|By Mario André Chandler
It’s been said that if one doesn’t understand the events that took place in Spain during the Middle Ages it’s impossible to fully understand the historical milestones that would eventually shape modern Spanish society.
I find that this statement holds a great deal of truth. The Middle Ages in Spain can hardly be defined as a time and place to which the proverbial label “Dark Ages” can be accurately attached. What many assume to have been an obscure era of barbarism and intellectual atrophy that followed the fall of the Roman Empire may be applicable to other European territories during the early Middle Ages, but not to Spain.
Very little about medieval Spain was dark. Spain during the Middle Ages was a land replete with the light of knowledge, of learning and of promising experiment of multiculturalism to which the Moors, the Muslim inhabitants of the peninsula, made a lasting contribution.
Who, Then Were The Moors?
The Moors were a diverse community composed of African, Berber, Arab and eventually converted Iberian Muslims who exercised varying degrees of power and political authority in Spain between 711 and 1492, contributing to the scientific, cultural and intellectual progress, not only of Iberia (Spain), but of Europe as a whole. During this time, the Moors occupied much of what became modern-day Spain and Portugual. During the 9th and 10th centuries in the capital city of Cordoba in southern Spain the Moors cultivated the arts and sciences, as well as the standards of etiquette and sanitation that rivaled any other European city of that day and age.
The Great Mosque of Cordoba, for example, which is located in the center of that city, was an architectural wonder that displayed the geometric and spatial unity that defined the Moorish construction.
The intellectual renown of Cordoba attracted knowledge-thirsty students from throughout Europe. Countless volumes of books on topics ranging from alchemy to algebra were housed in any of Cordoba’s numerous libraries. When these texts were translated from Arabic, the language of commerce and learning, to European languages, Spain’s neighbors were exposed to new scientific advances or reintroduced to old knowledge that had been long forgotten. With the arrival of the Moors in Spain, Europe witnessed for the first time an Islamic religious and cultural presence within its borders that feed a viable challenge to western Europe’s concept of civilization, culture and faith.
The Moorish Legacy Begins
In 711, Tariq Ibn Ziyad, a young and ambitious African general led a contingent of approximately 7,000 mostly Berber soldiers across the Strait of Gibraltar, a mere 13 kilometer, or nine-mile, sea path all that separates African from Europe at the closest point. Tariq was charged with facilitating the continued Islamic expansion that had rapidly spread across the northern tier of the African continent from Arabia, reaching the shores of the Atlantic Ocean during the late decades of the 7th century.
The Moorish soldiers easily defeated the Visigoths who had controlled Spain since the end of the 5th century. Tariq declared victory at the base of the famous mountain that stands across the straits from Africa and still bares his name: “Gibralter” a shortened version of the Arabic Gebel Tariq, which means “Tariq’s mountain.”
The Moors would cultivate in Spain a remarkable legacy that belies the attitudes concerning Muslims and Islam that began to develop earnestly in the West in the wake of the waning of Moorish civilization in the Iberian Peninsula. Sadly, stereotypical attitudes toward Islam have persisted since the glorious age of the Spanish Moors and continue to influence how some view Muslims today.
In al-Andalus the Moors, contrary to popular belief, did not conquer by the sword, forcibly convert their non-Muslim subjects to Islam. Jews and Christians living under Moorish rule were linguistically and culturally integrated into Muslim society and were allowed to continue practicing their respective faiths, to speak their own languages and to build their communities with a degree of autonomy. Al-Andalus functioned as a tripartite territory where three Abrahamic faiths -- Christianity, Islam and Judaism -- not only coexisted, but flourished.
Interestingly, Muslims and Jews interacted cooperatively in Spain prior to the evolution of a political climate that toward the end of the Middle Ages strongly considered the Jewish and Muslim presence a heretical impediment to the rapid re-christinalization that was taking place throughout the peninsula.
A brief note on terminology is appropriate here. The term “Moor” evokes a variety of distinct meanings for different people – religious for some, racial for others. For example, William Shakespeare’s famous fictional character, Othello, is also called that “Moor” of Venice, yet it’s obvious from the play that he is a Christian black man whose story unfolds in Italy.
In other words, “Moor” for Shakespeare’s Renaissance English audience inclined toward a connotation of non-white racial otherness. Religious significance was not central to the playwright’s definition of “Moor.” Conversely, the term, when used in the historical context of Spain, has always had a concrete religious significance, representing the Islamic culture of the subject, irrespective of his or her race, color, ethnicity or nationality.
Ironically, the Muslims of Spain did not use the term “Moor,” which is “Moro” in Spanish, to identify themselves. “Moor” comes from the Greek word “mauron” and the Latin word “maurus,” both of which were used during early Middle Ages to refer to any black-skinned inhabitant of “Mauritania,” a generic term for black Africa, not the modern county of the same name.
While many Moors in Spain were Africans, not all were. The population of al-Andalus was ethnically diverse and would eventually include many peninsular converts who racially would be considered white.
“Moor” is used in modern times as a historical identifier for the Muslim inhabitants of the Iberian Peninsula, yet the term has been the source of some ambiguity and occasionally ill intent. For example, today in Spain, the Spanish term, “moro” frequently uttered by Spaniards is received as an offensive epithet by North African Muslims who currently reside in the country. Unlike their ancestors, who crossed the Strait of Gibraltar as conquerors, contemporary immigrants from Africa are simply seeking better opportunities for themselves and for their families. Conflicts between Spaniards and African immigrants have been tense, and sometimes violent in recent years.
The context of relative peaceful coexistence seems challenging to duplicate today. As tensions increase between African immigrants and Spaniards, it’s impossible not to reflect on the ironic circularity of history. In spite of the definitive expulsion of Moors from Spain decreed by Felipe III in 1609, it’s puzzling that the central issue that contributed to his act, i.e., fear regarding racial, religious and cultural otherness, apparently continues to affect the Spanish national psyche. The contemporary attitudes toward Africans that some Spaniards exhibit evidence the fact that fears and sensitivities with respect to race, religion and culture were hardly resolved when the Moors were officially expelled nearly four centuries ago.
Spain is a country of contrasts. Captivating, yet at times unseemly. Alluring, yet at times repelling. The country will ultimately have to address its unresolved fears, using both the successes and the failures of its past as a model for which to address the presence of a familiar foe who in reality is closer to the Spanish soul than it may appear on the surface.