Muslim controlled spain: a state of tolerance and science?

So I was watching the TV series Mankind: The story of all of us. And on the episode titled “warriors” it paints this picture of Islamic controlled Spain as this place where the Muslims and everyone lived in harmony and that Islam was tolerant and understanding and even making advancements in science. Here’s a link to the show

Meanwhile Robert Spencer has commented on how Muslims try to paint this picture as a way to trick us into thinking that Islamic takeover isn’t so bad. Here’s a link

My question is which is true. Can anyone provide reliable historical sources?

I don’t think you’ll ever find a pre-enlightenment society that lives up to our post-enlightenment expectations. The Muslim societies of the time are no exception. Heck, the whole idea of carving out an empire to unite people under religion is quite unpleasant.

But it seems pretty clear that, relative to Europe at least, the Muslim world was moderate and tolerant of minorities. While Christians were crusading against people for being the wrong type of Christian (Catharsis in France, for example), the Islamic response to non-Muslims was to impose a tax- and that tax was there to compensate for them being ineligible for military service.

And I don’t think anyone would deny that early Muslim rulers had a great deal of interest in science and philosophy. There was an “Islamic golden age” while Europeans were busy squabbling. But I wouldn’t use this as a way to compare the viability of Islamic/European societies. This was Islam at its peak and Europe at its nadir. They just happened to coincide.

I don’t think the Mankind show portrays an accurate picture, not if your description is accurate. It is my understanding that the Spanish Muslims committed brutal persecutions against Catholics. An example of one Catholic who was killed by persecution was St. Pelagius of Cordoba, who was enslaved by the Caliph of Spain and later martyred. Before his death he punched the Caliph in the nose because the Caliph had brought St. Pelagius into his chamber for sexual purposes. “It is not fit for a man cleansed by Christian baptism to submit his chaste neck to barbarous embrace, [nor] is it [right] for [someone confirmed in Christ] to entice the kiss of an idol’s lewd servant.” Then the Muslim caliph responded: “[Y]ou will make childless your grieving parents, [for we] kill those who assault and blaspheme our cult, [and] we subject them to death and pierce their throats with swords unless they cease their [ways] and [recant] their blasphemies…” (Roswitha, Book I Poem about Pelagius, slightly modified) Many Catholics were maltreated under the Muslims when they controlled Spain. One reason why we know this is because we have their writings exhorting one another to remain faithful in the face of brutality. For example, St. Eulogius wrote the following words to a group of women held by Muslims in hatred of their faith: “They threaten to sell you as slaves and dishonor you, but be assured that they cannot injure the purity of your souls, whatever infamy they may inflict upon you. [Some] will tell you…that if you will but yield temporarily you will regain the free exercise of your religion. But be persuaded that…you [must not] draw back or renounce the truth you have confessed.” (Eulogius, Exhortation to Martyrdom) Records like these illustrate that the time of Muslim occupation was not a good one for faithful Catholics.

Informative post (post 3) dmar198.

God bless.


Historians are generally quite careful in using accounts from ideological or geopolitical foes when constructing a history of a person or nation. treats the homosexual aspect of the story with skepticism.

That seems reasonable. I think they are careful in using all sources, including those written by Muslim Spanish chroniclers from the period, which may be biased in favor of the Muslim rulers. The quotation from St. Eulogius is different, however, at least in my opinion, because I don’t think it was intended to be polemical, it was intended to reassure captive Christians that things would turn out ok. treats the homosexual aspect of the story with skepticism.

I think that text was copy-pasted from a version of the Wikipedia article.

I agree that it’s reasonable to treat the story as a stylized account, partly because it was originally a poem and is thus subject to the styles of poetry.

I also would be a little hesitant about the story presented in the tv series Mankind about the Muslims in Spain. Many shows now seem to go out of their way to put the Muslims in a good light from a historical perspective - especially when it comes to their Golden Age.
I lived in Spain many years ago and I suppose I had a romanticized version of Islam and Muslims back then. It was the early 1970’s.

Define tolerant.

I think you will find at least seven saints martyred by the Muslims in Spain.

Further, on Nicholas V’s “Romanus Pontifex”, 1455, the renowned Fr William Most explains:
“Now the Saracens had been murdering all sorts of persons. Their religion was literally spread by the sword. Their sacred book, the Koran, says (cited from Bernard Palmer, ‘Understanding the Islamic Explosion’, Horizon House, 1980, pp. 36-37): ‘When ye encounter unbelievers, strike off their heads until ye have made a great slaughter among them, and bind them in bonds. . . .’ They also believed that to fight in such a ‘Holy War’ ensures immediate salvation, going to a sex paradise. Islamic people held Spain and Portugal for centuries, and got control of the area at first precisely by killing the ‘infidels’.”

**Tuesday, 23 August 2011
On the Fragility of Islam
By James V. Schall, S. J. **
Islam is the longest-lasting, closed, unchanging socio-religious culture to appear among men. Its very idea is that everyone worships Allah over time in the same way, with the same simple doctrine. The major change Islam looks to is not modernization or objective truth but, in a stable world, the submission to Allah of all men under a caliphate wherein no non-believers are found.

