Moorish Spain: A Successful Multicultural Paradise? Part 2

Part 1.

It is more difficult to generalize about the situation of Jews in Moorish Spain. Visigothic law regarding the Jewish community was harsh, and designed to make it disappear eventually. Accordingly, as mentioned above, Spanish Jews formed an alliance of convenience with the Muslim invaders. Even after being reduced to dhimmi status, however, the position of Jews in early Moorish Spain (before the Almoravid invasion of 1085) was more favorable than it had been under the Christian Visigoths.

Some Muslim rulers found it convenient to employ Jewish officials since, unlike well-born Muslims, they remained entirely dependent on royal favor and were thus easy to control. Thus, a Jewish scholar named Hasdai (died c. 970), e.g., became the de facto foreign minister of Caliph Abd al-Rahman III, and was an active benefactor and protector of the Jewish community. Rabbi Samuel Ibn Naghrela (993–1056) became the most powerful Jew in the history of Moorish Spain as vizier to the ruler of Granada, earning the Hebrew title HaNagid (“The Prince”).

But such favored Jews were also resented by the Muslim population. It is recorded that Samuel Ibn Naghrela was regularly insulted by a Muslim merchant each time he rode through the gates of Grenada. His employer became the subject of a satirical poem:

He has chosen an infidel as his secretary
When he could, had he wished, have chosen a Believer.
Through him, the Jews have become great and proud
And arrogant—they, who were among the most abject.
And how many a worthy Muslim humbly obeys
The vilest ape among these miscreants?

Naghrela’s son Joseph, also a high-ranking official, was killed in the anti-Jewish riots which broke out in Granada in 1066.

Rabbi Isaac Ibn Albalia escaped that same riot and became court astrologer to the Muslim ruler of Seville, al-Mutamid. But this same al-Mutamid crucified a Jewish ambassador sent by Alfonso VI of Castile because he did not like the demands the man carried. Clearly, the occasional self-interested employment of Jewish officials by Muslim rulers bears no relation to the modern ideal of “religious tolerance.”

Modern Jewish historians like to emphasize the careers of powerful Jewish officials in Moorish Spain, but the same period also witnessed numerous anti-Jewish riots, expulsions and assassinations. As the Jewish historian Bernard Lewis has written: “The Golden Age of Equal Rights is a myth, and belief in it was a result rather than a cause of Jewish sympathy for Islam.” (NB: Fernandez-Morera mentions in a footnote that Jewish Arabists have played an important role in “disseminating an enthusiastic image of Islamic Spain.”)

Unlike Christians and Muslims, Jews of this period never enjoyed the power to persecute other religions, but this should not mislead us into imagining they were more “tolerant” than the Muslims or Christians of the time. There existed Jewish laws, albeit unenforceable, forbidding non-Jews from occupying public office in a hypothetical Jewish kingdom, as well as forbidding non-Jews from owning Jewish slaves. Jewish writings from Moorish Spain contain furious denunciations not only of both Christianity and Islam, but of heretical Jewish sects such as the Karaites (who did not recognize the authority of the Talmud).

The Almoravids, who conquered Andalusia in 1085, put an end to the age of Jewish viziers. In later years, many Andalusian Jews sought refuge in the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain.

But granting that Muslim tolerance of other religions is a myth, what about life within the Spanish Muslim community itself? The realities of daily life in Moorish Spain are best reflected in legal texts of the time, texts which have largely been ignored by enthusiasts of the romantic vision of the Andalusian Paradise. Spanish Muslims followed the Maliki school of jurisprudence, one of the stricter of the Sunni legal schools. Representatives of other schools were sometimes subject to forcible expulsion from Spain, and followers of the Maliki school were forbidden to socialize with or even salute them.

In Islamic thinking there is no distinction between the spheres of religion, jurisprudence, and morality. Fernandez-Morera describes pre-modern Islamic societies as “hierocracies” in which both religious and civil authority is exercised by a priestly class. “In no other place within the Islamic empire,” he writes, “was the influence of Islamic clerics on daily life as strong as in al-Andalus.”

