The Lions of Al-Rassan: The Passing of the “Golden Age” in Islamic Spain

les-lions-dal-rassanRead the following passages from a widely-loved novel. If you had to guess the historical period, you might not surmise a medieval nation under Islamic rule. A Christian and Muslim having wild sex out in the open, on the night of a holiday carnival. A jamboree of music and wine and cross-cultural gang-bangs, in flagrant violation of the sharia strictures of Islam.

The first passage describes the novel’s characters buying masks in preparation for the Carnival:

They had met on this mild, fragrant morning to buy masks for the night when torches would burn until dawn in the streets of Ragosa [Zaragoza]. A night when the city would welcome the spring with music and dancing and wine, and in other ways notably different from the ascetic strictures of Ashar [Islam]. And from the teachings of the clerics of Jad [Christ] and the high priests of the Kindath [Jews], too, for that matter.

Notwithstanding the clearly viced opinions of their spiritual leaders, people came to Ragosa [Zaragoza] from a long way off, sometimes traveling for weeks from Ferrieres [France] or Batiara [Italy] to join the Carnival. The return of spring was always worth celebrating, and King Badir, who had reigned since the Khalifate fell, was a man widely honored, even loved, whatever the wadjis [Muslim clerics] might say.

The next evening, at the Carnival itself:

They had been drinking since the first stars came out. There was food everywhere and the smells of cooking: chestnuts roasting, grilled lamb, small-bones fish from the lake, cheeses, sausages, spring melons. And every tavern, thronged to bursting, had opened its doors and was selling wine and ale from booths on the street. Ragosa [Zaragoza] had been transformed.

Alvar had already been kissed by more women than he’d ever touched in his life. Half a dozen of them had urged him to find them later. The night was becoming a blur already. Now he watched as the grey spider approached him slowly, came up, and kissed him on the lips. Twisting, he managed to free his arms in the press of people and put them around the spider. He kissed her back as best he could from behind his eagle mask. He was improving, he thought. He had learned a great deal since sundown.

The spider stepped back. “Nice. Find me later, eagle. She reached downwards and gave him a quick squeeze on his private parts.

Alvar never hooks up with the spider, but he is snared by a ferocious cat with a fetish for leashes, who leads him into an opulent upstairs bedroom:

Alvar moved with this woman, and upon her, and at times beneath her urgency. They had removed their masks when they entered the house. It didn’t matter: she was still a hunting cat tonight, whatever she was by daylight in the customary round of the year. He had raking scratches down his body, as if to prove it. With some dismay he realized that she did too. He couldn’t remember doing that. Then, a little later, he realized he was doing it again. They were standing, coupled, bending forward against the bed again.

“I don’t even know your name,” he gasped, later, on the carpet before the fire.

“And why should that matter tonight, in any possible way?” she had replied.

Some time afterwards she chose to blow out all the candles and leash him in a particularly intimate fashion. They went out together, naked, with the marks of their lovemaking on both of them, to stand on the dark balcony one level above the square teeming with masked crowds.

She leaned against the waist-high balustrade and guided him into her from behind. Alvar was almost convinced by then that something had been put into his wine. He ought to have been exhausted by this point.

The night breeze as cool. His skin felt feverish, unnaturally sensitive. He could see past her, look down upon the crowd. Music and cries and laughter came up from below and it was as if they were hovering there, their movements almost a part of the dancing, weaving throng in the street. He had never imagined lovemaking in such an exposed fashion could be so exhilarating. It was, though. He would be a liar to deny it. He might want to deny many things tomorrow, but he was not capable of doing so just now.

“Only think,” she whispered, tilting her head far back to whisper to him. “If any of them were to look up… what they would see.”

He felt her tug a little on the leash. He didn’t think he was going to be able to deny this woman anything tonight. And he knew, without yet having tested the limits of it, that she would refuse him nothing he might ask of her between now and dawn. He didn’t know which thought excited or frightened him more. What he did know, finally understanding, was that this was the truth at the heart of the Carnival. For this one night, all the rules were changed.

The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995) is an historical fantasy, or what Guy Gavriel Kay calls “history with a quarter turn to the fantastic”. It deals with the fall of Islamic Spain, or Al-Andalus (“Al Rassan”) and asks us to lament, with its characters, the passing of an enlightened age. The heroes of the novel are two men and a woman representing the Abrahamic faiths: Rodrigo Belmonte, a Christian warrior (based on El Cid); Ammar ibn Khairan, a Muslim assassin, advisor to the taifa king of Cordoba (based loosely on Muhammad ibn Ammar, who was vizier to the taifa king of Seville); and Jehane bet Ishak, a Jewish physician in Toledo. These men and woman become allies in a mercenary band until the Reconquest efforts of 1085 AD divide them. The character of Alvar in the above passages is part of that band, a Christian soldier from Rodrigo’s homeland.

It’s a story about unlikely friendships in hard times, and still after twenty years one of my favorite novels. But what, in Kay’s brilliant narrative, is fact-based? In some cases he goes off the rails in indulging the myth of Islamic Spain’s “golden age of tolerance” — that the three faiths of Islam, Christianity and Judaism supposedly co-existed under an enlightened Islamic hegemony — not least in the above festival. In some cases he can get away with it, because the genre excuses it; historical fantasy imposes less reality than historical fiction. In others Kay really does seem to be under false impressions about history that he wants to urge on the reader. Given how many people today believe in the myth of Islamic Spain’s multicultural paradise, it’s worth going through the novel and seeing what aligns with history and what doesn’t.

