Paradise Lost

I’ve taken one for the team. I’ve read it so you don’t have to. Yep. That book.

The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise is a self-proclaimed corrective to a “wide-spread belief that it was a wonderful place of tolerance and convivencia of three cultures under the benevolent supervision of enlightened Muslim rulers” (2). The book’s author, Darío Fernández-Morera is an associate professor at Northwestern, a critic of Cervantes and other early modern Spanish literati who positions himself as a “Machiavellian” (nope, not kidding, 3) interpreter of the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the book is even more politicizing than the work it discusses and tilts, appropriately for a volume written by a Cervantes scholar, at giants that turn out to be nothing more than badly misperceived windmills.

The Myth consists of over 350 pages of what a colleague poetically calls “convivencia sneering,” a resentful drive to first misconstrue nearly 80 years of scholarship on medieval Spain as a mere celebration of the convivencia, or living-togetether-ness of Muslims, Jews, and Christians, and then tear down the newly constructed straw man. “Convivencia sneering” is often found in two guises, both of which are manifest in The Myth: first, the misrepresentation of scholarship on the Jews, Christians, and Muslims of medieval Spain as a uniformly idealizing and one-dimensional endeavor divorced from research into the real “realidad histórica”; and second, treating works written for a popular audience, most notably María Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World, as the scholarship in the field while ignoring works written for a scholarly audience and refusing to treat writing for those two audiences as different beasts.

The author claims that contemporary scholarship on medieval Iberia perpetrates the myth of a paradise in with Jews, Christians, and Muslims all more or less got along, and that this view has been deceitfully conveyed to a gullible reading public. His book will set the record straight. In other words, his argument is that a caricature of convivencia has been perpetrated on an unsuspecting audience by scholars who are, in turn, too afraid of the Islamic world and too enamored of it to tell the truth about how horrendous Islam was and is. He supports this claim through a series of misrepresentations of the primary sources and ofthe state of the field facilitated by a desperately poor handle on the relevant secondary bibliography and a blinding need to prove the evil of Islam and the darkness of the Middle Ages.

He positions himself as the maverick outsider who alone can correct the deficiency he perceives in the interpretation of the medieval evidence of interactions between Muslims and others in medieval Spain. However, he does not approach a field that is not his own with the humility required to learn its contours. This is not to say, as Fernández-Morera charges, that everyone must be in agreement. In fact, a quick look at the field shows that a lot of us are in deep disagreement with each other about a lot of things. What it means, though, is that every field of study, and I mean that in the most literal sense of the term to refer to the material itself and not to the body of scholarship that has grown up around it, requires a certain degree of expertise and familiarity that a few years of reading can never yield. What’s wrong with this book is not only its ideology (although I firmly disagree with it), but its methodology and its unfamiliarity with the various genres of text upon which it builds its argument. This is not to say that no scholar should ever cross disciplinary or period boundaries — quite the contrary — but rather, that a first foray into a new field that attempts nothing short of tearing down that field is simply unlikely to be able to distinguish between real problems in that field and phantasms (see, for example, Fernández-Morera’s nonsensical discussion of the relationship between toponymy and language families on pp. 14). To make this kind of critique successfully requires many years immersed in the material rather than a dilettante’s grand tour through it.

