Kingdoms of Faith

Kingdoms of Faith coverKingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain
Brian A. Catlos
Basic Books; 1st edition (May 1, 2018), 474 pages
Kindle edition $22.99, Amazon hardcover $33.89

There has been considerable interest in recent years in the kingdom of al-Andalus: medieval Spain when the Muslims ruled the Iberian Peninsula. Some of that interest was prompted by The Ornament of the World, a PBS documentary, and by a book of the same name published in 2009. The thesis was that there was a period when Christians, Jews, and Muslims all lived together in a Muslim-ruled state and that arts and culture flourished. This was countered by the 2016 book The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise.

In Kingdoms of Faith, Brian A. Catlos wants to take a more nuanced view and create a history of the medieval Iberian Peninsula “from the ground up.” The title of the book is a bit ironic, as Catlos states early on that much of what happened in that society was many cases more about finding riches and gaining power than about religion. He points out that Christians helped keep the Muslims in power in southern France until 736 because they feared the Merovingian Franks more than they feared the Muslims.

It is true that there was a period during the Umayyad dynasty when Christians and Jews lived peacefully in Spain under Muslim rule, and in some cases held positions in government. But throughout the period warfare, Catlos claims, was the dominant theme.

Catlos’s presentation is thorough and detailed. He is careful to point out where a story that has been passed down is more likely legend than fact. The author covers the periods both before and after the high point of Andalusian Muslim civilization. He even tells us that like the residents of the British Isles, the Vikings raided al-Andalus. He suggests the Muslims had rather more success in beating back the Vikings, however.

The period after the fall of the Umayyad dynasty is rather less interesting than earlier periods. It amounts to a series of conquests by a succession of warlords. I admit to skimming the last two hundred pages of the book.

Kingdoms of Faith is a well-written, comprehensive history of medieval Spain. If this area of history interests you, you’ll find the book worth your time.



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