Who’s Afraid of al-Andalus?

In Spain, the Catholic Church tries to erase the era of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula called al-Andalus. Two authors problematize the church's efforts.

Construction of the mosque-cathedral of Córdoba began in the late 8th century under the first Umayyad emir of Córdoba, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān I, and then later expanded several times during the 9th and 10th centuries. From its inception, the mosque—with its red-and-white-striped arches—was built to resemble the Great Mosque of Damascus, on the other side of the Mediterranean. But the mosque went through a more local transformation in the 16th century, by which point Catholic Spain had driven out the Muslims who had inhabited the south for seven centuries. Now, the mosque was renovated into a cathedral, with a large transept and choir added to its center. Seeing the Christian addition to the nearly thousand-year-old structure, Emperor Charles V allegedly remarked: The architect has taken something extraordinary and made it ordinary.

In 2006, the Catholic Church quietly declared that the mosque-cathedral was not a public good, but, rather, was the Church’s private property, to be managed as it saw fit. This legal move followed on the heels of a series of efforts during the 1990s by the Church to establish the mosque-cathedral as an exclusively Catholic monument, whose position in the Christian world had been wrongly appropriated for five centuries by Islamic usurpers. In this narrative, the building had only been “restored” in 1236 with the conquest of Córdoba by Ferdinand III of Castile, during the so-called Reconquista, or “Reconquest.” By the 1960s (even as Manuel Fraga Iribarne advertised an Orientalized vision of Spain as a vacation destination for other Europeans under the banner of “Spain Is Different”), Fascist investment in the crusading ideology of the Reconquest was deemed essential to the construction of Catholic masculinity, a militant investment on the right that endures to this day.

But it is a fact that Muslims lived for half a millennium in Córdoba, ruling over lands on the Iberian Peninsula called al-Andalus (also known in Hebrew as Sefarad). Today, many remember al-Andalus as a unique golden age, defined by convivencia1: the peaceful and productive co-existence among Muslims, Jews, and Christians. But not all remember the kingdom so fondly, as evidenced by how the Catholic Church wishes to control the memory of the mosque-cathedral. To erase al-Andalus—as the Catholic Church has tried to with the mosque-cathedral—requires seeing Muslims as invaders, even though they lived on the Iberian Peninsula beginning in 711 CE.2 It requires seeing the rightful occupants as Visigothic Christians, who gradually consolidated their military and political power over the centuries, finally driving out the Muslim interlopers with the conquest of Naṣrid Granada in December of 1491 and, thus, restoration of a unified, Catholic Spain. And, in the case of the mosque-cathedral, it relies upon dubious historical claims that the mosque was built on the site of a preexisting Visigothic basilica, or even constructed in part using materials from that edifice. The implication, of course, is that the Catholic takeover of the structure is nothing but a just restoration of what has never not been Christian territory.

How we should think about al-Andalus—both in its time and in our own—is the focus of two new monographs: Calderwood’s On Earth or in Poems: The Many Lives of al-Andalus and Abigale Krasner Balbale’s The Wolf King: Ibn Mardanīsh and the Construction of Power in al-Andalus. Both retell and unpack stories of al-Andalus, as well as how these stories are deployed for cultural and political work.

Calderwood, for example, advocates for viewing “the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba as the architectural embodiment of a local tradition of convivencia”: a visual, material, and tactile reminder to citizens and visitors of Córdoba “to think about living with, and appreciating, cultural difference.” He does not weigh in on the acute political dispute about the true cultural or religious identity of this architectural monument. But Calderwood does emphasize that at stake in this debate is Córdoba—and, more broadly, al-Andalus—as “both a place and an idea.” Thus, it is a debate not about an identity that can be revealed or identified with sufficient investigation or convincing argumentation, but instead an idea that has and can be deployed in different settings and times to different uses.

“Representing al-Andalus is not a zero-sum game,” Calderwood argues, as the mosque-cathedral disputants would have it. Instead, it should be embraced as a tool for thinking past, around, and about boundaries: geographical, linguistic, disciplinary, political, confessional.

My first trip to Spain took place during the summer of 2004. This journey took place barely three years after I watched, from the windows of my high school, as the towers of the World Trade Center fell. In fact, it was only months after the 11M bombings in Madrid. A virulent Islamophobia had come to dominate Western media.

Yet, in Spain I heard of something different than a violent clash of civilizations between a primitive Islam and the civilized West. In fact, our tour of Andalucía was my first exposure to any discussion of the history of al-Andalus.

