BCF : The existence of a Muslim kingdom in Medieval Spain where different races and religions lived harmoniously in multicultural tolerance is one of today’s most widespread myths. University professors teach it.
Journalists repeat it. Tourists visiting the Alhambra accept it. It has reached the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, which sings the virtues of the “pan-confessional humanism” of Andalusian Spain (July 18, 2003).
The Economist echoes the belief: “Muslim rulers of the past were far more tolerant of people of other faiths than were Catholic ones. For example, al-Andalus’s multi-cultural, multi-religious states ruled by Muslims gave way to a Christian regime that was grossly intolerant even of dissident Christians, and that offered Jews and Muslims a choice only between being forcibly converted and being expelled (or worse).”1 The problem with this belief is that it is historically unfounded, a myth. The fascinating cultural achievements of Islamic Spain cannot obscure the fact that it was never an example of peaceful convivencia.
The history of Islamic Spain begins, of course, with violent
conquest. Helped by internal dissension among the Visigoths, in 711 A.D.
Islamic warriors entered Christian Spain and defeated the Visigothic
king Rodrigo. These Muslims were a mixture of North African Berbers, or
“Moors,” who made up the majority, and Syrians, all led by a small
number of Arabs proper (from the Arabian peninsula). The Crónica Bizantina of 741 A.D., the Crónica mozárabe of 754 A.D. and the illustrations to the thirteenth-century Cantigas de Santa María chronicle
the brutality with which the Muslims subjugated the Catholic
population. From then on, the best rulers of al- Andalus were autocrats
who through brute force kept the peace in the face of religious,
dynastic, racial, and other divisions.
These divisions, and the ruthless methods of dealing with them, were not unique to Muslim Spain. The jihad launched
around 634 against the then-Christian Middle East by the successors of
Muhammad was marked by internal conflict after the assassination of the
third Caliph, Uthman (644-656). The founder of the Emirate of Cordoba,
Abd al-Rahman I (734?-788), “The Emigrant,” had to flee Syria to avoid
the extermination ordered against his Umayyad family by the rival
Allied with Berbers from North Africa and helped by Yemenite
and Syriansettlers in Spain willing to betray their masters, he
proceeded to enter Spain from Africa, defeat the Abbasid governor of al-
Andalus in 756 , and make himself Emir. He kept peace among Muslims and
between Muslims, Catholics, and Jews by means of an army of more than
40,000 soldiers. It was he who ordered the demolition of the ancient
Catholic church of Cordoba to build the much admired mosque. During his
reign and that of Abd al-Rahman II (822-852), the conqueror of
Barcelona, Catholics suffered confiscations of property, enslavement,
and increases in their exacted tribute, which helped finance the
embellishment of Islamic Cordoba.