An Andalusi Muslim in Early Modern Europe: Shihab al-Din Ahmad al-Hajari’s Description of the 17th-Century Netherlands

Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad ibn Qāsim al-Ḥajarī al-Andalusī was an Andalusī Muslim born around 1570 in the village of al-Ḥajar, in the vicinity of Granada. He lived for most of his youth as a Morisco (crypto-Muslim) in Spain before escaping to Morocco around 1598, residing in Marrakech, where he remained until 1636 or so. While in Spain, he learned Spanish and Portuguese in addition to his native Arabic. As a result of his knowledge of the latter, he was enlisted in deciphering the so-called “Lead Books of Sacromonte” around 1588. During his time in Morocco, he entered the service of the Sa’adian Sultan Muley Zaydān (r. 1603–1627) as a translator and secretary. While in the service of the Sa’adian dynasty he also embarked on major journey to Europe, traveling to France and the Netherlands between 1609 and 1611. Around 1636, he departed to the Central Islamic Lands in order to perform the Hajj pilgrimage. Following his performance of the latter, he resided in Egypt for a time before departing for Tunis. Due to the absence of sources, it is unclear how he spent the remainder of his life. It is certain that al-Ḥajarī died sometime after 1638/1639, because he has a work (on gunpowder technology and cannons) that can be dated to these years. He was a erudite scholar, traveler and translator and the few of his works that have survived remain an important source of information for the Islamic West during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The purpose of his trip to Europe in 1609–1611 was diplomatic (on behalf of the Sa’adians) and was aimed at securing the properties and wealth that was confiscated from the Moriscos during their expulsion from Spain. The work in which this journey is recorded is given the heavily polemical title Nāṣir al-Dīn ‘ala al-Qawm al-Kāfirīn (“Making the Faith Victorious against the Disbelievers”).* His travelogue is interspersed with all the interesting details, fascinating personal exchanges and curious observations that can be expected from an Andalusī Muslim traveling in Early Modern Europe during the seventeenth century. However, the bulk of the work centers on the author describing (and likely exaggerating) his various theological and polemical exchanges with different Christian and Jewish scholars that he met in France and the Netherlands. The section translated below is excerpted from his description of the Netherlands and his meeting with the ruler/stadtholder of the Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands, Maurice of Nassau (r. 1585–1625).

**(It has just been brought to my attention that this book has been translated into English and published in Madrid in 1997 as “Kitāb Nāṣir al-Dīn ʻalā ʼl-qawm al-kāfirīn = (The supporter of religion against the infidels)” by P.S. van Koningsveld, Gerald Wiegers and Q. al-Samarra’i. However, since I only have access to the 2003 Beirut edition of the Arabic text, the translation below is my own. Update II: I now have access to the 1997 Madrid edition, of which scans are included below but have left my translation, based on Beirut 2003 edition, unchanged)


“When we reached the city of Amsterdam (Mustarḍām), I was impressed by how well-built, well-organized and how heavily populated it was. It was nearly as large as the city of Paris in France. It is also the city with the largest number of ships in the world. It is said that its ships, large and small, number about 6000 vessels. Each of the houses were elegantly painted and adorned with bright colors from top to bottom. Each house differed from the next in its form and style, and they were all adorned with stones. I have met many who have seen the lands of the East, the lands of the Slavs, Rome, and other countries in the world who have told me that none of these countries possess such beautiful and well-decorated houses.



(Map of Amsterdam, ca. 1600)

The Netherlands (Flanḍis) consists of seventeen provinces, all of which were ruled by the King of Spain (ṣulṭān bilād al-Andalus). In these parts there emerged the great scholar whom they call Luṭrī [Martin Luther, 1483–1546] and another called Qalbin [John Calvin, 1509–1564], each of whom wrote their opinions about how elements of Christianity had been distorted and had nothing to do with the religion proclaimed by Our Lord Jesus and the Gospels, and about how the Popes in Rome deliberately misguided people by enjoining the worship of idols and by introducing innovations into the faith, such as forbidding priests from marrying among other things. This school of thought (madhab) was adopted by all the people of the Netherlands, by which I mean the Seven Provinces, who have been in rebellion against their sovereign king until this day.