First things first: the setting

To set the stage: The alternate world resembles 11th century Spain, in the time of the taifa kingdoms (~1031-1094 AD), after the fall of the Cordoba Caliphate. (See the black-and-white map, and compare with the colored map of the actual Spain.) In this world, the taifa period lasts fifteen years, not sixty-three, and the story narrates events al-rassanthat take place during our year of 1085 (the Reconquest invasion and take back of Toledo), and ends with the fall of those petty kingdoms — to the Christian crusaders invading from the north, and to the Islamic fundamentalist “rescue operation” coming up from the south across the ocean. In our world, this fall happened in a series of battles between 1085-1094, but in Kay’s world it takes only two years, across the final chapters of the novel. The epilogue then forwards us twenty years later to show the Reconquest finally taking back all of Spain. In our world that process took over a century longer: most of Muslim Spain fell between 1212-1248, and Granada would hold out until even 1492.

In the fantasy world of Al-Rassan and Esperana, the Asharites represent the Muslims; they worship the stars. The Jaddites are the Christians, worshiping the sun. The Kindath are the Jews, worshiping the two moons (one silver, one blue) of this world. The celestial bodies of worship hold no significance or theological parallels to the faiths of our world, which is effective; since there are no analogies to the figures of Muhammad, Christ, and Moses, we are less predisposed to judge or favor any of the three faiths in advance. Across the sea, the Majriti Desert represents northwest Africa, where the Muwardis are parallel to the Almoravids — the fundamentalist Muslims who are planning to “rescue” their fellow Muslims in Al-Rassan against the efforts of the Christian Reconquest. As in our world, the Almoravid Muslims are far worse than the Christian crusaders, though as we will see, Kay doesn’t always have the best handle on the issue.

Kay has fun rearranging geography and cities, to remind us this is an evocative world and not an exact parallel. Cartada is based on Cordoba; Fezana is Toledo; Silvenes is Seville; Ragosa (the city he takes the most liberties with) is Zaragoza. Ruenda, Valledo, and Jalona are approximations of Leon, Castile, and Aragon, but with an historical reversal used to raise the stakes: King Ramiro of Valledo is based on King Alfonso VI of Leon and Castile, but the historical Alfonso reunited his father’s split three-way inheritance (of Galicia/Leon and Castile) before invading Al-Andalus, not afterwards; in the novel King Ramiro must deal with the machinations of the two sister Christian kingdoms on top of his invasion plans of Islamic Al-Andalus, which heightens the drama.

taifa-spain

The “Golden Age” of the Caliphate

The only sense in which the Cordoba Caliphate (929-1031 AD) was a “Golden Age” was in terms of power and might. During the 10th and 11th centuries, Islamic Spain was wealthier and stronger than the Christian states, and it could hardly have been otherwise since it inherited the wealth from the province in 711 and built on its power base since. That doesn’t mean Islamic Spain was more humane or enlightened, and in fact it certainly wasn’t. Required reading on this subject is Dario Fernandez-Morera’s The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, published this year. It’s sort of like a book that might be called The Myth of the Happy Slave in the Antebellum South. Are such proofs even necessary? Sadly, yes, and there are far more people who believe the former than the latter. I should emphasize that I don’t think Guy Gavriel Kay buys into the myth of the Andalusian paradise completely. There is enough reality evoked in The Lions of Al-Rassan to call it an historical novel, albeit one that takes license based on common misunderstandings.

Let’s start with Jehane — the Jewish heroine of the novel — as she reflects on the “Golden Age”:

The poets were calling the years of the Khalifate a Golden Age now. Jehane had heard the songs and the spoken verses. In those vanished days, however, people might have chafed at the absolute power or the extravagant splendor of the court at [Cordoba], with the wadjis [Muslim clerics] in their temples bemoaning decadence and sacrilege. Yet some among the Kindath [Jews] had risen high among the courts of the [taifa] kings. They paid the heretics’ tax, as did the Jaddites [Christians]. They were to practice their religion only behind closed doors. They were to wear blue and white clothing, as stipulated in [Islamic] law. They were forbidden to ride horses, to have intimate congress with Asharites [Muslims], to build the roofs of their sanctuaries higher than any temple of the Asharites [Muslims] in the same city or town. But there was a life to be found.

This sort of description actually isn’t too bad. Kay mentions the clerical hostility called forth by libertine caliphate, and the degrading laws imposed on the Jewish and Christian dhimmi. The dhimma system was not one of benign taxation; it was a mafia-like extortion racket that kept the Jews and Christians in humiliating servitude. The protection could be revoked at a whim and often was.

However, Kay also says “there was a life to be found”, which is about the equivalent of saying “there was life” for African American slaves in the antebellum south whose masters were known to make them “part of their family”. As Dario Fernandez-Morera bluntly puts it, “The celebrated Umayyads elevated religious and political persecutions, inquisitions, beheadings, impalings, and crucifixions to heights unequaled by any other set of rulers before or after in Spain” (Myth, p 120). And as other honest scholars have pointed out, in no other place in the Islamic empire was the daily influence of Muslim clerics as strong as in Islamic Spain. Clerics played a central role in the inquisitorial system of surveillance. Blasphemy against Muhammad or Allah was a capital offense. If “there was a life to be found” it was for a tiny few.

Sharia and Jihad

What needs stressing is that throughout the entire history of Islamic Spain — from the emirate following the conquest (711-929), to the Cordoba Caliphate (929-1031), to the taifa kingdoms (1031-1094), to the fundamentalist Almoravid (1094-1147) and Almohad (1147-1212) dynasties — through all these periods, Islamic religion was the law, and sharia pervaded every aspect of life, from the public to the private. Jihad was taken for granted. In fact, one ruler of the Caliphate “Golden Age” period, Al-Mansur (r. 981-1002), carried out close to 60 jihads and commanded that the dust on his clothes be collected after each battle against the Christians so that he could be buried under the glorious dust when he died. The Caliph whom today’s liberals love to cite, Abd al-Rahman III (r. 929-961), developed an Islamic inquisition to combat Greek philosophy.

