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The Destruction of Hispano-Islamic Civilization: Recollections, Reflections, and Significance

Introduction

January 2nd marks a very significant day in world history. On this day in 1492, exactly 522 years ago, the city of Granada, the last bastion of Andalusi Muslim resistance to the Castilian conquest of Islamic Iberia, was finally conquered after a brutal decade-long war. This event marked the end of Islamic rule in Iberia, which had lasted nearly 781 years. More significantly, it marked the beginning of the elimination of the Jewish and Muslim communities in Spain and Portugal, communities which would not be reestablished until the 19th and 20th centuries. As such, it is a day which is worth reflecting on.

This piece is a synthesis of my own scholarship and interpretation of al-Andalus, Matthew Carr’s recent book Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain (2009), and current events. I hope to tie all these things together in a manner which is both concise and relevant to the best of my abilities, so forgive me if I oversimplify any complex processes and events. My aim is to generate some discussion and provoke some thought on this issue, especially among Muslims, who–although generally very historically conscious –usually fail to see the relevance of their own history to the present. Unfortunately, millions of people in Spain take this as a day of celebration (it is even an official holiday in Granada: http://www.granadatur.com/en/city-guide/monuments/monument-detail/directorio/dia-de-la-toma/). There is really nothing to celebrate about January 2nd, 1492. It was the day that marked the beginning of a process which gradually obliterated the Islamic and Jewish aspects of Iberian civilization, destroying its unique character and transforming Hispania into a land where religious intolerance held sway. Something certainly changed after January 2nd, 1492 and to take this date as a day of celebration demonstrates an ignorance of history. Rather than celebrate the conquest of Granada, an event which signified death and destruction for Andalusi and Sephardic civilization in Iberia and a date which continues to signify tragedy for hundreds of millions of Muslims, Jews and Christians around the world, this is a day on which to reflect upon the lessons of the destruction of al-Andalus and Hispano-Muslim civilization. I hope my piece will show that conquest, always violent and destructive, is something that should never be celebrated, regardless of the identities of the conquered or the conqueror.

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Many Muslims, especially those of Middle Eastern and North African background, are familiar with the story of Islamic Spain, or al-Andalus. From a young age, many of us encounter the semi-legendary narrative in which in 711 the heroic Berber general Tariq ibn Ziyad launched an invasion of the Iberian Peninsula (the territories which comprise modern-day Spain and Portugal), engaged the overwhelmingly larger Visigothic army in a battle near Guadelete, and defeated the tyrannical Visigothic king Rodrigo in single combat. This led to the establishment of Islamic Spain. We are also accustomed to hear the story of the brave Umayyad prince, the Falcon of Quraysh, Abd al-Rahman I who–fleeing the Abbasid onslaught in Syria– ran, rode, and swam his way to Iberia, brought an end to the internecine conflict between the warring Arab and Berber Muslims there, before being declared emir of al-Andalus. The story of al-Andalus is extravagant. It is a story of heroic raids, epic battles, scheming princesses, boastful poets, revolutionary scholars, and exemplary coexistence between faiths. And then, we are told, it all ended abruptly, like a dream, or faded away like a mirage. The Muslims were conquered, their faith was extinguished, and they were expelled across the Straits of Gibraltar (named after the great general Tariq)…forever ending what was considered one of the most extraordinary episodes in Islamic history. This rosy narrative, although certainly nostalgic and promoting an idealistic vision of al-Andalus, constructs an over-simplistic picture, and in the process obscures a much richer, more complex history. Worse still, is its tendency to focus on the “good days” of Islamic ascendancy without examining the reasons for the decline and fall of al-Andalus and Hispano-Muslim civilization, despite the fact that it is precisely this period which is most relevant to Muslims today. This piece looks at the less glorious days of Andalusi civilization, one which is greatly painful to recall, and even less pleasant to openly discuss: the destruction of Hispano-Islamic civilization. However, this is not a historical analysis nor reconstruction, but merely a reflection on the event of the human and Muslim tragedy in Spain. As a historian of al-Andalus, a Muslim residing in the West, and someone whose homeland in the Levant has been torn by decades of warfare and communal conflict, I feel uniquely oriented to convey what I feel is a significant legacy of Hispano-Islamic civilization.

