I really enjoyed this book – which was published in 1992 – but had decided not to review it because it seemed of such specialised interest. I only read it because I’m planning to travel to Spain. Who would care what happened there in the eighth century? But then I realised that the history Fletcher is talking about has real significance for today’s world. In particular, it has relevance for the history wars that the current Liberal government in Australia (ie conservative in the Australian context) has reignited through statements that history as currently taught does not have enough emphasis on Western traditions and values, particularly Christian religious ones. There should, says the Education Minister, be a ‘greater focus on the benefits of Western civilisation’.
In 711 AD, the southern parts of Spain fell to an invasion from Morocco. It was led by Arabs from further east, who used local Berber troops to do the heavy lifting. Northern Spain remained in the hands of the Christian Visigoth successors to the Roman occupiers of the country, with a sort of no-mans-land in between. For the next seven centuries, there were periods of peace, but also periods of sporadic warfare, sometimes between the Muslim south and the Christian north, but also internally between both Muslims and Christians, and even on occasion between alliances of Christians and Muslims against other Christians and Muslims. Though at times, especially towards the end of the period, these conflicts were couched in the religious terms of Muslim versus Christian, they were far more often about land and loot than religious doctrine. The loss of Granada, the last bastion of Muslim power on the peninsula in 1492, and the eventual expulsion of the remaining Moors from Spain between 1609 and 1614 marked the final victory of the Catholic monarchy. But Fletcher points out that the idea of deliverance from Muslim rule by brave Christian kings owes as much to Spanish national myth-making as it does to what actually happened.
The most obvious traces of the Moorish presence in Spain are the architectural ones, with buildings such as the great mosque at Córdoba – Christianised after the fall of Córdoba – the Torre del Oro in Seville and the Alhambra – a garrison/palace built in the latter years of Muslim rule in Granada. We don’t know a lot about how ordinary people lived. This is partly because the historical records are sparse, and partly because where they do exist, they relate only to the doings of the rulers. Fletcher suggests that although most Muslim rulers were more tolerant of both Christians and Jews under their jurisdiction than Christian monarchs were of Muslims or Jews, there was a fair bit of persecution on both sides. This was no golden age of tolerance.
Fletcher is however, clear that the Christian West owes a huge debt to Muslim Spain. This is because it was the conduit through which flowed Greek philosophical, scientific and medical knowledge from the East. Translated into Arabic from the original Greek or Persian, the writings of philosophers such as Aristotle were diffused throughout the Muslim world. In Spain, they were translated into Latin, and in Fletcher’s words, ‘channelled off to irrigate the dry pastures of European intellectual life’. He thinks that an opportunity was missed for scholars of both faiths to truly understand each other’s religion, but nevertheless sees the intellectual gifts that Muslim society did pass on as crucial to the intellectual awaking that was so important for the Renaissance and the rise of the West.
So what has this to do with history wars? The history I learnt at school was entirely Europocentric, and Spain was an unimportant appendage to the south. When it was mentioned at all, it was as a country foolish enough to send an armada against England, and a cruel colonial power in South America – much worse than the Anglo Saxon colonial powers. And there was nothing about Islam, except some vague idea that they were nasty heathens whom we could never manage to beat in the Crusades. I’m very grateful to Professor Fletcher for filling in at least a tiny part of what I missed by focusing on the benefits of Western civilisation. He shows you can’t understand what these might be in isolation from other civilisations. ‘The plain fact,’ he says, ‘is that between 712 and 1492 Muslim and Christian communities lived side by side in the Iberian peninsula, clutched in a long, intimate embrace: sharing a land, learning from one another, trading, intermarrying, misunderstanding, squabbling, fighting – generally indulging in all the incidents that go to furnish the ups and downs of coexistence or relationship.’ Surely an understanding of this relationship is relevant to the western world, where we know so little about Muslim history and culture?
Moorish Spain is an immensely readable short introduction to this subject. ‘The reader I have in mind,’ says Fletcher, ‘is the inquisitive traveller in Spain who might want to know something more than a guidebook can tell him about the people who built the mosque of Córdoba or the Alhambra at Granada.’ For me he goes much further than that, correcting the balance which is already far too much in favour of Western civilisation at the expense of any understanding of the history of Muslim culture in Europe.
You can read more about Professor Fletcher, who died in 2004, here. There are notes on further reading at the end of the book.