Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise

I cannot recall reading a work of historical scholarship clearly written out of sheer irritation until I read The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain by Spanish-American historian Dario Fernandez-Morera.

Fernandez-Morera is clearly irritated and annoyed by recurring failures of Anglophone scholars to acquaint themselves with Spanish and French language scholarship on medieval Spain when writing about medieval Spain. He is clearly irritated by the failure of many such scholars to use the available Muslim and Christian sources; by their preciousness about using the word Spain (which, as he points out, many Muslim writers happily used); by their presenting medieval (particularly Muslim-ruled) Spain as some sort of golden age of multicultural co-existence; he is irritated by the notion that the invasion by Arab-led mainly Berber armies somehow raised the cultural level of Visigothic Spain; he is irritated by the dismissive treatment of Christian resistance to Muslim rule; he is irritated by the positive, even glowing, treatment of Muslim conquest and rule.

One way to tell he is so irritated--apart from simply reading the text--is his habit of starting chapters with quotes from noted scholars which the chapter then presents evidence clearly contradicting. There is no doubt about who his scholarly jeremiad is aimed at: he tells you in general in his Introduction and then by quoting from specific scholars at the start of chapters. No strawpersons allowed; they are hardly necessary, when so many large targets present themselves so clearly.

The irritation clearly helped motivate writing the book, and it does add a certain spice or zest to the reading, but it in no way detracts from the scholarly value of the book, which is very extensively footnoted--reading the footnotes is an education in itself--and filled with quotes from Christian, Muslim and Jewish sources. (The book is a particularly informative entree into the Jewish communities of medieval Spain.) He may push some arguments a bit far, as this sympathetic reviewer suggests, but effective rebuttals would have to be at least as well supported in the evidence.

Fernandez-Morera is also quite cutting about some obvious, and persistent hypocrisies--such as turning the Christian calendar into "Common Era" but being very respectful of the (equally religious) Muslim calendar. Or being dismissive of wider Christian connections but respectful of Islamic ones.

Really, it was jihad
It is startling to read claims by contemporary scholars stating or implying that jihad was not a significant motivating factor in the original Muslim conquest of most of the Iberian peninsula by Arab-Berber armies. Fernandez-Morera points out that the nice, sanitised, "inner struggle" contemporary Western construing of jihad is not actually supported by the Muslim or Christian chronicles. He is not above a bit of pointed irony in doing so:
Now, it is certainly possible that, for centuries, the medieval Muslim scholars who interpreted the sacred Islamic texts, as well as Muslim military leaders (including perhaps Muhammad himself when he led his armies into battle against infidels unwilling to submit), misunderstood (unlike today's experts in Islamic studies) the primarily peaceful and "defensive" meaning of "jihad" and that, as a result of this mistake, Muslim armies erroneously went and, always defensively, conquered half the known world. (Chapter 1)
Moreover, when the texts of the Maliki school of Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence) which dominated in al-Andalus are consulted:
... they talk of war against infidels--a Sacred Combat, or Holy War, or Holy Struggle or whatever other name one may choose to give this religiously mandated war against infidels. ... Thus what many Islamic studies academics call today "little jihad," as opposed to "greater jihad" (the "spiritual" one), turns out to be the only jihad examined in Maliki religious treatises and actually practised in Islamic Spain. (Chapter 1)
I started reading The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise while I was finishing Perfect Soldiers, veteran journalist Terry McDermott's book about the 9/11 hijackers. It was striking, even startling, to come across the same rhetoric from Islamic sources across a gap of over 1300 years; one contemporary, the other from early periods of Islamic conquest. Notably:
This willingness to die is found, for example, in the words of the Islamic Caliphate's Arab commander Khalid Ibn Walid in 633, ordering the Persians to submit to Islam, or else: "Otherwise you are bound to meet a people who love death as much as you love life." (Chapter 1)
The same rhetoric can be heard in our times from Hamasfrom Osama bin Laden, from the Fort Hood killer, from jihadis in the US, in Francein the UK.  All ultimately derived from the QuranSura 62:6.

Fernandez-Morera cites or quotes a series of Maliki and other medieval Islamic sources emphasising jihad as fighting the infidel who do not convert or submit, citing Medinan suras, noting that Bukhari's collection of hadith elevated such jihad to a key obligation on free Muslim males after believing in Allah and His Prophet.