And yet, for reasons that escape me, people are under a strange impression that the Almoravids and Almohads introduced, or re-introduced, sharia and jihad into the Islamic way of thinking, while the 711-1094 period was somehow free of these core doctrines. That’s completely false. The later fundamentalist dynasties objected to the rich, decadent, and lax lifestyles of the ruling caliphs and taifa kings; and they had stricter or different interpretations of sharia law. But sharia ruled the Muslim way of life in all periods, and it was always oppressive.

Of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence (Hanbali, Maliki, Shafii, Hanafi), the Maliki held authority in Spain, which is the second most strict of the four. The Maliki code forbade Muslims to socialize with Muslims of a different school of law, let alone share in good will with Christians and Jews. As in the other schools, there was no distinction between civil and religious law. In contrast to this, prior to 711 AD in Spain, the Visigothic code of law had combined Visigothic practices, with Roman law, and some Christian principles that, rather remarkably for its time, tried to limit the power of government like the later Magna Carta.

More generally on this point, as Fernandez-Morera explains, the frequent claim that there was no separation of church and state in Christian lands isn’t precise. It’s true that the distinction was blurred at the political level: Christian thought indeed influenced political decision making; the church legitimated monarchs, while secular kings granted lordships to bishops; popes claimed the right to depose monarchs, and there was an ongoing contest between the religious authority of the pope and the secular authority of the Holy Roman Emperor. But what gets lost in this is the clear distinction between church law and civil law, which reflected a distinction between an individual’s spiritual well being on the one hand, and the person’s freedoms and responsibilities before the law on the other (Myth, p 93). This wasn’t true anywhere in the Islamic world — and certainly not in the supposedly enlightened paradise of Spain.

Women

Muslim women were treated horribly in the “Golden Age”. Female circumcision was taken for granted. Muslim women caught in adultery were stoned. They were expected to stay home as much as possible and wear the veil in public. (Women who went out with loose hair and rich garments were usually sexual slave girls.) They couldn’t use the public baths. It’s no surprise that Kay avoids using Asharite [Muslim] female characters in The Lions of Al-Rassan. Even his fantasy revisionism can’t accommodate empowered Muslim women without huge suspensions of disbelief. Zabira is a proactive character, but she is the highest exception, being the favored concubine of a taifa king.

By comparison, the northern Christian kingdoms of Leon and Castile were relative “paradises” for women. A Catholic woman’s access to power in the public sphere was light-years ahead of any rights enjoyed by “free” Muslim women in Al-Andalus. It was a unique judicial system in the north, Castile especially, that grew out of independent peasant-soldiers in frontier territory, and according to scholars it may be the only medieval European analogy to English common law. Catholic women could own property and participate in local assemblies. They could work town businesses and own farmland. They could use public baths on certain days that were allotted to them.

That being said, the character of Miranda Belmonte in Kay’s novel is a bit hard to swallow. She is the analog for El Cid’s wife (the historical Jimena Diaz), who admittedly had a will of steel and ruled a city (Valencia) for him after he died. But Kay runs a bit wild with this figure. At one point she orders the servants and soldiers on the Belmonte ranch to restrain her husband returning home, tie him down, whereupon she proceeds to give him a tongue-lashing for his recent military decisions, and then sexually “assault” him before untying him. It’s entertaining fiction, but a bit over the top.

Any truth at all to the “Golden Age”?

The question presses: Is there any kernel of truth to the myth of Islamic tolerance in Spain? There are two points of contact.

First, the culture of the Islamic elite. It’s true that caliphs, and even more so the taifa kings, flouted religious law when it suited them and lived hedonistic lives according to their pleasure. It’s also true that this is a banal observation. The elites of all cultures lived luxuriously and did what they wanted. The significant fact is that most Muslims in all periods of Islamic Spain were subject to clerical policing of detailed religious observance.

Second, the Jews. They had become allies with the invading Muslims in 711 AD out of political expediency, having suffered discrimination under Visigoth rule. The Islamic invaders exploited this, finding it convenient to employ Jewish officials since as dhimmi (second-class citizens) the Jews were dependent on royal favor and easy to control. In a similar way, Hernando Cortes exploited the Tlaxcalan Indians in his struggle against the Aztecs. No one ever dreams of trying to pass off Cortes’ policy as a Christian Spaniard “tolerance” for the Tlaxcalan way of life, or their religious beliefs, or even relative good will. Nor do we hear that the colonial Belgian authorities in the Congo were “tolerant” because they favored the minority Tutsis against other groups. Or that the United States was “tolerant” in working with the Montagnard Hmong against the Marxist-Leninists in Southeast Asia. (See Myth, p 178.) The Islamic conquerors were no more “tolerant” of Jews than any of these invaders or imperial powers — and in many ways they were worse. Caliphs and kings never called their Jewish physicians and viziers “allies” in any case, but rather “servants”, since the Qur’an demonized Jews even worse than Christians. The Muslim masses demonized them too, which is why pogroms and assassinations broke out, like in 1013 (when the Jews were expelled from Cordoba), 1039 (when the Jewish vizier of Zaragoza was assassinated by a Muslim mob), and 1066 (when the Jews of Granada were killed).

Thus, Kay’s portrayal of hedonistic taifa kings (Almalik of Cartada, Badir of Ragosa) and privileged Jewish physicians and advisors (Ishak ben Yonannon, Mazur ben Avren) — we will get to these figures in due course — is historically correct, and reflects a sliver of truth to the so-called “tolerance” of the “Golden Age” period. But that really amounts to nothing. It’s simply “a selective concentration on the remains of an elite culture, in conjunction with the relative and always precarious politically expedient favoritism shown to members of the Jewish community” (Myth, p 239). When Kay goes beyond these two superficial points to imply “there was a life to be found” in this age, he’s indulging revisionism.

