Middle East Resources

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradisei

Bassam Michael Madany

3 May 2021

Reading “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise” shows how certain Western authors have  offered varnished accounts of the history of Islam and its Futuhat (Conquests.) Their narratives are unsupported by the research of other Western writers, as well as by the work of reformist Arab/Muslim scholars. This is specially the case, in the study of the seven-hundred-year history of Islam in Spain.

Author Darío Fernández-Morera, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and Hispanic Studies at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, begins each chapter of his book, with excerpts from the works of Western authors who depict the magnanimity and tolerance of the Arab conquerors of Al-Andalus (Spain.) In contrast, they describe Western European lands as suffering from “unceasing warfare in which superstition passed for religion, and the flame of knowledge sputtered weakly.ii

Dr. Fernández-Morera responds to such claims with these words:

“This book aims to demystify Islamic Spain by questioning the widespread belief that it was a wonderful place of tolerance and convivencia of three cultures under the benevolent supervision of enlightened Muslim rulers. As the epigraphs throughout this book illustrate, the nineteenth-century romantic vision of Islamic Spain has morphed into today’s ‘mainstream’ academic and popular writings that celebrate ‘Al-Andalus’ for its ‘multiculturalism,’ ‘unity of Muslims, Christians, and Jews,’ ‘diversity,’ and ‘pluralism,’ regardless of how close such emphasis is to the facts.”                                       P. 1

While several Western writers on the history of Al-Andalus have praised the tolerance of the Muslim conquerors, others have offered a different view. For example, in a BBC “Story of Andalus: Muslim Spain (711-1492,) two different narratives of that history are related. Here are some pertinent excerpts:

“The traditional story is that in the year 711, an oppressed Christian chief, Julian, went to Musa ibn Nusair, the governor of North Africa, with a plea for help against the tyrannical Visigoth ruler of Spain, Roderick. Musa responded by sending the young general Tariq bin Ziyad with an army of 7000 troops. The name Gibraltar is derived from Jabal At-Tariq which is Arabic for 'Rock of Tariq' named after the place where the Muslim army landed. The story of the appeal for help is not universally accepted. There is no doubt that Tariq invaded Spain, but the reason for it may have more to do with the Muslim drive to enlarge their territory. The heartland of Muslim rule was Southern Spain or Andulusia. The name Andalusia comes from the term Al-Andalus used by the Arabs, derived from the Vandals in the region. 

“Islamic Spain is sometimes described as a 'golden age' of religious and ethnic tolerance and interfaith harmony between Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Some historians believe this idea of a golden age is false and might lead modern readers to believe, wrongly, that Muslim Spain was tolerant by the standards of 21st century Britain. 

“Bernard Lewis in his “The Jews of Islam, 1984,” wrote that the status of non-Muslims in Islamic Spain was a sort of second-class citizenship, but he went on to say, a recognized status, albeit one of inferiority to the dominant group. Jews and Christians did retain some freedom under Muslim rule, providing they obeyed certain rules.

“Bat Ye’or states in her book, ‘Islam and Dhimmitude, 2002,’ that Muslim rulers didn't give their non-Muslim subjects equal status; they definitely were at the bottom of society that was sharply divided along ethnic and religious lines, with the Arab tribes at the top of the hierarchy, followed by the Berbers who were never recognized as equals, despite their Islamization; lower in the scale came the converts, and at the very bottom, the Dhimmi Christians and Jews.   

The maturing of the Internet and its derivatives, YouTube, websites, and satellite TV have provided channels of communications for reformist Arab scholars to delve into forbidden subjects. Nowadays, the old taboos are gone! As the German-Egyptian scholar Hamed Abdel-Samad put it, ‘Muslims are out of the Box.’ 

Here are translated excerpts from “Box of Islam #139,” of an interview Abdel-Samad conducted with the Moroccan scholar Ahmad ‘Aseed, about the Arab/Islamic “Conquest of Al-Andalus:” iii

“The conquest was a decision made by the Arabs (Umayyads) under the leadership of Musa Ibn-Nusair who used Tariq Ibn-Ziyad to lead the invasion. The Arabs were afraid of the twelve- kilometer strait that separated North Africa from Spain. Thus, they used the Amazigh men for the invasion. In fact, the Amazigh were remarkably familiar with the southern part of the peninsula, and had been frequently there, not as conquerors but as settlers. There was a state of co-existence between the Amazigh and the Byzantines prior to the Arab conquest of North Africa. It took eight Arab military expeditions to finally subdue the Amazigh in North Africa. The war with the Amazigh weakened the Umayyad armies to such an extent that it contributed to their ultimate defeat by the Abbasids in 750 A.D.

“The purpose for the invasion of Spain was to obtain booty and Gothic slave women for the Umayyads in Syria. Both Musa Ibn-Nusair and Tariq Ibn-Ziyad were summoned by the caliph to Damascus. Musa arrived with a cavalcade of soldiers and spoils. He entered Damascus and brought the booty, which provided him and Tariq, an unprecedented popularity amongst the people of Damascus. The Caliph Sulayman demanded that Musa deliver up all his spoils. When Musa complained, Sulayman stripped him of his rank and confiscated all the booty. Both conquerors ended their lives in abject poverty!”

The preceding information gathered from Western and Arab sources, support the thesis of Dr. Darío Fernández-Morera’s book, that the Arab/Islamic presence in Spain did not bring about an Andalusian Paradise. In fact, it was a colonialism similar to all other regions conquered by Islam, since the seventh century. The difference is that unlike what took place in the Middle East, in North Africa, and in large areas in Asia, where Islamic colonialism became permanent, the Spanish Reconquista succeeded by liberating the original inhabitants from their masters and ended their mythical “Paradise.”

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 “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain” by Darío  Fernández-Morera.” Wilmington, Del.: ISI Books, 2016. 376 pp. $29.95.

ii On the intellectual level, Islam played an important role in the development of Western European civilization by passing on both the philosophy of Aristotle and its own scientific, technological, and philosophical tradition.… Religious tolerance remained a part of Islamic law, although its application varied with social, political, and economic circumstances. —Bert F. Breiner and Christian W. Troll, “Christianity and Islam,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, ed. John L. Esposito (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009)

iii  https://tinyurl.com/8a5ht4f9h Streamed on May 21, 2018