Sunday, September 23, 2018

Between scholarship and polemics

“The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise” by Dario Fernandez-Morera is a book forcefully arguing that medieval Islamic Spain or al-Andalus was far from the tolerant paradise it's often depicted as having been by modern Western scholars and politicians eager to appease Islam. I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I happen to agree with the author that the “official” view of Islam and Muslim civilization is too rosy and uncritical. On the other hand, while the book gives a scholarly impression, it's strictly speaking a political polemic. It's really a “counter-Jihadist” book á la Robert Spencer, in which Muslims are always bad, Christians are always good, and if a good Muslim can be found somewhere, he must be acting against Islam's norms (since we know already that these are always bad). The tension between the scholarly and the polemical makes “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise” something of a roller-coaster ride!

The claim that al-Andalus in general and the Umayyad period in particular was a shining example of religious tolerance is obviously anachronistic when the term “tolerance” is used in its modern sense. The more extreme versions of the Narrative seem to depict Umayyad Spain as a medieval version of 21st century California, complete with emancipated women and a thriving gay scene! The author has little trouble debunking these rosy-spectacled notions. The various Islamic caliphates in Spain were, of course, based on military conquest, widespread slavery (including sexual slavery) and patriarchy. Due to his polemical style, however, the author only grudgingly admits that Jews and Christians often held high office in the so-called taifa kingdoms, something criticized by the ulama (the Islamic clergy) and resented by the general Muslim population. But surely the interesting fact here is that the Muslim taifa kings didn't care about the ulama or the popular resentment, appointing “dhimmis” to high positions anyway. I think the author is right that these appointments had more to do with attempts to transcend tribalism than with “religious tolerance” in the modern sense (Jews and Christians had no loyalty to any Muslim tribe, and could therefore be expected to “neutrally” serve the state in the person of the king who had elevated them), but it nevertheless means that Jews and Christians *were* tolerated in these kingdoms. In general, the author has problems with the constant tension between the ulama and the rulers, with the latter often disregarding the pristine orthodoxy of the former. The author believes that the ulama were the “real” Muslims and that authentic Islam is therefore intolerant, but once again, the interesting thing is surely that Muslim rulers often challenged the injunctions of the clergy. Umayyad Spain obviously wasn't similar to contemporary Iran! The author also makes anachronistic statements about medieval Catholic Spain, making it sound almost like a modern democracy. Obviously, he has great problems with the, ahem, intolerant expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Catholic Spain after the fall of Granada.

Sometimes, Fernandez-Morera makes sloppy errors, such as claiming that Kemal Atatürk's decision to change the name of Constantinople to Istanbul is an example of Muslim cultural imperialism. That's hardly likely, since Atatürk (of course) was a secular nationalist. The author also needs to take a crash course in linguistics, since he writes that Gothic was closely related to Latin since both languages were Indo-European! That's like saying English and Albanian are related since both of these languages are also Indo-European. In a footnote, the author informs us that the Berber languages are “Afro-Asiatic, not Semitic” when in fact “Afro-Asiatic” is a language family comprising both Berber and Semitic languages. The reason why I mention this is that it makes the reader wonder whether Fernandez-Morera makes other sloppy errors when discussing more complex issues. (Of course, it's possible that he isn't really being sloppy here, but is rather signaling some kind of essentialist ethno-linguistic nationalism.)

That being said, many other points made in “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise” strike me as broadly correct. The author points out that the Visigoths weren't “barbarians” but a Romanized Germanic people whose kingdom in Spain was a high culture (the Visigoth kingdom was destroyed by the first wave of Muslim invaders). While Greek philosophy was indeed preserved and translated by the Muslims, the Greek philosophical heritage didn't simply disappear in the Christian world. It was very much alive in the Byzantine Empire! The author believes that Byzantine influence on the Latin West is often underestimated, probably a correct observation. The “Christian Greek Roman Empire”, as he calls it, seems to be the elephant in the room as far as cultural diffusion is concerned. He also makes the important methodological point that cultural influence doesn't disprove that one culture is hegemonic while the others are subordinate. Black and White culture influenced each other in the U.S. South, yet White culture was obviously hegemonic due to slavery or Jim Crow. Thus, one cannot prove “tolerance” simply by pointing out that Muslims may have been influenced by Christian traditions (or vice versa).

Further, the author points out that the great Aristotelian philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroës) was also a highly respected commentator on Maliki jurisprudence, the Malikis being the dominant Sunni school of law in al-Andalus. As an interpreter of the sharia, Averroes sounded much less rationalist and tolerant! As for philosophy more generally, the Arabic translations of Greek philosophers were twice removed from the originals, really being renderings of Syriac translations (these were of course made by Christians in Syria). The best translations available in Western Europe during the Middle Ages were those made by William of Moerbeke, a 13th century Catholic bishop serving in Greece during the Latin Empire. William translated Aristotle directly from Greek to Latin, and it was this version which Thomas Aquinas used in his studies. In fact, I believe it was Thomas who told William to make the translation in the first place, not being satisfied with the Arab-derived version. I admit to my great shame that I never even heard William's name before! Fernandez-Morera also claims that Muslim rulers in Spain frequently persecuted fellow Muslims deemed heretical, including Shiites, Gnosticizing Muslims and Christianizing Muslims. The Jews under Muslim rule in Spain were allowed to persecute “their” heretics, specifically the Karaites, something the rabbis seemed to have done with gusto. His comparison of female roles in Muslim Spain and Catholic Spain is also interesting, with the women in *Catholic* Spain coming out on top…

To sum up, “The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise” is a polemic written in scholarly form, and it has a number of problems, but it's nevertheless worth studying and reflecting over as an antidote to the official Narrative. My problem with the Narrative isn't so much that it's “pro-Muslim” (Islam can and have been interpreted in various ways throughout history) but rather that it paradoxically serves as a left-liberal foil for Muslim fundamentalism, which is far from tolerant! In the end, I give this book three stars.

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