The people of the Kingdom of England, as well as many in France, also follow this school of thought. Their religious scholars have continually warned them against the Pope, forbid them from worshiping idols, and have enjoined them not to have hatred towards the Muslims since the latter were viewed as the Sword of God on Earth against the idol-worshipers [i.e. the Catholics]. As a result of this, they have an inclination towards the Muslims. From among the seventeen provinces [of the Netherlands], seven of them rebelled against the King of Spain nearly 70 years ago; the latter was unable to subdue them. This nation is the most powerful of all the Christians in terms of naval strength and capabilities and every island/province is almost entirely surrounded by water, meaning the [Atlantic] Ocean.

(The ‘Mauritius’ and other East Indiamen by Hendrik Cornelis Vroom, between 1590 and 1640. National Museum for Art and History, Amsterdam)

When we came to the city of Leiden, we saw there many colleges teaching the sciences and I happened upon a man [Thomas Erpenius, d. 1624] who could read Arabic and who taught this language to others, being paid a salary for doing so. I had originally met him in France and he invited me to his home. He would converse with me in Arabic, demonstrating a mastery of the pronunciation of words and the proper conjugation of verbs. He also possessed a multitude of books written in Arabic, including the Noble Qur’an. When we began to discuss theology, he affirmed his belief in the Trinity, a point on which they [the Protestants] and the Pope and his followers are in agreement. He would greatly praise his own religion and Our Lord Jesus. I told him: “All that you have said in praise [of Jesus] is good and well, and we [Muslims] are in agreement with you about it, except for your proclaiming that he is God or the Son of God.” He then mentioned the Holy Spirit. In reply I said: “Is the Holy Ghost the same as the Paraclete [παράκλητος/paralectus] mentioned in the Gospels?” He said: “Yes, it is!”

I then said: “You are well versed in languages so tell me: what does Paraclete mean?”

He replied: “It is not a Latin, but a Greek term, that in Arabic would translate to intercessor (shafī‘).

I said: “This is actually one of the names of our Prophet Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him). Does this term refer to a particular person?”

He said: “Yes.”

I said: “How, then, can it be part of a Trinity when you claim that the latter is one, unified whole?”

Embedded image permalink(Thomas Erpenio’s Testamentum Arabice [Arabic New Testament]. Leiden, 1616)

At that moment, we were interrupted by a famous physician who was an expert in medicine and the sciences, who said: “We have in our possession a Latin translation of the Qur’an, yet we could not find in it any miracles that compare with the miracles mentioned in the Gospels! Do you [Muslims] possess any books about the miracles of your prophet?”

I said: “Indeed we do! One of the most famous books on the matter was written by Qāḍī Iyāḍ [d. 1149],” and I mentioned something from his work. I then continued: “We also have many other books on this issue. The Prophet (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him) would perform miracles in the presence of a great multitude of people. When people saw his excellence, his blessedness, and his truthfulness in word and deed, as well as his proclamation of the Absolute Oneness of God, despite the fact that he was unlettered, they entered into his religion. And God Almighty granted victory to the Truth until his religion was made manifest over all others. Verily, the vast majority of the civilized world follows his religion.”

[More theological disputation about the nature of miracles follows]

A few scholars present brought forth a book in Arabic and asked me if I could read it. After glancing through it…I told them: “I understand its content and can even translate it into Spanish if you like.”

