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The Muslim Expulsion from Spain

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Roger Boase looks at a Spanish example of religious and ethnic cleansing.

Everything declines after reaching perfection …

The tap of the white ablution fount weeps in despair, like a passionate lover weeping at the departure of the beloved.

Over dwellings emptied of Islam, vacated, whose inhabitants now live in unbelief, Where the mosques have become churches in which only bells and crosses are found...

O who will redress the humiliation of a people who were once powerful, a people whose condition injustice and tyrants have changed?

Yesterday they were kings in their own homes, but today they are slaves in the land of the infidel!

Were you to see them bewildered, with no one to guide them, wearing the cloth of shame in its different shades,

And were you to behold their weeping when they are sold, it would strike fear into your heart, and sorrow would seize you.

Alas, many a maiden as fair as the sun when it rises, as though she were rubies and pearls,

Is led off to abomination by a barbarian against her will, while her eye is in tears and her heart is stunned.

The heart melts with sorrow at such sights, if there is any Islam or faith in that heart!’

These words were written by the poet Ar-Rundi after Seville fell to Ferdinand III of Castile (1199-1252) in December 1248. By that date many other cities, including Valencia, Murcia, Jaén and Córdoba, had been captured and it seemed that the end of Muslim Spain was imminent. However, it was not until 1492 that the Moorish Kingdom of Granada surrendered to Ferdinand V and Isabella, and the final Muslim expulsion did not take place until over a century later, between 1609 and 1614. This means that there was a large Moorish population in Spain half a millennium after the high point of Andalusian culture in the eleventh century.

Ar-Rundi might well have been responding to the plight of his co-religionists after the fall of Granada or at the time of the expulsion when many similar atrocities were committed: homes were destroyed and abandoned, mosques were converted into churches, mothers were separated from their children, people were stripped of their wealth and humiliated, armed rebels were reduced to slavery. But by the seventeenth century the Moors had become Spanish citizens; some were genuine Christian converts; indeed many, like Sancho Panza’s neighbour Ricote in Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote (1605-15), were deeply patriotic and considered themselves to be ‘más cristiano que moro’. Yet all were the victims of a state policy, based on racist theological arguments, which had the backing of both the Royal Council and the Church, for which the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 provided an immediate legal precedent.

According to the terms of the treaty drawn up in 1492, the new subjects of the Crown were to be allowed to preserve their mosques and religious institutions, to retain the use of their language and to continue to abide by their own laws and customs. But within seven years these terms had been broken. When the moderate missionary approach of the archbishop of Granada, Hernando de Talavera (1428-1507), was replaced by the fanaticism of Cardinal Cisneros (c.1436-1518), who organised mass conversions and the burning of all religious texts in Arabic, these events resulted in the First Rebellion of the Alpujarras (1499-1500) and the assassination of one of the Cardinal’s agents. This in turn gave the Catholic monarchs an excuse to revoke their promises. In 1499 the Muslim religious leaders of Granada were persuaded to hand over more than 5,000 priceless books with ornamental bindings, which were then consigned to the flames; only some books on medicine were spared. In Andalusia after 1502, and in Valencia, Catalonia and Aragon after 1526, the Moors were given a choice between baptism and exile. For the majority, baptism was the only practical option. Henceforward the Spanish Moors became theoretically New Christians and, as such, subject to the jurisdiction of the Inquisition, which had been authorised by Pope Sixtus IV in 1478.

For the most part, conversion was nominal: the Moors paid lip-service to Christianity, but continued to practise Islam in secret. For example, after a child was baptised, he might be taken home and washed with hot water to annul the sacrament of baptism. The former Muslims were able to lead a double life with a clear conscience because certain Islamic religious authorities ruled that, under duress or threat to life, Muslims might apply the principle of taqiyyah or precaution that made dissimulation and hypocrisy permissible. In response to a plea from the Spanish Muslims, the Grand Mufti of Oran, Ahmad ibn Abu Juma’a, issued a decree in 1504, in which he stated that Muslims may drink wine, eat pork or do any other forbidden thing if they are compelled to do so and if they do not have the intention to sin. They may even, he said, deny the Prophet Muhammad with their tongues provided, at the same time, they love him in their hearts – though not all Muslim scholars agreed with this advice.