Fernandez-Morera also notes some controversy about how late in Islam the notion of inner struggle jihad and defensive jihad may have arisen. In Destiny Disrupted, Tamin Ansary dates the promotion of "inner jihad" as the "greater jihad" to Sufis during the Abbasid period, (p.107) though, as he also points out, some Sufi orders effectively became warrior orders (p.167). (Moreover, the original connection to Muhammad is via a statement of one of his companions of doubtful authenticity and apparently fails to appear in any of the six authoritative collections of hadith.) Fernandez-Morera is quite right to insist that the notion of Crusade (a late, and terminating, development in Christianity which required Papal authorisation) is quite different from jihad (a universal obligation on free Muslim males operating from the origins of Islam).

The original Muslim invasions included tabi'un, in charge of establishing proper Islamic rule and the first mosques. As with the invasions of Sassanid Persia, it included burning of captured books of philosophy and logic. The evidence of the religious motives are extensive, including from archaeology:
Coins minted in North Africa shortly before the invasion of Spain call upon the protection of Allah for jihad. (Chapter 1). 
The notion of separate political and religious motives does not really apply, and the Islamic histories themselves are clear on the religious motives for conquest. Muslim chronicles mention the destruction of churches--usually in triumphal terms and often to celebrate their being turned into mosques (Chapter 1). Southern Spain has no churches built prior to the Catholic reconquest (Chapter 2).

Destructive conquest
The speed of the Islamic conquest (less than 10 years) was, as Fernandez-Morera points out, not that historically remarkable and was aided by deep divisions with the elite of the Visigothic kingdom. He uses the Arab conquest of Persia to illustrate the common patterns in both conquests at the opposite ends of the Mediterranean-Middle Eastern region. The willingness to offer protection for (humbling) submission as an alternative to war and death or enslavement was part of the conquest strategy. (The Mongols would later offer a very similar choice; most conquerors offer some version of it--with Islam, it is sanctified and incorporated as the default mode for dealing with non-believers.)

Without denying its weaknesses and oppression of Jews and heretics, Fernandez-Morera seeks to rehabilitate the Visigothic kingdom, arguing that the Islamic conquest saw the destruction of a nascent civilisation built on Roman, Germanic and Christian foundations. He notes that:
Spain was under Roman control and influence longer than any Western land outside of Italy and produced more Latin writers and emperors than any other Roman province. ... the Visigoths were the most Romanized of all the peoples took over the Latin Roman Empire ... (Chapter 2).
A civilisation that was legally innovative, included ruling queens and the establishment of which was much less disruptive than the subsequent Muslim conquest. Muslim sources refer to the wealth and splendour of the society they conquered (even if the major measure of the wealth was the acquired loot).

Fernandez-Morera points out how deeply implausible the notion is that an Arab-led army mainly of Berber nomads somehow raised the cultural level of a urban civilisation drawing on Roman and Classical heritage. Especially given that much of the cultural sophistication the Arab elite had acquired had come from their Iranian and Christian-Greek subjects. He is somewhat caustic on the notion that the Islamic world "preserved" the heritage of Greek thought, given that the Greek-Roman Empire never lost it and it was Islamic conquests and piracy that profoundly disrupted the previous connections across the Mediterranean (Chapter 2).

Being Romans
Fernandez-Morera shares my dislike of the "Byzantine" formulation for people who regarded themselves as Romans and were called such by their contemporaries:
... the term Byzantine Empire was invented in 1557 by the German scholar Hieronymous Wolf, who as a Protestant would not have been sympathetic to Eastern (or Orthodox) Christians. to indicate that these culturally Greek people of the Eastern Roman Empire were not Romans, and somehow not even Greek ...
Eighteenth century Enlightenment scholars such as Montesquieu, who despised Orthodox Christianity perhaps even more than Roman Catholicism, adopted the term, thereby emphasizing that these presumably retrograde Christian Greeks had nothing in common with those pagan Greeks admired by the Enlightenment. (Chapter 2).
About the other
One of Fernandez-Morera's continuing themes is how the juxtaposition of Muslims with Christians and Jews led to great concern (particularly among religious scholars, clerics, priests and rabbis) with not having defections among the faithful to the blandishments of other faiths. One of the strongest responses to living with other religious communities was to more strongly define what differentiated them.

