Between Tariq and Columbus


I have long followed Brian Catlos’ more academic works, so I was excited to read Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain. Aside from some strange contemporary allusions, this is a good introductory book. If you are curious about more detail, the author has written good monographs.

The reason that this work is interesting is that Al-Andalus is a frontier society that’s been well studied. Liminal to both Islam and Western Latin Christendom, for various political reasons it is of particular interest in modern times.

One of the themes is Catlos’ work is though that we tend to refract the history of the Iberian peninsula between 700 and 1500 in simple stark modern dichotomous terms, the reality was that confessional identities were simply one of many loyalties. And yet if you read his work you see the meta-ethnic/civilizational identities are what determine the long-term arc of history, the hinges around which it turns.

In the initial decades after the conquest, local Christian elites and power structures remained intact, and the Arab conquest elites utilized them as administrative intermediaries. But after 800 AD a combination of local Iberian converts and Muslims from other parts of the Islamic world were numerous enough that Christian society begins to be pushed to the margins, even if numerically they remained a majority in the 800s.

Additionally, Catlos emphasizes the deep ethnic divisions between old Arab families, who monopolized religious offices 300 years after the conquest, tribes of Berber origin who occupied a position between the indigenes and the Arabs, and finally, Arabicized converts and Christians, Mozarabs. While the high culture became Arab, Latin speech persisted among the rural peasantry. Even the remnant Christian elites within Al-Andalus were literate primarily in Arabic.

One of the major insights from Kingdoms of Faith is that the conversion of Latin elites, whether Basque, Visigoth, or post-Roman, to Islam, resulted in corrosion of Christianity within Iberia. That corrosion was reversed only with political reconquest, and migration of Christian peasants from the north and the gradual conversion of Muslims in the centuries before the final expulsion of the remnant Moriscos.

Kingdoms of Faith is a useful read, not because of what it tells us about the history of Spain, but how we can compare to other regions of the world….