They all looked quite astonished and told me: “This book was brought from an island in the East Indies (al-hunūd al-sharqīyyah) which is separated from us by a very long distance by sea, which takes nearly a year to cross. It is indeed a marvel that you can fully understand this book despite the fact that a massive distance separates your country from theirs. This fact is a manifest proof that the Arabic language is a single, unified language and can be understood in every country. In our own countries, our speech differs greatly due to the diversity of languages. England, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Muscovy all speak vastly different languages, while your Arabic language is one.”

(Opening pages of a Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add. 12312, ff. 1v-2r )

They spoke truthfully on this matter. Indeed, whoever speaks the Arabic language has to have the mention of God on their tongue. As some in Spain used to say: “There is no Arabic without God and no Spanish without the Devil,” because the Spanish Christians are known for their constant mention of the Devil in their speech. No one hates the Arabic language except those who are ignorant of its virtues and blessing. As the Arabic book that they showed to me from the East Indies proves, the inhabitants of those parts are indeed Muslims.

We then departed from Leiden and went to the city of The Hague (al-hāyah), the seat of their local ruler and the royal chancery, where I encountered the prince’s messenger, who I had originally met in Marrakech. He was greatly thankful and indebted to me for my efforts in liberating him from prison. The reason for his being in Marrakech was that the King of Spain had sent his galleys against those provinces that we previously mentioned had revolted against his authority. The rebels in the provinces confronted and captured some of these galleys, throwing those among their crews who were Christians into the sea—as has been related to us—and setting free all those among them who was Muslim, of whom there were about 300. These they had put on a great ship and sent as a gift from the Dutch to the Sultan of Marrakech, who at that time was a son of Muley Ahmad whose name was Abū Fāris, around the year 1014 A.H. [1605–1606 A.D.].

(Joust on the Hofvijver, ca. 1625. Haags Historisch Museum)

The one to transport them was this same messenger who I happened upon in The Hague, which was his homeland. After he had remained in Marrakech for two years, in that time of evil and strife, Muley Zaydan [d. 1627] emerged as the uncontested sovereign king of Morocco. This ruler imprisoned the messenger, since he had not arrived bearing gifts during his reign. After this messenger had languished in captivity for a time, I was informed about this and I recalled the good treatment that they [European Christians] bestowed upon Muslims who were sent as emissaries bearing gifts to their countries. I therefore decided to aid this individual and spoke with the eminent jurisconsult and scholar Muḥammad b. ‘Abd Allāh [al-Rajrāji, d. 1613], who then spoke with the ruler on my behalf and released the man from prison. Thus, when this same man saw me in his own country he informed the prince, whose name was Maurīsio [Maurice of Nassau, r. 1585–1625] about me and my actions, and granted me an audience with him.
(Cavalcade of the princes of the House of Orange and Nassau, Maurice of Nassau (1567–1625) in the front row. 17th century)

When I was in the prince’s presence, he asked me: “What languages do you know?”

I replied: “Arabic, Spanish and Portuguese. While I understand French, I cannot speak it.”

He said: “As for me, I know French and can understand Spanish but cannot speak it. Thus, I will speak to you in French and you will speak to me in Spanish.”

I agreed.

He said: “What do you think is the reason that led the King of Spain to expel the Andalusīs from his country?”

(Expulsion of the Moriscos from Vinaroz [1613] by Pere Oromig y Francisco Peralta)

I replied: “You should know that, unbeknownst to the Christians, the Andalusīs had remained Muslims. Sometimes, they discovered those who were professing and practicing their religion. The Christians would often put them on trial in order to discern their true religion, an ordeal from which no one was safe. None of them were permitted to participate in wars, which usually annihilate a great multitude of people, nor were they permitted to embark on any ship, for fear that they would use the opportunity to flee to their co-religionists [in North Africa]. Indeed, the sea causes many lives to perish. Moreover, among the Christians there are many monks, priests and nuns who do not have children. Among the Andalusīs, on the other hand, there are no priests, monks or nuns but, rather, their numbers continued to grow due to their not participating in wars, their avoidance of the sea, and their having many children. In my opinion, this is the primary reason why the King of Spain felt compelled to expel them, because their numbers would continue to grow over time. Do you understand my words?”