Furthermore, outsider status and lack of expertise raises questions about a scholar’s ability to approach the material itself. Fernández-Morera congratulates himself for his recourse to primary sources, as though that were not a minimum requirement for all scholarship: “This book gives special attention to primary sources… and usually quotes them verbatim so that nonscholars can read these materials (which in modern publications on Islamic Spain frequently are not part of the narrative and often not even part of the notes)” (11). Yet his claim to be citing sources “verbatim” is belied by his bibliography, which reveals that he has referred to Arabic sources only in translation. This is simply unacceptable. A scholar cannot write about texts he cannot read in the original and cannot rely on the discretion of translators to choose the objects of his study for him. The fact that he seemingly consulted no sources in the original Arabic makes, for example, his attempt at a fine parsing of the term jihād in theory and practice an exercise in futility. Yet Fernández-Morera disagrees about the value of reading sources in the original and places a lot of stock in the interpretations of translators. He claims that the myth of tolerance “can hardly be explained by linguistic ignorance, since the primary medieval Latin, Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew sources required for a good general understanding of Islamic Spain have been translated into accessible Western languages”(4) and that those who cannot read sources in the original “can find consolation in the fact that they are no worse off than the celebrated Córdoban Muslim cleric Ibn Rushd (“Averroes”), a polymath who achieved lasting fame by commenting on the technical and difficult texts of Aristotle without knowing Greek and after reading them in twice-mediated translations” (13). He does not think that one need read Arabic or Latin sources in order to analyze them. Linguistic ignorance is no barrier! (Just as a side note: the fact that he includes medieval Spanish and the Latin of medieval Spain under the rubric of inaccessible non-Western languages that require translation shows just how alien the place and its languages are in his vision of the world.)  Nevermind that standards and practices in all sorts of fields have changed and been updated quite dramatically since the twelfth century. I, for one, would not want my medical care to be based on Averroes’ practice as a physician; why should my own practice of the humanities warrant less?

This kind of glib attitude towards language learning and to the sources themselves reveals an anti-intellectual attitude (one that extends to all the usual complaints about the liberal academy (5-7)) and imbues its joyful ignorance with an anti-Arab and anti-Arabic slant that comes across not only in the author’s discussion of languages in scholarship and the place of translation scholarship in the same, but also in his attitudes towards the langauges he sees no need to be able to read. The book is sloppy and inconsistent with terminology in ways that betray a desire to alienate readers from medieval Arabs and Muslims: While the author explains that “to facilitate the reading by nonspecialists, I have generally avoided the use of diacritical symbols: thus Quran instead of Qur’an” (13), we see diacritics used on Spanish terms throughout, thereby suggesting that the author finds diacrticial marks on Arabic words difficult and a part of the language to be eliminated, he finds the ones on Spanish words to be a normal part of reading and to present no challenge to the reader; he describes aljamiado as “Spanish written with Arabic signs” (25) rather than letters, taking Arabic writing out of the realm of the familiar and the alphabetic — and even the realm of natural language — and placing it in the realm of a code; he consistently refers to an “Islamic caliphate,” as if there were another kinds, thereby doubly emphasizing the religion of the subject; and he does what so many would-be scholars of this material do to try to prove their dominance over the Arabic material (more on this below) and uses extra-high-falootin’ and incorrect forms of rendering and transliterating Arabic terms (for example, where we would typically talk about  hadīth collections, Fernández-Morera makes sure that we know that he has come to learn that that ahādith is the plural form of hadīth and writes instead about ahādith collections; where he refers to the kitābah al-dhimam he simply borrows the outdated and silly-looking transliteration system from Pascual de Gayangos’ translation of al-Makkarī (whose name Fernández-Morera alternately transliterates with both Ks (as in FN 13 for the chapter) and Qs (as in FN 4 for the chapter)), writing kitabatu-dh-dhimam (180); what’s the point of introducing Arabic terms that the author is not even familiar enough to render in transliteration on his own? Perhaps I am falling into precisely the trap that would allow Fernández-Morera to dismiss my critique as coddling Muslims and casually dismissing those with whom I disagree intellectually as Islamophobes (7); but as these examples show, whatever I might think about the inherent immorality of adopting an anti-Arab or anti-Muslim position, to adopt such a position does skew, distort, and render incorrect historical analyses. An Islamophobic attitude is not separable from bad scholarship on the Islamic world; hatred of Arabs will always affect the reading of Arabic texts. What is on the surface reflects what is below.

Fernández-Morera accuses virtually everyone in the field of being too afraid of risking our ability to enter Arab and Islamic countries or of becoming the targets of some kind of indeterminate radical Islamic threat to be able to do honest work or assess (his) honest work fairly (7-8). I suppose the fact that I was taking notes on this book with my nifty NYU-Abu Dhabi combination pen-highlighter puts me into the category of the guilty and the bought-off; nevertheless I would say on my own authority and based on my own experience that fear of Arab nations and of Muslims simply doesn’t enter into the equation.