Take the Alhambra (from the Arabic al-Ḥamrāʾ), the spectacular Naṣrid fortress and pleasure palace that sits on a hill on the eastern edge of Granada. There is historical and archaeological evidence that military fortifications and other noble residences existed on the hill as early as the late 9th or early 10th century CE. But the most iconic elements of it—the Court of Lions, the intricate plasterwork, the stalactitic sculpting in some of the ceilings called muqarnas—were created beginning the middle of the 13th century, commissioned by the founder of the Naṣrid dynasty, Muḥammad I (Ibn al-Aḥmar, r. 1232–44).

The story our guide told us in 2004 about the materials used at this palace has stuck with me nearly twenty years later. Earlier period of architecture on the Iberian Peninsula, he explained, were constructed from and adorned with materials that were durable and difficult to work like marble, granite, or limestone. It was these materials that were used to build Madinat al-Zahraʾ and the Mosque of Córdoba (noted above), because the rulers who commissioned them expected their dynasties and buildings to endure for the ages. In contrast, the later Alhambra is known for its builders’ virtuosic use of gypsum plaster: a fast-drying material that was easily manipulated and carved into spectacular patterns but is significantly less durable and more fragile.


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This was because, the tour guide claimed, the Naṣrid dynasty—somehow—knew its days on the Iberian Peninsula were numbered, even though the final Catholic victory was over two centuries away. Yet, because of this alleged foreknowledge, the guide continued, the emirs that financed its construction opted to pay for the quick construction of a palace of astounding beauty, whose cheap materials would allow them to maximize their enjoyment of their final years in Granada. To extend a quip by a colleague: on this analysis, if Madinat al-Zahraʾ and the Mosque of Córdoba are the Balenciaga of Islamic architecture (time-consuming, meticulously designed exemplars of craftsmanship, intended to be durable), the Alhambra and the Generalife are its Zara—the fast fashion to enjoy in the now.

To be clear, the tour guide’s explanation of the Alhambra’s plasterwork makes no sense. It requires the architects and artisans of the Alhambra in the 1200s to anticipate their ruler’s descendant’s defeat by Ferdinand and Isabel in 1492, and to plan the decorative program accordingly. The tour guide’s commitment to the myth of the Reconquest at the expense of common sense—such that he tried to sell a derivative story about the architecture of a major cultural monument to a group of college kids—shows just how much Spain has sought to tell the story of al-Andalus for its own purposes.

To complicate such stories about the “inevitable” fall of al-Andalus, historian Abigail Krasner Balbale focuses on a single figure from the 12th century: Abū Abd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Saʿd ibn Aḥmad ibn Mardanīsh (1124–72 CE), commonly known as Ibn Mardanīsh or the Wolf King, who was king of Murcia, Valencia, and all southeastern Spain. She argues that, in present-day discussions of the Wolf King, “Ibn Mardanish’s … treatment … parallels the broader othering of al-Andalus, which went from being seen as an important component of a diverse collection of Islamic territories to being cast as a unique, particularly advanced corner of the empire by virtue of its location in what would come to be known as Europe.” Vestiges of material culture from Ibn Mardanīsh’s regime, such as paintings of dancers and musicians in Dār al-Ṣughrā (Murcia), have been read as visual evidence of Ibn Mardanīsh’s deviation from Islamic ideals and his libertine habits. But, as Krasner shows, they could just as easily be understood as part of an effort to inscribe his court within established visual vocabulary, already amply deployed by powerful political figures throughout the Mediterranean.

Architecture, then and now, can express not just political and cultural priorities, but also genealogical filiation to visual and ideological projects.3 The architecture built for Ibn Mardanīsh, for example, echoed both his predecessors in the Almoravid dynasty and the Abbasid caliphate in the Islamic East. Such architectural echoes took the form of muqarnas: a type of vaulted, carved ceiling resembling stalactites.

Muqarnas are usually understood as a visual marker of Sunnī legitimacy, built by 11th century dynasties throughout the Islamic world during the decline of the Abbasid caliphate. Yet this understanding is upended in The Wolf King. Balbale shows that, in using this architectural feature, Ibn Mardanīsh and other non-Arab Sunnī leaders did not undermine, but, instead, shored up Abbasid political authority. And they did so by establishing a uniform artistic language from the edges of the Islamic world, which ultimately moved toward the center.4

Close-up of muqarnas vaulting in the Alhambra (14th century) in Granada, Spain, via Wikisource.