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As most undoubtedly know, 1492 marks an enormous watershed in world history…it marks the year Columbus sailed across the sea to the Americas, the subsequent contact between American indigenous peoples and Europeans, the beginning of the Sephardic diaspora with the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and–last, but not least–the conquest of Granada, the final outpost and refuge of al-Andalus, marking the end of almost 800 years of Muslim political dominion in the Iberian peninsula. Most Muslim histories of al-Andalus end with this date. This fact has always bothered me, considering that Islam would continue to exist as a public religion in Spain for at least another 30 years, and Hispano-Muslims would persevere in their faith for an additional 117 years! It is certainly a period worth considering, rather than ignoring completely as many Arab historians have done. Many scholars have categorized the period between 1492 and 1609 as the “slow death of Islam in Spain” during which Muslims were systematically persecuted, massacred, compelled to convert, and subjected to other outrages until they were thrown out of the Peninsula altogether in the early seventeenth century. Other scholars, although not denying these hardships, characterize this period as a time of uncertainty, renegotiation, and—unexpectedly–cultural efflorescence, in which the Hispano-Muslims articulated a very distinct identity for themselves, developed their own language known as Aljamiado (based on Castilian/Catalan, but written in Arabic script), and sought to strike a balance between their Iberian heritage, living under Christian rule, and maintaining their Islamic faith.

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Hardship, discrimination, oppression, renegotiation of identity, striving to achieve a balance between maintaining one’s faith and integrating into society at large…these are hardly notions which are alien to Muslims today, especially those in the West. Perhaps if we look back at the experience of our Andalusi predecessors, we may find some valuable lessons applicable to today. The story of this period is also one of Christian and Muslim millennarianism, violence, and inexcusable, although not unfathomable, acts of extreme barbarity…all themes to which many of us in the 21st century are not oblivious.

Historical Background

In 1492, the Kingdom of Granada finally succumbed to the force of the Christian conquista (often erroneously referred to as a Reconquista, a problematic term which is loaded with polemical overtones) which had been relentlessly waged against the kingdom for over a decade. One interesting twist to the fall of Granada which is seldom recalled is the fact that the city surrendered peacefully to the Catholic Monarchs (Isabella and Ferdinand) under generous terms, which–among other things–allowed the Muslims to maintain their language, faith, customs, and one stipulation even permitted the adhan (call to prayer) to continue! Regardless, distrustful of the intentions of these monarchs, many Muslims (especially the nobility, upper-classes, and scholars) decided to migrate to North Africa or the Ottoman Empire, based on the injunction of the Maliki ulema’ that Muslims should not reside under infidel rule, rulings which are echoed even today (although to a lesser degree) in the Islamic world. Gradually, the surrender agreement and terms under which the Muslims capitulated were systematically violated by the Christian secular and ecclesiastical authorities. Perhaps nothing exemplifies these violations more powerfully than the mass baptisms which took place in a single day in Granada in December 1499, during which over 6000 men, women, and children were forcibly Christianized, under the ever-watchful eye of the Inquisition, and the simultaneous burning of a staggering 500,000-1,000,000 books—the entire library of al-Andalus, including countless religious texts, works of poetry, and philosophy–by Archbishop Jimenez de Cisneros in the Plaza Bib-Rambla in Granada (for those who know Spanish, read more about this terrible event here: https://ballandalus.wordpress.com/2013/07/01/cisneros-y-la-quema-de-los-manuscritos-granadinos-by-daniel-eisenberg/). This led, not unsurprisingly, to the radicalization of Granada’s population, who took up arms to stem the tide of these forcible and–in their minds–illegitimate campaigns against the Islamic faith, which violated the terms of the 1492 surrender and were unprecedented in the 800-year long relationship between Islam and Christianity in Spain. By 1501, the rebellion had been entirely suppressed, following several dozen massacres and mass executions, and all of Granada had become Christian, all the mosques became churches, all the minarets became bell-towers, the mihrabs became altars, and the athan was silenced…not to be heard again for over 400 years. In 1502, this reality was extended to the rest of the Kingdom of Castile, and by 1526, all of Spain was effectively Christian. Officially speaking…no Muslims remained. In reality, however, close to 1.5 million Muslims remained, dissimulating their faith and concealing their true identity from the inquisition authorities. It is to the fate to these crypto-Muslims, or Moriscos, to which I now turn.

