September 27, 2003


Was the Islam of Old Spain Truly Tolerant? (EDWARD ROTHSTEIN, 9/27/03, NY Times)

The impulse to idealize runs strong. If Andalusia really had been an enlightened society that combined religious belief with humanism and artistry, then it would provide an extraordinary model, offering proof of Islamic possibilities now eclipsed, while spurring new understandings of the West. In Spain, that idealized image has even been institutionalized. In Córdoba, a Moorish fortress houses the Museum of the Three Cultures. There was once a time, the audio narration says, when "East was not separated from West, nor was Muslim from Jew or Christian"; that time offers, it continues, an "eternal message more relevant today than ever before." In one room, statues that include the 12th-century Jewish sage Maimonides; his Islamic contemporary the Aristotelian Averroës; and the 13th-century Christian King Alfonso X are illuminated as voices recite their most congenial observations.

A more scholarly paean is offered in "The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain,"(Little, Brown, 2002) by Maria Rosa Menocal, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Yale University. Ms. Menocal argues that Andalusia's culture was "rooted in pluralism and shaped by religious tolerance," particularly in its prime -- a period that lasted from the mid-eighth century until the fall of the Umayyad dynasty in 1031. It was undermined, she argues, by fundamentalism -- Catholic and Islamic alike.

But as many scholars have argued, this image is distorted. Even the Umayyad dynasty, begun by Abd al-Rahman in 756, was far from enlightened. Issues of succession were often settled by force. One ruler murdered two sons and two brothers. Uprisings in 805 and 818 in Córdoba were answered with mass executions and the destruction of one of the city's suburbs. Wars were accompanied by plunder, kidnappings and ransom. Córdoba itself was finally sacked by Muslim Berbers in 1013, its epochal library destroyed.

Andalusian governance was also based on a religious tribal model. Christians and Jews, who shared Islam's Abrahamic past, had the status of dhimmis -- alien minorities. They rose high but remained second-class citizens; one 11th-century legal text called them members of "the devil's party." They were subject to special taxes and, often, dress codes. Violence also erupted, including a massacre of thousands of Jews in Grenada in 1066 and the forced exile of many Christians in 1126.

In fact, throughout Andalusian history — under both Islam and Christianity — religious identity was obsessively scrutinized. There were terms for a Christian living under Arab rule (mozarab), a Muslim living under Christian rule (mudejar), a Christian who converted to Islam (muladi), a Jew who converted to Christianity (converso), a Jew who converted but remained a secret Jew (marrano) and a Muslim who converted to Christianity (morisco).

Even in the Umayyad 10th century, Islamic philosophers were persecuted and books burned. And despite the Córdoba museum's message, Maimonides and his family fled Muslim fundamentalism in Córdoba in 1148 when he was barely in his teens. Averroës was banished from Córdoba about 50 years later. Tolerance may have left less of a cultural mark than intolerance: the historian Joel L. Kraemer has suggested that in Andalusia, a sense of precariousness inspired mysticism, esoteric teachings and a "prudent dissimulation" before Islamic superiors.

And what of Andalusian cultural interchange? Ms. Menocal cites the ways Islamic styles appear in Spanish synagogues (one, in Toledo, even incorporating Koranic inscriptions) and in the 14th-century Christian palace the Real Alacazar in Seville. But far from exhibiting convivencia, these resemblances display the power of a culture as dominant as American popular culture is now: it is imitated even if otherwise opposed.

The whole tolerant Islam schtick, like the notion that Muslim culture at the time was far more advanced than that of the West, is essentially just a whip with which liberal historians and intellectuals have sought to scourge Christianity. But even if we take it at face value, is not the lesson that such an imagined epoch teaches that it is appropriate for the more tolerant civilization to conquer less tolerant societies and impose tolerance upon them? After all, the Moors were not Spaniards.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 27, 2003 5:48 AM

During the past few years, i've used the whole toleration toward the dhimmi as a marker that the person making the claim has never studied the subject. So they are either willfully ignorant, because really learning any history would force them to reassess most of their multi-culti beliefs, or is an apologist for modern Muslim intoleration.

(Islam was better off in Western eyes when we ignored it, or believed the fantasies and lies spun by the likes of CAIR. Familiarity does breed contempt, and they have only themselves to blame by bringing Islam's sordid past and present to our attention.)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 27, 2003 12:04 PM

Hey Now!!

Sorry, O.J., you're just plain wrong. You, too, Raoul.

By the way, I'm not a "liberal" historian, and I don't use al-Andalus to "scourge" Christianity. And as a personal friend of Professor Menocal, I can assure you that she's not, by any means, a "liberal" historian, far from it.

Anyway, guess I'm going to have to blog up a detailed response on Tuesday, when I get some time.

Posted by: H.D. Miller at September 27, 2003 6:40 PM

The Moors didn't conquer Spain and then extend limited rights to a conquered people?

Posted by: oj at September 27, 2003 6:55 PM

I don't care how 'enlightened' the Ummayads were,
an occupation lasting just under 800 years is a
bit much, And Bin Laden is still sore about the
end in 1492

Posted by: narciso at September 27, 2003 8:47 PM

It's not that the Ummayad regime in Spain was any great shakes, but that its successor was an unmitigated horror.

Spain's great tragedy is that its struggle for independence became inextricably entangled with the totalitarian state constructed by Ferdinand of Aragon. The Inquisition was only one of several agencies he used to enforce absolute obedience to his rule, and to establish an atmosphere of fear and repression throughout the entire country in the process.

The Ummayads in Spain have certainly been over-praised. Maimonides, to take one example, left the country at the earliest opportunity, never to return.

But that does not alter the fact that Spain under Ferdinand and his successors was a brutal, tyrannical regime, falling just short of the unlamented Soviet Union in this respect simply because their employment of technology in the service of repression was less advanced. Apologists for Christianity do their religion no favors by glossing over Spain's dismal history.

Posted by: Josh Silverman at September 28, 2003 4:30 PM


So other than 30 million dead they were identical?

Posted by: oj at September 28, 2003 6:30 PM

OJ -- It's hard to tell, isn't it? Precise figures aren't easy to obtain. Spain had approximately 10 million people during Ferdinand's reign. If you add up the inhabitants of the numerous "Spanish" territories that looked upon Ferdinand as an Aragonese intruder and had to be invaded before they capitulated to his rule, the Jews exiled after being stripped of their possessions (only a small percentage survived), the Moriscos, the victims of the Inquisition, and so on, I think you'd find they amount to a very respectable total. Not in Stalin's league, I admit, but enough to make the Ummayads look good in comparison.

Posted by: Josh Silverman at September 29, 2003 5:09 PM

Exile isn't death though. And reconquest isn't genocide, nor imperialism.

Posted by: oj at September 29, 2003 5:33 PM

Exile is very frequently death. More people die from displacement than from straight out murder, and that was even true of the USSR.

The myth of the tolerant Islam in Iberia arises (aside from any leftwing ax-grinding) from unjustifiably extended court behavior to the whole society.

There was no tolerance in the society.

The tolerance of courts, in all times and places, is pretty much constant. Goering had a favorite Jewish art dealer. When a more prim Nazi challenged himm about it, he said, "I will decide who is a Jew."

Certainly the Most Catholic rulers of Spain were as great murderers as anyone in history. You would have to count the deaths in the Netherlands, too, for example; and in Italy, Tunis etc.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 30, 2003 3:07 AM