False Impressions

The Ornament of the World by María Rosa Menocal, and the comments regarding this book by Stephen Schwartz in his recent NRO letter, promote a utopian "vision" divorced from reality. Their idyllic view of Muslim Spain completely misrepresents the dhimmis´ (i.e., non-Muslim vanquished peoples) existence. Ms. Menocal claims, "The new Islamic polity not only allowed Jews and Christians to survive, but following Quranic mandate, by and large protected them…" The laws of dhimmitude, as opposed to flimsy notions of "tolerance" and "protection" determined the actual sociopolitical, and economic status of Christians and Jews conquered by jihad wars.

Unfortunately, the so-called "tolerance" and "protection" alluded to was afforded only upon submission to Islamic domination by a "Pact"--or Dhimma--which imposed degrading and discriminatory regulations. The main principles of dhimmitude were (and continue to be): (i) the inequality of rights in all domains between Muslims and dhimmis; (ii) the social and economic discrimination against the dhimmis; (iii) the humiliation and vulnerability of the dhimmis. Moreover, Ms. Menocal seems to be totally unaware of the dire consequences for infidel dhimmis in Muslim Spain who rebelled against the repressive Dhimma: slaughter of the rebels, and enslavement of their women and children.

In reality, Muslim Spain was a country of constant jihad ruled under Maliki jurisdiction, which offered one of the most severe, repressive interpretations of Islamic law. Muslim Spain was populated by tens of thousands of Christian slaves, and humiliated and oppressed Christian dhimmis, in addition to a small minority of privileged Christian notables. The muwallads (neo-converts to Islam) were in nearly perpetual revolt against the Arab immigrants who had claimed large estates for themselves, farmed by Christian serfs or slaves. Expropriations and fiscal extortions ignited the flames of continual rebellion by both muwallads and mozarabs (Christian dhimmis) throughout the Iberian peninsula. Leaders of these rebellions were crucified, and their insurgent followers were put to the sword. These bloody conflicts, which occurred throughout the Hispano-Umayyad emirate until the tenth century, fueled endemic religious hatred. An 828 letter from Louis the Pious to the Christians of Merida summarized their plight under Abd al-Rahman II, and during the preceeding reign: confiscation of their property, unfair increase of their exacted tribute, removal of their freedom (probably meaning slavery), and oppression by excessive taxes.

The leader of the muwallad rebellion in southern Andalusia (near Ronda), Ibn Hafsun (d. 918), roused the peasants against the Muslim government which he accused of confiscating their property, and subjecting them to heavy tribute, and against the Arabs who were crushing them with humiliations, while treating them as slaves. In Grenada, the Jewish viziers Samuel Ibn Naghrela, and his son Joseph, who protected a once flourishing Jewish community, were both assassinated between 1056 to 1066, followed by the annihilation of the Jewish population by the local Muslim community (at least three thousand Jews perished in an uprising surrounding the 1066 assasination, alone). Finally, although Maimonides is frequently referred to by Menocal as a paragon of Jewish achievement facilitated by the enlightened rule of Muslim Spain, his own words debunk Menocal's utopian view of Islamic treatment of Jews: "..the Arabs have persecuted us severely, and passed baneful and discriminatory legislation against us...Never did a nation molest, degrade, debase, and hate us as much as they.."

For those not hopelessly enamored of (false) utopianism, a much more accurate assessment of interfaith relationships in Muslim Spain can be found in Richard Fletcher's very engaging Moorish Spain. Mr. Fletcher offers these unromantic, but unassailable observations: "The simple and verifiable historical truth is that Moorish Spain was more often a land of turmoil than it was of tranquility...But in the cultural conditions that prevail in the west today the past has to be marketed, and to be successfully marketed it has to be attractively packaged. Medieval Spain in a state of nature lacks wide appeal. Self-indulgent fantasies of glamour...do wonders for sharpening up its image."

Following the cataclysmic events of September 11, 2001 there has been a decided tendency to recall nebulous "Golden Ages" of idyllic multireligious societies, invented so effectively (as Ms. Menocal has done, for example) that today one feels defenseless and disoriented, when brought face-to-face with the conflicts from another age, deliberately erased from history. We must forego this whitewashing and opt instead for a shared, candid reflection on the painful living legacy of dhimmitude to unite us in a joint effort for peace and mutual respect. It is a calumny to label as "Islamophobic" individuals wishing to promote this kind of difficult, but meaningful dialogue.

Andrew G. Bostom, M.D.
Brown University Medical School
Providence, R.I.