See Sheikhy Notes academy for madrasa, hijamma/cupping, Sheikhy notes publications and knowledge lessons

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dr Umar Farooq Abdullah

Andalusian Reflections
Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah Wymann-Landgraf
February 2000

In the 10th century C.E, Hroswitha—Saxon princess and earliest known German poetess—wrote of Cordoba, the caliphal capital of al-Andalus, that it was: “the ornament of the world.” In the Age of Hroswitha, Islam and civilization were synonymous. The Abode of Islam had a fabulous beacon in the east: Sunni Persia, and another, more spectacular, in the west: al-Andalus

Christian historians in the Middle Ages spoke of “the two Spains,” one Christian and the other Muslim. They meant by Spain, “Hispania”: the Iberian peninsula—Spain and Portugal—not the political entity called Spain today. There was no doubt which of the “two Spains” was the greater and more splendid. Europeans have called the Andalusians Moors and their culture, Moorish. Our names: Moore, Morris, Maurice, and Moritz, were medieval forms of “Moor” and “Moorish”.

Muslims, on the other hand, spoke of“ al-Andalus,” embracing all parts of Iberia that were Muslim. “Al-Andalus” expanded or receded, as the fortunes of Islam in Portugal and Spain ebbed and flowed. Muslims focused not on the phenomenon of the “two Spains” but on that of the “two banks” [al-‘udwatan]: the northern and southern shores of the straits of Gibraltar. The immense cultural, commercial, political, and military power of al-Andalus lay in the secret its “the two banks.” When the banks were united or well linked, al-Andalus was the richest, most formidable land of Europe. When the “two banks” and their peoples were severed, al-Andalus weakened and faced defeat before the barbarous armies from “the vast land” [al-ard al-kabirah]: Europe beyond the Pyrenees.

Al-Andalus was among the greatest manifestations of civilization Europe has ever witnessed. The Andalusians were consciously European and cultivated that identity in their poetry. An Andalusian poet might depart from norms and speak, for example, of a beautiful woman with green eyes and red hair, not the traditional Arabian beauty with black hair and big dark eyes. Ethnically, Andalusian Muslims did not differ significantly from their Christian neighbors to the north Andalusian civilization was tolerant and cosmopolitan. It embraced Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Its Muslim population was diverse: Iberians [Latins and Celts], Berbers, Arabs, Teutons, sub-Saharan Africans, Slavs, Persians, and others. In its darkest times, al-Andalus knew ugly racial divisions—especially between Berber and Arab—but succeeded rapidly in Arabicizing its population and weilding them into one body. Many Christians and Jews embraced Islam. Maimonides [Musa ibn Maimun]—the great Jewish physician and Talmudic scholar of Cordoba—is reported to have held that the greatest danger before an Andalusian Jew was attraction to Islam. The Muslims of al-Andalus had a sincere and deep attachment to Islam and Arabic. In practice, their society was trilingual. It cultivated a sophisticated Qur’anic Arabic but also used Andalusian colloquial Arabic and “al-‘Ajamiyah” [ aljamiado], a romance tongue close to Castillian Spanish but written in Arabic script.

The appeal of the Andalusian way of life enticed Christians and Jews and many populations on the perimeters. Andalusian Christians and Jews took pride in the Arabic tongue and Arab habits and styles. Several Andalusian Jews wrote on the virtues of Arabic and held it superior to Hebrew. Judah ben Tibbon—a physician and translator of Arabic works into Hebrew—held that Arabic was the richest language in the world and the best suited for every type of writing. He felt Arabic—as opposed to Hebrew—was the supreme poetic language and the perfect language for philosophy, since, by its nature, it penetrated the hearts of matters, made the obscure clear, and expounded subtleties.

People of the Book—especially Christians—were called “musta’ribun” [mozarabes]: “those who imitate the Arabs.” When Alfonso VI reconquered large regions of northern and central Iberia in the 11th century, he had to “Europeanize” the Christians of his new domains and make them “Latin” Christians again instead of the Arab Christians they had become. Alfonso introduced the Roman liturgy in place of the Mozarabic. He patronized Romanesque art instead of Moorish and spread the Carolingian script. From the time of Alfonso VI on, one of the chief offices of the Church and, later, the Inquisition would be to obliterate Moorish culture and replace it with that of Latin Christianity.