The Day of the Moat

The event that ignites the plot in Chapter One is based on the historical Day of the Ditch (806 AD), when Emir Al-Hakam beheaded 5000 people in Toledo on suspicion of treachery. Of the around 5000, 72 were nobles singled out for massacre at a banquet, and then crucified and displayed in a ditch. In the novel, it is 139 people who are killed: the noble, elite, and merchants of Fezana [Toledo], invited to the palace by the visiting prince of another taifa kingdom, Cartada [Cordoba], sent by his father the king who has designs on annexing this one. The guests are attending the prince at a ceremony which is supposed to be the consecration of the palace’s new wing:

They were individually escorted by soldiers down that dark corridor. Approaching the end of it, each in turn could discern a blazing of sunlight. Each of them paused there, squinting, almost sightless on the threshold of light, while a herald announced their proffered names with satisfying resonance.

As they passed, blinking, into the blinding light and stepped forward to offer homage to the hazily perceived, white-robed figure seated on the cushion in the midst of the courtyard, each of the guests was sweepingly beheaded by one of the two soldiers standing on either side of the tunnel’s arch.

The soldiers, not really strangers to this sort of thing, enjoyed their labors perhaps more than they ought to have done. There were, of course, no wadjis [Muslim clerics] waiting in the courtyard; the castle wing was receiving a different sort of consecration.

The toppling bodies were swiftly seized by other soldiers and dragged to the far end of the courtyard where a round tower overlooked the new moat created by diverting the nearby Tavares [Tagus] River. The bodies of the dead men were thrown into the water from a low window in the tower. The severed heads were tossed carelessly onto a bloody pile not far from where the prince of Cartada [Cordoba] sat, ostensibly waiting to receive the most prominent citizens of the most difficult cities he was one day to rule, if he lived long enough.

This event is “historical” in the sense that it represents the kind of thing which happened in all periods of Islamic Spain — the Emirate (711-929), the Cordoba Caliphate (929-1031), the taifa kingdoms (1031-1094), and the fundamentalist Almoravid (1094-1147) and Almohad (1147-1212) dynasties afterwards. Muslim rulers slaughtered their own as much as they did the dhimmi Jews and Christians, for any number of reasons ranging from the ruthless to the paranoid to the petty. Kay is entirely realistic in this scene.

The Blinding and Silencing of Ishak ben Yonannon

There is the tragic backstory to Jehane’s father, who was rewarded and punished (the parts in bold) for saving a mother and her child during childbirth:

Ishak had performed the only recorded delivery of a child through an incision in the mother’s belly while preserving the life of the mother at the same time. Not Galinus himself, the source and font of all medical knowledge, nor any others, had reported successfully of doing such a thing, though they had noted the procedure and tried. No, it was Ishak ben Yonannon of the Kindath [Jews] who first delivered a living child in such a way, at the palace of Cartada in Al-Rassan in the second decade after the fall of the Khalifate. And then he had healed the mother of her wound and tended her after, so that she rose from her bed one morning, very pale but beautiful as ever, to reclaim her accustomed place in Almalik’s reception hall and his gardens and private chambers.

For this act of courage and skill, on a scale never before known, Almalik of Cartada had gratefully offered a quantity of gold and a gift of property such as to leave Ishak and his wife and daughter secure for the rest of their lives.

Then he had ordered Ishak’s eyes put out and his tongue cut off at the root, that the forbidden sight of an Asharite [Muslim] woman’s nakedness be atoned for, that no man might ever hear a description of Zabira’s splendor from the Kindath [Jewish] doctor who had exposed her to his cold glance and his scalpel.

It was an act of mercy, of a sort. The ordained punishment of a Jaddite [Christian] or Kindath [Jew] who feasted lecherous eyes on the unclothed figure of an Asharite [Muslim] woman who was bride or concubine to another man, was as everyone knew, the death between horses. And this woman belonged to a king, the successor to khalifs, the Lion of Al-Rassan. The wadjis [Muslim clerics] had begun demanding the death of Ishak the moment the story of the birth escaped the palace.

To my knowledge there has never been an Islamic law that stipulates punishment for an infidel who sees a naked Muslim woman, probably because the situation almost never arose. Islamic law does call for the death of infidel Jews and Christians who rape a Muslim woman. (A Muslim, on the other hand, who rapes a Jew or Christian free woman might only be lashed.) And there are plenty of laws and penalties that apply on the Muslim woman herself when she is seen naked or even partially exposed by non-family members, or even raped. Kay’s fiction is a logical complement of sharia law, and it wouldn’t be terribly surprising if one of the historical taifa kings did something like this. The Qur’an and Islamic law are obsessed with infidels and regulating women. Kay plausibly joins the two in a rather unique scenario involving a Jewish doctor using extraordinary skills to save a Muslim woman and her baby.

Christian Antisemitism: Queen Vasca

At a critical point in the story, Jehane challenges Rodrigo on the subject of bigotry in his Jaddite [Christian] faith:

“Do you remember,” asked Jehane, “what your Queen Vasca said of us [the Jews], when Esperana [Christian Hispania] was the whole peninsula, before the Asharites [Muslims] came and penned you in the north?”

“That was more than three hundred years ago, doctor,” said Rodrigo.

“I know that. Do you remember?”

“Of course I do. But–“

“She said that the Kindath [Jews] were animals, to be hunted down and burned from the face of the earth.”

“Jehane,” Rodrigo said. “I can only repeat, that was three hundred years ago. She is long dead and gone.”

“Not gone! You dare say that? Where is Queen Vasca’s resting place?”

“On the Isle. Vasca’s Isle.”

“Which is a shrine! A place of pilgrimage, where Jaddites [Christians] from all three of your kingdoms come, on their knees, to beg miracles from the spirit of the woman who said that thing.”

