Spain’s Islamic Legacy and Modern Europe


The legendary Grand Mosque of Cordoba in Spain, which has now been turned into a cathedral. Muslim Spain has had a proud history of cherishing its religious minorities.
The legendary Grand Mosque of Cordoba in Spain, which has now been turned into a cathedral. Muslim Spain has had a proud history of cherishing its religious minorities.

Spain’s glorious Islamic past continues to have its impact on today’s Europe



[dropcap]H[/dropcap]istorians who look for world-changing dates, universal bench-marks, will surely agree on 1492: it is the year in which the last Muslim kingdom of Spain, Granada, fell and the fate of the Muslims and Jews was finally sealed on the Iberian peninsula; it is also the year Christopher Columbus sailed for America.

For Europe it would herald a period of profound change of direction; the dying of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the New World and, eventually, modernity. It would also trigger the large-scale destruction of native populations in the Americas (this memory is at the heart of the controversy around the plans to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the year in America).

For Muslims their period in Spain would always remain redolent with romantic nostalgia. When, as an undergraduate in England, I visited Cordoba and Granada I was haunted by a strange mood, Here was a magnificent Muslim civilization – religious tolerance, learned scholars, great libraries, public baths, splendid architecture – cut off, it seemed, in mid-air; and not a trace remained of the Muslims themselves. This mood was induced by what I called the ‘Andalus syndrome’ (from Al-Andalus or Muslim Spain: see my book Discovering Islam, Routledge, 1988).

It would affect Muslims throughout the world and throughout the ages. And thirty years after my first visit to Andalusia I was in Granada again in June 1991. This time I pondered on the coming year, 1992, and those world-shaking events in 1492. 1992 would also mark another major step in the coming together of the European Community; it would once again, though in quite a different way, raise the question of the Muslim presence in Europe.

There are some 5 million Muslims in Europe today, mainly as a consequence of the recent colonial past and its circumstances: South Asians in the UK, North Africans from the Maghreb in Spain and France and Turks, who supported the Germans in the First World War, in Germany.

But as a group they are seen as poor, illiterate, alien immigrants and are often the target of overt racism. Politicians like Le Pen in France thrive by adopting an aggressively racist position; they believe such immigrants can offer nothing to Europe.

This is a paradox, for Muslims gave so much to Europe through Muslim Spain; not only the colleges that would form the model for Oxford and Cambridge but also Greek philosophy and literature, architecture and mysticism. Above all, as rulers, they were tolerant and moderate. Let us cite that remarkable American diplomat, Washington Irving who, above all others, is read in Granada.

At the height of the romantic era, early in the last century, he wrote his Tales of the Alhambra which has immortalized him. Of the Muslims he writes: ‘As conquerors, their heroism was only equalled by their moderation, and in both, for a time, they excelled the nations with whom they contended’.

Muslims had come, in the shape of Arabs and Berbers in 711 when they crossed the Straits of Gibraltar. Quickly they established control over much of the Iberian peninsula. By 719, they had attacked as far north as Toulouse. They were only turned back from central France in 732 at the battle variously associated with Tours or Poitiers, a battle which was seen by Christian Europe as halting the Muslim advance, but was perceived by Arab sources as a minor skirmish.

From 711 to 1085 when Toledo was recaptured by the Christians, Muslim Spain became a unique area in Europe both for what it accomplished and also for the ways in which it was perceived at the time and remembered later. Confrontation, synthesis, above all, symbiosis, with non-Muslims was a constant feature of the period. This was, after all, the time of the Crusades – when enthusiastic Christian knights before proceeding to the holy lands routinely slaughtered Jews.

The genius of the Arab governors, sent from the heart of the Muslim empire in Syria, was that they fostered an equilibrium between local ethnic, social, religious or cultural tensions and a Muslim militancy. It was in some ways almost an accident of history that transformed a remote frontier province into something quite different. After a period of civil war in Syria and Iraq, the Umayyad dynasty was overthrown and the Caliphate replaced by a new dynasty the Abbasids.

The center of power was shifted from Syria to Iraq. The symbol of this change was the foundation of the imperial capital of Baghdad in 762. The first Abbasids did their best to kill all the important members of the Umayyads. One of these, Abd al-Rahman, escaped and arriving in Andalusia, became ruler of Cordoba. His successors ruled from their capital, Cordoba, until early in the eleventh century. From Damascus and Baghdad, the great centers of Arab power, Muslim Spain appeared little more than an upstart province.

The great period of the dynasty was under Abd al-Rahman III (912-961). In 929 he adopted the title of Caliph, that is the successor to the rule of the Prophet, thereby competing directly with the rulers of Baghdad. Political relations with Iraq and then with Fatimid Egypt may have been strained, but cultural and commercial interaction was high.

Revolutionized by new agricultural techniques and by the cultivation of new products like rice and vegetables hitherto unknown in the Mediterranean and silk worms, Andalusia became a rich producer of consumer goods which were then carried from Spain all the way to India by merchants of many faiths. As the century drew to a close, weaknesses in the centralized Umayyad system appeared. Provincial cities like Malaga, Granada, Valencia and Saragossa became the fiefs of rival Muslim kings; but in spite of the increasingly apparent political instabilities, these cities were centers of literature and the arts.