For Balbale, then, the use of muqarnas in Ibn Mardanīsh’s architecture was a multifaceted and sophisticated deployment of visual vocabulary, which established his regime’s genealogical belonging to both local power structures and to those exercised by international Sunnī leaders. Thus, the use of muqarnas in 12th-century Murcia complicates Almohad stories of Ibn Mardanīsh as a morally bankrupt Christian ally, whose political choices could be explained by his non-Arab roots.5 Balbale’s study recuperates Ibn Mardanīsh as a conscious and savvy participant in the politics and culture of the Islamic world, the Western Mediterranean, and the Iberian Peninsula. She thus redeems him and his region from easy and simplistic stories about inevitable Christian victory over debased and degenerate Muslim leaders on the Iberian Peninsula. Balbale shows that

rather than demonstrating the “Westernness” of al-Andalus, or the power of blood to determine ideology, what Ibn Mardanīsh’s reign shows is precisely the inextricability of the strands that are imagined as opposed. It shows how cultural forms including images of musicians and drinkers could form part of theological debates, the ease with which people and things traversed the vast lands of Islam and beyond, and how the earliest articulations of European courtly culture were born out of Christian kings’ encounters with their Muslim neighbors.

Barbale resituated Ibn Mardanīsh through a series of case studies of documents, objects such as coins and textiles, and architecture. In so doing, Balbale challenges these distorted histories of the Wolf King and of al-Andalus as a peripheral or exceptional place in the history of the Islamic world.

Thus, she also confronts common tropes about Andalusi exceptionalism more generally. Balbale shows how al-Maqqarī, a Muslim historian writing in Cairo during the 17th century, recast Ibn Mardanīsh’s conflicts with the Almohads not as intra-Muslim conflicts, but in the model of Muslim jihad against Christians. This narrative move maps onto some of the most common abuses of the story of Andalusi exceptionalism: as a story of victors and losers, of clearly defined factions, of tolerance being trampled underfoot in the name of power by ruthless intolerance.

By showing how the objects, documents, and buildings that remain to us from Ibn Mardanīsh’s reign undermine such simplistic, black-and-white stories, Balbale does not perhaps succeed at fully debunking the myth of al-Andalus. But she does remind this reader of a more compelling, if challenging, version of the myth of al-Andalus as a land of complexity, cross-cultural interaction and interpenetration, and, inevitably, violence.

Balbale’s research moves from microscopic visions of al-Andalus to macroscopic conclusions about the validity of those visions. Calderwood’s monograph follows the opposite trajectory: defining the contours of the trope of al-Andalus as a unique “symbol of tolerance and cross-cultural understanding” and then considering how it has been and continues to be deployed to this day.

He follows the trope’s very long tail into a wide range of more modern cultural productions. There is a biographical series on Andalusian women from a 19th-century Egyptian newspaper written as models for the assertive, modern Egyptian woman; poetry by the most famous Palestinian poet of the 20th century, Mahmoud Darwish; a Ramadan television series produced in Syria during the first decade of the 21st century; multilingual lyrics by a rapper who identifies as half-Moroccan, half-Granadino. In all of these phenomena, Calderwood notes that “guiding [his] readings of these diverse works in the conviction that the story of al-Andalus is not about learning to tolerate difference, but instead learning to tolerate contradiction.”

Al-Andalus was neither the golden age of tolerance nor the barbaric triumph of primitive invaders. Instead, it was something else: a place of contradictions, whose stories reveal most about those telling them.

The works considered by Calderwood deploy the characteristic themes of al-Andalus and Sefarad exceptionalism: a lost paradise, the site of a golden age of extraordinary intellectual and humanistic practice, the product of a very particular time, place, and self-described privileged intellectual and political leaders. But they also translate the trope across different times and spaces.6 Calderwood shows that al-Andalus has been deployed effectively across this wide range of contexts to engage in debates about Arab and Berber identities in the Middle East and North Africa, to articulate a feminism autochthonous to the Muslim world, to reflect on the loss of a Palestinian homeland, and to explain musical productions and to motivate collaborations across different traditions, languages, and cultures.

