Who Were the Moors Anyway? (Part III)

[Le Puy cathedral]

The Muslims were forced to leave Spain, but their legacy lingered in Europe in many ways including Mudejar architecture (shown here in the form of the Le Puy cathedral).

When we left the medieval Iberian Peninsula last week in Part II (if you’ve missed the whole series, you might want to start with Part I), things were looking bad for Alfonso VII of Castilla.

On one side, Castilla was under attack by a Christian army from León, which had been joined by Almohad Muslims fighting under one of Alfonso’s own noblemen. Another Christian army from Navarra pressed on Castilla’s other border.

Christians in the rest of Europe were scandalized by this not-atypical Iberian situation. They thought the Christian rulers of Spain should work together to fight the Muslims instead of quarrelling amongst themselves.

The pope excommunicated the rulers involved, emphasized Spain’s crusading zone status, and sent an envoy to bring the kings together.

The Reconquista

After years of diplomatic effort, the Spanish kings came together and launched a joint attack on the Almohads. In 1212, troops from Castilla, Aragón and Navarra fought the Almohads in the battle of Las Navas de Tolosa. (Originally there had been French troops involved, but most of them abandoned the effort, likely due to the heat.)

The Almohads blocked the narrow canyon they thought the Christians would have had to pass through, but a local shepherd showed the Christian troops a way around. They won what was to prove a decisive victory.

And now the Almohads had more than just the Christian kings to worry about. At the same time as their control in Spain was crumbling, they faced a variety of problems in North Africa.

Three Christian kings, Jaume I of Aragón, Fernando III of Castilla and Sancho II of Portugal, took advantage of the Almohads’ troubles. Over the forty years following Las Navas de Tolosa, most of al-Andalus came under the control of one or another of these Christian kings. Only one small Muslim kingdom, a tributary of Castilla based in Granada, remained.

In some cases Christian troops slaughtered the Muslim inhabitants after they took over a town (just as Muslim troops had sometimes slaughtered Christians during their own conquest), but this doesn’t seem to have been policy—it was because army leaders lost control of their troops. More often, Muslims were taken as slaves by the Christians, or vice versa in the case of Muslim victories.

Some of the Muslims were used as slave labour on the Santiago cathedral, just as Christian slaves helped build the Kutubiyya mosque in Marrakesh.

Of the free population of Muslims, some chose or were forced to leave the peninsula. Others, called Mudejars, stayed on in the newly-enlarged Christian kingdoms in much the same way the Mozarab Christians had lived under Muslim rule.

Laws suggest that the Christian authorities tried to protect the Muslim populations, but there seem to have been some serious tensions. Mudejars—like the Mozarabs before them—were not equal under the law, and they were increasingly forced to behave in Christian ways, though they don’t seem to have been forcibly converted. Sometimes, as in the case of Sevilla, they were expelled from a city, but were soon allowed to return.

The Muslims who could afford to generally immigrated to Granada or North Africa, fracturing communities.

Of those left, some rebelled during the second half of the thirteenth century. After that more Muslims were expelled, and kings used the rebellions as an excuse to go back on the agreements they’d made when Muslim cities had surrendered.

Most of the evidence we have comes from formal documents, so it’s hard to know what was really going on compared to what law-makers hoped was going on. Basically, as historian Richard Fletcher says, it was a mixture of tolerance and persecution, but the exact proportions are hard to identify.

Conquest or Reconquest?

1492 marks an important turning point in Spanish history, and not only because it was the year “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

The remnants of Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula ended in the first days of the year, when los reyes católicos, the Catholic Monarchs Fernando and Isabel, accepted Granada’s surrender.

This moment is usually seen as the end of the Reconquista, the Christian reconquest of Spain.

But historians have argued a lot over whether it can be properly classified as a reconquest, or if it was more of a glorified conquest.

It’s a difficult argument. Some say the Christian kingdoms believed themselves to be fighting a holy war against the Muslims right from the early days of the Muslim conquest, and therefore, for them at least, it really was a reconquest.

It’s certainly true that from the twelfth century onward, once Crusade ideology took hold, the Christians tended to see it as a holy war, and themselves as heirs of the vanquished Christian Visigoths. The Christian conquerors of al-Andalus really did believe it was a reconquest.

On the other hand, “reconquest” doesn’t seem to have been uppermost in the minds of Christian rulers throughout much of the period of Muslim rule, when they were at least as busy fighting each other as anyone else. They didn’t spend the entire nearly-800-year period between the Muslim conquest and the fall of Granada plotting to overthrow the Muslims—they seized any opportunity to gain land, whether from their Christian neighbours or the Muslims to the south.

