A Page From Islamic History: the ‘Other’ 1492 *

Aisha Brown

Posted Mar 5, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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A Page From Islamic History: the ‘Other’ 1492

BY Aisha Brown

This year marks the 500-year anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. Back in Spain, the country from which Columbus had set sail, however, another historical event took place in that same year, but one which as of a much more somber nature.

The Muslim caliphate of Cordoba, established in 750, had seen Muslims, Christians, and Jews living peacefully side-by-side for many years. The Catholic Church, however, had watched with growing alarm as Spaniards began to freely adopt all manner of Muslim culture; they, in turn, began to sow the seeds of dissention among the people. When the Caliphate began to crumble in 1031 because of internal discord, the Christian princess took advantage of the situation, working to regain lands they had lost to the Muslims many years ago.

In 1492, the city of Granada—the last Muslim stronghold in Spain—fell to the Christian armies of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. The country was now completely back in Christian hands.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, via convincing rhetoric from the Dominican friars, concluded that uniformity of religious belief was necessary in order to make their country easier to rule and thus stronger to strike at its enemies. In order to achieve this state of religious unity following the fall of Granada, the monarchy of Spain let loose the full fury of one of the most ruthless and feared institutions in all of history—the Spanish Inquisition.
FORMATION OF THE FIRST INQUISITION - Heresy had become a growing problem for the Church during the twelfth century, and the standard penalties of penance, excommunication and exile were doing little, if anything, to check the situation.

In 1231, Pope Innocent III decreed that the standard penalty for heresy was now to be death by burning at the stake, using the Bible to back up his decision: “If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered and thrown into the fire and burned: (John 15, v.6).

In 1233, he appointed the friars of the Dominican Order to start up Inquisitorial Courts that would deal with heresy; they immediately began their work in France, moving into Italy and Germany shortly thereafter. The Dominicans applied themselves most vigorously to the task of ferreting out heretics, helped out in the matter of gaining “confessions” by a papal edict f 1252 which authorized the use of torture.

THE INQUISITION COMES TO SPAIN. Since the Christians had shown little tolerance for the Muslims and Jews once they began winning back their lands, many had converted to Christianity in order to escape death and persecution. The Church suspected, however, that these “New Christians” were continuing to practice their old religions in private. The King and Queen, on urging of the Church regarding this growing problem of heresy within Spain, contacted the Pope; he gave his permission in 1478 for the start-up of an Inquisition that would be able to properly deal with all backsliding New Christians.

The Spanish Inquisition began its bloody work in January of 1481, with the first mass executions being held at the end of that year. In October of 1483, 63-year-old Tomas de Torquemada, Prior of the Santa Cruz Monastery in Segovia, was appointed as the first Inquisitor-General; he organized the Spanish Inquisition into unbelievable horror it grew into, and became the symbol of religious cruelty for all time.

On the basis of something as seemingly innocuous as bathing more than was accepted custom, one could be denounced to the Inquisition. Man did not hesitate to turn in his fellow man because not only did the threat of excommunication for failure to do so loom over his head, but there were the more comforting thoughts that the accused would not be told who denounced him , and the witness would end up receiving one-third of the accused person’s estate as a “reward”.

The accused person was arrested and brought before the Inquisitors, where he was told to confess-but not to what. Guilt was always assumed; if no admission of such came immediately, torture began.
Torture sessions could last for hours at a time, and even be continued from one day to the next. Methods used included thumbscrews to smash fingers; dislocating joints by either hoisting the prisoner up by his hands which had been tied behind his back, often with weights attached to his feet, or by stretching on the rack; flogging; burning the soles of the feet; putting cords on the limbs and tightening them so that they would cut down into the flesh; breaking of bones on the wheel, and near suffocation by the pouring of large quantities of water down the prisoner’s throat.

Compassion was an unknown entity when it came to the torture chamber—children as young as thirteen and women as old a eighty found themselves in the so-called “Room of Faith”. The Inquisitors, after all, saw themselves as fighting “the powers of darkness” for the accused’s soul; whatever means were necessary to win that “battle” were to be taken.

