History’s Favorite Myths: Book Review

Fernandez-Morera, Diario. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christian, and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain.  Intercollegiate Studies Institute, (2016) Kindle Edition

According to popular tradition and history, Spain under the Moors (or Arabs) between 711 and 1492 was a bastion of toleration, culture, and science in a wilderness of Christian ignorance and the Dark Ages. The Umayyad rulers of the various principalities of Muslim Spain protected the religious minorities under their control, allowing freedom of worship and living. Spain was where the wisdom of the Greeks, lost during the Dark Ages, was preserved by the Arabs and re-transmitted back to Europe. The Moors ignited flames of culture and beauty that led to the Alhambra and other works of enduring beauty and splendor, and rescued the backward natives of Iberia from the Dark Ages. It serves as a model for how the Peoples of the Book can and should live.

And the myth, according to Fernandez-Morera, is wrong.

In this relatively short, well-written book, Fernandez-Morera goes back to the primary sources and early writers, to the archaeological remains of Visigothic Spain, and shows that the legend is a lovely myth. The Umayyads were not tolerant, Christians and Jews did not flourish under the Umayyads, Almoravids, and Almohades, the Christian Visigoths were not benighted and backwards, women did not have a better place in Moorish Spain than in Christian Spain, and by the way, the place was not called Al-Andalus: it was called Hispañia, or Spain.

The book begins with a little historiography, a note on language and some background before launching into the meat of the author’s argument. His methodology is transparent. He read the materials written at the time of the supposed paradise and the so-called conviviencia, the living-together, and tried to find out what the people actually alive and writing thought and how they understood ideas such as jihad, the dhimmi contract, the place of women, and other things. What he found will be depressingly familiar to many modern readers, because Islamism has changed very little since 700.

For those unfamiliar with Islamic law, he provides good definitions and enough background that the reader can follow the arguments and the original documents. he also places Spain in the context of the larger Muslim world, looking at how the Umayyads and their successors viewed Muslims who followed different legal schools (as borderline heretics, to be shunned, exiled, or executed.) Despite some historians’ accounts, the Umayyads were not more understanding and tolerant than the later waves of conquerors, and the legal accounts and Muslim and Christian records show that quite clearly.

The book may strike some as repetitive, especially the last two chapters, where the author compares Christians and Jews under Muslim rule. But that is because the two communities developed sets of rules and understandings of identity that mirrored those of the Muslims, clearly setting the boundaries of what defined a Jew and a Christian, and allowing the religious and community leaders to punish those who strayed. All three groups possessed no patience for apostates or backsliders, and reading that rabbis were permitted to kill apostates certainly came as a surprise. Did it happen? The author does not say. Was it legal under the Jewish laws in Spain at the time? Yes.

The book is both long and short. The main body of the narrative history is short, less than half the total page count. The extensive and very informative foot notes take up a good deal of space, as does the bibliography. I was disappointed to discover that some of the most fascinating secondary works mentioned have not been translated into English yet from French and Spanish. In some ways the book is more of a reference tool for those teaching the region or religion than for the general lay reader, but it is all the more valuable for that. The author shows his work and makes it available to anyone who wants to read for themselves, provided they have the language skills.

Does the author prove his hypothesis? Yes, in my opinion. Much of what he points out is rather obvious when highlighted, because of the nature of Islam’s understanding of the Koran and of Islamic law. Also human psychology – when a small group is oppressed, it will define itself more rigidly: “This is US, that is THEM.”

The Kindle formatting is excellent, with hot footnotes that are easily accessible. Reading the footnotes themselves as a section was a bit of a pain, but that may be due to the age of my Paperwhite rather than formatting. I’d recommend the e-edition for those just interested in the main text of the book, and the paper edition for scholars and people wanting a reference. I will be buying a paper copy for my own use.

I strongly recommend the book to readers interested in what the people of the time said about Moorish Spain, to scholars of the topic, and to teachers. A familiarity with Islamic history is useful but not necessary. It is a highly readable legal and documentary history. There are no illustrations or maps, but they are not necessary unless the reader wants to see where Cordoba or Granada are, for example. It is going on my quick-reference shelf.


I purchased this book for my own use and received no compensation or promotional consideration from the publisher or author.

3 thoughts on “History’s Favorite Myths: Book Review

  1. ” The Umayyads were not tolerant, Christians and Jews did not flourish under the Unayyads, Almoravids, and Almohades, the Christian Visigoths were not benighted and backwards, women did not have a better place in Moorish Spain than in Christian Spain,”

    I’m shocked; shocked I tell you.

    • I know, quite a revelation isn’t it? Islamism has not changed since 700. Who could imagine such a thing?

      [Pssst, WP, we need that sarcasm font.]

  2. Pingback: History’s Favorite Myths: Book Review | Cat Rotator’s Quarterly | Head Noises

Comments are closed.