If the mosque-cathedral stands metonymically for al-Andalus and the stories told about it, Calderwood’s model of analysis might advocate for a more meta understanding of my study abroad group’s tour guide. Rather than engage with the truthfulness of what that guide said, Calderwood, instead, might dig into what that appropriation of the Andalusian myth, in that time and place, meant and accomplished. This apocryphal tale of architectural choices reveals a Spain shaken by al-Qaeda’s 11M attacks, and an inhabitant of a more conservative part of that country: one who perhaps shared his then prime minister’s more famously expressed perspective that the true roots of this attack dated back to 711, the year Muslims first came to the Iberian Peninsula.7

So, how should we remember al-Andalus? Architecture proves a particularly fruitful subject of analysis, since, as Balbale and Calderwood convincingly show, its seemingly disputable materiality is still subject to ideological, political, and cultural hermeneutic manipulation, like the stories still told about iconic landmarks like the Alhambra and the Mosque of Córdoba. Yet even more malleable are many of the less substantial, earthly cultural artifacts they analyze, like poetry, story, and music. These therefore warrant careful scrutiny and consideration, both for the beauty with which they deploy al-Andalus, and for its potential abuse.

Balbale and Calderwood both demonstrate the power that the trope of al-Andalus has held for over a millennium. For his part, Calderwood shows that this trope can lead past the violence and bigotry of our present, but warns of its capacity to bolster dangerous agendas, whether by Islamophobic actors seeking to tell a story of Catholic triumphalism, or by extremist groups seeking to justify terrorist attacks on Spanish soil as part of a re-Reconquest of the Islamic empire.

Al-Andalus, it seems, was neither the golden age of tolerance nor the barbaric triumph of primitive invaders. Instead, as Balbale and Calderwood show, it was something else: a place of contradictions, whose stories reveal most about those telling them. Perhaps, in the end, that is enough. icon

  1. A term first coined by the storied Spanish historian Américo Castro.
  2. A mid-19th-century history asserts that Spain can trace its foundations to the Third Council of Toledo in 589. Modesto Lafuente, Historia general de España desde los tiempos más remotos hasta nuestros días (1851).
  3. Central to Balbale’s analysis of these cultural productions is the notion of genealogy—familial, cultural, textual—as a lens through which the production of power may be read. Textual genealogies in the Islamic world documented through chains of transmission known as silsilas and isnāds. These chains of transmission were used to authorize the transmission of knowledge, originally of sayings of the Prophet (ḥadīth), and then eventually across a wide range of fields from religious law and historiography, and even are deployed to give the appearance of textual authority to fictional genres such as maqāmāt. Although they are most often read as conventional gestures of authority, at their core these chains of transmission represent an entire social environment of teaching and learning, of memorization and recitation, of embodied practices and interactions. Peter Heath, “Knowledge,” in The Literature of al-Andalus, eds. María Rosa Menocal et al (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 96–125.
  4. She also emphasizes the important local meanings that muqarnas carried, as they linked the local Almoravid dynasty to the legitimacy of the Iberian Umayyad caliphate of Córdoba.
  5. Known as a muwallad, or descendant of an Iberian convert to Islam, Ibn Mardanīsh ruled his part of the Iberian Peninsula toward the end of the control of al-Andalus by the Almoravid dynasty (a Berber Muslim empire that stretched over present-day Mauritania, Morocco, and southern Spain from the 1050s until 1147, when its last ruler was killed in Marrakesh). In documents disseminated by the supplanting dynasty, the Almohads (who ruled al-Andalus from 1147 until 1248), Ibn Mardanīsh was criticized as an ally of Christians, a drunkard, racially other (non-Arab), and a traitor to his faith: a convenient portrait of a persistent enemy that withstood Almohad incursions into his territories for a quarter of a century by a regime that was deeply invested in reformulating religious and political structures in service of their commitment to strict unitarianism, or the oneness of God.
  6. Ross Brann’s recent monograph, Iberian Moorings: Al-Andalus, Sefarad, and the Tropes of Exceptionalism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021), skillfully identifies these features of the trope and traces their origins in medieval Andalusi and Sefardic literature.
  7. In a speech at Georgetown University in 2004, the former prime minister José María Aznar argued that the 11M attacks were the culmination of over a millennium of history: “The problem Spain has with al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorism did not begin with the Iraq Crisis. In fact, it has nothing to do with government decisions. You must go back no less than 1,300 years, to the early 8th century, when a Spain recently invaded by the Moors refused to become just another piece in the Islamic world and began a long battle to recover its identity” (“Seven Theses on Today’s Terrorism,” quoted in Emily Francomano, “Reinventing Medieval Iberian Studies,” Revista Hispánica Moderna 41, vol. 1 (2021): 68.
This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín. Featured image: The Mosque Cathedral of Cordoba (2014) via Wikimedia (CC0 2.0)