Kingdoms of Faith

A New History of Islamic Spain

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Brian A. Catlos
  • New York, NY : 
    Basic Books
    , May
     496 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Brian Catlos’s Kingdoms of Faith: A New History of Islamic Spain offers vital new approaches to a key period in Mediterranean, European, and Eurasian history. Building on years of his own scholarly inquiry in Latin, Arabic, and Romance archival sources while featuring important recent Spanish scholarship, Catlos achieves a lively synthesis of the political and social history of Islamic Spain (711-1614). He accomplishes a rare feat by making an enormous topic supremely intelligible for specialists and non-specialists alike, while keeping the complexity and contingency of human experiences, material conditions, political agendas, and social structures at the fore. Abjuring teleological explanations about essential conflicts between “Islam” or “Christianity” which affect popular—and some scholarly—understandings of this topic, Catlos shows Islamic Spain to be a site for sustained and mutually influential cross-religious encounters between the fall of the Roman empire in the 5th century and the arrival of the Holy Roman Empire to Spain in the 16th. He provides detailed source-driven explanations of how “Islam” and “Christianity” were gradually forged as political, social, and eventually theological and legal realities in Iberia, inhabited by diverse individuals advancing a range of agendas rooted in local and regional contexts.

Over nearly a millennium-long history, Kingdoms of Faith demonstrates that social differences remained the most important distinction for medieval Iberians of varied religious and political commitments. Rather than forced conversions or military conquest, the engines for integration were social processes linked to the household—broadly conceived—like patron-client bonds, the slave system, and intermarriage at every level of society. The legacy of social integration across political and religious boundaries, consolidated with repeated treaties and dynastic marriages across religious lines, lasted until the end of Islamic Spain when, once again, Christian and Muslim nobles fighting one another in the Granada war in the 1480s were likely to be friends or even kinsmen. The importance of this innovative social perspective for a new history of Islamic Spain cannot be overstated.

Kingdoms of Faith engages with two historical paradigms which dominate contemporary depictions of al-Andalus. First is the “clash of civilizations” thesis advanced by influential historians like Bernard Lewis whose depictions of Islamic decline in the shadow of European modernity encourage assumptions about inevitable confrontations between “Islam” and “Christianity.” Equally unrealistic is the portrayal of al-Andalusby followers of Américo Castro as a paradise of tolerance in which static and similarly essentialized categories of “Jews,” “Muslims,” and “Christians” lived together in peaceful “convivencia” and illuminated the dark ages of medieval Europe, a trope promoted by well-intentioned American academics in the wake of September 11, 2001. Catlos dispenses with both paradigms by showing that the conflict, collaboration, oppression, and emulation that characterized cross-religious encounters in medieval Spain were always the result of local agendas, even if religious language was later used in explanation or justification. 

Catlos avoids moral conclusions by hewing closely to the ambivalent details of unpredictable historical processes. For example, Catlos indicates how the medieval church and universities were deeply influenced by neo-Platonic and Aristotelian rationalism cultivated by Jewish and Muslim scholars in Taifa, Almoravid, Almohad Spain. That exposure promoted reforming ideas among clergymen and bureaucrats which eventually reorganized canon and royal law, redefining religious categories in such a way as to marginalize outsiders. 

One of the most effective ways in which Catlos demonstrates his central claim—that religion provided a language and even a framework for conflict but was rarely its cause—is by continually emphasizing the contingency of political episodes and real-world practices. For example, the powerful ideologies of crusade and jihad, which became familiar rhetorical tools for Christian and Muslim princes to justify their rule and their wars, emerged fully on the Iberian stage only at the turn of the 12th century in response not to civilizational conflict between Christians and Muslims, but to in-group tensions in Latin Christendom and the Muslim Mediterranean. Thus, the 13th century Iberian conquests derived from a complex alliance system pitting Christian and Muslim rulers in Iberia and the Balearics against one another, with representatives from the Italian trading republics playing a significant political and economic role. As with his analysis of the 10th century Umayyad transition in the face of Asturian kingmaking, and the subsequent Taifa period leading to Moroccan dominion and the consolidation of a Christian “Imperium,” Catlos repeatedly proves that Iberian conflicts represented local interests and regional configurations rather than essentialist religious mandates. 

By the 15th century, the territorial and ideological boundaries defining Islamic Spain were redrawn as Christian kings ruled larger territories and populations than Muslim kings. Indeed, the Muslim kings of Granada were technically vassals of the Christian kings of Castile (reproducing centuries of cross-religious political alliances). Dynastic upset in both Christian and Muslim Spain created the short-term conditions which made the conquest of Granada possible and desirable in the 1480s. The success of that conquest, linked with other political events across western Eurasia, proved to be the deciding factor in the end of Islamic Spain–paralleling Catlos’s opening description of its founding in the particular constellation of political and material conditions of Late Antiquity. By embedding the history of Islamic Spain in the broader context of an integrated Mediterranean and Eurasian world, Catlos shows that Christian and Muslim societies in medieval Iberia experienced comparable internal dynastic competition, instability, violence, and burdens on the non-elites that were enforced and justified by political and religious leaders who controlled the law. These processes eventually led to the rise of mystical and millenarian religious movements challenging orthodoxy and, paradoxically, to powerful discourses of religious othering. At the same time, against this macroscopic backdrop, Catlos provides rich details of the total imbrication of medieval Iberian societies through political alliances, friendships, trade, scientific exchange, borderlands cooperation, and mutual emulation across religious boundaries.

Catlos offers his readers neither the threat of civilizational conflict nor the promise of restoring a lost world of tolerance. Instead—exemplifying valuable habits of thinking developed over more than a decade promoting the dynamic field of Mediterranean Studies—he brings readers beyond imagined national narratives into a kaleidoscope of historical connectivities and ambivalent human stories which shaped medieval Spain. Catlos has fundamentally changed the terms of an important debate by offering a wiser alternative to a path “between” eternal civilizational struggle and a glittering civilization of tolerant pluralism: a history of “Islamic Spain” fully integrated into broader Mediterranean and Eurasian patterns and which thus cannot be reduced to religious rivalry, foreign invasion, or indigenous legitimacy. This important reframing advances the field in promising new directions toward more expansive questions about sociability, cultural transmission, and cross-religious exchange. Catlos concludes by offering instead a profound social lesson for the Spain which remains a multi-religious society fully integrated into complex European, Mediterranean, and global systems, and for Anglophone readers who might perceive the risks of depicting religious difference as civilizational conflict through which to organize a society for war.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Claire Gilbert is Assistant Professor of History at Saint Louis University.

Date of Review: 
October 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Brian A. Catlos is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His books have won numerous awards, including the American Historical Association’s Premio del Rey Award and John E. Fagg Prize. Catlos lives in Boulder, Colorado, and Barcelona, Spain.



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