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Islamic Spain: 1250 To 1500

By Angus Mackay | Published in History Today 1992 
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Angus Mackay reviews L.P. Harvey's new book on Islam in Spain.

  • Islamic Spain: 1250 To 1500
    L.P. Harvey - University of Chicago Press, 1990 - xvi + 370 pp. - £31.95

This book is to be welcomed for a variety of reasons, some of them of a technical and linguistic nature. Medieval Spain was a land of three religions, characterised by periods of intolerance and relative tolerance between Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Intolerance eventually prevailed, and 1492 may be taken as a convenient, if rather confusing, date marking the end of the medieval period. In that year the Christians reconquered the last remaining Muslim kingdom, Granada; they expelled the Jews; Columbus discovered America.

The date, 1492, seems a turning point, but the reality was different. Faced with a choice between expulsion or conversion, many Jews, and subsequently Muslims, opted to become 'token' Christians. But were they genuine Christians? The picture is further complicated by the fact that' in previous centuries Muslims and Jews had been allowed to retain their religious identities in lands reconquered by the Christians, albeit under pressure. Amongst these Muslims, known as Mudejars, a new Arabised Spanish emerged as a literary language, a distinctive form of Romance written in the Arabic alphabet. Known as aljamiado, this hybrid phenomenon, devoted mainly to religious matters, made it possible for Islamic culture to be transmitted from generation to generation. But it could also be of interest to Christians. At the invitation of Cardinal John of Segovia, for example, the imam of Segovia travelled to the priory of Aiton in the Alps in 1455 and translated the Quran into aljamia (that is, into Arabised Spanish using the Arabic alphabet), the cardinal's purpose being that such a translation would facilitate the conversion of Muslims.

Harvey's book displays formidable erudition, using sources in various forms of Romance, Arabic, and aljamia. In the first nine chapters he is mainly concerned with describing the historical context, tracing the rise of the Banu' l-Ahmar who founded the Nasrid kingdom of Granada, and examining the Mudejar communities which existed within the Christian societies of Castile, Aragon, Valencia and Navarre. There then follow eleven chapters covering the history of Nasrid Granada from 1273 to its conquest in 1492 and its consequences down to c.1500.

Whereas the early chapters provide fascinating insights into the conditions of the Mudejars, the remaining eleven are almost exclusively devoted to the political history of Nasrid Granada. This thematic division is eminently sensible. The Mudejars can hardly be said to have had much of a political history as such (in terms of a state, rulers, and bureaucracies), although Harvey pays adequate attention to events such as the revolt in Andalusia in 1264. What he is mainly concerned with is the nature of Mudejar status within the Christian polities. For example he provides an illuminating discussion of the legal opinions (fatwas) which Islamic jurists (muftis and fuqaha) gave in response to problems which Mudejars referred to them. These legal opinions contain much information about matters not normally documented elsewhere. For example, al-Wansharishi, who worked mainly in Fez and died in 1508, produced a collection of fatwa, entitled Kitab al-Mi 'yar, which included much that was relevant to Spanish Muslims and was based on traditions stretching hack at least as far as the twelfth century. The point about such fatwas was not that they were necessarily obeyed but that they provide evidence of the predicament of Muslims living in Christian territories.

Whereas these early chapters provide insights into socio-economic and religious problems, the remaining eleven are primarily devoted to political matters and are largely cast within the framework of the relationship between the Christian kingdom and Nasrid Granada, with due attention being paid to the internal politics of Granada itself as well as interventions involving Muslims from North Africa. Few historians in the English-speaking world could give a coherent account of the political history of Muslim Granada. Harvey does this skilfully, although the problems in doing so are legion. For a start the idea that rule should necessarily pass from father to son (let alone the eldest son), was not an established principle, the succession going to the most acceptable male when the previous ruler died. Such a situation child obviously lead to intrigues and instability. Then, too, clan-like structures could provoke fragmentation In the beginning, for example, the Nasrid state dependcd to a large extent on a sharing of power between the related clans of Banu Nasr and the Banu Ashquilula.

But, in addition to the political story which he skilfully unravels, Harvey also manages to make his protagonists come alive. Using the evidence of Ibn al-Khatib, for example, he presents us with a Muhammad III who possibly killed his father, displayed signs of being a schizophrenic and sadist, and who probably ruined his eyesight by staying up all night reading by the light of immense candles. Not that Harvey disregards the important factors that sealed the fate of Granada. Granada eventually fell because it was economically and demographically weaker, because Ferdinand and Isabella coped with dissident nobles and mounted a series of campaigns at a time when the Muslims could not obtain effective support from North Africa, and because the Christians were quick to seize the advantages of advances in artillery technology.

The sequel was sad. After the conquest of Granada, its first archbishop, Talavera, attempted to convert the Muslims who remained by persuasion, thus gaining their trust. But he was succeeded by the intransigent Cardinal Cisneros whose brutal actions Harvey finds it hard to relate 'without being overwhelmed by outraged indignation'. Indeed Harvey argues that the conversion techniques of the Christians 'were remarkably similar to the methods of brainwashing' employed in the twentieth century.

Angus Mackay is the author of Society, Economy and Religion in Late Medieval Castile (Variorum, 1987).

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