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The Systematic Eradication of  Iberian Islam: Moriscos, 1501-1609

For many scholars, Spanish policy towards the Muslims represents one of the earliest documented cases of genocide in the early modern world and a trial-policy for their policy in the Americas, which was certainly genocidal. This is a very long story, so I’ll summarize it in a few sentences. Essentially, 16th-century Spanish history is dominated by the attempts by the Spanish monarchy to completely liquidate the existence of the Hispano-Muslims as a distinctive and cohesive element in Iberia through a variety of coercive measures. For Muslims, the main concern was simply survival; basically, how to continue covertly maintaining their faith in a society which rejected them without ending up their life tied to a burning stake. Realizing that all their attempts had failed to resolve the “Morisco problem,” the Spanish authorities turned to more extreme measures. In 1609, the government of Spain resolved to expel over 500,000 Morisco men and women (in a cruel twist, their children were taken from them, to be raised as Christians…although they would later be sterilized so they would not “breed”), those crypto-Muslims and those genuinely converted to Christianity, were expelled from the Iberian peninsula…thousands drowned in the Mediterranean, tens of thousands were enslaved or murdered on the road to the Ottoman Empire and Morocco, and those who survived were left destitute and homeless, relying on the good-will of those in whose lands they found themselves for survival, a fate many people we today call “refugees”  can sympathize with. This process, which the Spanish authorities referred to as “purification,” and historians call “expulsion” is today known by another name: ethnic cleansing. So ended nearly 1000 years of Hispano-Islamic civilization…

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As Matthew Carr points out in his book, Blood and Faith:

The deportations and massacres of the Native Americans during the westward expansion of the American frontier, the deadly “Turkification” campaign that killed up to a million Armenians in 1915-1916, the mass transfer of Turkish Christians to Greece and Greek Muslims to Turkey that followed the Greco-Turkish war in 1923, the Nazi Holocaust, the brutal population exchanges of Muslims and Hindus in 1947, the Palestinian exodus in 1948, and the civil wars of the former Yugoslavia–all these events were anticipated in the great purge that took place in Spain between 1609 and 1614. If the expectations and assumptions that led to the expulsions were specific to their time, the tragedy of the Moriscos was part of a recurring dynamic that has been repeated in many other contexts, in which a powerful majority seeks to remake or define its own identity through the physical elimination or removal of supposedly incompatible minorities whose presence is imagined as potentially defiling or corrupting.

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There are two specific elements I want to look at, and expand on briefly: Muslim perseverance and Muslim radicalization.

Morisco Perseverance: Lessons for Muslims

One of the most fascinating and admirable elements of this entire tragedy is how true the Muslims of Spain remained to their beliefs throughout their entire ordeal, which they interpreted as a test of faith. A quote from a contemporary Hispano-Muslim aptly demonstrates the Morisco perspective of their predicament:

Let no man lose his faith, for God created us out of even less, and we are His. Let us hope for His divine mercy, which is even greater than all created things put together, for if, as a result of our sins, we are suffering now, a time will come when, out of his ineffable love, He will grant us the favor of burying the [tyrannical] state of the unbelievers, and of restoring the throne of Islam, to the benefit of the Muslims of this peninsula. So let us not cease to call on Him, for he has promised to us more than He has yet given, mighty and powerful as He is.

Other Moriscos argued that the highest form of jihad was to propound one’s Muslim faith while living under the dominion of the non-Muslims, echoing a hadith from Ja’far ibn Muhammad al-Sadiq (d. 765) to this effect. They perceived themselves as the Ghuraba’ (“strangers”) mentioned by the Prophet Muhammad, who would maintain their faith in times of oppression. These sentiments reveal that at least some Muslims of Iberia not only endured their hardship, but viewed it as a trial of faith, from which they would emerge purified from their sins…a form of tazkiyya (purification of the heart) so to speak. Subjected to the worst possible atrocities, humiliated again and again, weakened, despised, and eventually eradicated, one wonders where they found this faith to persevere. On this particular point, there is no doubt that comparisons between the perseverance of the Moriscos and those in the modern world who have been subjected to cruel forms of oppression and persecution, are entirely valid and may give us all an idea of the power of ideals and ever-enduring faith to sustain a people through their hardship. We can see echoes of the Morisco tragedy, to varying degrees ofcourse, in the modern experiences of these people.

Indeed, even Muslims in the West may draw inspiration from their Morisco predecessors. In an age where the public manifestation of Islam–a mosque or veil–is viewed as an affront to many in the West, and pressure mounts on Muslims to abandon their religious values for the sake of melding into the society of the majority (which we are told is superior to our own), it can be very difficult to sustain our existence as true believers while participating in society. However, as the Morisco example shows, Muslims have been subjected to far worse in their past and have remained steadfast in their faith and maintained a strong, visible presence in society, even a society which excluded them and sought to eradicate them. Indeed, until the final days leading up to their expulsion, Moriscos were active in Spanish society as scholars, translators, doctors, and architects. The strength of Muslims is rooted in the same principle as that which has, at times, led to our persecutuon: our unwavering belief and uncompromising submission to the One Merciful God…let us never forget that, and always remember His Mercy at times of duress, and His Justice at times of success. This is the primary lesson we can draw from the example of the Moriscos.