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Yet with Fernández-Morera having written off medieval studies as too timid, the press is forced to turn to people outside the field to adjudicate his argument. In its self-promotion, the The Myth builds up its credibility not only on a logically fallacious appeal to authority (which, to a certain extent, all books do with their advertising blurbs) but with an appeal to authorities of a wholly inappropriate nature. Daniel Pipes, for example, is an activist known for his often poorly-grounded and Islamophobic assaults on scholarship; and Noel Valis is a scholar of 20th century literature whose inclusion among the lauders of the book raises questions for me about this simply having been an opportunity for Yale colleagues who both profoundly disagreed with Menocal despite not being specialists and, perhaps more importantly, deeply resented the success she achieved in the popular press and within the university, to bash her now that she can no longer defend her own work and written legacy. The author and/or the press shamelessly plays on petty academic-world fights (that are largely invisible to a non-academic and even a non-specialist audience) to build this book up undeservedly.

And even in promoting the book, this particular strategy prevails, as in this video interview (which is built up on some fascinating civilizational claims about the foundations of “our culture” and “our country” that very much tip the Cuban-born author’s hand) when Fernández-Morera complains (start around 6:25) that only specialists know that the horseshoe shaped arch comes from Visigothic art and have sat on that information to mislead the public into associating it with Islam (an argument he makes in the book, too, expressing disappointment that he wasn’t actually the first to discover that horseshoe-shaped arches have a pre-Islamic history (268, FN 43)):

It is one thing to make information not readily available in popular works to a wider audience, but the scholarly work on the Visigothic origins of the horseshoe arch has, indeed, already received the popular treatment, as in this page from The Arts of Intimacy by, amongst others, Menocal, one of his chief historiographic villains.

Ultimately, Fernández-Morera shows that he is not speaking to a lay audience broadly in the interest of scholarly integrity, but rather to a lay audience predisposed to reading books that slam the idea that there might be any good in Islam and Islamicate culture and in the modern academic culture of expertise. The author has positioned himself as a scholar intervening in a battle over presentation to a popular audience without the necessary scholarly background and almost without realizing — or hoping that his well-primed audience won’t notice — that his book, too, is popular and exceptionally polemical rather than scholarly.

***

It would be a book-length corrective that would address and properly contextualize and source all of the errors that occur at every level in The Myth, from basic problems of terminology to broader methodological and interpretive flaws. (In fact, as long as it is, I cut quite a bit out of the first section of this review.) So I will use Chapter 6 — which claims to unveil “the truth about the Jewish community’s ‘Golden Age’” (177) as an emblematic case study in the flaws of the volume. Even in doing this, I open myself up to the charge from Fernández-Morera, writing throughout from the position of the aggrieved and slighted Christian subjugated to an intellectual and popular culture too friendly to Islam and Judaism, that we medievalists care more about Jews than about Christians amongst the dhimmi: “Some recent scholars in the English-speaking world have done excellent work, but with the exception of Emmet Scott [a self-proclaimed and self-published iconoclast who has made a career of skewering the “myths” of fields from Egyptology to Islamic history and whose credentials are not readily evident— SJP] they have either concerned themselves mainly with the Jewish experience or not adopted the approach of the present book” (9). One scholar whom Fernández-Morera dismisses for being “concerned with violence inflicted on the Jewish community, not with that inflicted on the Christian community or with religious laws” (245) is David Nirenberg, whose approach to convivencia holds that the kinds of violence that wracked medieval Spain was only possible because of the intimate familiarity between confessional communities. Rather than dismissing Nirenberg for focusing on violence in Jewish communities rather than Christian ones, Fernández-Morera might have found in his work a sounder way to argue against an idealized vision of convivencia or even evidence that no such idealized vision obtains across the field.

Some low-hanging fruit are the terminological issues: Why is “Jewish law scholar” placed in scare quotes when applied to Hasdai ibn Shapruṭ (191)? Why is the naming of the city gate in the Jewish quarter as bāb al-yahūd evidence of discrimination (190)? Is the presence in many medieval cities of a bāb al-shams (the sun gate) equally problematic? And why, oh, why, does he keep referring to Spanish Jews in Spain as Sephardim, when that term points to the fact that they are Spanish (and so a tautological term before 1492) rather than to the fact that they are Jewish?

