By Darío Fernández-Morera
The Intercollegiate Review, Volume 41, Number 2 (2006)
Introduction: 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).” 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 alAndalus were autocrats who through brute force kept the peace in the face of religious, dynastic, racial, and other divisions.