Actually, there was no Christian analog to Queen Vasca in our world who advocated genocide of the Jews. I suspect that Kay wanted to create an equivalent to the massacres Muslims committed on Jews and Christians in Islamic Spain (i.e. the Christian martyrs of Cordoba between 851-859, the Jewish thousands in Granada in 1066). It’s true that the laws of Visigoth Spain in the sixth and seventh centuries were antisemitic. Jews couldn’t hold public office or have any power over Christians; and Jew-Christian marriages were illegal. After 613 they were forced to be baptized, which resulted in emigrations and false conversions. The antisemitic theologian of this period was Saint Isidore of Seville (560-636), who authored On the Christian Faith against the Jews. But even Isidore, while he condemned the Jews for rejecting Jesus, explicitly opposed the state’s policy of forced Jewish conversions. So not even he comes close to being a parallel to Kay’s Queen Vasca, who called for a powerless people to be hunted down and destroyed.

Of course, Kay can do as he pleases in his fictional alternate world, and part of me actually likes the idea of a bloodthirsty queen whose shrine is revered on a sacred isle. But in today’s politically-correct culture that demonizes Christianity at every opportunity while whitewashing Islam, it’s helpful to point out that Queen Vasca is completely unhistorical.

The Jewish Prince: Mazur ben Avren

We’ve already seen the reason for Jewish privilege in Islamic Spain, which had nothing to do with Islamic “tolerance”. One might guess, however, that Kay pushes the envelope with the character of Mazur ben Avren — chancellor under a king who actually grants him military power.

The two men had known each other a long time. Badir had taken a huge risk at the very outset of his reign in appointing a Kindath [Jewish] chancellor. The Asharite [Muslim] texts were explicit: no Kindath [Jew] or Jaddite [Christian] could hold sovereign authority of any kind over Asharites [Muslims]. The penalty was death by stones. Of course, no one who mattered in Al-Rassan followed the texts. Not during the Khalifate, not after. The glass of wine in the king’s hand was the most current evidence of that. Even so, a Kindath [Jew] chancellor had been a very large thing. There was a chance that roll of the dice might have cost Badir his newly claimed crown and his life if the people had risen in righteous wrath.

In return for that risk taken, Mazur ben Avren had made Ragosa [Zaragoza] not only independent, but the second most powerful kingdom in Al-Rassan in the turbulent years after the caliphate’s fall. He had guided the city and her king through the dangerous shoals of a swiftly changing world, and had kept Ragosa [Zaragoza] free and solvent and proud. He had ridden with an army himself in the first years, in campaigns to the south and east, and had directed it in the field, triumphantly. His mount had been a mule, not a horse forbidden to infidels; Mazur knew enough to offer the wadjis [Muslim clerics] their necessary symbols of deference. Nonetheless, the simple truth was that Mazur ben Avren was the first Kindath [Jew] to command an army in the western world… Much could be forgiven if a war went well and an army came home with gold, and much had been forgiven — thus far.

Believe it or not, this extravagant character is historical. Mazur ben Avren is based on Samuel ibn Naghrela (993–1056 AD), who had become the most powerful Jew in the history of Islamic Spain. He was the only Jew to command Muslim armies — the direst of blasphemies. In our world, he was the vizier to King Badis of Granada; in Kay’s alternate world, he serves King Badir of Ragosa (our Zaragoza).

Samuel ibn Naghrela is the classic case held up by today’s liberals to promote the “Golden Age” theory of the Andalusian paradise, which is silly since he’s the outlandish exception proving the rule. As I covered above, the caliphs had found it convenient to employ Jewish administrators, merchants, and physicians, since (unlike high-born Muslims) they depended on royal favor and were easy to control. (The Jewish scholar Hasdai, who served Caliph Abd al-Rahman III, is another example.) When the Cordoba caliphate fell and the taifa kings carved out their own kingdoms, they were frequently at war with each other, which gave Jews even more opportunities. And for whatever reason, King Badis of Granada went the whole blasphemous nine yards in appointing a Jewish military commander. So the character of Mazur ben Avren aligns with the history of our world. Unlike the rest of what we find in Ragosa…

The City of Ragosa

Pretty much everything else about Ragosa is a psychedelic fantasy. But it’s very good fantasy, in my opinion, showcasing some of Kay’s best writing and character drama. At the top of the post I cited Alvar’s loss of innocence at the Carnival, which comes towards the end. Here is his first exposure to the city, when he arrives to serve as a mercenary under Rodrigo Belmonte (the El Cid character):

It was true, what he had been told: the [Muslims] of Al-Rassan inhabited an entirely different world than [his people in Castile]. Every second object in the palace or the gracious homes he had seen seemed to be made of carved and polished ivory, imported by ship from the east. Even the handles of the knives used at some tables. The knobs on the palace doors. Despite the slow decline of Al-Rassan since the fall of [Cordoba], Ragosa [Zaragoza] was a conspicuously wealthy city. Besides the celebrated workers in ivory there were poets and singers here, leather workers, woodcarvers, masons, glassblowers, stonecutters — masters of a bewildering variety of trades.

For the Christian Alvar, who has never been beyond the lands of Castile, these cosmopolitan wonders start to erode his blind hostility to the Muslim world. By contrast, the Islamic fundamentalist Yazir ibn Q’arif has a purely hostile view of his Muslim cousins in Spain, based on reports that he receives in the Majriti (the northwest Africa of Kay’s world):

Yazir’s soldiers and mercenaries sent home all their wages, and with these sums came tidings of affairs in Al-Rassan [Al-Andalus]. Some of it was comprehensible, some of it was not. He learned that there were courtyards within the palaces of the kings, and even in the public squares of cities, where water was permitted to burst freely from pipes through the mouths of sculpted animals — and then to run away again, unused. This was almost impossible to credit, but the tale had been reported too many times not to be true.

One report — this one a fable, obviously — even had it that in Ragosa [Zaragoza], where a Kindath [Jewish] sorcerer had bewitched the feeble king, a river ran through the palace. It was said that there was a waterfall in the sorcerer’s bedchamber, where the Kindath [Jewish] fiend bedded helpless Asharite [Muslim] women, ripping their maidenheads and laughing at his power over [Allah’s believers]. Yazir stirred restlessly within his cloak; the image filled him with a heavy rage.