Islam is far older than Marxism. In the seventh century of our era, Islam appeared suddenly almost out of nowhere. It rapidly spread, mostly by military conquest. Its immediate victims were the Byzantine Christian lands and the Persian Empire. Both proved incapable of rising to their own defense. Islamic armies eventually conquered North Africa, the Mediterranean islands, much of Spain, the Balkans, the Near East, the vast land area from southern Russia to India and Afghanistan and even parts of China. Indonesia was a more commercial conquest.
© 2011 The Catholic Thing

From what I’ve read, I mean, it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for the Jewish and Christian populations in Cordoba. But there was a sizable population of non-Muslims, and from what I can tell, they had it better than how non-Christians had it in Christian lands - at least in Western Europe. I’m not sure how the Byzantines treated Jews. But yeah, Jews and Christians were at least second-class citizens.

As far as scientific and intellectual advances, Cordoba was really the place for it at the time. Muslim advances in science were huge. They advanced classic philosophy which had been lost to the West. I know Maimonides, a Jewish thinker, came from Cordoba - but I’m not sure if the time-frame matches up with what this show framed as “Cordoba.”

Rhubarb #11
As far as scientific and intellectual advances, Cordoba was really the place for it at the time. Muslim advances in science were huge. They advanced classic philosophy which had been lost to the West. I know Maimonides, a Jewish thinker, came from Cordoba.


While the Arab translations of ancient Greek classics led to their dissemination in the Western world in the twelfth century, a profound development for Western intellectual history, any contributions of Muslim scientists “typically occurred in spite of Islam rather than because of it. Orthodox Islamic scholars absolutely rejected any conception of the universe that involved consistent physical laws, because the absolute autonomy of Allah could not be restricted by natural laws. Apparent natural laws were nothing more than mere habits, so to speak, of Allah, and might be discontinued at any time.” (How The Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, Dr Thomas E Woods, Regnery, 2005, p 79).

“The celebrated Muslim philosopher Averroes and his students in the twelfth century, despite their efforts to exclude all Muslim doctrines from their work….became intransigent and doctrinaire Aristotelians – proclaiming that his physics was complete and infallible and that if an observation was inconsistent with one of Aristotle’s views, the observation was certainly incorrect or an illusion.” *The Victory of Reason, *Rodney Stark, Random House, 2005, p 21].
“By the time of the Jewish Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides (1135-1204) the heyday of the Islamic empire had passed: its science had come to a standstill, and even its days were numbered as its western and eastern flanks were soon to be lost.

“The most, Maimonides noted, that the theologians2 were willing to admit about lawfulness in the universe was that it resembled human habits, such as the customary riding of the king of a city through its streets. Still, a king could readily break his habits, and so could any or all parts of the universe shift to a different “habit”. Maimonides pointedly remarked: “the thing which exists … only follows the direction of habit …On this foundation their whole fabric is constructed.”
2 Thus, the influential mystic al-Ghazzali (1058-1111), known as Hujjatu-l-Islam (“Islam’s convincing proof”) wrote a book attacking the scientists which became a milestone of Muslim thought not only by its contents but also by its evocative title: *Tahafut-al-falisifah *(“Incoherence of the Philosophers”, translated into English by Sabih Ahmad Kamali, Lahore: The Pakistan Philosophical Congress, 1958). He asserted that human reason had to stop at the observation of simultaneity, and forgo the obvious inference to causality: “… all these things are observed to exist with some other conditions. But we cannot say they exist by them … On the contrary, they derive their existence from God … So it is clear that existence with a thing does not prove being by it.” (p 49)

For Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), the ultimate *raison d’être *of the cosmos consisted in its subordination to man’s unique and supernatural destiny. Motivated by the sad predicament of Muslim theologians and philosophers, and by their highly unsettling impact on a Christian Europe going through its birthpangs, he made a gigantic effort to bring reason and faith into a stable synthesis.5 His polemical *Summa contra gentiles *(1257), aimed at countering the occasionalism and fatalism contending with one another within Muslim theology and philosophy and centred on questions about the Creator and the nature of human intellect.

You might be interested in the book The Preaching of Islam which is online…

It’s a classic and explains how the religion spread through preaching not as some belief by mere military might…

Quite possibly you meant to simplify in order to fit the space. But I think, in doing that, you oversimplified.

It needs to be remembered that the Arab Muslims conquered the most civilized and learned part of the planet; the eastern Byzantine Empire, and ruled mostly Christians for quite some time. Prior to that, they were desert savages not a bit more civilized than ISIS warriors today, and perhaps even less so. They took over a superior civilization whole, simply imposing their rule on top of it.

Over the centuries, Muslim rule varied greatly. In the east, the early Arab caliphate was relatively benign. The later Seljuks and Mamluks were terribly intolerant and cruel. The early Arab rulers in Spain were not too bad. The later Moors were terrible. Toward the end of Muslim rule in Spain the Muslim rulers barely had hold of their territory and even, at times, allied with Christian forces. They could ill afford to be too harsh with Christians.

One should not romanticize the Cathars. They were manicheans who believed the material world to have been created by Satan, therefore evil. They felt that sex, even in marriage, was evil. For a time, the Church and civil authorities realized they would soon die out of their own accord rather like the Shakers in the U.S., and for the same reason. But when a segment of their number began burning churches and challenging the civil rulers, they went too far for the time and circumstance.

And one really needs to remember that the high Middle Ages and the Renaissance were a period far superior to that of the immediate post-Enlightenment chaos.

Considering the moral chaos and intellectual vacuity of our own “post-Enlightenment” time, I’m not sure it has a great deal with which to recommend itself.

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