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The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise by Darío Fernández-Morera

Bryan D. Estelle

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain, by Darío Fernández-Morera. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2016, 358 pages, $29.95.

In Germany, you have to write two dissertations (not just one) before you are considered for an academic chair as a professor. I can remember the “research realization” I came to when my own professor, Michael O’Connor, put me in touch with Walther Sallaberger, a professor of Akkadian in Munich, Germany. He had written his second dissertation on an analysis of Old Babylonian Akkadian everyday life letters with some special attention to how this Semitic culture construed politeness strategies in its everyday communication.[1] I realized the simple but profound truth at that point in my academic career that if one could engage the extant resources at an “everyday life level” (especially through everyday letters, which is not an easy task), then one may obtain a true picture of the ancient world despite the fact that a researcher may be separated by hundreds or even thousands of years of history. Such is the case in Fernández-Morera’s book.

Fernández-Morera’s primary goal is to debunk the myth that has arisen in the modern world that the Muslim world in Medieval Spain, which began with the Muslim invasion in the early eighth century, was a space where Jews (mostly Sephardic), Christians, and Muslims lived in mutual tolerance and peaceful multiculturalism under Islamic rule. How does he accomplish this? By appealing to the extant sources, primary and secondary, especially everyday life letters and legal transcripts. Quoting Edward Gibbon (95), “the laws of a nation form the most instructive portion of its history.” Therefore, Fernández-Morera avoids the biased narrative about a tolerant Andalusian Paradise that has snowballed in modern times. In short, he proves, based on the extant evidence, that Muslims, Christians, and Jews had a precarious coexistence in Medieval Spain, not a tolerant one as is often alleged. The author is obviously passionate about his subject since he thinks that few “periods in history have been more misrepresented than that of Islamic Spain” (239).

This is a hard-hitting book with lots of citation, including over ninety-five pages of endnotes supporting the author’s claims and an eleven-page select bibliography. Nevertheless, you don’t have to be a specialist in order to understand this book; nor do you need to know any history about the Muslim conquest or Medieval Spain. Almost every single time Fernández-Morera introduces a technical term (which is frequent) he immediately translates and explains it (e.g., jihad, jizya, dhimmi, sharia law).

Rather than tolerant, the Muslim rulers were rapacious: there was rampant looting, wholesale ignorance among the conquerors (they really learned the treasures of Greece and Rome from Christian scholars), constant religious coercion, numerous beheadings, suppressive measures against women, and the list continues.

The Jews had suffered tremendously under the Catholic Visigoths before the Muslim invasion. So, it is not surprising in some respects that the Jews supported the Muslims, and such an attitude is visible in the sources. Even so, the sources also demonstrate that many pogroms and expulsions resulted in instability of Jewish life under Muslim rule, again, a notion that runs contrary to so much popularization of the myth of tolerance. However, the direction of intolerance was not unilateral. Sephardic Jews were very strict during this alleged “golden age” of Jewish culture, and the legal views of the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides made everyday interaction with non-Jews very difficult.

The seismic problem in Islamic Medieval Spain was the relationship between religion and culture. Whereas in Western Christianity, there had always been a notion among jurists and theologians that church and state existed as different institutions with a special set of terms to designate this relationship (e.g., sacred and profane, religious and secular), in Islamic-ruled Spain all such distinctions were erased and a unity of the religious and the sacred carried the day. It was a theocracy, or more precisely, a hierocracy—a “government of clerics” (85–86). Distinctions between civic and religious law disappeared and Islamic sharia law pervaded all levels of society. As the author notes:

Sharia . . . strictly speaking means not the Islamic legal system but a religiously inspired view of the world, a path of right conduct that Allah has given to men through his messengers and through The Messenger, the Prophet Muhammad: sharia was divine law. (86)

This mindset, so clearly exposed in this book, which ignores the sources (primary and secondary), seems to be driven (ironically) by mostly elitist academics from hierarchically organized educational institutions. Quotes from their books and articles are peppered throughout Fernández-Morera’s book showing that he has not just set up a straw man but has become convinced of the need to overturn a false paradigm.

The book is recommended for many reasons. Although it seems as if there is an information overload because of the sheer quantity of evidence cited, it is a model of thorough and exhaustive research. This reviewer is convinced of the need to reevaluate the popular myth of an Andalusian Paradise. In an age when Islam, in its multifaceted expressions, is spreading throughout the globe, Fernández-Morera’s book will help one understand a very important period of history under Muslim rule.


[1] Walther Sallaberger, „Wenn Du mein Bruder bist, . . .“ Interaktion und Textgestaltung in altbabylonischen Alltagsbriefen, Cuneiform Monographs 16 (Groningen: Styx, 1999).

Bryan Estelle is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, March 2018.