The “Arabic speaking” phase of Islamic civilization in Iberia lasted more than eight hundred years from 711 until after the fall of Granada in 1492. But Muslim influence in Iberia lasted longer. Millions of Muslims remained in Iberia after Granada’s fall. Those of them who could not leave freely or flee successfully were forcefully converted to Catholicism in the 16th century and forbidden to speak Arabic or keep their Moorish culture. The Church divided Iberia between Old Christians and New, two distinct and unequal social classes kept under the Inquisition’s scrutiny for centuries. Forcefully converted Muslims were called “Moriscos” [little Moors], while forcefully converted Jews were called “Marranos” [swine]. Often Morisco children were taken away to be raised as Christians in monasteries, cloisters, and other Church institutions.

Large populations of Moriscos were expelled from the south of Spain and from its eastern coastal regions and were resettled in the north. But extreme measures could not kill the spirit of Islam in Moriscan hearts. They rebelled frequently and continually begged Muslim powers to come to their rescue. Ultimately, Spain expelled hundreds of thousands of Moriscos from 1609 to 1614. But this same act helped break the power and wealth of Imperial Spain, which relied on the energies and skills of its Moriscos. It marked the end of Spain’s golden age. Never again would “the Catholic kings” recapture their lost glory. The French cardinal, Richelieu, chief minister of Louis XIII, said of the expulsion of the Moriscos that it was: “ . . . the most audacious and barbarous counsel recorded in the history of all preceding ages.”

The genocide of the Moors and Moriscos, Jews and Marranos contrasts to the Islamic toleration, which had been the hallmark of al-Andalus from its beginning and one of the secrets of its great achievements. The “Grand Inquistion”, which began in 1483, was “the first act of united Spain.” Most European Christians loathed the Inquisition, especially when Spain—in its Inquisitorial spirit—sought to crush Protestant movements. Philip II sent his “Invincible Armada” with such an intent against newly Protestant England in 1588. Spain’s murderous wars against the Dutch Protestants, which went on intermittently from 1579 until 1648, were the Inquisition’s work. European hatred of the Inquisition and reaction against it were among the reasons for the Protestant Reformation’s success. The 19th century French historian, Charles, Comte de Montalembert said: “I grant indeed that the Inquisition in Spain destroyed Protestantism in its germ, but I defy anyone to prove that it has not given it throughout Europe the support of public opinion and the sympathies of outraged humanity.” Yet the Inquisition’s long and grotesque shadow has hung over the West for centuries. The bloody Spanish civil war ( 1936 – 1939 ) was in part the fruit of the brutal division of Spanish social classes that the Inquisition fostered. Even the ku klux klan, the genocidal policies of nazi fascism, and Slobodan Milosevic’s policies of “ethnic cleansing” belong to its bastard offspring.

Andalusian Muslims were generally conservative. New developments in the eastern Islamic world were not readily received in al-Andalus. But its civilization was not rigid. Rather, it blended a profound understanding of Islamic tradition with unique originality and improvision when circumstances required. Andalusian legal scholars allowed their Christian minorities to erect new churches, for example, whereas other Islamic lands only allowed them to keep their old ones.

Cordoba and other great Andalusian cities were brilliant centers of learning. Students from as far away as England and continental Europe came there to study. Roger Bacon was among them and held that learning Arabic was essential to scientific progress. Like their counterparts in the east, Andalusians made intelligent use of waqf properties, which supported free hospitals and free schools, maintained roads and bridges, quartered armies and garrisons, provided for official journeys into Europe to free captives and prisoners of war, and even provided mercifully for beasts of burden too old to labor. The legal precedents of Islamic Iberia are an important source of minority fiqh for Muslims in Europe and America today, and the discipline of minority fiqh in Islam may probably be said to have had its origin in al-Andalus.

