The myth of Tolerance in Islamic Spain


Many know about the falsification of history that underlies the claim that Islamic Spain was a place of remarkable harmony among Muslims, Jews, and Christians, a “convivencia” that testified to the benign nature of Muslim rule. Among the best known champions of this myth was the late Yale professor Maria Rosa Menocal, with her 2003 book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain.

The myths about Islamic Spain (known collectively as the “myth of Andalusia”) have their origins in the romantic writers of the early 19th century. Just as Sir Walter Scott, venturing beyond Scotland, painted a completely fictional portrait in The Talisman of the “noble Saracens” tutoring the Christians in chivalrous behavior, so the myths of wonderful tolerant Andalusia owes its existence to two highly imaginative works by two of the most eloquent and convincing of writers: Tales of the Alhambra by Washington Irving and Le Dernier des Abencérages by Chateaubriand. The latter, of course, thought nothing of making things up even about his own life — some of his entirely fictional trips are set down as fact in Memoires d’Outre-Tombe, including a visit to Lexington, to see where the first battle of the American Revolution took place — a visit that he never made, but made up out of whole cloth.

The apotheosis of this is the dreamy effort of Maria Rosa Menocal, The Ornament of the World, which purports to be about Cordoba, where members of the “three faiths” lived, she would like us to believe, in complete harmony. Now the first thing to know about this impressionistic fantasy is that it completely ignores, does not even mention in its bibliography, any of the major scholarly works on Muslim Spain — including those of Evariste Lévi-Provencal, of Dufourcq, of Bousquet, of many others. It ignores a good deal else as well, including Maimonides’ own words: “…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…”

This is particularly disturbing because this book received all sorts of praise when it appeared in 2003. The author was then a “professor at Yale” and the “Director of the Whitney Humanities Center” which impressed those who cannot see beyond the credentials. Sensible people cannot be expected to ake what are comically called academic standards very seriously anymore, what with the clownish Cornel West being snapped up, first by Princeton, then by Harvard, and now by Union Theological Seminary, and the sinister Rashid Khalidi, a former propagandist in Beirut for the PLO, still offering his PLO propaganda, but now he does it from his eminent perch high up on Morningside Heights as that appetizing thing, a full professor, at Columbia, and let’s not forget the army of academics carrying on about “post-colonial hegemonic discourse” as they dig ever deeper the graves of Academe. One cannot here resist the temptation to report that more than one teacher of literature has publicly expressed his long-past-receiving-tenure version of a deathbed conversion, and publicly admits that all that theory, that post-hegemonic discourse, whether of the Derrida-delirium, or Saidian swamp variety, was a monstrous error, and that one would do better to teach students in this audiovisual age to read books with attention, affection, and a well-stocked mind, rather than embrace the latest “theory of literature” arriving at American universities from across the Atlantic.

The myth of Islamic Spain’s fabled tolerance has been repeatedly punctured, but it lives on nonetheless. So many non-Muslims, after all, have a psychological stake, and so many Muslims have a geopolitical one, in its being accepted as true. Fabled and fabulous Al-Andalus and the city of Cordoba, with its red gitanillas in pots, flowing over the ornamental balconies that hang high above the whitewashed walls flanking the narrow alleys, and from outside one can hear the pleasing plash of fountains in the hidden courtyards, and one can see, in one’s imagination, three venerable old scholars, one Muslim, one Jew, one Christian (in a kind of backdated Benetton ad), walking together, talking animatedly of philosophy and spiritual matters, in an atmosphere of the highest mutual regard and understanding — for that was Al-Andalus, wasn’t it? — and the omnipresent smell of the orange blossoms, a whole city holiendo a azahar, and in the beautiful distance a glimpse of the Guadalquivir, and….fill in the rest yourself, courtesy of the Tourist Board of Spain and your own imagination.
Islamic Spain was far from being a paradise. Cordoba was no tolerant “ornament of the world.” Maimonides had to flee the city because of the persecution of the Almohads, but even before the fanatical Alhomads arrived from Morocco, the treatment of non-Muslims was dismal. When Joseph ibn Naghrela became Grand Vizier in Grenada, ordinary Muslims were incensed, believing that he had been given too much power by the Muslim ruler. In 1066, a Muslim mob assembled, murdered Ibn Naghrela, and then crucified his dead body. They then put to sword almost the entire Jewish community of Grenada, the very city celebrated as a place of tolerance by Washington Irving in his Tales of the Alhambra.

There were other major massacres of Jews. One of them, committed by Christians in this supposed land of “tolerance among the three faiths,” took place in 1391, nearly simultaneously in Seville, Castile, and Aragon.

Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain and the scholarship of Evariste Lévi-Provencal and others all show that this “tolerance” myth was born from the Romantic poets-in-prose mentioned above and is directly contradicted by the historical evidence. The records of the Muslim jurists, such as Ibn Abdun, confirm that the tolerance of Muslim Spain has been greatly exaggerated. In his opinion on the treatment of the Christians and Jews of Seville, Ibn Abdun insisted that “No…Jew or Christian may be allowed to wear the dress of an aristocrat, nor of a jurist, nor of a wealthy individual; on the contrary they must be detested and avoided. It is forbidden to accost them with the greeting, ‘Peace be upon you’…In effect, ‘Satan has gained possession of them, and caused them to forget God’s warning. They are the confederates of Satan’s path; Satan’s confederates will surely be the losers! (Quran 58:19). A distinct sign must be imposed upon them in order that they may be recognized and this will be for them a form of disgrace.”

