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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Review - "Myth of the Andalusian Paradise" by Dario Fernandez-Morera

Fernandez-Morera strips away the veil created by politically-correct modern historians to look at the real face of Muslim Spain based on contemporary, predominantly Arab sources. Conscious that he is taking on the entrenched academic establishment, Professor Fernadez-Morera documents his book meticulously, quoting numerous sources for each assertion and providing more than 100 pages of notes. 

What emerges is a hideous image of brutal aggression, consciously humiliating oppression, and intolerance on all sides (Muslim, Christian and Jewish).  This book is not a diatribe against Islam. Rather it is a bitter and biting attack on Western historians who in their search for an example to justify their own fantasies about “multicultural harmony” inside Islam have ignored or consciously distorted the facts.  

For example, Fernandes-Morera quotes the following passage from another contemporary historian: “It is important to understand that medieval Islamic civilization had a different attitude toward slavery than that seen in Western Europe. Slaves were much better treated and their status was quite honorable. Furthermore, there were many career opportunities open to a skillful mamluk [slave soldier], and the higher standards of living available in the Islamic Middle East, meant there was often little resistance to being taken [as a slave] in Central Asia and south-eastern Europe.” Fernandes-Morera replies: “One can certainly imagine the throngs of girls and boys in Greece, Serbia and Central Asia clamoring to be taken away from their families to be circumcised, to become sexual slaves, or to be castrated to guard harems as eunuchs, or, in other cases, to be raised in barracks with the sole purpose of becoming fearless slave-soldiers.”

Fernandez-Morera systematically debunks the allegations of a more “relaxed” Islam and multicultural equality.  He does so by quoting Arab sources which (among other things) brag about the wholesale destruction of churches and the slaughter of Christian prisoners, praise the crucifixion of apostates, and texts advising Muslims how to collect the tax from non-believers. (Make them stand before Muslims sitting on a raised platform, call them “enemy of Allah” and then push them around for the amusement of any Muslim “who want[s] to enjoy it.”) He also documents the extent to which Islamic Spanish society was dependent on slaves. For example, Abd al-Rahman had 3,750 slaves in his court, 6,300 sexual slaves in his harem, and 13, 750 slave soldiers. Furthermore, he notes that slaves were a major export of the kingdom, particularly eunuchs (castrated Christian males.) He documents the racism that characterized all blacks as fickle, foolish and ignorant and valued “white” slave girls at almost 15 times that of black slave girls.

Fernandez-Morera reminds readers that in Islamic Spain sharia law was the law of the land, and he goes into considerable detail on the specific form of sharia law applied, namely the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence. He points out that the Maliki school, far from being particularly liberal and tolerant, “is one of the more conservative schools, though not the most conservative — an honor that corresponds to the Habali school, predominant in the Arabian Peninsula.” (Fernandes-Morera, p. 96.)  Fernandez-Morera points out that Maliki sharia law included many niceties like female genital mutilation (even for adult sexual slaves), counted a woman as half a man, and banned musical instruments and singing altogether (as well as painting and sculpture, of course). The law even went so far as to order a man who bought a non-Muslim sex slave and discovered she was a singer to return her (p. 108).  

Obviously, as Fernandez-Morera admits, the elites in Muslim Spain (as all over the world) often ignored the law. Non-Muslim slave singers and dancers are tolerated and even coveted. However, he is right to remind his readers that lapses in the application of law do not constitute a positive culture--much less a shining example of “paradise.”

In short, Fernandez-Morera uses the Arabic sources to create his picture of Islamic Spain, and he applies logic and common sense ruthlessly to expose “political correctness” masquerading as history.  This book is important not just to those interested in learning about Medieval Spain, but as a lesson in how ideology can pervert allegedly scholarly writing. I recommend to everyone with an interest in history and historiography.

Dr Helena P. Schrader holds a PhD in History.
She is the Chief Editor of the Real Crusades History Blog.
She is the author of numerous books both fiction and non-fiction, including a three-part biography of Balian d'Ibelin.


  1. Salve Ms Helena,
    very interesting review - I have not read the book yet, still planning to do so, and the world is full of books and life is too short :) .
    anyway, have you read Évariste Lévi-Provençal's History of Islamic Spain or Charles-Emmanuel Dufourcq's La Vie quotidienne dans l'Europe médiévale sous domination arabe?
    those are some interesting examples of more balanced scholarship, like Fernandez-Morea, just 50 years prior to his work - it seems that the Anglo-American love affair with the pre-2001 idea of benevolent Islam and this grand desire to create mythical worlds of neverlands of multicultural Orient-paradise while markedly overtly hostile to the Christianity et al still produce horrible results as in María Rosa Menocal's The Ornament of the World ..
    kind regards

    1. Dear Dario,
      Thanks for recommending further reading. I'm more focused on the crusader states in the Levant, but it is very good to know there are other balanced books of this nature. I didn't really doubt it simply because the evidence is so overwhelming. It's particularly interesting that you think it is an Anglo-American bias. Would you say French sources are less hostile to Christianity and less pro-Islam?

  2. Salve again,
    you are very welcome – it is my pleasure to find interesting articles on your blog, and I do enjoy your historical novels.
    well, perhaps this was the case with the older French and/or Continental research, I have not read much from the late 20th century and nothing of the 21st but for Jean Flori - I mean the good example of the older historian here would be the 19th century researcher Reinhart Dozy (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reinhart_Dozy ) whose work ‘Spanish Islam: The History of Moslems in Spain’ was even translated into English ( https://archive.org/details/spanishislamhis00dozy ).
    Nota bene he has a chapter about the Jornada del foso de Toledo (la noche toledana) or The Day of the Fosse, a massacre of the leading Toledo citizenry circa 806AD this being a very interesting albeit forgotten example of the state of affairs in the Moorish Spain.
    So returning to your question I think yes, in the past the French medievalists were less hostile to their own histories in terms of Christianity vs Islam as in the Crusades or the Reconquista. But since the French Revolution there has been a hostile streak in their research and ideology, the Cathars and their heresy have received lots of attention and became a feature in their popular culture. La Pucelle d'Orléans had been adopted as one of the symbols of France in the 19-20th centuries, but the reasons why the state did it has nothing to do with her sainthood.
    Again, I cannot say for certain, but if there are examples of this sentiment perhaps the late 20th and this century Franco-Belgian popular comics or la bande dessinee ( there are numerous books and series on the Crusades and the Cathars) that are openly hostile and more often than not create false image of the past.