Each chapter of the book is subdivided into sections set off with epigrams. The sources show the author’s alienation from the world of scholarship on the history of al-Andalus and his resentment toward expertise — even expertise that does not come from a traditional academic framework. In chapter 6 cites, for example, from a general online encyclopedia, the Jewish Virtual Library (and an entry by someone whose work I don’t think is especially good, to boot); from a 1983 article on the history of Islamic science not published in a humanities publication but rather in the journal Nature, thereby raising questions about the methodological integrity of the historical work; and from a high-school textbook for use in Jewish schools. When he cites from Peter Cole’s introduction to the Dream of the Poem, which is an excellent introduction to the literary history of Hebrew poetry in medieval Spain, he identifies the editor and translator sarcastically as “praised by the literary critic Harold Bloom for giving ‘the best account of convivencia I have ever encountered” (200) rather than as a MacArthur fellow. These epigrams, he writes, “indicate [that] it is widely believed that Islam granted to Spain’s Jewish community, composed largely of Sephardic Jews, a substantial degree of liberty and tolerance” (177). Yet by structuring the chapter around poor (or poorly attributed) examples of popular misconceptions, he both bolsters the straw-man nature of his argument and loses the footing from which he claims to be arguing against the irresponsibility of academics whose work filters out into the popular world.

The chapter is built entirely upon secondary sources, many of which are misused. Fernández-Morera deploys Benzion Netanyahu’s widely discredited, lachrymose The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain not for the full trajectory of Netanyahu’s argument that by the fifteenth century the Inquisition was simply drawing on a suspicion of Jews that dates back to antiquity but instead to selectively read Netanyahu’s interpretation of Jewish life in Visigothic Spain (311, FN 3). On the flip side, the chapter builds its argument for the deficiencies of the field of Andalusi Studies by charging that scholars have ignored aspects of history that have in fact been the subject of detailed work. Most prominently, after effectively accusing the Iberian Jewish community of being a fifth column working against the Visigoths at the time of the arrival of Umayyad military forces, he criticizes this alliance for “having nothing to do with the fundamental beliefs held by the parties to it” and “even seasoned scholars who marvel at the ‘tolerance’ the Islamic conquerors displayed toward Jews” for having “overlooked… this simple political explanation” (178). The idea that alliances were not drawn strictly down religious lines is such a common and well-accepted one that a curious reader could go to any recent study of any topic of Andalusi cultural history and find it in that study’s foundations. Fernández-Morera is correct in identifying more than religious causes for the drive of social and cultural history in al-Andalus, but is incorrect in saying that he is virtually alone in having noticed it.

When he does deal with primary sources (always in translation), he does not do it well or with methodological awareness or skill. He selects verses from the Qur’ān that support his argument and ignore those that cut against it (178). And despite his obsession with Mālikī law, he reads them in isolation and not with any of the interpretive or analytical tradition that governed how Andalusi Muslims understood those verses; at various points in the book he claims that practical or applied religion and law don’t matter in the face of what is written in text. (And, in fact, the section of this chapter that looks at Jewish law (187-99) just doesn’t make a coherent point; it’s difficult to refute a cacophony of references to old scholarship on Maimonidean and other rabbinic responsa that just isn’t doing much other than apparently arguing by volume of words.)

His discussion of the life of Samuel ibn Naghrīla neatly encapsulates all of the methodological issues: Fernández-Morera writes that Ibn Naghrīla’s departure from Córdoba “demonstrated the insecurity of Jewish life” because “Jews were expelled from Córdoba in 1013 and their wealth was confiscated as punishment for taking the side of a defeated Muslim leader” (181). In other words, they were not expelled for being Jewish, but expelled for allying themselves with a losing political side. For someone who, in his introduction, is so hell-bent on proving that he’s the only one who looks at political, rather than religious, reasons for conflict, this is a serious misstep. He also takes all of the Islamic sources for Ibn Naghrīla’s life and reads them at face value with no consideration for the conventions of writing in this time and place and for the ways in which authors would often play with meaning and write a single text for multiple audiences (181-5). Neither his bibliography nor his notes suggest he is familiar with Ross Brann’s study of these sources in his Power in the Portrayal, which offers thoughtful, detailed, and contextualized reading of this material. Again, he doesn’t refute scholarship that disproves his point; he just ignores it.