Al-Andalus produced many of the greatest minds of the Islamic and Arabic sciences. Their works remain unmatched even now. Andalusians also mastered mathematics, geometry, the physical sciences, and medicine. They put down the foundations of the history of science. Even Moorish music was an advanced science, Andalusian music being among the most highly developed music forms the world has known and one of the sources of our classical music. Andalusians did not just use their music for enjoyment but also to cure the insane. Moorish architecture and fine arts developed traditional models with distinctive originalilty. The profound developments of Andalusian art may be traced through the centuries from the great mosque of Cordoba to Granada’s al-Hamra’ in its silent majesty.

During its illustrious centuries, al-Andalus was powerful on land and sea. Like Spain in its golden age, the force of Andalusian arms was based on sea power. Formidable strength in arms was matched with cultural, economic, and political prowess. For centuries, al-Andalus enjoyed an economic prosperity that eclipsed the former achievements of Roman Spain. Andalusian economic power effected continental Europe, Britain, Ireland, and Scandinavia and altered earlier trade patterns. The powerful Andalusian economy brought prosperity to those within and around Iberia, but it triggered unwittingly centuries of poverty and backwardness in northern Europe by siphoning off the flow of its traditional commerce.

Throughout the world, Andalusians were famed as craftsmen, agrarians, and breeders of horses and livestock. For centuries, the Andalusian Arabian was the finest horse known to Europe. It was also the ancestor of the American Indian pony, which descended from horses the Spanish had brought to the New World. Andalusians mastered waterworking to a degree not thoroughly understood even today. They produced brilliant steels and alloys, fashioned excellent swords and weapons. They built ships worthy of the Atlantic and mosques and other edifices that will be admired until the end of time.. They fashioned silks and made quality textiles, leather goods, ceramics, furnitures, lamps, chandeliers, perfume burners, and jewelry. It was said that in Moorish Seville, one could find anything imaginable, even “sparrows’ milk.” The Muslims of al-Andalus introduced oranges, lemons, cotton, and mulberry trees to Europe and led the medieval world in an agricultural revolution. Olive trees last for centuries, and it is said many of those on the hills of Spain today were planted by Moorish hands.

The Spanish and Portuguese identities are linked inseparably to the heritage of al-Andalus, although, even today, few Iberian historians have been able to come to terms with that legacy. But they are not the only heirs of the Andalusian past. The histories of Europe and the Americas are also tied to al-Andalus in subtle and unexpected ways. The emergence and dominance of the vikings from the 9th till the 11th centuries is a profound part of western European and Russian history. This complex phenomenon had several causes, but the powerful Andalusian economy of the time, which sapped economic growth in northern Europe, was among them. The Norman kingdom of 10th century France, which conquered Britain in the 11th, is among the critical developments of medieval history. The Normans originated as Danish vikings whom the Andalusians defeated on the Atlantic in one of the greatest naval battles in history. Victory saved al-Andalus from predations but sent the defeated viking remnants to northern France, where they cut out for themselves their new “Norman [northman] kingdom”. In the 10th and 11th centuries, Muslims had a small governance in Switzerland and eastern France. Toynbee regarded this presence as one of the crucial developments of the Middle Ages prior to the crusades. Swiss Muslim power was related to al-Andalus, directly and indirectly. The Swiss were the only Muslims ever to make the Roman Pope pay jizyah. It took the combined armies of Byzantium and continental Europe to defeat them.

There seems to have been a friendly connection between al-Andalus and medieval Ireland. At the time, Ireland was a land of learning and had the most advanced civilization in northern Europe. The Andalusian period of Jewish history was Judaism’s golden age. Arabized Andalusian Jews studied Hebrew grammar and lexicology in the light of the great Arab grammarians and cultivated other Arabic and Islamic sciences. Andalusian Jews produced many of the great books of Judaism. The banishment of Jewry from Spain and Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries dealt Judaism a blow from which it never recovered. Zionism also has roots in al-Andalus, and it has been said that the Zionist movement should be dated from the destruction of Andalusian Jewry. Formerly Andalusian Jews were behind the principal intellectual developments of Judaism in its post-banishment period.

