The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise Book Review

Pelagius, thorn in the side of the Umayyads

Pelagius, thorn in the side of the Umayyads

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise
by Dario Fernandez-Morera
ISI Press 2016
$29.95; 358 pages
ISBN 978161017095

It has been quite a while since I've read a proper work of non-fiction in book form. I tend to get all of my non-fiction reading as journal articles, blogs that usually reference journal articles, or international consensus standards. Thus my book reading tends toward fiction as a palate-cleanser and method of winding down.

However, I saw this one on the shelf at my local public library, and I just had to take a look. One of the most fun things about reading is way one can make connections between all of the different things on my mind. Here, I found a perfect alignment between Stirling's Ice, Iron, and Gold, the Way of St. James, and Islamic millennial movements like the Almohads. I love it when everything comes together.

Fernandez-Morera has written a rather polemical book. I don't mean this as a criticism; I rather like polemical books, as long as the author can make a case. Fernandez-Morera can indeed make a case that in popular Western culture, Islamic Spain has been consistently presented as something that it was not. As evidence of this, Fernandez-Morera starts each chapter with a quotation from a well-known person or persons claiming it was a paradise of tolerance between different religions and ethnicities. These quotations are generally pulled from other works of popular history, although in at least two cases, Carly Fiorina and Barack Obama, the setting was a political speech. Whatever specialists might say in their journals, I think this is the popular conception.

The rest of each chapter is devoted to listing counterexamples to this myth of tolerance, focusing on broad topics such as Jihad, women, Jews, or Christians. Here, I am a little less convinced that Fernandez-Morera has made his case. While I do think the broad outlines of what Fernandez-Morera says are broadly true, I can find some examples of analytical overreach. For example, the colonial practice of renaming places in order to assert control comes up in several chapters. Broadly, this is correct, but footnote 119 in Chapter 1 says:

Ironically, the word Istanbul, used to eliminate the memory of the politically and religiously charged Constantinople, arises from the conquerors' mispronounciation of the Greek phrase εις τήν πόλι "eesteen pohlee" or "To the Polis!"—that is, "to the CIty!", or "to Constantinople!"

That is certainly one interpretation. Another is that the invading Turks ended up calling the city the exact same thing the locals had been calling it for 1,000 years: "the City". In a strange twist, this ended up confirming my prior belief that any idea labeling itself as "colonialism" is probably dumb. [although I am open to alternative explanations]

I also suspect some exaggeration by exclusion in the chapter on the Jews. While I appreciate the important context that Jews were used by the invading Muslims as a counter to the initially more numerous Catholics, the Jews themselves seem to have enjoyed the wealth and status that resulted, at least until the more literal-minded Almoravids and Almohads showed up and ruined the party.

On the gripping hand, I wept for the Visigoth culture of Spain that was destroyed by the invading Berber armies. All that remains now is a few ruins, and the Mozarabic rite of the Catholic Church. If you want a flavor for what might have been, then L. Sprague de Camp's classic Lest Darkness Fall imagines a world in which the Visigoths weren't destroyed [albeit helped by a visitor from the future].

I ultimately found this an interesting book, but probably one I remain cautious about. I am not really familiar with the popular historical literature that Fernandez-Morera is reacting against, and I suspect that the book would probably seem far more reasonable in light of the many foolish assertions made on this subject. Considered in isolation, I think many of the things said are narrowly true, and perhaps broadly a bit misleading, but that is very context dependent. I think this book is worth a read as a counterweight to far more seriously flawed popular histories of Islamic Spain.

My other book reviews

  The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain By Dario Fernandez-Morera