In Defence Of The Almoravids

Much of the Spanish tourist industry, and the whole of the Spanish early-music movement, revolves around the slogan of the Tres Culturas; by which is meant the peaceful coexistence of Jews, Christians and Muslims in both Andalusia and Christian Spain. The motivation for this is apparently a kind of national repentance for the Expulsion and the Spanish Inquisition, including a coded repentance for their later manifestations in the form of fascism. The Spaniards are in effect saying: Behold, we are turning our back on the Counter-Reformation and the persecution of all dissidents, we are returning to and rediscovering our roots as a multicultural and liberal society! In this way the Tres Culturas tourist schtick is part of the ongoing Spanish integration into the European Union.

This is a most excellent motivation, and more power to it. But whenever a remote historical period is viewed through the lens of a current political agenda, there is bound to be a certain distortion; and this is as true of the praiseworthy Spanish reconnection with an imagined medieval pluralism as it was of the reprehensible German reconnection with an imagined Dark Ages tribalism.

This approach merges with the Crusades revisionism described above, which generally makes out that Jews were much better off under Muslim than under Christian masters. Their status as a dhimmi, a minority under a contract of allegiance and protection, is favourably contrasted with the pogroms in Europe. Well, the Jews were dhimmi in Christendom too, we merely lacked a neat term for it, and the pogroms were populist revolts that were either unwanted by the kings and bishops or else used to redirect popular grievances away from themselves. Funnily enough, one of the worst things that happened to Jewish communities under Islam happened precisely in Andalusia, when the Almohad movement – much the same as what we would now call Salafis – crossed the Straits. Other Muslims were declared unbelievers and killed, while Christians and Jews were deported, expelled or massacred. Contrary to what the extreme revisionist position might suggest, many Jews fled to the Christian states for refuge. This “catastrophe” is not forgotten among Jews, merely ignored by Westerners overreacting to the demonisation of Islam.

We might well regard some Andalusian Muslims as being equal victims of the Almohads. Such a narrative would pit the “sedentary and civilised” Andalusians against the “nomadic and barbaric” tribes of the Sahara. This echoes the previous round of jihadi invasion from North Africa, the Almoravids two generations previously. Indeed, a certain parahistorical fantasy novel plays up the latter as fanatical savages, but it is worth looking at what really went on, not least in terms of the economics.

It is beyond doubt that the petty Muslim states of Andalusia, the taifas, conform to the Tres Culturas stereotype. Whole cities, such as Lucena, were Jewish, and Christian minorities practiced their religion in the south as well. Zirid Granada has been called “A Jewish state in all but name”. A discussion of holy days shows a substantial Jewish contingent in the army of Alfonso VI of Castile-León. As everyone knows, El Cid led armies in the service of a Muslim king against Christian rulers, and in later decades some Muslim leaders returned the compliment. War and politics were thus partly religion-blind; although one could say the same of the 1990 Gulf War, without anyone calling that a golden age.

King Al-Mu’tamid of Seville was a great poet among other poets. No doubt the literati and glitterati of his court were well content. Underneath this artistic splendour, however, was another reality. As well as taxing their subjects for all this gilt and culture, the Muslim taifa rulers were vassals of the Christian kings of the north and paid them enormous sums in tribute or protection money, whatever you want to call it. Their subjects called it “illegal taxation”. The ordinary Muslims of Andalusia resented both the luxury of their rulers and the wealth that flowed northwards to the infidel. On both counts they were inclined to count their kings as both tyrants and bad Muslims. The vaunted “multiculturalism” was, therefore, very much the project of an effete and out-of-touch elite.

The mouthpiece for the grievances of the overtaxed merchants and producers was, as it generally is in the Muslim world, the ‘ulema, the religious jurists and imams. These agitated on a three-plank programme – a return to piety in government, prosecution of the jihad and abolition of unlawful taxes. When Alfonso switched from extorting tribute to annexing whole kingdoms (Toledo 1085), the Muslim kings of the south appealed to Yusuf ibn Tashfin, the leader of the Almoravid movement-cum-empire of north-west Africa, who crossed and stopped the Christian advance. Not particularly wanting to add Spain to his realm, he then returned. The petty kings, however, proved still unable to put their house in order and after a few years Yusuf determined that they had to go. He did not move, however, without a clutch of fatwas, from his own jurists, the Andalusian jurists and one even from a jurist of Tortosan descent living in Alexandria. These delegitimised the kings under the aforementioned three-plank programme and Yusuf deposed the lot of them. This he achieved without much bloodshed, suggesting the extreme fragility of regimes that had thoroughly impoverished and alienated their own populations. The common people of al-Andalus had no use for the Tres Culturas; they wanted pure Muslim states and prosperity for themselves.

The parallels with the contemporary Arab street and the American client rulers are striking. Can this be another motivation behind the Spanish master narrative, after remorse for fascism and the Andalusian tourist industry? That talk of peaceful coexistence actually means the peaceful existence of bloodsucking vassal states?

Posted on April 9, 2011 at 10:38 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink

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