Andalusians may have reached America before Columbus discovered the west Indies in 1492 He claimed to have seen populations there dressed like Granadan Moors. The discovery of the Americas should not be separated from the Andalusian background and the broader relation between medieval Europe and the Islamic world at large. Moriscos built Columbus’ ships in Moorish dry docks. The theory that the earth is round was Moorish, not Christian. Muslims had elaborated the idea and measured the earth’s circumference seven hundred years before Columbus. Columbus brought an Arabic translator to the Caribbean—Luis Torres [a Morisco or Marrano]—hoping to find and communicate through Muslim populations in the Far East which he imagined he had found. Thus, Arabic was the first language Europeans used on American soil to try to speak with the native populations.

Even the brutal Spanish conquests of native Americans from the late 15th until the mid 16th centuries must be understood against the backdrop of the “Moorish problem” of Catholic Spain. Ponce de Leon’s Caribbean battle cry was: “Santiago mata Moros” [Saint James, kill Moors]. It was the old battle cry against the Moors. Ponce de Leon and his Iberian soldiers had been galvinized by the genocide they and their forefathers perpetrated against the Andalusian peoples. The American conquests enacted the reconquest of Spain. But it is also said the conquistadores sought to outdo the great deeds of the Islamic conquerors of the 7th and 8th centuries. Sometimes they imitated them, as, for example, when they founded Lima (Peru) and Popayán (Columbia) after the model of the Arab garrison cities, al-Kufah and al-Basrah. The spirit, techniques, and treacheries of the Spanish campaigns in America had been honed in the long and difficult campaigns against the Moors. Officially, Moriscos were forbidden to emigrate to the Americas, but in reality they came in large numbers, especially to Mexico, Guatamala, Cuba, Columbia, Peru, and Bolivia. Moreover, the Jesuits spread in Latin America a special type of indolent and indulgent Catholicism, which the Inquisition had tailored to depoliticize and control the Spanish Moriscos.

Many Andalusians—Moors and Moriscos—were able to escape Iberia and the Inquisition. They had a tremendous influence on the Islamic world, to which they emigrated. Andalusians helped Arabicize many parts of Africa, especially what are today the Sudan and Mauritania. Andalusian soldiers and sailors made up powerful contingents in the Muslim forces of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and other Islamic lands. Many of the corsairs and “Barbary pirates” were Andalusians, some of whom saw themselves not as pirates but as worthy fighters trying to get back the Andalus their forefathers had lost.

Today, the legacy of al-Andalus has many lessons for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. We, Muslims, think of al-Andalus as an Islamic “paradise lost.” In reality, it was not a paradise on earth. It had beautiful and ugly sides. It accomplished great achievements but had terrible failures. We must not romanticize al-Andalus but ponder what of its legacy was good and what was bad. Had it not been for its dark side, al-Andalus would have never ceased to exist.

Among the greatest lessons al-Andalus teaches is the nobility of toleration and harmonious coexistence between peoples and faiths. But it also narrates a tale of oppression and genocide that must be told to the world. Today, the Spanish and Portuguese governments have changed and taken praiseworthy stances toward Muslims in their countries. They have also opened the Inquisitorial files. A modern Tunisian scholar tells of going to Spanish municipalities and requesting their Inquisitorial records. In some cases, women officials would bring them to him and hand them over with tears in their eyes, asking the Muslims to forgive them. The history of al-Andalus also shows the absolute necessity of unity and cooperation: a lesson we refuse to learn. Our fledgling Muslim communities in Spain, Britain, and America are as divided as they are small and the nation states of the Muslim world are no better. Indeed, they sometimes work against each other in a manner that would have shocked even the “petty factional kings” [muluk at-tawa’if] of al-Andalus.


  1. Fascinating article, but the conclusion is the best part. Indeed, we should not romanticize the past as much as learn from it.

  2. Interesting and informative as it is, it also challenges us to pursue various strands articulated in a more scholarly manner - although admittedly there may be much already there that i am not aware of. One area that needs to be highlighted even in such a brief expose is the "dark side" which in the final analysis led to the banishment of Muslims from Spain. If the present state of affairs in the Muslim countries is in some respects worst than the muluk at-tawai'f, one wonders what the forebodings will be for the Muslims in at least the most vulnerable countries. The unfortunate thing is that in most of the Muslim countries, it is the rulers who opress their own people. Was that also the case under muluk at-tawai'f? If we have to draw any lessons from Andalusia, we need to learn much more about that dark side than the fact that there were factional squables among the ruling classes.