The Islamic clerics’ functions explicitly included making sure that Muslims behaved in a religiously proper manner … always in accord with Islamic teachings and exacting daily ritualistic details as interpreted by the clerics. [For example,] before each of the five daily prayers, the faithful must carry out detailed ablutions of the hands, nose (inside and out by aspiration and respiration), face, [arms] up to the elbows and the two feet up to the ankles.

Similarly detailed rules governed eating and cohabiting.

Music was prohibited by Maliki law. Muslim clerics were empowered to enter any home where music could be heard in order to confiscate and destroy the instruments. To this day, notes the author, “if ever one hears music in Maliki mosques, it is limited to the sound of the tambourine—an instrument not very conducive to the writing of great musical scores.” Chess, backgammon and dice games were also prohibited.

The public spaces of the cities of this Golden Age of Islam were patrolled by a religious functionary, the muhtasib, who had the power to enforce sharia in the people’s personal, social, and commercial behavior.

So detailed and extensive were the rules to which Muslims were subject that it is doubtful whether they enjoyed greater freedom in their everyday lives than Christians or Jews (although they certainly enjoyed higher status). “In medieval Maliki Islamic law and practice,” writes Fernandez-Morera, “higher socioeconomic status actually confers less autonomy and power in the public arena (what Western scholars generally regard as ‘freedom’).” Spanish Muslim authorities did not bother to enforce certain regulations against non-Muslim slaves: Christian slave girls, e.g., were allowed to sing and play musical instruments, and an Arab chronicler mentions that girls with such talents fetched a high price.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the alienness of Islamic thought to Western ideas about freedom than precisely this circumstance: that the only class of people who enjoyed a certain measure of freedom from the oppressive and detailed application of Islamic law in Spain were slaves, and they enjoyed such freedom precisely because they were the most despised members of society. The Muslim men who enjoyed the singing of Christian slave girls would never have permitted such behavior in their Muslim wives. Freedom is never a positive value within Islam, which means submission.

Muslim women in Andalusia were banished from the public sphere and subject to circumcision and veiling like women elsewhere in the Muslim world. They were not permitted to speak in their own behalf; a male agent represented them in all legal transactions. A woman’s testimony was not accepted in trials involving bloodshed, and in other trials counted for half the testimony of a man. Like dhimmis, women were required to stand in the presence of men. Scourging was the normal punishment for fornication, while adulteresses were stoned to death. Sexual slavery was commonplace. Yet none of this has prevented Western scholars from enthusing over the “surprising degree of freedom” enjoyed by the women of Andalusia.

Other enthusiasts of the romantic vision of medieval Islamic feminism have seized upon references in the Arabic sources to women who were learned in this or that subject. A certain John G. Jackosn has written:

In Christian Europe ninety-nine percent of the people were illiterate, and even kings could neither read nor write [while in Islamic Spain] you had Moorish women who were doctors and lawyers and professors.

Such women were either slaves who pursued their studies as part of the training to which they submitted rather than of their own free will, or they were the daughters of learned Muslim men who picked up their knowledge at home. The Spanish Arabist María Luisa Ávila puts such references in perspective:

Behind these educated women we always find a father who had intellectual prestige: the fuqaha [experts in religious law] were daughters of qadis [Muslim judges] or of famous jurists; the traditionists [who memorized hadith, or sayings attributed to Muhammad] were daughters of some expert in hadith; the only medic we know about belonged to the celebrated family of the Avenzoar.

We must avoid allowing ourselves to be impressed by these one hundred and sixteen “learned” women. … Many are mentioned only because of the family connections; others for having written some smart verses; there are a number of copyists; others are mentioned because they were part of some anecdote about male personages.

To pretend that Hispano-Arabic women enjoyed freedom is out of place. On the contrary, it is logical to deduce from the evidence that in  the social realm in which these “learned” women moved, aside from the slave girls, their lives were spent solely within the family circle and their relationships were circumscribed to their parents and to other women.

But did not Islam at least play an important role in preserving classical learning and transmitting it to Western Europe? No, says Fernandez-Morera:

Ancient Greek texts were never “lost” to be somehow “recovered” and “transmitted” by Islamic scholars, as so many academic historians and journalists continue to write; these texts were always there, preserved and studied by the monks and lay scholars of the Greek Roman [or “Byzantine”] Empire.