In the case of the Jewish communities, that led to strong efforts against the non-rabbinical Karaites, who were pushed into marginal status. The rabbis clearly had an interest in encouraging hostility to those who denied their authority, but it is also clear that their success was partly based on their success in portraying the Karaites as being a path to defection from the Jewish community (Chapter 6).

But there were similar concerns, and analogous responses, within the Christian and Muslim communities. Except, of course, the Muslims were the ruling community, so Islamic law, administered by the ulama, the religious scholars, ruled all. The existence of significant Christian and Jewish communities tended to elevate the role of the ulama:
As several Spanish and French scholars have pointed out, in no other place within the Islamic empire was the influence of Islamic clerics on daily life as strong as in al-Anadalus. (Chapter 3)
Al-Andalus was dominated by the Maliki school of fiqh, which took decisions by early Rashidun caliphs as sources of law, particularly Umar. Including the Pact or Condition of Umar. Andalusian Maliki jurisprudence was intolerant of adherents of other Islamic schools of jurisprudence, let alone non-Muslims:
... the practice of Islam in Spain was much more rigorous than in the East. If anything, the presence of large Catholic populations to the north and in their midst, along with the conversion to Islam of many of their earlier inhabitants, seems to have exacerbated the Andalusian clerics' zeal in adhering to Maliki teachings. In other words, far from being conducive to tolerance, living close to Christians exacerbated Islamism in al-Andalus. (Chapter 3).
Andalusian Maliki fiqh forbade musical instruments and singing. The ban was less than entirely successful, but was a major impediment to the development of a musical culture. Strict purity concerns also got in the way of interactions as the founder of the school:
... forbade using the water left over by a Christian, or using for ablutions anything a Christian had touched, or eating food left over by a Christian. (Chapter 3)
These and other food purity rules meant that "breaking bread together" was not a practical option between a devout Muslim and a Christian. As I have noted before, it is not morality that buttresses the role of clerics as gatekeepers of righteousness, but moral taboos.

Just because three different religious communities lived in the same cities and under the same rulerships did not mean there was much in the way of mixing, beyond that useful for commerce. The public celebration of non-Muslim religious festivals was banned, for example. Living in different areas was a practical solution to the religious barriers to mixing:
... "fear of the "other" as a source of influence and possible conversion, the three religions' marked differences in worship and purification practices, and the religious laws' exclusionary dictates and warnings against socializing with other groups made living even in the same block difficult at best. (Chapter 3)
As the Reconquista proceeded, Muslim clerics issued fatwa calling on Muslims to leave Christian-ruled areas. The pressure on Christians in particular was such that the last Andalusian state, the Emirate of Granada, largely became a Christian-free state (Chapter 7). (Catholic Spain would, of course, eventually expel all its open Jews and Muslims.) The last Emir of Granada, in the treaty of surrender, insisted on a provision that no Jew would have authority over any Muslim or collect any taxes from them (Chapter 3). Fernandez-Morera notes that the Muwatta, a key source of Maliki fiqh in particular, says that:
Zakat is imposed on the Muslims to purify them and to be given back to the poor, whereas jizya is imposed on the people of the Book to humble them. (Chapter 1)
Yet there is this persistent myth of Andalusian convivencia.  Particularly under the Umayyad's, there was considerable repression internally and regular raids and attacks externally:
The celebrated Umayyads actually elevated religious and political persecutions, inquisitions, beheadings, impalings, and crucifixions to heights unequaled by any other set of rulers before or after in Spain. (Chapter 4)
Something Fernandez-Morera establishes from both Muslims and Catholic sources. The implications are not all that encouraging for simplistic multiculturalism:
... multicultural and pluralistic al-Andalus was plagued with religious, racial, political, and social conflicts, so that the most successful rulers must apply brutal and terrifying force to keep the place from disintegrating, as in fact it ultimately did. ....
In contrast, the relatively more ethnically and religiously unified Catholic kingdoms did not present the same problems for their rulers and therefore did not encourage the same drastic solutions. (Chapter 4).
And (to continue the story beyond where Fernandez-Morera takes it), having completed the Reconquista, the eventual response of the Catholic kingdoms of Spain and Portugal was to use forced conversions and expulsions to re-create such unity.

