The Contested Legacy of Muslim Spain

De Agostini Picture Library/G. Dagli Orti/Bridgeman Images
Muhammad XII, also known as Boabdil, the last Muslim ruler of Granada, leaving the city in 1492 after its conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella; detail of an altarpiece in the Royal Chapel of the Cathedral of Granada, sixteenth century

The historiography of medieval Spain is an academic battleground on which historians and other intellectuals pick over elements of the country’s past that might support one or another version of its national identity. The question of national identity became acute during and after the Spanish Civil War. In 1943 the medievalist Claudio Sánchez-Albornoz published España y el Islam, in which the Muslim occupation of the Iberian Peninsula was presented as a disaster: “Without Islam who can guess what our destiny might have been?” Sánchez-Albornoz identified strongly with what he saw as the specifically Christian and Castilian heritage of Spain. This version of Spanish history might have appealed to the royalists, Falangists, and fervent Catholics who were winning the civil war. Yet Sánchez-Albornoz not only spent the Franco years teaching in Argentina, he was also president of the council of the Spanish Republican government in exile, and his book was published in Buenos Aires.

It was another exile from Franco’s Spain who produced an interpretation of Spanish history that celebrated just those elements in it that Sánchez-Albornoz regarded as his country’s curse. After the civil war broke out, the cultural historian Américo Castro had taken teaching posts in America, and in 1948 his España en su historia: cristianos, moros y judíos was published in Argentina. This book emphasized the hybrid nature of medieval Spanish society and the enormous contributions made to its culture by Arabs, Berbers, and Jews. Castro used the term convivencia to describe the peaceful coexistence that he argued was commonly, though not always, the leading feature of the Muslim and Christian regimes in medieval Spain.

The debate has continued into the post-Franco era. The Cuban-born scholar of medieval history María Rosa Menocal followed Castro in celebrating the Arab and Jewish contributions to Spanish history and culture.* “A thousand years ago on the Iberian Peninsula, an enlightened vision of Islam had created the most advanced culture in Europe,” she wrote in 2002. Menocal lamented the Christian Reconquista, but it was not, in her view, what brought an end to that utopia of high culture and tolerance. Instead, civil strife among Muslim warlords in the early eleventh century began the ruin of Andalusian civilization. Thereafter the invasion from Morocco of first the fanatical Almoravid Berbers and later the no less fanatical Almohad Berbers completed the ruin.

In The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians, and Jews under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (2016), Darío Fernández-Morera took a less pollyannaish view of Muslim Spain, which he argued “was marked by religious and therefore cultural repression in all areas of life”…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.