Some works of Aristotle were translated into Latin in late antiquity, and by the end of the twelfth century, all his logical writings were well-known in Western Europe. French historian Sylvain Gouguenheim (Aristote au mont Saint-Michel, 2008) has recently emphasized the importance of Mont Saint-Michel as a center of translation—and has found himself denounced as an “Islamophobe.”

Arab scholars, by contrast, were ignorant of Greek; the versions they read of ancient scientific and philosophical works were “Arabic translations made by Christian scholars from Syriac translations also made by Christian scholars from classical Greek texts preserved by the Greek scholars of the Christian Greek Roman Empire.”

Many Arab rulers disapproved of the study of such works altogether. Motivated by religious zeal, the famous Moorish ruler al-Mansur (938–1002) “ordered all philosophy and logic books in Cordoba publicly burned.” A chronicler records:

whoever had studied these sciences [philosophy] became regarded as prone to heterodoxy and suspected of heresy. Most of those who until then had studied philosophy … became terrified and kept secret the fact that they knew the subject.

The principal effect of Islamic expansion on the transmission of Greek texts was to make communication between the Latin West and the Greek Roman Empire far more difficult. As Fernandez-Morera observes:

Of course cultural and especially commercial exchange between East and West continued to occur, and now largely via the Islamic Empire, but this happened not because of the civilizational properties of medieval Islam but because medieval Islam had interrupted the direct communication in the first place.

Even the gorgeous Moorish architecture admired by modern tourists to Spain conceals an origin unflattering to its builders. Islam has little in the way of a native architectural tradition: it began as a religion of the nomads of the Arabian desert who had few permanent structures of any kind. As the religion expanded, however, it converted Christian houses of worship into mosques and gradually began imitating Romano-Christian architecture in its own constructions. Ibn Khaldun points out that in North Africa the constructions built by the Arabs themselves did not last very long because of the Arabs’ sloppiness, poor materials, and lack of knowledge of building techniques.

In Spain, Muslim rulers constructed by cannibalizing columns and other building materials from Roman and Visigothic churches. According to Arab sources, e.g., much of the Great Mosque of Cordoba was “built with the materials of demolished churches brought to Cordoba on the heads of the Christian captives.” Even the technique of alternating red brick and white stone employed in constructing the arches of that celebrated jewel of Moorish architecture is adopted from a Roman technique called opus vittatum mixtum that can still be seen in surviving Roman aqueducts in Spain. The mosque’s mosaics are of Greek manufacture.

Popularizers of the myth of the Andalusian Paradise like to emphasize all the things we can “learn” from the history of Moorish Spain, but on closer inspection these turns out to be nothing more than the principles such writers already wish to believe in apart from any historical study: tolerance, feminism and multiculturalism. Why should anyone bother to learn Arabic and study the records of Medieval Spain in order to find out that women should be independent, religions tolerant, and different cultures able to live side-by-side in harmony, when all these things can easily be learned from reading the New York Times? Such a mindset does not provide “lessons from the past”; it guarantees that we will never be able to learn anything from the study of the past.

Worse, some scholars are elevating this present-centered historical narcissism into a matter of principle. In the view of one influential school of thought, scholars ought to approach the past with present-day concerns firmly in mind, rather than attempting to understand the past on its own terms. Some academic proponents of the “Andalusian paradise” are perfectly frank about their desire to employ historical scholarship in the service of the contemporary multicultural project.

Part and parcel of this academic trend is a conscious effort to downgrade the West which, as Fernandez-Morera says, “often culminates in a denial of its very existence.” On this view, the “West” (always placed in quotation marks) is a mere essentialist construction: the Spanish Christian population subjugated by Muslims in the eighth century did not have enough in common with Christian populations across the Pyrenees or elsewhere to justify considering them all as parts of a single civilizational entity that might be called “the West” or “Christendom.” Islam, inexplicably, escapes both placement between quotation marks and the charge of being an essentialist construction.

Contemporary historiography concerning Muslim Andalusia is thus yet one more front in the great struggle of our time: that of our declining white European civilization against a multitude of enemies, both internal and external.

End of Part 2 of 2.

62 replies

Comments are closed.