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 Abassids. 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.
Under Abd al-Rahman II and Muhammad I (822-886), a number of Catholics were killed in Cordoba for preaching against Islam, while others were expelled from the city. Among these victims was Saint Eulogio, beheaded by the Islamic authorities.2 Muhammad I ordered that “newly constructed churches be destroyed as well as anything in the way of refinements that might adorn the old churches added since the Arab conquest.”3
Abd al-Rahman III (912-961), “The Servant of the Merciful,” declared himself Caliph of Cordoba. He took the city to heights of splendor not seen since the days of Harunal- Rashid’s Baghdad, financed largely through the taxation of Catholics and Jews and the booty and tribute obtained in military incursions against Catholic lands. He also punished Muslim rebellions mercilessly, thereby keeping the lid on the boiling cauldron that was multicultural al- Andalus. His rule presumably marks the zenith of Islamic tolerance. Al-Mansur (d. 1002), “The One Made Victorious by Allah,” implemented in al-Andalus in 978 a ferocious military dictatorship backed by a huge army. In addition to building more palaces and subsidizing the arts and sciences in Cordoba, he burned heretical booksand terrorized Catholics, sacking Zaragoza, Osma, Zamora, Leon, Astorga, Coimbra, and Santiago de Compostela. In 985 he burned down Barcelona, enslaving all those he did not kill.
By 1031 the internal divisions of al- Andalus had caused its fragmentation into several tyrannical little “kingdoms,” the socalled taifas. Between 1086 and 1212, new waves of Islamic jihadists from North Africa washed over the land. The first wave were the almoravides, fundamentalist warriors invited by the taifa rulers to help them against the growing strength of the Catholic kingdoms. With the support of the Muslim Andalusian masses and of Muslim legal scholars, who resented the heavy taxation and what they regarded as the debauched and impious life of their princely rulers, the almoravides deposed the taifa kings and unified Andalusia. They pushed back the Catholic advances and made the life of both Catholics and Jews much more difficult than before. By 1138, however, their empire was falling apart under pressure from the Catholic kingdoms and another wave of North African fundamentalist Muslims, the almohades. The almohades thought that the almoravides had become too lax in their practice of Islam—perhaps, one may surmise, because of contagion from the Catholics. By 1170 the almohades had taken control of Andalusia and unleashed new horrors on Catholics, Jews, and other Muslims. That the ruthless almohades also produced marvelous architecture and were responsible for the beauty of some mozarabic buildings, such as Santa María la Blanca in Toledo, captures nicely the true nature of Andalusian Spain. But the almohades were decisively beaten by the allied kings of Castile, Aragon, and Navarra at Navas de Tolosa in 1212. From then on the Catholics kept the military initiative, finally defeating the last Muslim kingdom, Granada, in 1492.
The early Muslim invaders were relatively small in numbers, so it was politically prudent to grant religious autonomy to Catholics, while trying to protect themselves from the “contagion” of Catholic influence by segregating themselves from the subject majority.4 Therefore they maintained the Catholics in a state of dhimmitude —as a “protected” class curtailed from any possibility of sharing political power or compromising the hegemonic position of Islam. In times of war or political turmoil, the Catholics’ freedom was further restricted. Catholics fleeing Muslim rule lost all “protection,” and their property was confiscated by the conquerors. “Tolerance at this extreme,” notices historian Robert I. Burns, “is not easily distinguished from intolerance.”5
For similar reasons of strategy, not “tolerance,” the invaders obtained the help of Jewish leaders unhappy with their treatment under the Visigoths. Contrary to popular opinion, Jews were not very numerous, either in Andalusia or in Catholic Spain,6 but for a time Jewish garrisons kept an eye on Catholics populations in key cities like Cordoba, Granada, and Toledo.7 Jewish leaders achieved positions of power, as visirs (prime ministers), bankers, and counselors. Others wrote brilliant literary works, mostly in Arabic. Jews thus formed for a time an intermediary class between the hegemonic Muslims and the defeated Catholics. This was the so-called “Spanish Jewish Golden Age.” But Jews remained dhimmi, a group subject to and serving the Muslim rulers.