book cover imageThe Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain
by Darío Fernández-Morera.
ISI Books, 2016.
Hardcover, 358 pages, $30.


This is a brave book, and one must assume that its author is tenured, for the book systematically deconstructs a myth cherished in the academy and political discourse alike—the myth that Islamic rule in what is now Spain was tolerant and enlightened, resulting in the rediscovery of classical knowledge, and reflecting a worldview to be emulated. The myth is cherished because it confirms underlying assumptions of cultural and religious equivalence in the postmodern academy, and it is convenient politically in an era of renewed confrontation between what used to be recognized as the West and expansionist Islam.

Fernández-Morera exposes the supposed convivencia, a multiethnic, multicultural, and thus oh-so-postmodern way of life in Spain, as a fabrication. In so doing he exposes the agenda-driven sifting of evidence and argument in much of the modern academy, and particularly in Islamic Studies departments that are often funded by Gulf State governments. What makes this exposé terribly inconvenient is that in attacking the supposed story of al-Andalus he cites primary sources, a wealth of documents in Medieval Spanish and Portuguese that likely have remained undisturbed by the many proponents of the myth the author attacks. No fewer than ninety-five pages of detailed notes (in ten-point type!) are included.

The book includes the broad outline of conquest and reconquest, of the destruction of a nascent Visigothic culture, and of the effects of jihad—effects lived out in daily realities of suppression for non-Muslims, active persecutions under the “tolerant” Umayyad rulers, the subjection of women, and the marginalization of Jews and Christians, including the progressive extinction of Christians ruled in a condition of dhimmitude (punitive taxation and political exile).

The convivencia is exposed as having been a precaria coexistencia, a reality with echoes all too familiar. The book is difficult to ignore unless one assumes the dogmatic position of finding tolerance in any rule that happens to not be “Western” or Christian. The reality, however, is that book will likely be ignored by most, for any attack on a cherished myth is bound to be unpopular, particularly when this attack is meticulously documented, insightful, and readable.  

The Rev. Dr. Karl C. Schaffenburg is an Episcopal priest serving in Wisconsin, having previously worked in the pharmaceutical industry in the U.S., U.K. and Germany.