Thus the fall of Granada marked a new phase in Muslim-Christian relations. In medieval times the status of Muslims under Christian rule was similar to that of Christians under Muslim rule: they belonged to a protected minority which preserved its own laws and customs in return for tribute. But there was no Scriptural basis for the legal status of Jews and Muslims under Christian rule; they were subject to the whims of rulers, the prejudices of the populace and the objections of the clergy. Before the completion of the Reconquest it was in the interests of the kings of Aragon and Castile to respect such laws and contracts. Now, however, Spain not only became, at least in theory, an entirely Christian nation but purity of faith came to be identified with purity of blood so that all New Christians or conversos, whether of Jewish or Muslim origin, were branded as potential heretics. 

As a member of a vanquished minority with an alien culture, the moro became a morisco, a ‘little Moor’. Every aspect of his way of life – including his language, dress and social customs – was condemned as uncivilised and pagan. A person who refused to drink wine or eat pork might be denounced as a Muslim to the Inquisition. In the eyes of the Inquisition and popular opinion, even practices such as eating couscous, using henna, throwing sweets at a wedding and dancing to the sound of Berber music, were un-Christian activities for which a person might be obliged to do penance.  Moriscos who were sincere Christians were also bound to remain second-class citizens, and might be exposed to criticism from Muslims and Christians alike. Although morisco is a derogatory term, historians find it a useful label for those Arabs or Moors who remained in Spain after the fall of Granada.

In 1567 Philip II renewed an edict which had never been strictly enforced, making the use of Arabic illegal and prohibiting Islamic religion, dress and customs. This edict resulted in the Second Rebellion of the Alpujarras (1568-70), which seemed to corroborate evidence of a secret conspiracy with the Turks. The uprising was brutally suppressed by Don John of Austria. One of his worst atrocities was to raze the town of Galera, to the east of Granada, and sprinkle it with salt, having slaughtered  2,500 people including 400 women and children. Some 80,000 Moriscos in Granada were dispersed to other parts of Spain and Old Christians from northern Spain were settled on their lands.

By 1582 expulsion was proposed by Philip II’s Council of State as the only solution to the conflict between the communities, despite some concern about the harmful economic repercussions – the loss of Moorish craftsmanship and the shortage of agricultural manpower and expertise. But as there was opposition from some noblemen and the King was preoccupied by international events, no action was taken until 1609-10 when Philip III (r.1598-1621) issued edicts of expulsion.

Royal legislation concerning the Moriscos was dictated at every stage by the Church. Juan de Ribera (1542-1611), the aging Archbishop of Valencia, who had initially been a firm believer in the efficacy of missionary work, became in his declining years the chief partisan of expulsion. In a sermon preached on September 27th, 1609, he said that the land would not become fertile again until these heretics had been expelled. The Duke of Lerma (Philip III’s first minister, 1598-1618) also underwent a change of heart when it was agreed that the lords of Valencia would be given the lands of the expelled Moriscos in compensation for the loss of their vassals.

The decision to proceed with the expulsion was approved unanimously by the Council of State on January 30th, 1608, although the actual decree was not signed by the King until April 4th, 1609. Galleons of the Spanish fleet were secretly prepared, and they were later joined by many foreign merchant ships, including several from England. On September 11th, the expulsion order was announced by town criers in the Kingdom of Valencia, and the first convoy departed from Denia at nightfall on October 2nd, and arrived in Oran less than three days later. The Moriscos of Aragon, Castile, Andalusia and Extremadura received expulsion orders during the course of the following year. The majority of the forced emigrants settled in the Maghrib or Barbary Coast, especially in Oran, Tunis, Tlemcen, Tetuán, Rabat and Salé. Many travelled overland to France, but after the assassination of Henry of Navarre by Ravaillac in May 1610, they were forced to emigrate to Italy, Sicily or Constantinople.

There is much disagreement about the size of the Morisco population. The French demographer Henri Lapeyre estimated from census reports and embarkation lists that approximately 275,000 Spanish Moriscos emigrated in the years 1609-14, out of a total of 300,000.  This conservative estimate is not consistent with many of the contemporary accounts that give a figure of 600,000.  Bearing in mind that the total population of Spain at that time was only about seven and a half million, this must have constituted a serious deficit in terms of productive manpower and tax revenue. In the Kingdom of Valencia, which lost a third of its population, nearly half the villages were deserted in 1638.

