The Expulsion of Muslims from Spain

The photographs of Alhambra and other Muslim works in Spain evokes sentiments in Muslim hearts. Islam existed in Spain for almost 900 years, from 711 when they entered the Iberian Peninsula, until 1609 when Philip III ordered the Expulsion (1609-10) of all ‘Moors’ and Moriscos’, both Muslims and those who had been forced to
convert to Roman Catholicism.

Spain had known a Semitic presence in the Phoenician and Carthaginian cities like Barcelona, Cartagena, Malaga, Cadiz and Cordoba. After the decline of the Roman Empire, the Visigoths from Eastern Europe invaded the Peninsula and seized control of the fifth century. In their home along the Baltic coast and the Vistula under Bishop Ulfilas, they had become Arian Christians, followers of the Libyan Unitarian preacher Arius (c.
256-336). The Catholic clergy in Spain persecuted them and in 598 their King Recared became Catholic “with all his court.” However, many Visigoth nobles held to their Arian and Unitarian faith, and apparently became Muslims in districts like Saragossa and Aragon on the northeastern frontier facing France; in Murcia, and Seville, where Countess Sara’s descendants like Muhammad ibn-al-Qutiyya (Son of the Gothic Woman) [d. 933] wrote his Iftitah al-Andalus (Conquest of Andalusia).

The first effect of the Arab Islamic conquest came when ‘Abdurrahman al-Dakhil (or “the Newcomer”) [756-788] consolidated his realm and established Ummayyad rule. This dynasty lasted until 1031, when Cordoba was declared a republic and the rest of Andalusia disintegrated under the so-called ‘Taifa’ kingdoms.

Ad-Dakhil began construction of the Great Mosque in his capitol Cordoba in 786, two years before his death. This was the launching of an era of fine architecture in Spain, a movement that lasted until the construction of the Alcazar in Seville, the Alhambra in Grenada, and many other buildings.

Yahya ibn-Yahya (d. 849), a disciple of Imam Malik ibn-Anas (c. 713-795), enacted the Malikite rite in Spain and the Imam’s Muwatta (The Well-Trodden Path) became the basic text for Andalusia, and north and West Africa.

During the same period, the Spanish Muslims felt the need to travel East, not only for the Hajj, but also for education in centers like Baghdad and Basra. Among the returning students was Maslamah al-Majriti (a native of Madrid) who brought back the Arabic numerals that quickly freed Western Europe from the use of abacus. While Khwarizimi’s Tables improved the study of geography.

The first student to complete his studies in Spain itself was Abu-Muhammad ‘Ali ibn-Hazm (994-1064), who wrote Kitab al-Milal wa-al-Ahwa wa-n-Nihal (The Decisive Word on Creeds, Sects and Denominations) that became the first significant piece of research on
comparative religion in Europe. The Spanish Muslims were far ahead of their time; this was not their Middle Ages. Ibn-Hazm chronicled the decline and breakup of the Ummayyad Caliphate. As a teenager in 1013, he was driven from his home in Cordoba, only to return seven years later to see the demise of the central government under pressure from the disorderly Berbers.

The chaotic Taifa period was a period of petty kingdoms, and finally the advent of two Moroccan dynasties, first the Murabit (or Almoravides) from the Sahara; and then the Muwahhid (Almohades) from the southern mountains of Morocco. Despite the unsettled conditions, the learning did not wane, and the region gave birth to scholars like Abu-Bakr
Muhammad Ibn-Bajjah (1080-1138).

During this period, two important thinkers appeared on the scene, Ibn-Tufayl (1110-85) from Gaudix northeast of Granada, and his brilliant student Abu-al-Walid Muhammad Ibn-Rushd (Averros) from Cordoba. Ibn Tufayl, a court physician, excelled in epistemology, the science of knowledge. While Ibn-Rushd became the great ‘medieval’ philosopher whose work on Aristotle had great influence on the new universities that were just arising in Western Europe: Salerno and Padua in Italy, Sorbonne in Paris, and Oxford in England.

Another famous Spaniard was Muhyi-ad-Din Ibn-‘Arabi (1165-1240), who went to study in Makkah and finally settled in Damascus after living in Konya, Turkey. It is speculated that Dante’s Divine Comedy is based on Ibn-‘Arabi’s interpretation of the twelfth sura of the Qur’an that refers to the Mi’raj.

The battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in 1212, in which the Muwahhid were expelled from Spain was followed by a steady decline among Muslim states of the peninsula. Cordoba, the former Umayyad capitol, fell to Ferdinando III in 1236, followed by Seville in 1248. Granada resisted until 1250 when it became a subject to Castile, a relationship that continued until the fateful year of 1492. The Mudejar (in Spanish, or mudajjanun in Arabic), the “tamed” or “tolerated” Muslims remained as craftsmen and artisans in the northern cities of Castile and Aragon, and farm workers in Valencia.