Here, then, was a thriving, rich and complex civilization, in the words of Irving:

The cities of Arabian Spain became the resort of Christian artisans, to instruct themselves in the useful art. The Universities of Toledo, Cordova, Seville, and Granada, were sought by the pale student from other lands to acquaint himself with the sciences of the Arabs and the treasure lore of antiquity; the lovers of the gay sciences resorted to Cordova and Granada to imbibe the poetry and music of the East, and the steel-clad warriors of the North hastened thither to accomplish themselves in the graceful exercises and courteous usages of chivalry.

There was nostalgia during Muslim Spain too. But it was linked to the origins of the ruling dynasty, the Umayyads. During their time in Spain, Muslims looked back on the lands that they had come from, from far away Syria. Nostalgia for Syrian names and culture permeated Muslim Spain. But after the downfall of Muslim Spain the Andalus syndrome would form an essential part of Muslim literature throughout the world.

What the Muslims left behind still endures. Take the Alhambra in Granada, a haunt of beggars and thieves when Irving lived there:

Earthquakes have shaken the foundations of this pile and rent its rudest towers, yet see, not one of those slender columns has been displaced, not an arch of that light and fragile colonnade has given way, and all the fairy fret-work of these domes, apparently as unsubstantial as the crystal fabrics of a morning’s frost, yet exist after the lapse of centuries, almost as fresh as if from the hand of the Moslem artist.

Little wonder many consider what followed in Spain as ‘an arrogant intrusion’ and ‘gloomy solemnity’.

There are many ruins that bring back the glory of Muslim Spain. But it is the Alhambra which has captured the imagination of the world and found expression in novels, paintings and films. It was a complex of fortified palaces and gardens above the city of Granada; as a backdrop the incomparable, perennially snow-covered Sierra Nevada, the highest mountains in Spain.

The Nasirid dynasty, which built the Alhambra, was finally overthrown by the forces of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabell in January 1492. Abu Abdallah (‘Boahdil), the ruler, recovered his son who had been kept hostage by the king and queen, and left the Alhambra; no Muslim was ever allowed to sleep in the Alhambra again by law. The main square in Granada has a statue of the king and queen signing the final expulsion order.

Muslim kings, perhaps aware of the emerging Christian power, perhaps reflecting a central Muslim truth, repeated over and over again one line from the Quran in the stone calligraphy of the Alhambra proclaiming that God alone was ‘Ghalib’ – the dominant, the triumphant.

After the expulsion of the Muslims, the Catholic Church built a cathedral within the Great Mosque at Cordoba, (much to the horror of Charles V, whose own palace, however, was itself to overshadow the Alhambra), suggesting a pattern often repeated in human history: church on mosque, mosque on church. (Across the world in Ayodhya, India, Hindu revivalists wished to reimpose a temple on a medieval mosque). Truly, in this contest, only God is Ghalib, every other name passes.

The day Granada fell was a momentous day for Europe, a day of rejoicing, the ultimate triumph; for the Maghreb it was the day of eternal sorrow. Just as the day is marked by celebrations in Spain, in Morocco, black flags are hung to indicate loss and mourning. Descendants of those expelled still retain the keys of their Andalusian homes as a symbol of the Andalusian syndrome (as in the Moroccan town of Sale).

The romance of Muslim Spain afflicted many like Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo. But it was reinforced by anthropological empathy for my colleague David Hart, who has lived in, and worked on, the Maghreb for decades. ‘I only attend the first day of the two-day annual festival,’ he confided to me, ‘when Muslims and Christians are shown battling each other; my side” the Muslims, win on the first day and I leave after that because the next day they will lose’.

The Muslim impact must have indeed been great. Five centuries later, after the horrors of the Inquisition which strove to stamp out any influence of the Muslims, their presence in the literature, language and food of Spain is still evident. The characteristically Spanish guitar, the al in the language and even the cry ole which accompanies the flamenco (from wallah) are all believed to be derived from Muslim Spain.

Perhaps it was the Andalus syndrome that attracted the Aga Khan to Granada and who this June assisted the civil authorities in hosting a major international conference (which brought me to Granada) on Muslim Spain and the restoration of the Zafra house, which dates from the Nasirids. The presence of the King of Spain at the conference indicated the high regard the country has for its Muslim heritage. Some two dozen of the most distinguished scholars from around the world assembled; names such as the doyen of Islamic art and architecture, Professor Oleg Grabar of Princeton (formerly Harvard). Typical was the paper Dr Roger Boase read, on the impact of Arab culture on the European lyric.

Spain as a cultural cross-roads and the legacy of Muslim Spain were the key themes discussed. The speakers were quick to draw analogies with today’s multi-ethnic, pluralistic society. Clearly Europe has much to learn from the period when Muslims lived and dominated Andalusia. However, the modern world was disturbing the ghosts of Granada. The smoke, noise and bustle of Japanese cars and motorbikes – the signs of the late twentieth century – were everywhere. On the walls I saw, painted in chalk, ‘Americanos marranos’ – American pigs. This was perhaps a response to the Gulf War which many Spaniards opposed, perhaps a protest against the irresistible American cultural invasion.

In Granada the past meets the future and it does not work; McDonalds knocks on the doors of the Alhambra itself loudly proclaiming its gift of hamburgers; Columbus, Irving must contemplate, has a lot to answer for.

This article originally appeared in ‘History Today’ in 1999.


Clarion India - News, Views and Insights about Indian Muslims, Dalits, Minorities, Women and Other Marginalised and Dispossessed Communities.


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