There is equal disagreement about the number of Moriscos who perished in armed rebellion or on the journey into exile. Pedro Aznar Cardona, whose treatise justifying the expulsion was published in 1612, stated that between October 1609 and July 1611 over 50,000 died resisting expulsion, while over 60,000 died during their passage abroad either by land or sea or at the hands of their co-religionists after disembarking on the North African coast. If these figures are correct, then more than one in six of the Moorish population perished in the space of two years. Henry Charles Lea, drawing on many contemporary sources, puts the mortality figure at between two-thirds and three-quarters.

The demographic factor was one of the decisive arguments employed in favour of expulsion by Juan de Ribera in 1602. He warned Philip III that, unless he took swift action, Christian Spaniards would soon find themselves outnumbered by Muslims, as all Moriscos married and had large families, whereas a third or a quarter of all Christians remained celibate after taking holy orders or entering military service. The Moriscos, Ribera said, think only of reproducing and saving their skins, while their temperance in food and drink gives them a high life expectancy. Ribera’s fears were prompted by a census of the Valencian population that he himself had supervised that same year, which revealed that the Morisco population had increased by one-third.

At a meeting of the State Council in January 1608 the Comendador de León attributed the decline of the Old Christian population to their reluctance to shoulder the financial burden of marriage at a time of rising costs. He warned that soon the Moriscos would be able to achieve their objective simply by means of their population growth, without either taking up arms or receiving help from abroad. With Turkey distracted by war and with Persia and North Africa weakened by plague, drought and civil war, it was an opportune moment to take firm action. The Count of Alba de Liste then said, in a further twist of the demographic argument, that if the King, in his clemency, were to send the Moriscos to North Africa, it would be a form of death sentence because, if they did not die of drought and starvation, they would become sexually impotent.

In the minds of many, the fertility of the Morisco population was associated with the myth of Islamic sensuality and licentiousness. The failure of the Church in its missionary efforts was attributed to this alleged aspect of Islam that offered – so they said – carnal delights both here and in the hereafter. The Moriscos came to personify the sins of the flesh, later romanticised in visions of oriental harems. But they were considered equally susceptible to ‘the sins of the superego’, such as pride, hypocrisy, cunning, avarice and grasping ambition, all features traditionally ascribed to the Jews. Prejudiced people will not hesitate to use mutually exclusive stereotypes to justify their dislike, and this is certainly true of many Spanish writers in the seventeenth century: the Moriscos are lazy, yet industrious; abstemious, yet lascivious; miserly, yet extravagant; cowardly, yet belligerent; ignorant, yet anxious to acquire learning in order to rise above their station.

There were, as we have seen, some genuine grounds for fearing and envying the Moriscos: their numbers were increasing rapidly; some had become successful merchants and shopkeepers, despite attempts to exclude them from these occupations; they exemplified in their conduct the virtues of thrift, frugality and hard work; the majority outwardly conformed to the religious requirements imposed on them, but by subterfuge continued to celebrate their own festivals and practise the basic rituals of Islam. It was this refusal to renounce their religious and cultural identity that many Old Christians found offensive. There was no serious attempt to understand Morisco culture and religion. Any slanderous anecdote, any insulting remark, any distortion of the truth was acceptable if it served what these Christians considered to be the laudable aim of denigrating Islam. Cultural diversity was an alien concept and assimilation was equally unacceptable.

The experience of the Moriscos varied enormously from one region to another. In some parts of Spain there were exceptionally good relations between Old and New Christians. A detailed study of Villarubia in La Mancha where the Moriscos comprised 20 per cent of the population, owned the best farmland and were well integrated within the community, has shown that they were protected by their Old Christian neighbours from unwelcome visits from government inspectors. Many of those expelled managed to slip back into Spain and travelled hundreds of miles to reach their homes.

The full tale of the sufferings endured by the Moriscos has never fully been told: how those who survived the journey arrived at their destination starving and destitute because the bare necessities and money that they were permitted to take with them had been extorted from them by thieves and swindlers; how those travelling overland to France were forced by farmers to pay whenever they drank from a river or sat in the shade of a tree; how thousands of those who resisted and survived ended their days as galley-slaves; how those waiting to board ship were starved so that they would agree to sell their children in exchange for bread; how it was the official policy of the Church to separate Morisco children from their parents.  