An illustrious son of Seville - of Hadramauti origin - was the Tunis-born ‘Abdurrahman Ibn-Khaldun author of the world famous al-Muqaddima. When the Christian ruler of Seville offered to restore his property, Ibn-Khaldun declined, fearing his grandchildren may get
assimilated in the new dominant culture. Instead, he went to the Hajj and settled in Cairo. The Egyptian sultan sent him to Damascus to meet Timur (Tamerlane 1336-1404) where he succeeded in dissuading him from attacking Egypt.

The beginning of the contemporary West European Renaissance coincided with the decline of Islamic Spain and only Granada remained Muslim. The Mudejars were trying to adapt to the gradual loss of Arabic in their worship to their new Aljamiado dialect of Spanish written in Arabic characters.

In 1499 Cardinal Francisco Ximenez de Cisneros, Isabel I’s confessor came to Granada in violation of the Treaty of Surrender of November 1491 that guaranteed freedom of worship to Muslims, to demand their conversion to Christianity. Three years later, in 1502 he returned to demand that all Arabic books be burned, and staged public bonfires.

Interestingly two bishops in South America to destroy the native heritage used these laws, Juan de Zumarraga destroyed the Aztec hand-painted codices in 1528 in Mexico City, and Diego de Landa in Yucatan burned the Mayan astronomical and mathematical treatises. Thus, three important nations lost their intellectual heritage through the
“Holy Office of Spain.”

In 1525, a Pragmatica, the royal edict, was issued requiring conversion or expulsion of all Muslims of Granada. The edict 1526 extended this law to Aragon and Catalonia and the edict of 1565 targeted the Muslim peasants in the Alpujarras Mountains southeast of Granada. This was followed by a military campaign of 1571 led by Philip II’s half-brother in which the Turkish navy was routed off the west coast of Greece. Finally Philip III (1598-1621) decreed the Expulsion of all Moors and Moriscos from Spain. Many of the refugees fled to Tunisia, settling in Tunis and places like Testour.

When Cardinal Ximenez de Cisneros came to Granada in 1499 to break the 1491 treaty that guaranteed Muslims’ religious rights. King Boabdil (the last king) was exiled, but the common people of Granada were left behind to bear the brunt of persecution and torture in Inquisitorial jails for the next century and a quarter. By 1502, valuable books, many of them bound in leather and trimmed with gold leaf, were seized from private libraries in Granada and burned publicly, while 2,000 respectable matrons and maidens were sold at auction. Into what service, I might ask? These same laws were next applied just as ruthlessly in Mexico beginning in 1521, and in Yucatan and Peru, scarcely a quarter of a century later. In 1521, vicious Pragmatica, or official decree, was issued by the Castilian crown to regulate Muslim conduct under which, among other things, Muslims were to leave their windows and doors open on Fridays and Islamic holidays, in a vulgar invasion of privacy, lest they be caught saying their prayers or celebrating a marriage or a funeral in their traditional manner. It was revived in 1568. ‘Lapsed Catholics’ who had been baptized forcibly were burned at the stake, cynically ‘to avoid bloodshed’!

The Spanish Muslims produced great philosophers and scientists during their rule in the peninsula. Although Toledo might have served as the basis for longitude, we now have Greenwich because the Reconquista that was coming did not know how to assimilate the broad aspect of Muslim science. Just as silk and paper, and later gunpowder, reached Spain as industrial processes and not mere articles of commerce, travelling 8,000 long miles from China. On the other hand, they never reached France, a few hundred miles to the northeast, until centuries later. Such was Islamic civilization in its westernmost outpost.

We are told that Spanish Muslims were ‘Moors’, as if they belonged to Africa, and should go back there, or be massacred as Cardinal Cisneros and his cohorts wanted them to be. Thus, today the Mexican city of Matamoros opposite Brownsville in Texas, still means ‘Moor slayer’, and its name has not been changed. Several dates need to be remembered for the next few years. In 1999, we should commemorate and act to rehabilitate the vandalism of Cardinal Cisneros in Granada; 2002 - if no attention has been paid to the terrorism that began three years earlier; 2009 - to mark the 400th anniversary of Philip III’s decree of Expulsion of the remaining Spanish Muslims; and 2021 -  on the anniversary of the proclamation of the Pragmatica which deprived Muslims of their normal civil rights. All these dates should be recalled, and utilized for the purpose of rehabilitating Islam on the Iberian peninsula, and also to repeal any such laws that still prevail in the Americas.

(Condensed from the original paper.) Dr. T.B. Irving, was a professor emeritus of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, has translated the Qur’an into contemporary American English, and was the author of several scholarly treatises on Islam and Muslims.  He died in September 2002. 

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