Status of women
It is no surprise that concern for clear differentiation between the faithful and other faiths fell particularly strongly on women. Indeed, the higher the status of the Muslim woman (status which derived from the key man in her life), the more strict the requirements of separating differentiation.

The cultural and other activities of Andalusian women cited by those keen on pushing the convivencia narrative were either slave girls (or, in the case of celebrated love poetry, largely about slave girls) or otherwise restricted to the private sphere. While, as one would expect in a polygynous society where stealing infidel women was sanctified, sexual slavery was rife. So rife, that (along with the aforementioned expulsions) there is very little Arab or Berber genetic imprint in the present-day Spanish population. Conversely, the situation of Catholic women in Catholic Spain was markedly better than that of even high status Muslim women in al-Andalus (Chapter 5).

Submission and domination
As for the dhimmi system for Christians and Jews, which is presented as enlightened toleration under the convivencia model:
The system of "protection" then, was in reality, a system of exploitation and subjugation. (Chapter 7).
With Muslim historians emphasising that the various conditions and requirements were structured to humiliate Jews and Christians. Nor can we look elsewhere for this alleged Andalusian tolerance:
There was no more a culture of tolerance in what remained of the Christian community in Islamic Spain than there was in the Muslim or Jewish communities (Chapter 7).
An issue which preceded the Muslim conquest. Upon the conversion of King Recared (r.588-601) to Catholicism (589), Visigothic law persecuted Arianism and Judaism, aiming for the extinction of both. In this it did not succeed, but it did alienate the Jewish community enough that the invading Muslims successfully used them as allies against the Christians. Fernandez-Morera notes various parallels in the exclusionary laws and rules of Christians, Muslims and Jews (Chapter 7).

Andalusian Muslim society was a stratified one:
Arabs were at the top of the social scale, with Berbers in the middle, followed by freed white Muslim slaves who had become mawali; the muladis, further divided into first-generation converts and the rest, occupied a lower echelon, above that of only dhimmis and slaves. (Chapter 7)
With the muladis being a recurring source of unrest and revolt.

Something which clearly particularly irritates Fernandez-Morera is how Islamic imperialism in Spain often gets remarkably favourable treatment by Anglophone scholars, while Catholic resistance is ignored or belittled. As he notes:
... the relative scholarly neglect of the Christian sources on the Islamic conquest as testimonies of the Christians' loss--a neglect of the vision de los vencides ("the views or testimonies of the defeated") not present, for example, in studies of the Spanish conquest of the Americas. (Chapter 7)
He continues:
The implication is clear: these people should be grateful to the tolerant Muslim authorities for so graciously allowing them to practice their religion. Never mind the lowly status Christian dhimmis and even muladis occupied in Muslim society; the harsh restrictions they lived under; the extortion and humiliation they suffered through their special "taxes" (the jizya); the destruction of their ancient churches ... or even harsher punishments Christians faced for violating Islamic laws. Those punishments included drastic measures such as ethnic cleansing ... The punishments also included, as we have seen repeatedly, executions of the most painful and public forms.
Such was the spirit of Islamic Spain's "convivencia", which Norman Roth hails as "one of the many things that made Spain great, and which the rest of Europe could have learned from it to its profit". (Chapter 7)
Fernandez-Morera brings the threads together in the Epilogue, including the central thesis of the book:
Few periods in history have been more misrepresented than that of Islamic Spain.
A misrepresentation that wildly over-praised Islamic tolerance and treats the achievements of Visigothic Spain, and subjugation of Christians and Jews, remarkably dismissively. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is at once an informative corrective to much historical misrepresentation and a worrying documentation of scholarship going systematically wrong.