It was Juan de Ribera’s original intention, approved by the Council of State on September 1st, 1609, that all children aged ten or under should remain in Spain to be educated by priests or trustworthy persons whom they would serve until the age of twenty-five or thirty in return for lodging, food and clothing, and that suckling babes should be given to Old Christian wet-nurses on the same conditions. Later in the month the age limit was reduced from ten to five years or under. The policy was at least partially executed, though it proved impossible to implement in full. Among the Moriscos who embarked at Alicante in Andalusia between October 6th, and November 7th, 1609, there seem to have been nearly 14,000 children missing (conservatively assuming an average 2.5 children per family). According to a document dated  April 17th, 1610, there were 1,832 Morisco boys and girls aged seven or under in the Kingdom of Valencia, all of whom, against the wishes of their guardians, were to be sent to Castile to serve the prelates and other notables of the realm. In July 1610 the Church recommended that all Morisco children above the age of seven in the Kingdom of Valencia should be sold as perpetual slaves to Old Christians. These included the orphans of rebels, children seized by soldiers and others concealed and cared for by people who believed they were doing an act of charity. The theologians who signed this document argued that slavery was not only morally justifiable but spiritually beneficial: these children would be less likely to become apostates, since their masters would ensure that they remained Roman Catholics and, as slaves rarely married, this would be another method of ridding Spain of ‘this evil race’.

What was the significance of the age limit? It was thought that above the age of six or seven a child begins to lose his innocence and becomes more difficult to indoctrinate, whereas a younger child would have no real knowledge of his origins. The policy was justified on the grounds that innocent children baptised as Christians should not be punished for the sins of their fathers, although, paradoxically, the principle of hereditary guilt was found acceptable as a justification for expelling all adults, whether or not they were practising Christians.

Furthermore, it was said that to banish children with their infidel parents would be to guarantee their confirmation as Muslims and their consignment to hellfire in the hereafter. But young Morisco children should not be educated above their proper station: apart from pupils preparing for the priesthood, they were to be brought up by artisans and farm labourers, and they should certainly not be allowed to study literature. In this way it was hoped that all memories of Islam in Spain would be wiped out forever. This point was much appreciated by Philip III.

Much has been written about the exodus of the Spanish Jews in 1492 and the plight of the many Jewish conversos who suffered at the hands of the Inquisition, but the Spanish Arabs or Moors have not received the same attention. In most people’s minds, the Spanish Inquisition is associated with the persecution of Jews. It is not so widely known that Muslims were terrorised by this institution and that they too were the victims of an anti-Semitic ideology. About 12,000 Moriscos were charged with apostasy by the Inquisition, 50 per cent of them in the last thirty years before the expulsion.

Racial and religious intolerance is nowhere more evident than in the reports of some of the meetings of Philip III’s Council of State and in works written to justify the need for a policy of expulsion. In these works, most of them by frustrated Dominican missionaries, one finds a highly unorthodox racist theology, supported by biblical precedents: there was an attempt to judaise Islam and to depict Christian Spaniards of old Christian stock as the new Chosen Race engaged in a crusade to recover their Promised Land from the Antichrist Muhammad. One author claimed that the Prophet was the offspring of an incestuous relationship between his mother and his uncle, both, he says, Jews, in fulfilment of the prophecy that the Antichrist would be born of a dishonest woman.

It is ironic that those same Old Testament passages which have been used to support the theory that Palestine is the Jewish promised land  were not only cited by apologists for a policy of mass expulsion for the Moriscos but were cited by anti-Jewish theologians in advocating the need for statutes of purity of blood. These authors regarded the Spanish Old Christians as the spiritual heirs of the Children of Israel and compared Philip III with Abraham, Moses or King David. They called him a second Abraham because, they said, he was obliged to banish his illegitimate son, that is to say the Moriscos, the descendants of Hagar, the Egyptian slave-girl. One of their favourite biblical passages was God’s message delivered by Moses to the Israelites as they were about to enter the Promised Land: 

In the cities of these nations whose land the Lord your God is giving to you as a patrimony, you shall not leave any creature alive. You shall annihilate them – Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites – as the Lord commanded you, so that they may not teach you to imitate all the abominable things that they have done for their gods and so cause you to sin against the Lord your God. (Deut. 20: 16-18)   

This passage has been cited by Jews campaigning for a Greater Israel stretching from the Euphrates to the Red Sea and was used by the Puritans in North America in the seventeenth century to justify massacring the native American Indians. Following the Jewish-Morisco analogy, one contemporary poet presented the expulsion of the Moriscos as a reversal of the Hebrew Exodus: the Moriscos will depart from the holy land of Spain and will return to the infernal land of Egypt, without any parting of the waters.