A well-known jurist and poet of Muslim
Spain may have helped to promote the Grenada massacres in his famous anti-Jewish poem:

[INDENT]Bring them [the Jews] down to their place and Return them to the most abject station. They used to roam around us in tatters Covered with contempt, humiliation, and scorn. They used to rummage amongst the dungheaps for a bit of a filthy rag To serve as a shroud for a man to be buried in…Do not consider that killing them is treachery. Nay, it would be treachery to leave them scoffing.[/INDENT]
That is the real story of the Jews in Islamic Spain. It was not Maria Rosa Menocal’s paradise of tolerance, but a place where Jews could be robbed, beaten, extorted, their property seized, even their lives forfeited, by the Muslims who ruled over them. They lived in a state of constant fear, never knowing when a Muslim ruler, or a Muslim mob, might find a reason to turn on them. That is the dismal truth.

Isolation and projection of a specific part of history causes mis-information. Read the book and also look at another called A VANISHED WORLD on the same topic.

All writers agree on one thing,

It was a phase IMMEDIATELY after the islamic caliphate took over spain as a military strategy to avoid Rebellion and Uprising.

Of course, they would later on fight each other and the last islamic Kingdom in 1490s was destroyed by Queen Isabella a christian.

Why is it referred to as a myth by some writers such as Maria?

The caliphate kept records as would any other Kingdom, but once the uprising came records were destroyed to cleanse the land off any Islamic ideals.

This is a interesting read.

Have you read the Book The Gods Battalion? This will give you insights on Crusades. Utaona vile brainwashing is real and how men use other men for power.

The irony packed in this statement is striking. Once the Muslims took over the Iberian peninsula and created a caliphate through militant jihad, why would they revert their ways to a peaceful coexistence right after consolidating land and power through violent means?

The Islamic command of conquest through violent jihad and the total subjugation of dhimmis are clearly delineated by the Qu’ran.

Qu’ran 9:29. Fight those who believe not in God nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by God and His Apostle, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.

The above emphatically exhorts Muslims to conquer the Jews and Christians until they pay a sum of money (Jizya) as a sign of their subjection and humiliation. There was never a period of peaceful democratic coexistence in an islamic caliphate, ever! It’s a myth that is meant to placate and soothe those who are ignorant about the 1,400 year history of Islamic conquest, while the Muslims work quietly and determinedly to deliver a global caliphate governed by Sharia. Please look up the ‘Pact of Umar’ which was a body of limitations and privileges entered into between conquering Muslims and non-Muslims and tell me whether any of that sounds like the “Golden Age” of Jewish and Muslim relations in 6-7th century Mesopotamia.


Read on the impact of the treaty of Theodemir. The treaty was reinforced by payment of Jizya, and in return the caliphate would respect Jewish and Christian ways for local relations but all foreign relations were Sharia governed.

This specific period is what History has in contention.

In essence, it was indirect ruling. But of course, the Caliphate never respected the treaty and subsequent records indicate they viewed Jews and Christians as second hand subjects.

compare that with chivalrous & magnanimous crusaders who treated jews and orthodox Christians with such brotherly love when they entered jerusalem

The Quran is the ultimate authority given by allah, and it sets the tone and foundation for the treatment of dhimmis. Any other historical interpretation or account which deviates from what was understood by the various caliphs and their underlings is a myth. There was never a ‘golden age of Islam,’ only jihad and conquest. The three options given to the conquered were: convert to Islam, pay the jizya (for those of the Book) or death. You ignore the second part of verse 9:29, the corollary which states that they had to feel themselves subdued. It was not enough to extort wealth from the Jews and Christians, they had to also FEEL humiliated.

The ninth-century Quranic scholar al-Tabari (circa 838AD) emphasized that the jizya was meant to be humiliating and degrading: “Abasement and poverty were imposed and laid down upon them…The dhimmis’ posture during the collection of the jizya was by walking on their hands…”

Your understanding of the jizya as a quid-pro-quo in exchange for good treatment never actually panned out. For instance, although Islamic law stipulates that the jizya was not to be collected from women and children, such limitations were often ignored in practice. In the Ottoman Empire, according to the pioneering historian of dhimmitude, Bat Ye’or, the poll tax was extorted by torture. The tax inspectors demanded gifts for themselves; widows and orphans were pillaged and despoiled. In theory, women, paupers, the sick, and the infirm were exempt from the poll tax; nevertheless, Armenian, Syriac, and Jewish sources provide abundant proof that the jizya was exacted from children, widows, orphans, and even the dead. A considerable number of extant documents, preserved over the centuries, testify to the persistence and endurance of these measures. In Aleppo in 1683, French Consul Chevalier Laurent d’Arvieux noted that ten-year-old Christian children paid the jizya. Here again, one finds the disparity and contradiction between the ideal in the theory and the reality of the facts. Similarly, a contemporary account of the Muslims’ conquest of Egypt in the 640s says of one conquered locale that the jizya payments were set way beyond the means of the local dhimmis: “It is impossible to describe the lamentable position of the inhabitants of this town, who came to the point of offering their children in exchange for the enormous sums that they had to pay each month.”

The nineteenth-century Quranic scholar Sheikh Ahmed as-Sawi specifies that the purpose of the jizya is for non-Muslims to show they are “humble and obedient to the judgements of Islam.” This was a manifestation of the “state of abasement” specified by verse 9:29 and spelled out by the Bedouin commander al-Mughira bin Sa’d when he met the Persian Rustam. Said al-Mughira, “I call you to Islam or else you must pay the jizya while you are in a state of abasement.” Rustam replied, “I know what jizya means, but what does ‘a state of abasement’ mean?” Al-Mughira explained, “You pay it while you are standing and I am sitting and the whip is hanging over your head.