Morisco Radicalization and Vengeance: Lessons for Everyone

One troubling aspect of the history of the Hispano-Muslims and the Moriscos which is particularly striking was their gradual transformation from relatively tolerant individuals, aware of communal differences and respectful of otherness, into messianic, iconoclasts, who became inimical to anything non-Muslim (especially Christian), which was clearly identified as the enemy. Definitely not all Moriscos–perhaps not even the majority–underwent this transformation, even following the final expulsion in 1609. However, beginning in 1499–when Jimenez de Cisneros made a bonfire of their Qur’ans and rubble of their mosques–several Muslims concluded that only an aggressive response would be able to stem the tide of the violent Christianization campaigns and attempts to “extinguish the light of Islam from all the lands of al-Andalus.” Subsequently, they turned to guerilla warfare, terrorism, assassinations, and–more significantly–turned to the Ottoman Empire, the self-proclaimed “Shadow of God on Earth, Defender of the Oppressed, Establisher of Justice,” in order to alter their predicament, repeatedly hoping for an Ottoman invasion of Iberia which never happened. They also rose in rebellion several times, in 1499 and more notably in 1568. The 1568 uprising became notorious as the most gruesome war, aside from the Spanish Civil War in 1936, to be fought on Iberian soil. The insurgency was marked by the mass execution of priests, the burning of churches, and the mutilation of women and children, while the suppression of the rebellion can arguably be called genocide…marked by systematic massacres, death marches, deportations, and mass rape. Tens of thousands were killed in a conflict that was certainly one of the bloodiest European wars of the sixteenth century. We need to look objectively at the 1568 rebellion however, in order to identify its importance. It represents not some irrational Muslim contempt or innate hatred for Christianity, but a reaction to decades of oppression. A close reading of the history of the Moriscos in the sixteenth century may lead one to conclude that it is not surprising to learn that the Muslims reacted the way they did after enduring so many years of forced assimilation, suppression of identity, and dis-empowerment.

The lessons from this are extremely clear. No matter how effective a counter-insurgency, no matter how respectable a state may appear to the outside world, no matter how often it may convince itself of the legitimacy of its own oppression, if the root cause of a grievance is left unresolved, it will grow into vengeance, which is nourished by the blood of tyranny, and–in turn–is only satiated by the blood of the tyrant and his supporters. There are many cases where this holds true in the modern world…Syria being only the latest example. Let us hope that we will not reach the point where the grievances reach a breaking point and explode beyond the point of repair and, indeed, let us pray that those in power do not resort to the same methods to end their “*insert name of indigenous/marginalized people here*” problem as the Spanish in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I strongly believe that until the lessons of the past are fully absorbed, the tyranny of the present cannot be amended, which means that the horrors of the future become inevitable. God willing, the Morisco tragedy will never be repeated, but the ghosts of the Moriscos continue to haunt the refugee camps of the Middle East and Africa

Oh, in case you were wondering…as for seventeenth Spain, its “victorious moment,” the expulsion of the Moriscos, led to the near-collapse of the country’s economy, the beginning of a 200-year long plague of North African jihadi activities, sustained by Hispano-Muslims, the beginning of Spain’s long decline, and a historical legacy which has remained soaked with blood. Let us hope that scenes of the bonfire of Qur’ans and the destruction of mosques in 1499 Granada (and the processes they set in motion) will not be replicated in 2014 Europe or America…although it is clear that hard times lie ahead for all who cherish freedom and justice. Thankfully, we are not even close to the point that the Moriscos were in 1609, and to a large degree Muslims in the West enjoy far more freedoms than they are in the Islamic world. However, we need to be cognizant that things are moving in the wrong direction. Anti-Muslim sentiment on one hand, and Muslim chauvinism on the other is only increasing in this part of the world. We need to be aware that it is only a few steps from hatred, resentment, and contempt to xenophobic policies and  atrocities.

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3 Comments

  1. […] The Destruction of Hispano-Islamic Civilization: Recollections, Reflections, and Significance. […]

  2. omalone1 says:

    Gwiz, excellent read, search was sparked by IHRCs (London) genocide memorial day talk on the spanish cleansing of muslims

  3. An amazing thorough Article…A lot of work behind it….

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