As its subtitle indicates, this book dispels a number of imprecisions, equivocations, and outright lies regarding the Islamic conquest of Spain in late antiquity or the early medieval period.  (The Romans called it Hispania, a word that evolved into the medieval Latin Spannia and eventually the modern España.)  Its author, for many years professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Salamanca, is today’s foremost Western authority on Islamic law.  His works have been used by scholars even at Islamic universities such as Cairo’s Al-Azhar in their religious polemics against scholars at the service of the Islamic Caliphate of al-Baghdadi.

One imprecision among the many corrected by this book concerns the actual extent of the Islamic control of Spain.  Traditionally, historians have asserted that Islam’s initial onslaught (c. 711-719) conquered most of the land except for a narrow strip of the northwestern part of the country.  But Maíllo Salgado argues convincingly that the entire northwest quadrant, including the lands of today’s Asturias and Galicia, was never controlled by Islam.

This issue may seem of merely academic interest, but it is not.  The author points out that Spain was the one land conquered and occupied for many centuries by Islam that eventually managed to escape its domination.  (Another exception, not mentioned by the author, is Greece, which emerged again as a free Christian territory after 400 years of submission.)  Now, it has always seemed to me almost miraculous that from a narrow strip of territory in the Spanish northwest there emerged an eventually triumphant religious, military, political, and cultural enterprise called La Reconquista, the (Christian) Reconquest.  Among other things, so small a territory could hardly have provided the initial necessary demographic depth for this formidable enterprise.  However, if the entire northwest quadrant had actually remained largely Christian and free from submission to Islam, the origins of the Reconquest look more materially explicable.  Indeed, the author shows that the idea and the spirit of the Christian Reconquest did originate in that quadrant not too long after the rest of the land had largely fallen under Islamic control.  Thus, Maíllo Salgado’s reassessment of the initial parameters of the Islamic domination constitutes an important contribution to our understanding of that extraordinary historical and cultural event—much decried and even wished into nonexistence by many contemporary academic historians, who condemn it as a “nationalist” invention.

The author’s summation of the remarkable religious, military, and political success of Islam (which, unlike the West, does not distinguish among religious faith, civil legal and religious legal structures, politics, social behavior, military action, sexual behavior, health practices, and so forth) helps to understand the rare significance of the Reconquest:

Islam let itself be known to Christians with devastating effects: In about eighty years, the Arabs conquered lands ranging from the Pyrenees to Central Asia.  Then and afterwards Islamic rule destroyed the primacy of Eastern Christianity. . . . Four of Christianity’s five Patriarchates (Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople . . . [and] Jerusalem) . . . fell, sooner or later, under Islamic rule; because of this the patriarchate of Rome . . . acquired its category and supremacy, since it was the only one not under Islamic rule.  Christianity disappeared from large areas (Arabia, North Africa, Asia Minor, etc.) surviving as a minority religion only in the Middle East.

Another imprecision, or perhaps outright lie, corrected by this book is a view of Islamic Spain commonly found in the writings and teachings of the English-speaking academic establishment in the fields of both medieval and Islamic Studies, as well as in the popular imagination: that Christians in Islamic Spain lived under basically acceptable conditions and therefore had no reason to chafe under a tolerant Islamic rule.

The author demonstrates that, on the contrary, Islamic religious law (i.e., all Islamic law) placed Christians in a condition of juridical, economic, social, and religious inferiority vis-à-vis the Muslim population.  One of the many examples he gives is the nature of the punishment incurred by a Muslim who killed a Christian dhimmi (the precise juridical Arabic term applied by Muslims to a Christian or a Jew living under Islamic rule).  Even if the killing were intentional, Islamic law stipulated that the killer must not receive the most severe penalty of death, since a Muslim enjoyed a status superior to that of a dhimmi, whose legal worth was that of a Muslim woman, or half that of a Muslim man.  All Islamic schools of jurisprudence rejected the legal testimony of a dhimmi against that of a Muslim. In cases where the testimony of a dhimmi was accepted (never in a case against a Muslim), the dhimmi’s testimony was, again, worth half that of a male Muslim.  The author cites the Koran itself to illustrate this fundamental and comprehensive inequality of the dhimmis: “Oh believers!  Do not take as friends the Jews and the Christians!  They are friends of each other.  Whoever among you befriends them becomes one of them” (5:51).

These and other restrictions, the author explains, were part of the dhimma—a legal framework that not only made Christians and Jews unequal to Muslims, but constituted a series of well-designed mechanisms to suppress and eventually absorb all non-Muslim communities.

Thus, the marriage of a Muslim woman to a Christian dhimmi was impossible under Islamic law, unless the Christian apostatized and converted to Islam, though that of a Muslim man to a Christian woman was both acceptable and common.  The children, of course, had to be raised as Muslims. The demographic effect of these religious injunctions was decisive.  Similarly, the Islamic religion’s relentless emphasis on the teaching, learning, and use of Arabic was part of Islam’s remarkably successful system of domination and absorption.  The author cites this telling proverb attributed to Muhammad himself: “He who speaks Arabic is an Arab.”

At times, forced conversions took place.  In Egypt, Caliph al-Hakim forced the Christian Copts to convert en masse between 1004 and 1013.  In 12th-century Spain, the Almohad rulers forced all dhimmis to convert or be expelled to North Africa.  Many Christians converted or fled Al-Andalus (Islamic Spain), but many others chose expulsion.  The initial Islamic invasion, the author observes, was not bloodless, despite claims of the “peaceful pacts” version of the Islamic conquest made by most academics today.  At least one Arabic source records the massive flight of Christians from southern lands to join the hosts of the first leader of the Reconquest, the Asturian nobleman Pelayo (d. circa 737).  People do not flee their land unless their lives are in danger.

According to the author, by the year 1000 only about 25 percent of the original Christian population remained.  Some of the most eminent Muslim thinkers of Islamic Spain came from formerly Christian families.  The great polymath Ibn Hazm (d. 1064) was of Christian ancestry.  The same is true of the famous sharia judge Ibn Rushd (who died toward the end of the 12th century), better known in the West as “the philosopher Averroes,” whose great-great grandfather was likely a Christian convert.

In the Prologue, Felipe Maíllo Salgado brings his knowledge of the past to bear on the present.  While strongly condemning the suspicion and dislike that many in Western countries feel toward all Muslims, regardless of their behavior, he laments that Muslim immigrants all too often avoid accepting and abiding by the cultural norms, and sometimes even the legal systems, of the countries that so generously receive them, preferring instead to continue living much the same way they lived in their countries of origin.  Typically, they gather in urban enclaves where they can recreate their society and culture unencumbered.  And, although Muslims are allowed to enter Christian churches in the West and even receive public monies to build their mosques, in Islamic countries, including such “liberal” ones as Morocco, Christians are denied entry to mosques and grants for building their churches.  The author suggests that, if it is to survive as such, a nation requires a basic culture to which every resident, whatever his ethnicity, adheres.

A translation of this Spanish scholar’s book into English might help to counter the falsehoods that for some time now have been presented as facts in academia.  Still, it is likely that stakeholder interests and fear of being labeled “Islamophobic” would continue to prevent academic faculties from teaching and publicizing these historical truths.


[Acerca de la conquista árabe de Hispania: Imprecisiones, equívocos y patrañas, by Felipe Maíllo Salgado (Madrid: Abada Editores) 235 pp., $18.16]