With regards to the historical Zaragoza of our world, Yazir has the right of it. Kay’s depiction of the city is a complete fable. But as I said it’s a powerful one, and perfectly appropriate in historical fantasy. It’s not as if Kay wants us to believe (or at least I hope he doesn’t) that our real-world Zaragoza, or any of the taifa cities, hosted anything like the annual spring Carnival, where the people of all three faiths took to the streets in masks, sharing food and drink, cavorting to music, and having sex with complete strangers. He seems to be using an extreme vision to make a point about the potential of cross-cultural sharing that perhaps could arise in slightly less extravagant settings that he presumably believes existed, historically, in the taifa cities.

Alas, even that potential was hardly there. In all periods of Islamic Spain, including those of the Cordoba caliphate and the taifa kingdoms, cross-cultural sharing was a farce. Maliki jurisprudence forbade socializing with even Muslims of a different school of law, let alone “sharing” with Christians or Jews (Fernandez-Morera, Myth, p 115). The Christian diet of pork and garlic, not to mention wine, was an obstacle to sharing table-fellowship with Muslims, and when Muslims did have to interact among the dhimmi, they had to use their own utensils and eat “in parallel” rather than actual fellowship. As far as festivals, Maliki law prohibited musical instruments and singing, let alone booze. Clerics had authority to enter houses to break up strings and wind instruments if they even heard them playing. That some rulers and rich Muslims flouted these laws (their singers and musicians were usually slaves) doesn’t negate what dominated most of society. As for interfaith sex, it was entirely out of the question.

I wonder if Kay took some inspiration for his Carnival from the mistaken assumption (even among scholars) that Muslims in Cordoba were known to have “shared” in public Christmas celebrations. The problem with this is the timing. We have evidence of this only in the 13th century, after the Christians had taken back Cordoba in 1236. As Fernandez-Morera says, it makes no sense to point out what Muslims did in Christian-controlled cities as supposed evidence of religious harmony and tolerance in Islamic Spain! In Muslim controlled cities, Jewish and Christian festivals were never allowed to be celebrated in public, let alone “shared” with Muslims (Myth, p 114).

Nevertheless, I don’t begrudge Kay for inventing the idea of the Carnival and running wild with it. Literature often explores the theme of a common humanity across the ethnic divide. The following interaction takes place the day before the Carnival, between Alvar and Husari, dressed in the garb of the other’s faith:

“In the name of the moons, look at the two of you!” Jehane exclaimed.

Alvar was dressed in a wide-sleeve linen overshirt, ivory-colored, loosely belted at the waist, over hose of slightly darker shade and Asharite [Muslim] city slippers, worked with gold thread. He wore a soft cloth cap, crimson colored, bought in the market weeks before.

Husari ibn Musa wore a plain brown Jaddite [Christian] soldier’s shirt under a stained and well-worn leather vest. His horseman’s trousers were tucked into high black boots. On his head he wore a brown, wide-brimmed leather hat.

“My sadly departed mother would have been diverted, I hope,” Husari said. “She had a gift of laughter, may [Allah] guard her spirit.”

“Mine would be appalled,” Alvar said in his most helpful voice. Husari laughed.

Jehane struggled not to. “What would any rational person say, looking at you two?”

“I think,” Husari murmured, “such a person — if we could find one in Ragosa this week — might say we two represent the best this peninsula has to offer. Brave Alvar and my poor self, as we stand humbly before you, are proof that men of different worlds can blend and mingle those worlds. That we can take the very finest things from each, to make a new whole, shining and imperishable.”

“I’m not sure that vest of yours is the finest Valledo [Castile] has to offer,” Alvar said, “but we’ll let that pass.”

“And I’m not sure I wanted a serious answer to my question,” Jehane said.

Husari grinned. “Did I give you one? Oh dear. I was just trying my pendant’s manner. I’ve been asked to give a lecture on the ethics of trade at the university this summer. I’m in training. I have to give long, sweeping answers to everything.”

(A sidebar about the overpraised “universities” in Islamic Spain: they were actually schools for the study of religious texts and law. When the Arabs conquered the Christian world and took over the Christian Greek universities, it is true that they started teaching subjects like medicine and philosophy, and this was the case in Spain; but even at this point, the only degree you could get at these schools was in religious law. Philosophy was a hobby for the select few and had no impact on daily life, for that was the role of sharia. As for most of the arts — sculpture, painting, drama, narrative, and lyric — they weren’t taught at all, deemed unseemly if not blasphemous. See Fernadez-Morera, Myth, pp 65-68, 76-77.)

At certain moments, Jehane thought, in the presence of men like Husari ibn Musa, or young Alvar, it was actually possible to imagine a future for this peninsula that left room for hope. Men and women could change, could cross boundaries, give and take, each from the other… given enough time, enough good will, intelligence. There was a world for the making in [Leon/Castile/Aragon] and [Al-Andalus], one world made of the two — or perhaps, if one were to dream big, made of even three.

Jehane’s thought process may come across as unduly modern, and the scenario historically unlikely, but it works. And that sums up my feelings for the Ragosa chapters. They are unhistorical, even wildly so in the case of the Carnival, but as long as we’re under no delusions, they fulfill the ambition of good literature. Kay doesn’t use Ragosa to make angry statements about ethnic bigotry; he doesn’t preach. Rather, he engages the social drama of his (admittedly propagandist) world, and tests ideas by showing what happens when they naturally unfold. The results are ugly — the killing of Jehane’s servant being the painful climax of the Carnival — and the reader is left struggling, much like the novel’s characters, with timeless human dilemmas. That’s a huge score.