From a twenty-first-century perspective, disputes over who has a historical or moral right to a land are obviously tricky and I don’t see any reason to wade into that. But I can’t just refer to the Reconquista without discussing the term a little more. “Reconquest” implies that the Christian conquest was somehow more valid than the Arab conquest, when of course it’s a lot more complicated than that.

After all, like the Muslims, the Romans who brought Christianity to the Iberian Peninsula were initially invaders (who, ironically enough, met with the fiercest resistance in the areas that later became Spain’s Christian kingdoms). And Muslims had ruled some part of the peninsula for close to eight centuries when the final act of the Reconquista took place. That’s a lot of generations. (To put it into some sort of perspective, three of my own grandparents were immigrants who came to Canada within the last century, and I feel very Canadian.)

Also, a number of the Muslims who were eventually expelled from Spain would have been descended, at least in part, from muwallads—families with a Hispano-Roman background who had converted to Islam. They were the “original” inhabitants, at least if you only go back as far as the Muslim invasion (which was unambiguously a conquest) in 711.

I suppose it’s a case of the winners writing the history books. To the Christians, it was a reconquest. To the Muslims, it would’ve looked an awful lot like a run-of-the-mill conquest.

The Aftermath of the Reconquista: Muslims and Jews in Spain

Isabel and Fernando, the Catholic Monarchs, expelled all Jews from Spain a few weeks after they took over Granada. In practical terms, this meant Jews had to either submit to baptism or leave their homes—and they did both.

And then the Catholic monarchs didn’t live up to the promises they made when the accepted Granada’s surrender, and some Muslim groups rebelled.

The rebels were given the choice that had been given to the Jews: convert or leave Spain. But to leave they had to pay a substantial sum and agree to untenable terms, such as leaving their children behind.

Soon the choice was extended to the other Muslims in much of the rest of Spain. A lot of Muslims became reluctant converts to Christianity.

Fernando refused to go along with this policy in Aragón, which he ruled independently. His grandson and successor Carlos V also swore not to force conversions or expel the Muslims in Aragón, but in 1525, he went back on his word.

As of that year, Spain was officially one hundred percent Catholic.

But of course many of the forced converts—Jewish and Muslim—practiced their faiths in secret.

The popularity of pork in Spain is, at least in part, a legacy of this period. Both Judaism and Islam forbade eating pigs. So publicly eating pork became, to some extent, proof of Christianity.

The converts had good reason for such public demonstrations. Convivencia, as much as it ever existed, was over. Converts could be hauled up before the Inquisition if they were suspected of practicing non-Christian beliefs.

And then in the early seventeenth century, King Felipe banished all Muslim converts after a series of rebellions.

Inquisition records show that some stayed on in hiding. But for the most part, the 900-year presence of Moors on the Iberian Peninsula ended in 1614.

Epilogue: The Impact of al-Andalus on the West

Between about 750 and 900, scholars in the Arab world translated writings from the Greeks and Persians. And they didn’t just translate—they added and refined the classical works, based on both their own studies and knowledge they’d gained from China and India.

Science as such didn’t really exist in medieval Europe until its scholars took steps to acquire knowledge from the Muslim world.

The abacus, relatively simple technology, was revolutionary in medieval Europe, making mathematical calculations much faster, with effects on music, architecture and government. The astrolabe, which among other things made voyages like Columbus’s possible, had a bigger impact still.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, some Spanish Christians and Jews did quite well for themselves in other parts of Europe, as they spread Andalusi learning. And during the same period, an unorganized translation movement started up in Christian Spain. In some cases, translation was a two-part process: a Mozarab (Christian from al-Andalus) would translate from Arabic to the spoken Romance language, and a Christian from Northern Spain would then write his own translation in Latin.

These translations had a huge impact on the science and philosophy of Christian Europe.

Jewish and Muslim writers like Maimonides and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) from al-Andalus strongly influenced European philosophers like Thomas Aquinas, as did Andalusi translations of Greek philosophers—particularly Aristotle.

Isaac Newton’s work was based on mathematics that came to Europe through Spain. European medical advances in the seventeenth century were built on Arabic studies that were discovered through al-Andalus. A number of English words that come from Arabic (algebra, algorithm, chemistry, and many more) reflect this influence.

Basically, many of the ideas that have become integral to our Western identity are built on the foundation of learning that came to Europe from and through al-Andalus and other parts of the Muslim world.

That seems to me to be worth remembering, in these days when the loudest voices shout only of our differences.

* * *

Here ends my series on the Moors in Spain. Once again, if you’re interested in an overview of the period, I highly recommend Richard Fletcher’s Moorish Spain.

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Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 2:27 pm
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