Motivated misrepresentation
In his Introduction, Fernandez-Morera wrestles with why this persistent scholarly mythologising has occurred. He raises various possibilities--including the significant flows of Muslim oil money into funding academic activity. With associated pressures:
Doubtlessly, professional self-preservation as well as political correctness and economics as well as political correctness and economics have affected academic research in certain fields of study in contrast to the fearlessness demonstrated by professors when unmasking horrors in such dangerous areas of investigation as Christian Europe (the burning of witches! colonialism!) and Catholic Spain (the ubiquitous Spanish Inquisition!). Islamic Spain is no exception to the rule. University presses do not want to get in trouble presenting an Islamic domination of even centuries ago as anything but a positive event, and academic specialists would rather not portray negatively a subject that constitutes their bread and butter. In addition, fear of the accusation of "Islamophobia" has paralyzed many academic researchers. (Introduction)
The farce over the Yale University Press published work on the Mohammad cartoons sans cartoons provides him with an excellent illustrative example. It is not surprising that the Introduction also includes a strong plea to focus on where the evidence leads us, while being aware of the context of what we use as evidence.

There is also, as Fernandez-Morera points out, something of a prejudice against religious motives as explanations:
Failing to take seriously the religious factor in Islamic conquests is characteristic of a certain type of materialist Western historiography which finds it uncomfortable to accept that war and the willingness to kill and die in its can be the result of someone's religious faith--an obstacle to understanding that may reflect the role played by religious faith in the lives of many academic historians. (Introduction)
And even more so in other humanities and social sciences.

There is, of course, something of a tradition in Anglophone writings to be down on Catholic Spain; a tradition kept alive, at least in the popular mind, by the tales of Gloriana and the Spanish Armada. After noting the "stakeholder" problem, Fernandez-Morera suggests that:
Or perhaps since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment the critical construction of a diverse, tolerant and happy Islamic Spain has been part of an effort to sell a particular cultural agenda (Introduction).
Perhaps indeed.  Moreover:
In the past few decades, this ideological mission has morphed into "presentism," an academically sponsored effort to narrate the past in terms of the present and thereby reinterpret to serve contemporary "multiculturalism," "diversity," and "peace" studies, which necessitates rejecting as retrograde, chauvinistic or, worse, "conservative" any view of the past that may conflict with the progressive agenda. (Introduction)
Something that the decreasing ideological diversity of the academy (particularly in the humanities) tends to aggravate.

Still, while scholars such as Fernandez-Morera are willing to take a well-wielded scholarly axe to pretentious pieties, there is hope.

3 comments:

  1. There is one thing that has to be said in this debate: historians know very little about Muslim Spain. Here and there some sources shed light on a peculiar aspect of the life in a given place at a given time, but there is a lot of unknown. The lack of certainty invites interpretation. One thing can be argued just as well as the complete contrary.

    For instance, the Umayyads can be regarded as relatively leniant with other religions when compared with the mass deportation of Christians that took place under the following dynasties or the massacres of Jews occured after them or elsewhere in the medieval Muslim world.

    In the same way, it is important to separate the law and its application. The dhimmia for instance appears as a tough situation, but, when needed, the state was happy to throw away any pretence submission of the other faith. Muslim sovereign used regularly Christian or Jewish ministers (thus giving authority over Muslims to unbelievers) or recruiting Christian mercenaries (thus allowing unbelievers to bear arms in the dar al-islam, which is legally a huge no-no). On fiscal matter the state was also prompt to break the rules and precept such as "prices are in the hands of god" were massaged into incoherence by the scholars to please whomever had his bottom on the throne.

    Regarding the matter of Jihad, it should be noted that its use varied greatly. The main Umayyad rulers were often happy to do pretty much without it, insisting on internal issues rather than war. On the other hand, some one like Almanzor really heavily used the concept to back his system of constant razzia. But there the fiscal issue seem to have been at least as important as anything else, the spoils collected in the North being essential to pay his Berber regiments which in turn were essential to keep the Arab army in line. The failure of the raids launched by his sons led to the immediate uprising that made the united Andalus collapse.

    So Fernandez-Morera may be right to complain about the constant one-sided bias of the current academia, but it is just that a bias, caused by a terrible paucity of sources. Periods and places that are better know (such as the Mamluks in Egypt) are a lot less liable to this sort of vast interpretation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Useful, thank you. (Particularly like the comparison with Mamluk Egypt.)

      On the use of Jewish and Christian ministers, my understanding is that was largely limited to the Taifa period, which were often criticised by Muslim writers as being particularly religiously lax. Of course, more states mean more diversity in practice while smaller states may also mean a need to broaden support.

      Delete
  2. Did you know that you can create short urls with Shortest and get $$$$$$ for every click on your shortened urls.

    ReplyDelete