The Rise and Fall of Paradise:
When Arabs & Jews built a kingdom in Spain (1983)
Elmer Bendiner

Martyrs to a Tyranny of Smiles

While the Jews went about their worldwide business, tilled their farms around Lucena, Seville or Granada, wrote love ballads or religious hymns, prayed, sang and chopped each other's logic, a fever beset some of their Christian neighbors in Andalusia. It was feared that the fever might become epidemic and disrupt the well-being of Jews, Christians and Moslems in the emirate of Abd-er Rahman II.

Some of the more ardent Christians found it too difficult to maintain their faith in a land that offered no overt persecution. Christian businessmen, courtiers, professionals and farmers thrived as did Jews or Moslems. Some were given a hand in managing the bureaucracy of the emirate. Some had military posts and some were among the emir's advisers. Christians paid an infidel's tax, but it was not oppressive. Their churches were open, and bells tolled, merrily or sadly, depending on the occasion.

All this beguiling peace, however, was working a subtle erosion of Christian integrity, it was felt. Christians dressed like Moslems, talked like Moslems, read and wrote Arabic, and verged on thinking in Arabic. One fierce Christian, the lay theologian Alvaro, complained of the scandal: "My fellow Christians delight in the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the work of Mohammedan theologians and philosophers—not in order to refute them but to acquire a correct and elegant Arabic style."

He complained that young Christians could not even write a letter to a friend in "their own language"— Latin. Arabic was their tongue and they reveled in its beauties, though it outraged priests and monks. The emir would toss coins to Christians as well as to Mohammedans when they turned a pretty phrase or conjured up a striking image or made music of their words. Unlike the Jews the Christians did not have their own cities and centers of learning in Andalusia. There were monasteries and convents throughout the country but in general these were communes for a relative few, not facilities for the laity.

It is true that beneath the surface there was an endemic hostility among the believers in Islam toward all rival faiths, including Christianity. Occasionally boys would toss pebbles at a priest, upset a tombstone or spit at a Christian funeral, but this sort of mischief was scarcely enough to rally the comfortable Arabized Christians. It would not weld them into a force capable of resisting the soft blandishments of Moslem toleration.

The Christian clergy, fearing the ultimate assimilation of their followers, preached unrelenting hatred of Mohammed and Moslem teachings, which they frequently distorted for their purpose. Some of the more audacious priests were in regular communication with the Christian kings of the north and others sought sanctuary there, but even those refugees took with them their Arabized names, clothes and customs. The emirate took little notice of such things. A few unarmed priests would be of little help in a Christian invasion, which, in any case, seemed well beyond the capability of the disunited kingdoms of the north.

The process of smothering the Christians with smiles continued, with only an occasional conviction of some zealot for conspiracy or blasphemy. Those who saw a demonic temptation in this Arab embrace grew more desperate as the years went on. Eulogius of Cordoba [800-857 CE] was a case in point. He was a third-generation Christian whose grandfather crossed himself and called for divine vengeance every time he heard the muezzin chant from the minarets.

It is typical of the irony of those times that the family of Eulogius had prospered exceedingly under Moslem rule. One brother of Eulogius was rising rapidly in the civil service and two others were doing very well in business. Eulogius and his sister Anulo were expected to redeem the family from the perils of assimilation by a life of piety and good works. Anulo was to enter a nunnery and Eulogius a monastery.

Eulogius, however, always exceeded the requirements of any assignment. He not only studied with the priests of St. Zoilus but also, without the blessings of Church or family, sneaked off to attend the fire-breathing sermons of a militant abbot named Spera-in-Deo (Hope in God). There he met Alvaro, who, like Eulogius, was seeking to balance his family's material prosperity with a passionate Christianity. The two became friends and together steeped themselves in the recorded lives of Christian martyrs, concentrating on tales of excruciatingly painful heroism.

Eulogius fasted, stood lonely vigils and was duly ordained. He soon became a model of self-tormenting piety, with but one ambition—to die gloriously for his Church. The emirate of Abd-er Rahman II, however, stubbornly refused to oblige the young man, although there were some at the court who thought that so earnest a wish of the infidel should be granted. One of these was Abu al-Fath al-Nasr, the eunuch who had the emir's ear on many of the subjects on which his active mind continuously played. It was al-Nasr and another eunuch named Masrur who were entrusted with supervising the expansion of the great mosque of Cordoba. Al-Nasr's taste for architectural aesthetics was as developed as his skill at harem intrigue. He also had the passionate hatred for Christianity that is characteristic of an apostate. Al-Nasr had been born and raised a Christian. His acquired Mohammedanism was emphatic and defensive. He was therefore not as amused as was the emir at the preoccupation of a few young Cordobans with the splendors of martyrdom. After all, the Romans had encouraged a similar taste for sanctified dying and ended up with their rulers hopelessly seduced by their glorious victims, although, of course, there were other geopolitical, economic and historical reasons for the conversion of emperors.

While the sons and daughters of solid middle-class Christians seemed to be intoxicating themselves with visions of crucifixion, burning and torture, the emir thought it a passing fad of the young, however macabre. Al-Nasr, on the other hand, considered it an affront to the established values of the state. A very pretty young lady named Flora was an example of the most wasteful madness in the eyes of Nasr and others like him. Flora's father was a devoted Moslem but her mother was a Christian who, despite all the necessary pretenses at conversion, had retained her faith and secretly nourished her two daughters on the Lives of the Saints.