“Civilized” Al-Rassan vs. the Desert Tribes from Across the Sea

In the chapter set in northwest Africa, the prince of Cordoba begs aid from the desert warrior Yazir ibn Q’arif, whose character I relish:

The tribesmen of the desert would not be sparing any moments of prayer for the secular degenerate worse-than-infidel, King Almalik of Cartada [Cordoba], who had just died. As far as the Muwardis [Almoravids] were concerned, all of the kings of Al-Rassan merited approximately the same fate.

Yazir had long ago realized — and had tried to make his brother understand — that the softness of life in Al-Rassan had not only turned the men there into infidels, it had also made them very nearly women. Less than women, in fact. Not one of Yazir’s own wives would have been half so pathetic as this Prince Hazem of Cartada [Cordoba], his nose dripping like a child’s in the face of a little wind. And this young man, lamentably, was one of the devout ones. One of the true, pious followers of Ashar [Allah] in Al-Rassan. Yazir was forced to keep reminding himself of that. [The Qur’an] had taught that charity towards the devout was the highest deed of earthly piety, short of dying in a holy war.

Hazem had been corresponding with them for some time. Now he had come himself to the Majriti [North African coast], a long way in a difficult season, to speak his plea to the two leaders of the Muwardis [Almoravids], here on a blanket before flapping tents in the vast and empty desert. Cities and houses were what the soft men of Al-Rassan knew. Beds with scented pillows, cushions to recline upon. Flowers and trees and green grass, with more water than any man could use in his lifetime. Forbidden wine and naked dancers and painted Jaddite [Christian] women. Arrogant Kindath [Jew] merchants exploiting the faithful and worshiping their [false god instead of Allah]. A world where the bells summoning to prayer were occasion for a cursory nod in the direction of a temple, if that much.

Yazir dreamed at night of fire. A great burning in Al-Rassan and north of it, among the Jaddite [Christian] kingdoms of Esperana [Leon/Castile/Aragon]. He dreamed of a purging inferno that would leave the green, seductive land scorched back towards sand but pure again, ready for rebirth. A place where the holy stars might shine cleanly down and not avert their light in horror and what men did below in the cesspools of their cities.

Kay portrays the Almoravids of northwest Africa as fundamentalist Muslims who despise their “worse-than-infidel” cousins in Spain, which is historically accurate. But he also implies that the decadent dynasties of the taifa kings are an indication of a more enlightened or pluralistic society in Al-Andalus, which is false. Fundamentalist rhetoric paints such a picture, but that’s the nature of fundamentalism. When Kay writes in the same chapter that “Al-Rassan after the Khalifate’s fall, and even long before, had not been the most devout place in the [Muslim] world,” he’s essentially adopting the hostile fundamentalist perspective and treating it as truth.

In fact, as we’ve seen already, Al-Andalus was very devout. The idea that non-fundamentalist Muslims don’t believe in jihad and sharia law is like saying non-fundamentalist Christians don’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection.

The Reconquest: Proto-crusades

A strong advantage of the alternate-world genre is that it allows Kay to telescope historical events for simplicity and better effect. In this case, the Reconquest invasion of 1085 AD with the First Crusade to Palestine in 1096:

The High Cleric, Geraud de Chervales, announced: “Hear, then, news to cause all hearts to exult and offer praise: the king of Ferrieres [France] and both counts of Waleska [Germany], and most of the nobility of Batiara [Italy] have come together to wage war.”

What? Where?” said Constable Gonzales, the sharp words pulled from him.

The cleric’s smile grew even more triumphant. His blue eyes shone. “In [Palestine],” he whispered into the stillness. “In the desert homelands of the infidels, where Jad [Christ] is denied and cursed. The army of the god [the First Crusade] is assembling even now. Already, though, a first battle has been fought in this holy war; we heard the tidings before we left to come to you.”

“Where was this battle?” Gonzales again.

“A city called Sorenica [Salonica]. Do you know it?”

“I do,” said King Ramiro quietly. “It is the Kindath [Jewish] city, granted them as their own long ago, for aid given the princes of Batiara in peace and war. What Asharite [Muslim] armies were there, may I ask?”

Geraud’s smile faded. There was a coldness in his eyes now. The belated recognition of a possible foe. Be careful, Ramiro told himself.

The cleric said, “Think you the Asharites [Muslims] are the only infidels we must face?

Few people know that the Spanish Reconquest was the real “first crusade”. By as early as 1063, Pope Alexander I promised indulgences to Spaniards who drove out the Muslims. That was 30 years before Pope Urban II launched what we call the First Crusade in 1095. The Reconquest, of course, had been prosecuted on-and-off for over 300 years since the 720s, but by the 1060s popes began treating Reconquest efforts as a religious campaign equivalent with the emerging theology of holy war. Kay telescopes the retaking of Toledo in 1085 with the crusade to Palestine in 1096-1099 as being coordinated at the same time, allowing the theme of Christian holy war to resonate more strongly. That’s a smart use of the fantasy world.

Kay blunders, on the other hand, with the Jewish massacre that occurred during the First Crusade. He gives the Jews a special city where they govern in autonomy. Sorenica seems loosely based on Salonica/Thessaloniki, which had a large Jewish population, though obviously not exclusively Jewish, and they obviously didn’t have their own rule; and historically the Jews of Salonica got plundered in the Fourth Crusade, not the First. These adaptations are fine and harmless. But Kay makes the Jewish slaughter part of the church’s intent, which is a common myth. The Catholic church never, in the entire era of the crusades, preached a holy war against the Jews. When misguided crusaders slaughtered Jews, they were roundly condemned by popes and church authorities. Instead, Kay has the high priest practically salivating at the thought of killing Jews.

“A camel herder in the Majriti or a shepherd in Esperana?”

