The Myth – and Reality – of the “Andalusian Paradise”

Dario Fernandez Morera, a professional historian of sterling credentials (including a degree from Stanford University and a Harvard PhD) has taken on a subject of more than academic interest in a book with the arresting title The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise.

We often hear about that paradise in current controversies over militant Islam, particularly several themes identified in the opening pages of this book:

“On the intellectual level Islam played an important role in the development of Western European civilization.”


“In the Middle Ages there emerged two Europes: one, Muslim Europe secure in its defenses, religiously tolerant, and maturing in cultural and scientific sophistication. The other, Christian Europe, an arena of unceasing warfare in which superstition passed for religion and the flame of knowledge sputtered weakly.”


“Muslim rulers of the past were far more tolerant of peoples of other faiths than were Christian ones.”

James Reston, a prominent American journalist, long associated with The New York Times, is quoted as saying, “In the arts and agriculture, learning and tolerance, Al-Andalusia was a beacon of enlightenment to the rest of Europe. . . .among its finest achievements was its tolerance.” Reston, no Islamic scholar, was simply reflecting the fashionable mythology of the day, perhaps even the editorial policy of his paper.

Fernandez employs these and other such assertions to introduce what he takes to be the conventional view of Islam in mainstream academic and popular writings. He responds to the conventional view with the novel approach of examining what actually was the case.

He finds that in the spirit of Voltaire and Edward Gibbon, university presses tend to perpetuate the myth of a benevolent Islam – against all evidence to the contrary.

Fernandez’s alternative chronicle begins in the second half of the seventh century when the Caliph Abu Bakr’s armies from Arabia and the Middle East began their sweep across North Africa coastal areas held by the Christian Greek Roman (Byzantine) Empire.

North Africa had been largely Christian since the early fourth century. This was the land of Tertullian, St. Cyprian, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, and St. Augustine of Hippo. Some historians present this conquest as a migration of peoples. To the contrary, Fernandez shows beyond doubt that Islam emerged from Arabia as a conquering movement with world domination as its ultimate aim. And he has the texts to prove it.


Led by Musa Ibn Nusayr, Governor of North Africa, Berber armies crossed the straights of Gibraltar in 711. The subsequent Islamic conquest of Spain took only ten years. Three hundred and fifty years of Gothic rule in the Iberian Peninsula were thus brought to an end. The Arabs were to stay until the end of the fifteenth century.

Musa ibn Nusayr gave the defeated Hispano-Visigoths three options: 1) convert to Islam, 2) submit as dhimmis to Islamic supremacy and pay tribute or 3) be killed (in the case of men) or enslaved (in the case of women). The invaders burned cities, wasted the land, destroyed churches and sacked diocesan libraries and treasuries for booty.

Fernandez draws upon multiple primary sources, both Muslim and Christian that chronicle the brutality of the Islamic conquest. Jewish communities, he finds, typically sided with the invaders and were given the role of guardians over major cities after they had fallen to Muslim armies. A case in point, Toledo, the Visigoth capital, offered no resistance. Musa nevertheless executed seven 700 notables and then left the Jews in charge as he moved on to Guadalajara.

Fernandez is particularly incensed by Houghton Mifflin’s Across the Centuries, a popular textbook that teaches children that jihad is an “inner struggle” that urges the faithful “to do one’s best to resist temptation and overcome evil.”

He shows this to be the purest nonsense. The legal texts of the Maliki School of Islamic Law do not speak of “spiritual inner struggle.” Rather they speak of a theologically mandated war against infidels, a “sacred combat” or Holy War.

Ibn Khaldun, the respected fourteenth-century historian and philosopher quoted by Pope Benedict XVI in his famous Regensburg Address, has acknowledged the indivisibility of the religious and secular motivation of those who exercise power at the highest level within Islam.

Fernandez is careful to say that these truths of history are not meant to pass judgment on today’s Muslims, Jews, or Christians. He does not speak of a “clash of cultures,” although one would think that a clash is amply demonstrated by the brutality of the Islamic conquest. It’s enough for him to set the historical record straight.

His cautious approach may be governed in part by the recognition that, after hundreds of years of enforced coexistence, it can be difficult to determine what came from what. And the difficulty stems in part, because the Islamic conqueror’s rule often allowed communities of Jews or Christians to live within their own conclaves under their own laws, although as dhimmis, humiliated and subject to special taxation.

Fernandez devotes separate chapters to subjects such as: “The Truth about the Jewish ‘Golden Age’” in which he debunks the claim that Islam granted Spain’s Jewish communities, composed largely of Sephardic Jews, a substantial degree of liberty and tolerance; and “Women in Islamic Spain,” that does not make for pleasant reading. The subtitle of that chapter, “Female Circumcision, Stoning, Veils and Sexual Slavery,” says it all.

Fernandez has sought, in his own words, to examine “synchronically [the successive cultures that constitute al-Andalusia] by focusing on literary, historical, legal, religious, biographical and archeological data in order to show humanity both suffering and inflicting suffering.”

He’s done that convincingly, and with an admirable regard for truth.

Jude P. Dougherty, emeritus Dean of the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America, is the author, most recently, of Briefly Considered (St. Augustine’s Press, November 2015).