A scribe was present at all times, recording everything that took place. Any confessions made were dully noted, and the prisoner was the shown a copy of his words the following day, and asked to sign it.

Confession didn’t necessarily mean the end of torture, however; if the Inquisitors felt that the prisoner could give them names of other potential heretics, they tortured him further for that information.

Once guilt had been firmly established, the accused was remanded to his cell to await sentencing, which took place at a public ceremony known as the auto-da-fe, or act of faith. The auto-da-fe was meant to reinforce the faith of the spectators, to terrify potential offenders, and give everyone a foretaste of Judgment Day. These spectacles soon became a gruesome, yet popular form of public entertainment.

Ironically enough, the Christians, during the reign of Emperor Constantine, had abolished the Roman games as sadistic spectacles that only served to gratify the mob; now, almost a thousand years later, the Spanish auto-da-fe was again doing the same thing, only this time it was being done in the name of the Church.

Dressed in the yellow sanbenitos, or “garments of shame”, the condemned heretics were led, pale and trembling, to the site of the auto-da-fe; terror was etched on their faces and the torturer’s marks on their bodies. Some could not even walk those last steps because of the severe torture they had undergone; the executioners had to go to great lengths to hide their dreadful wounds. Once all sentences had been pronounced, the prisoners were tied to heavy wooden stakes, the fires were stoked at their feet, and the flames fed until nothing remained of their bodies but ashes, which were then scattered over fields and streams.

The Inquisitors stood by, oblivious to the dreadful agony of death by burning, seeing only a conciliatory offering that was being made to a God who they felt to have been insulted by heresy: human sacrifice had been restored.
THE EDICTS OF EXPULSION - Unable to (formally) go after unbaptized Jews and Muslims, Torquemada convinced the Spanish monarchs that “these people” were a “source of contamination” for the true believers; he proposed that hey be forced to either convert to Christianity or leave Spain. This was the only way, in his opinion, to ensure religious unity in the country.

In 1492, following the conquest of Granada, an edict was issued that ordered all Jews in Spain to either leave the country or convert to Christianity. In 1499, another edict was issued for the Muslims with the same terms: exile or conversion.

Those who opted to stay and become New Christians found that they not only had to deal with the Inquisition, but an even more frightening terror came from the gangs of Old Christians who. driven by fanaticism that was continually reinforced through the pulpits and autos-da-fe, roamed the streets and brutally murdered any New Christian they could lay their hands on, be it man, woman , child or whole families.

THE PRICE OF RELIGIOUS “UNITY” Although Torquemada died in 1498, his death by no means ended the horror that the Inquisition had brought upon Spain; arrests, torture and deaths continued until it was abolished for good in 1834. During the first two centuries alone of its existence, the Inquisition in Spain was responsible for the imprisonment, torture, slaughter and exile of some 3,000,000 Muslims and Jews. Besides the cost in lives, it also dealt a severe blow the Spanish economy since the Jews had formed the commercial class and the Muslims the trained artisans in the country.

Today, 95% of Spaniards are Roman Catholic, and mass is celebrated daily in the gracefully arched porticos of what was once the Grand Mosque at Cordoba. While Islamic influences on architecture still remain strong, while the Spanish language is still liberally sprinkled with words derived from the Arabic of the long-gone Moors and while the Muslim community in Spain has made a comeback, never again will it achieve the size and grandeur of its predecessors.

The gruesome, yet sad saga of the Spanish Inquisition should be a lesson to us all as to just what kind of damage unchecked human pride and vanity can do. Pride and vanity persuaded the Christians of Spain that their faith—and theirs alone—was the truth, and everyone else was on the wrong path. This pride lent itself to a justification in their minds for the torture and killing of thousands of their fellow men simply because of a difference of faith. 

Originally in the Fall 1992 print edition of The American Muslim.