And finally, there is the question of Karaism. Karaite Judaism, which bases its system of legal reasoning on the Hebrew Bible and largely excludes Talmud and other post-biblical sources for law, appears in Spanish texts often as a rhetorical foil, standing in for other enemies or threats. There is not a tremendous amount of evidence for a large Karaite community there and Fernández-Morera does nothing to remedy this documentary problem, but this does not stop him from expressing outrage at this community’s “elimination” and the reluctance of mainstream scholarship to address that. He offers no evidence for his claims for the “destruction of Karaism in Spain” (203) nor for a flourishing of a crypto-Karaite community in Castile (202). Although he describes Karaites as “disciples of scripture” (200), apparently borrowing a flowery phrase from a 19th-century letter written by the Karaite scholar Abraham Firkovitch, Fernández-Morera does not seem to fully understand what Karaite Judaism is at all. He regularly contrasts Karaite Judaism not with Rabbanite Judaism, but rather, anachronistically, with Orthodox Judaism (200-201, and other places), which is an invention of the 19th century in reaction to changes in northern European Judaism that seemed, to some practitioners, to be to quick to accommodate the modern world. Although he presents this Karaite-“Orthodox” battle as part of his claim that the intranecine squabbles of Judaism disprove the idea of a Jewish “Golden Age” in Spain — “In Islamic Spain, there was no more ‘convivencia’ and ‘tolerance’ within the Jewish community than outside it” (188)— he concludes the chapter almost admiringly, writing about “Orthodox” Jews who were able to stand up to a threat to their religion and contrasting them to the oversensitivity of today’s mores, with a description that is similar in tone to the way he writes about Christians defending themselves against Muslims he deems jihādīs in other chapters: “It is easy today to condemn traditional medieval Judaism’s elimination of the Spanish Karaites. It was achieved at a human cost…From the point of view of traditional medieval Judaism, then, the true religion was threatened in its essence, and after the failure to convince the heretics to give up their erroneous beliefs and rejoin the traditional Jewish community, only force could neutralize their threat” (203).

The only way that Fernández-Morera is able to sustain his argument that life under Islam in Spain was just horrendous is by ignoring many relevant primary sources, ignoring the literary conventions that governed reading and writing in the Middle Ages, and ignoring vast swaths of scholarship and historiographic models that offer a nuanced take on the period. Every chapter in the book replicates these and more errors, missteps, and misinterpretations.

***

Let me just say it plainly: Nobody in the academic world seriously talks about medieval Spain as “an Andalusian Paradise.” (Nevermind that the adjective “Andalusian” hasn’t applied to Islamic Spain in something like the last twenty years; we now use the adjective “Andalusi” and reserve “Andalusian” for the description of the modern province of Andalucía.) The entire book is constructed against a straw man and a few popular appropriations of scholarship. The Myth‘s myth is a myth.

The book, plainly speaking, is a waste of paper and ink, full of cherry-picked examples and unsophisticated analysis. So why dedicate so many pixels to refuting it? Partly, it’s just irritating to have some under-researched interloper waltz into my field, bash it on the basis of fantasy, and then waltz on. Beyond that, there is a faction within the academy of scholars who feel threatened in one way or the other by the rise of Andalusi Studies, either because they don’t read Arabic and so can’t participate fully in this scholarly conversation or because they see a Christian or Spanish-national intellectual hegemony slipping through their fingers; and that faction should be reminded that it does not have a serious champion in this book. At the popular level, there is an aggrieved audience for this sort of thing that then draws its arguments into the increasingly dangerous political discourse of the present day that has resulted in arson fires destroying mosques and bomb threats disrupting life at synagogues across the country; and so there is a duty to push back against that narrative. It is an ignorant blow against expertise in a world in which ignorance is triumphing more and more over research, knowledge, and careful thought. And it’s a bibliographic challenge: I saw this book cited in some of my undergraduates’ research papers in the fall, which means that as a teacher I have to talk about it and talk about how we evaluate a book like this.

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So, no. The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise doesn’t merit all these words of refutation. And yet here we are. Thanks for bearing with me.

One thought on “Paradise Lost

  1. Pingback: Excerpt: Book Review of The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise | SHARIAsource blog

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