic translations of Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, the most famous of the Arabic translators as well as one very closely tied to Syriac intellectual circles, shows that the translator often used Syriac sources to improve the accuracy of his Arabic renditions of Greek works and to streamline the process of translation.10 Furthermore, the use of Syriac exemplars allowed for the direct transfer to Ḥunayn’s Arabic translations both of sophisticated techniques developed for translating Greek into Syriac over centuries and of advances in medical diagnosis and technique made by Syriac doctors.11 Ḥunayn’s use of Syriac sources and exemplars thus should be considered an important element of his translations’ historical success.

Notwithstanding his various attempts to avoid central historical questions, Fernández-Morera does eventually make an argument of some moderate interest. The author ultimately is forced to concede that the Andalusian regimes’ application of Islamic law generally accommodated the Jewish communities in Spain better than did the Christian kingdoms that preceded and followed Muslim rule in Iberia. He then proceeds to assert that this relative diversity led to a high level of social disorder that contributed directly to the Muslim kingdoms’ dissolution. In the Epilogue, he writes, “In Islamic Spain there was no tolerant convivencia, but a precaria coexistencia.”12 If this was the case for the strongly-hedged tolerance of Muslim Spain, where religious identity, ethnicity, and sex served as important markers of social hierarchy, what hope can there be for the existence of a multi-cultural “paradise” in any place and time on Earth, past or future?

Despite its many appeals to contemporary liberal sensibilities, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise thus betrays a deep disquiet regarding the long-term prospects of religious and social toleration. In this sense, the book confirms precisely what it set out to disprove, namely the importance and validity of the history of Muslim Spain as an example for those concerned with the establishment and sustainability of societies that maintain any degree of religious diversity. The peculiar root of this concern, however, much less the sorts of scholarly ramifications that may be expected to derive from it, remains substantially uninvestigated.

 

SAMUEL C. BARRY is an independent scholar. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Manchester in 2016. Prior to that he was trained in Arabic and Islamic Studies at the Department of Religion at the University of Georgia.

 

[1] See Hugh Kennedy, Muslim Spain and Portugal: A Political History of al-Andalus (London: Routledge, 1996).

[2] For a contemporary, popular restatement of this perspective, see María Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2002).

[3] Patricia Hertel, The Crescent Remembered: Islam and Nationalism on the Iberian Peninsula (Eastbourne, UK: Sussex Academic, 2014).

[4] See Sebastian Balfour, Deadly Embrace: Morocco and the Road to the Spanish Civil War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[5] Hertel, The Crescent Remembered, 74.

[6] Darío Fernández-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2016).

[7] The original source is “Islam and the West: Never the Twain Shall Peacefully Meet?”, The Economist, November 15, 2001.

[8] Fernández-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, 95.

[9] Fernández-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, 73. This story, “La busca de Averroes” (“Averroës’ Search”), is a kind of thought experiment dealing with the difficulties inherent in translation of terms like “tragedy” and “comedy” which are specific to the cultural milieu in which the source-text was written, but which are absent from that in which the translator works. Borges clearly did not intend the story to be a scholarly commentary upon the virtues of either the Arabic or the Latinate scholarly traditions. He does not mention Syriac in it at all. Jorge Luis Borges, “Averroës’ Search,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Viking, 1998), 235-241.

[10] I consider this question in detail in my doctoral thesis “The Question of Syriac Influence upon early Arabic Translations of the Aphorisms of Hippocrates” (University of Manchester, 2016.)  This line of argumentation is prefigured in, for example, Henri Hugonnard-Roche’s “L’intermediaire syriaque dans la transmission de la philosophie grecque à l’arabe: le cas de l’Organon d’Aristote,” Arabic Sciences and Philosophy 1 (1991): 187-209, 198-200.

[11] Ḥunayn’s own descriptions of scores of his Syriac and Arabic translations are found in his Epistle on what has been Translated of the Works of Galen and what has not been Translated. A new edition of this work has recently been published: John Lamoreaux (ed. and trans.), Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq on his Galen Translations (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 2015).

[12] Fernández-Morera, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, 236. For a critical overview of the development of the concept convivencia in the historiography pertaining to Iberia, see Maya Soifer, “Beyond Convivencia: Critical Reflections on the Historiography of Interfaith Relations in Christian Spain,” Journal of Medieval Iberian Studies 1 (2009): 19-35.

Convivencia Contested

Al-Andalus between Historical Memory and Modern Politics

Convivencia Contested

Al-Andalus between Historical Memory and Modern Politics