In other words, if you were a Muslim in Spain, would you want to join rival Muslims in Africa or be taken over by Christian crusaders? Ammar ibn Khairan chooses the former:

“Fezana [Toledo] will fall to [our crusaders],” said Rodrigo, “before summer’s end. And then [the Almoravid Muslims] will come across the straits to meet us. Al-Rassan is theirs, or it is ours, Ammar. You must see that. Fezana [Toledo], Cartada [Cordoba], Ragosa [Zaragoza], Silvenes [Seville], they cannot be saved. Even you cannot dance that dance between fires. And surely, Ammar, you must know –“

“I have to try.”

“What?”

“Rodrigo, I have to try. To dance that dance.”

Rodrigo stopped, breathing hard, like a horse reined up too harshly. “Your faith means so much to you?”

“My faith? I would put it differently. I would say, my history. Not just [Al-Andalus], but [Palestine and Arabia], the desert of [Muhammad’s] homelands. The [Almoravids]?” Ammar shrugged his shoulders. “They are a part of that. Every people has its zealots. They are as most of the people of your north are today. Righteous, convinced, unforgiving, uncivilized. But I confess I find little of value in your cities of [Leon and Castile] either. The [African] desert is a hard place, harder than even your northlands in winter. [Allah] knows, I have no bonding of spirit with fundamentalists, but I share even less with those who venerate your fanatic saints. Would I rather be with the [Almoravids]? Again, put it a little differently, and then leave it, Rodrigo, as my last words, lest we quarrel before we part. I suppose I would rather, if [Al-Andalus] is to be lost, herd camels in [Africa] than be a shepherd in [Spain].”

“No! That cannot be the last word, Ammar!” Rodrigo shook his head vehemently. “How do I let you ride to them? Do you know what they will do to you?”

What they did to Al-Mu’tamid, in our world, was nasty. He was the taifa king of Seville, and the historical figure who said the words that Kay gives to Ammar — that he would “rather be a camel driver in Morocco than a swineherd in Castile”. And for his loyalty to Islam he was “rewarded” by being made captive by the Almoravids and tortured. No camel driving career for him.

Kay cops out of this history in favor of a happy ending. In the epilogue we learn that Ammar was pardoned by Yazir ibn Q’arif (despite the cries of Yazir’s people for Ammar’s slow and painful death), and is living with Jehane in Italy. For me, this is the worst part of the novel. Ammar deserved a tragic ending like Rodrigo.

It’s important to note the false equivalence Ammar makes between the Muslim fundamentalists and the Christian “fanatical saints”. In fact, as we’ve seen repeatedly, the Christians in the north were more enlightened than not only the fundamentalist Muslims from Africa, but also the Muslims of Spain. For all the laxity and decadence in the courts of the taifa kings, jihad and sharia law remained (as always) oppressive tenets of Islam, especially under the Maliki code of jurisprudence. The fundamentalist Almoravid tribes in Africa simply had differing interpretations of sharia law and zealous hatred for the cosmopolitan elite. Ammar is one of those elite (a court poet and assassin), and he could never achieve friendship with an Almoravid in the way he did with a Christian warrior like Rodrigo.

And yet aside from the false equivalence, Ammar’s stubborn allegiance to Islam — like the historical Al-Mu’tamid’s — is completely believable, and all the more disturbing for it. It’s not easy to let go of our heritage. As Ammar says, it’s less his faith (being a hedonist in the elite courts) and more his history, or cultural identity. I think this is a point for many liberal-minded Muslims today who get defensive when Islam is criticized as a system of toxic beliefs that is inherently more dangerous than other religions.

Ammar is my favorite character in The Lions of Al-Rassan, and his response to Rodrigo, “rather a camel herder in Africa than a shepherd in Spain”, is my favorite scene, precisely because it’s so realistic and misguided. History proved that with Al-Mu’tamid. I only wish that Kay had followed history all the way through, by giving Ammar an appropriate tragic ending.

The Passing of an Age

But what kind of age? Kay blends fantasy and historical realism, but the scales tip on the propagandist side. He really wants us to grieve for the fall of Al-Rassan, and view the northern and southern invaders about equally benighted. If I lived in 11th-century Spain, frankly, I’d be inclined to welcome the Reconquest. Kay’s propaganda is a success, because the fact is that I do keep grieving for Al-Rassan every time I read the novel — the story is so damn compelling. This scene from the final chapter chokes me up every time, when Ragosa is besieged, and the Jewish chancellor Mazur ben Avren offers to sacrifice himself to the outside mobs, so that his king might receive some clemency.

King Badir scowled. “We have been through this. Do not vex me again. I will not accept your resignation, your departure, your sacrifice… none of these things. What am I clinging to, so desperately, that I would allow myself to lose you?”

“Life? The lives of your people?”

Badir shook his head. “I am too old to clutch like that.” He gestured around the room. “We made this together, my friend. If it goes, one way or another, I will make an end drinking my wine with you. Do not speak of this again. I regard the subject as a… betrayal.”

Ben Avren’s expression was grave. “It is not that, my lord.”

“It is. We find a way out together, or we do not. Are you not proud of what we have achieved, we two? Is it not a denial of our very lives to speak as you are speaking now? I will not cling to some miserable form of existence at the price of all we have been. Are there not some things we have made here, some things we have done, that are worthy to have been in [Cordoba] in the Golden Age?”

And Mazur ben Avren, with a rare emotion in his deep voice, replied, “There has been a king here, at the least, my lord, more than worthy to have been a khalif in those most shining days.”

Another silence. “Then speak no more, old friend, of my losing you. I cannot.”

It could almost make me wonder if King Badis of Granada and his Jewish prince ever had such a deep friendship.

Nothing in my analysis has been intended to undermine the power of Kay’s novel. I consider The Lions of Al-Rassan inspired enough to constitute lasting literature, and because it’s so good it gets away with plenty of dramatic license. What I have tried to do is show where Kay’s world and ours intersect, and where they do not, for the historically curious. And as I finish writing this, I am about to start Kay’s latest novel, Children of Earth and Sky, set in the same alternate world but centuries later in the time of the Ottoman Empire…

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