“Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain” by Brian A Catlos

A Jew and a Muslim playing chess in 13th century al-Andalus. El Libro de los Juegos, commissioned by Alphonse X of Castile (Wikimedia Commons) A Jew and a Muslim playing chess in 13th century al-Andalus. El Libro de los Juegos, commissioned by Alphonse X of Castile (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s perhaps a stretch to consider Spanish history “Asian”. Yet a large portion of what we now call Spain, and for at least a couple centuries most of it, was part of the Muslim world, with a dynasty whose founder was the last remaining scion of the overthrown Umayyad dynasty in Damascus. Europe, Asia, East and West had, if they were defined at all, rather different meanings in the Middle Ages than than they do today.

Brian Catlos’s new book Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain romps through almost a millennium of history (arguing, as he does, that the story starts before Tariq ibn-Ziyad’s 711 invasion and ends a good century after the 1492 conquest of Granada). The result is a richly layered tapestry of kings, amirs, princes, ministers, knights, renegades, turncoats, scholars, clerics, slaves, craftsmen, merchants, consorts, palaces and fortresses, featuring Christians, Muslims and Jews. Spain can’t contain the story: it spills out into France and North Africa.

Medieval Spain offers a rich vein of material. Catlos includes a great many lesser-known subplots; the final days of Muslim Zaragoza hold as much intrigue and romance as the fall of Granada. He quotes ribald poetry, makes pop-culture references to Looney Tunes, and has a well-tuned sense for the ironic anecdote:


If Pelagius had meant for his victory at Covadonga in 722 to herald the reconquest of al-Andalus, it got off to a rather rocky start. At his death in 737 he managed to pass his authority on to his only son, Favila [who] was eaten by a bear just two years later…


Catlos knows how to tell a story.

The Great Mosque in Córdoba (Wikimedia Commons)
The Great Mosque in Córdoba (Wikimedia Commons)

“There are no moral lessons to be learned here.”

Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain, Brian A. Catlos (Basic Books, May 2018)
Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain, Brian A Catlos (Basic Books, May 2018; Hurst, July 2018)

Histories have a purpose. Catlos aims to dispel “myths” about the period, that Islamic Spain was a place of enlightened religious tolerance or that it invoked a “clash of civilizations”, both of which play into competing modern narratives. I must admit that I thought we had already moved beyond such conventions to a realization that the reality was far more complex and subtle, that tolerance co-existed with brutality, and that people and polities regularly crossed the aisle, as it were.

This is hardly surprising, of course: real life rarely falls into straight lines and neat boxes. There were lots of moving parts: rarely was one side or the other unified under a single ruler; even when it was, there were continual internal divisions. Borders were moveable and porous, not just between the al-Andalus and the Christian kingdoms, but also what we might consider the natural boundaries of “Spain”.

Christian kingdoms allied with Muslim kingdoms of al-Andalus against other Christians and vice versa. Christian mercenaries, notably Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, otherwise known as El Cid, often found work where they could. El Cid defended Muslim Zaragoza against Aragón. Muslim rulers wed Christians. ‘Abd al-Rahman III “was the son and grandson of Christian women” while Subh, the 10th-century queen of al-Hakam II,


was of Basque origin and had been well-trained in Arabo-Islamic high culture and adab, including singing, a fact that undoubtedly led to her being acquired by the caliph and finding a special place in his affections.


Although there were distinct ethnicities—descendants of the pre-invasion populations, Arab, Berber—these did not always map well onto either religion or language. Christians converted to Islam, a number of the Christian kings spoke Arabic; Arabic was written in Latin letters, the early Spanish of the day could be written in Arabic script. Catlos writes that


Abu Bakr ibn al-Qutiyya (“son of the Gothic woman”), a descendant of Visigothic royalty who gained renown as a philologist and qadi, composed a history that emphasized the collaboration of members of the native Christian elite in establishing Islamic dominion over al-Andalus.


And the one-time ruler of Valencia, Abu Zayd


astutely converted to Christianity together with his children, taking the name Vincent, after the patron saint of Valencia.


This is, write Catlos


A history of faith, curiosity, generosity, and creative spirit, but also of violence, pettiness, cruelty, greed, and hypocrisy. Arab al-Andalus was no Shangri-La of open-minded tolerance, nor were the Christians and Berbers who destroyed it barbarous philistines. There were no “good guys” and no “bad guys” on the civilization level, and few on the individual level.


“There are,” he write, “no moral lessons to be learned here.” One learns what is in retrospect obvious:


If one thing emerges out of the history of al-Andalus, it is the complexity and ambivalence of the individuals who inhabited it, the individuals who, however strong their faith, were not merely “Christians,” “Muslims,” and “Jews,” but people.


It is a common fallacy to consider the status quo the natural order of things. The East, however, can be West and sometimes the twain did meet, and for a very long time.

Peter Gordon is the editor of the Asian Review of Books and author of The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, 1565–1815.