He replied in French: “I understood everything that you said, and it is all true. Let us say that we were to make an agreement with the Andalusī leadership and send them a massive armada of ships for them to launch an invasion of Iberia with our troops, would we conquer Spain?

I said: “It is impossible for the Andalusīs to ever agree to such a thing without the express permission of the different rulers in whose lands they now reside.”

He said: “Let us say that we were to establish an agreement with the Sultan of Marrakech and the Grand Seigneur [the Ottoman sultan], by whom I mean the Supreme Sultan, the Ruler of Islam and the Faith, to coordinate our assaults against the King of Spain and conquer his country.”

Constantinople in the 17th century.

I told him: “This would indeed be an auspicious affair if it should come to pass, but it is highly doubtful that it could be achieved. But if such a thing were to occur they would indeed be able to conquer Spain, may God return it to the fold of Islam!

(Arrival of the Moriscos in North Africa [1613] by Vicent Mestre)

(Expulsion of the Moriscos from Denia [1613] by Vicent Mestre)

He then said to his messenger: “Write a coded letter and give him a copy so that we can remain in touch with one another.” He then handed me a copy.

He then said to me: “Ask your desires”—which means request what you would like of me; one of the customs of the Christian kings is that whenever they ask an individual to request something from them that they always fulfill such a request. This is why it is very rare that they ask such a thing and they only do so for individuals with whom they are greatly pleased.

I said to myself: “The Christians frequently accuse the Muslims of being covetous, and this prince has probably only ever seen a few Muslims in his life, myself being one of these. In order for him to realize that this accusation about Muslims is false, I shall not ask him for any money so that he may see that there are those among them who are not covetous of wealth.”

I told him: “I ask you only for a simple thing.”

He said: “What is it?”

I said: “That you enjoin the captain of the ship that will carry us home to treat us well.”

He said: “Only this?!”

I said: “Yes.”

He said: “Go find your ship and learn the names of the captain and head merchant of the ship, then return to me.”

I then told him their names and he ordered his private secretary to write for each of them a document enjoining them to treat us well, upon each of which was the royal seal. Each of them was very pleased with their letters. The ship’s merchant treated us with benevolence, treating us to several sweet dishes and even gave us some dates, which is a rare delicacy among them since they are imported from Muslim lands, which are the only regions of the world where this fruit can be found.”

[Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad ibn Qāsim al-Ḥajarī al-Andalusī, Nāṣir al-Dīn ‘ala al-Qawm al-Kāfirīn (Beirut, 1999), pp. 113–119]


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11 thoughts on “An Andalusi Muslim in Early Modern Europe: Shihab al-Din Ahmad al-Hajari’s Description of the 17th-Century Netherlands

  1. The translation into English and the Arabic edition was by Wiegers and two others. Very useful introduction and Wiegers has an article or two on Hajari as well….

  2. The picture you have labelled as (Amsterdam in the 17th Century, Atlas Beudeker. British Library, London), is actually a painting of Havana Cuba, painted in Amsterdam. But an interesting article none the less!

  3. Ballandalus,

    Do you know of any other such texts, which deal with Muslim travels/interactions with Europe? Especially in the early modern period when Europe began to pull ahead militarily and technologically. JazakAllah Khayr.

    • It may be worth checking out Nabil Matar’s recent translation of al-Miknasi’s embassy to Spain during the 18th-century entitled “An Arab Ambassador in the Mediterranean World: The Travels of Muhammad ibn ‘Uthmān al-Miknāsī, 1779-1788.” Also, there are several examples of Muslim interactions with early modern Europe provided in Nabil Matar, “Europe Through Arab Eyes, 1578–1727” and Nabil Matar, “In the Lands of the Christians: Arabic Travel Writing in the 17th Century.” I hope this provides a useful starting point.

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