The Portuguese Dominican Damián Fonseca even suggested that God expected a burnt offering from His Catholic Majesty to appease His divine wrath. The phrase he used in 1611 was el agradable holocausto (‘the agreeable holocaust’).

To these antisemites, the Jews were descended from Judas, who betrayed Christ, not Judah, son of Jacob. They would not have admitted that Jesus was a Jew sent by God to preach to the ‘lost sheep of the House of Israel’. As a result of the role that God had predestined for them, the Jews ceased to be God’s chosen people and inherited the sin of deicide for which they were condemned to wander the earth.

The simplest method of vilifying the last remnants of Arab Spain was to depict Islam as a form of pseudo-Jewish heresy. Jaime Bleda, the royal chaplain and chief anti-Morisco polemicist, even suggested that the Moorish invasion of Spain was a divine punishment for the pro-Semitic policies of the Visigothic King Wittiza (698-710), who had revoked the decrees of his father by liberating the Jews from slavery and restoring to them their lands and privileges. This was cited as a legal precedent applicable to the Moriscos at the Council of State held on January 30th, 1608. However, the immediate historical precedent was the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. In April 1605, Bleda urged Philip III to follow the example of his royal predecessors Ferdinand and Isabella, who had been persuaded by Fray Thomás de Torquemada to banish the Jews from their realms and would have done the same to the Moors had they refused baptism. God, he said, rewarded the Catholic monarchs for their Christian zeal by giving them the New World.

Much of the vituperation that Bleda and other polemicists levelled against the Moriscos had previously been levelled against the Jews. Of both peoples it was said that they were inherently sinful and inferior, that they were incorrigible in their obstinate infidelity, and that their heretical depravity was a contagion which would have to be removed. Philip III is even described as a Catholic Galen, charged with the task of purging the poison and corruption of heresy from the mystical body of Christian Spain.

Spain has paid a heavy price for denying so long the Jewish and Muslim components of its cultural identity, but since the death of Franco in 1975, freedom of worship has gradually been established. In today’s  multi-ethnic, multi-religious Europe (it includes about 30 million Muslims and 1.5 million Jews), a new,  version of European history needs to be written, to include an account of the achievements and tribulations of European Jews and Muslims.

The Vatican might do more to admit the atrocities done in the name of the Church. It is hard to believe that as late as 1960 it was decided that Juan de Ribera should be canonised. At least a proposal to canonise Queen Isabella was recently dropped. The real saints were those who risked their lives to protect people persecuted for their beliefs or the beliefs of their ancestors, who died because they refused to betray others to the Inquisition, who would not renounce their faith and died in armed resistance. These people were engaged in what Muslims call jihad, which means both the inner struggle, the duty to resist evil and strife in the mystical path, and the outward struggle, the duty of those who are oppressed, or who have been unjustly driven from their homelands because they refuse to renounce their faith, to fight in self-defence and in defence of their people. For, to paraphrase the Qur’an, ‘If people did not have this right to defend themselves, monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques, in which God’s name is much remembered, would surely have been destroyed by now’.

Roger Boase is an Honorary Research Fellow at Queen Mary College, University of London, and author of The Origin and Meaning of Courtly Love (Manchester UP, 1977).

Further reading: 
  • Roger Boase ‘The Morisco Expulsion and Diaspora’, Cultures in Contact in Medieval Spain ed David Hook and Barry Taylor (London, King’s College, 1990)
  • Henry Charles Lea, The Moriscos of Spain: Their Conversion and Expulsion (Bernard Quaritch, 1901)
  • Anwar G. Chejne, Islam and the West: The Moriscos (State University of New York Press, 1983)
  • Louis Cardaillac, Morisques et chrétiens: un affrontement polémique (1492-1640) (Klincksieck, 1977)
  • L.P. Harvey ‘The Political, Social and Cultural History of the Moriscos’, The Legacy of Muslim Spain ed. Salma Khadra Jayyusi (E.J. Brill, 1992).


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