Muslims in Spain: 1500-1614

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I finished reading L.P. Harvey’s book, Muslims in Spain: 1500-1614, a book which addresses in depth the survival of Muslims in Spain after the Peninsula was completely in the hands of Christian rulers. This is a story with a surprising amount of nuance. Once the conquest of Granada was complete in 1492, the story of Arab/Islamic/Mudejar Spain did not abruptly end. For instance, until 1614 there were, primarily around Valencia, communities of Arabic-speakers in Spain. (Mudejar: Islamic subject of a Christian ruler; Morisco: convert to Christianity from Islam.)

Before I go any further, I should probably say this is not going to be a standard review, careful and adhering to a standard format. Professional reviewers will certainly prove better at that sort of thing. Personally, I’ve never enjoyed writing reviews. They pay shit and take forever. What I’ll do instead is just discuss some of the feelings, thoughts and questions that arose while reading the book.

First off, it’s a gorgeous book. The designer must be a dreamy sexpot. An aljamiado manuscript is super-imposed over a Hoefnagel engraving of Granada in blood red, fading to black at the top and tan at the bottom. Frankly, it’s delicious. It also gave me this weird feeling I get sometimes when I hold certain books: a slightly excited sense that the book in some way would change my life or give me information that would have a long-lasting effect on my store of knowledge. It certainly fit the latter bill. I certainly think it will prove to be the book on the subject for decades to come. It was painstakingly researched, has a coherent argument (or arguments, rather) and is well written.

What I’ll do now is relay the notes I made in the book as I read. (That’s right in the book. At this point, you Library of Babel types should probably run off to the shower to scrub yourselves raw with lye soap, your warm tears mixing with the warm water from your sympathetically weeping nozzle.)


+How long did crypto-Islam and crypto-Judaism last in the Peninsula (and in the Americas for that matter)? Is there an element of “I want to believe” in the search for the survival of these religions?

+A good book of this type is one that evokes questions in your mind as you read, then answers them by the time you’re done. Though in the case of the foregoing question, it does not, at least not directly. Most of the time, however, it does.

+What forces were acting against the conversions/expulsions? Harvey maintains, convincingly, that a combination of interests intersected to keep the kings from enforcing first conversion, then expulsion. First, there were economic reasons; the nobles wanted to keep the cost-effective Muslims, later Moriscos on the land. Then, there were some priests who actually followed Christianity (that is, conversions were worthless when forced). There was also the struggle between the crown and regional interests (such as the Aragonese rights), a struggle which continues to this day. International relations played a part too—to come down too hard on the Muslims/Moriscos of his kingdom risked, initially anyway, the persecution of Christians under Islamic reign in North Africa and the Middle East. The weirdest force acting against expulsion, at least for a long time (though not against conversion) was the Inquisition, which obtained a great deal of its substantial moneys from various schemes against the Moriscos. Among the pro-expulsion forces were lower class Christians, extremist clerics and the crown.

+Muslims leaving had an adverse effect on agriculture in Iberia. The best farmers, as well as craftsmen, and people involved in transportation of goods were Muslim. The wretchedness of the farming in the wake of the eventual expulsions contributed to the support that peasants, especially in Andalucia, gave to the Republic during the Spanish Civil War 300 years later.

+Harvey covers the many reasons why conversion (forced and not) did not take. He also goes into some of the more romantic elements of this story, including the differences between the Muslims and the Christians: dress (though he gives few details) and modes of behavior (including public baths—which the Christians eventually succeeded in shutting down, resulting in filthy, ass-reeking Spaniards taking the place of well-scrubbed and perfumed ones). “By imposing on unwilling converts the self-contradictory nonsense of a forcible baptism and never subsequently facing up to that fundamental error, still less recanting it, the Church effectively made its own task impossible.”

+He also gives a detailed picture of Mudejar and Morisco intellectual life, specifically the literature read and produced by them. Although this is important, and it gives a picture particularly of the society and practice of clandestine Islam in the Peninsula, he goes into the kind of detail only an academic could love. The chapter is 84 pages long. A non-specialist, even and interested one, begs G-d, in his infinite mercy, to shrink the chapter by three-quarters, but G-d has given Harvey free will, for which abuse he will certainly spend more than adequate time in purgatory having this sin burned away.

+This book could use either a few more maps or one double-truck map of greater detail.

+Regarding a question I had asked earlier—how and why do neighbors turn on each other—Harvey says, in a footnote, “The reported dissolving of the bonds between compadres is possibly the most shocking of the manifestations of social upheaval that are listed here.” In another footnote he says, “Such an intense effusion of blind communal hatred and blood lust was difficult for me to comprehend when I began to study these matters in the mid-twentieth century.” I’m not sure how he could mean this. The greatest flower of genocidal evil had begun and ended well before the mid-point of this last century.

+Does Bin Laden think of himself as Abóo? Aben Abóo was one of the heroes of the Second Granadan War of the late 16th century, who commanded the Morisco rebels in the Alpujarras. “…before long, Aben Abóo was a hunted fugitive there, too, ‘hiding in one cave after another.'”

+No county in history—and there are unfortunately plenty of examples—has ever benefited from expelling part of its people.

+This book, in addition to being an excellent scholarly resource, also has enough of plot and character and anecdote to keep a non-specialist interested. For example, some Moriscos who had left Spain ended up in the military service of the leaders of Morocco, where they formed a legion. They explored south into Mali. Cut off from Morocco, they settled there and to this day some of the inhabitants in the area have Morisco surnames. (God bless America—I can’t find this episode, so since it’s from memory; I may be getting a detail or two wrong, but it’s right in the general outline.) Also, the horrifying Morris dance was not named after Mr. Morris but was rather a “Moorish dance.” There are Tunisians whose names trace back to Spanish. Zbiss, for instance, is a change, through the Valencian Llopis, from López.

+Of particular interest to me, due to my having lived there and written about it, is the extensive exploration, in the text and appendices, of the lead tablet forgeries that gave the Sacromonte its name. (The Sacromonte is a barrio of Granada.) They were in all likelihood Morisco forgeries, designed, Harvey says, to deflect Christian theology away from those elements (like the Trinity) that Islam finds objectionable and to credit the Muslims of Spain and their language with an importance it had long lost. In the full translation of one of the tablets, Harvey translates this statement from the Virgin Mary on Sacromonte: “If any pure spotless believer goes there on pilgrimage with a pure and sincere intention uncontaminated by doubt concerning the blessed Gospel and the Truth of His blessed Spirit, and the Truth of the books that are with it, prays to Allah after they have been revealed in that place…Allah will forgive him all his sins, even if they are without number…”


Update: I read the Times review I linked to. I don’t agree with much in the incoherent piece. (British journalism always reads like a half-remembered conversation to me.) However, I do agree that the editing left a great deal to be desired. There were sections that drug on for well longer than I wanted them to. The reviewer is also right in questioning this book as one for the general reader. My take on that is that any intelligent layman will find it valuable, though not without some previous reading on the time that led up to it. Harvey’s own “Islamic Spain: 1250-1500,” prefaced by a good general history of Arabic Spain, such as Richard Fletcher’s “Moorish Spain” and focused by Menocal’s “The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain” would probably adequately prepare you.


  1. Rosemary says:

    Dear Curt,
    I cannot leave comments over at Committee to Protect Bloggers, so I have come here. I hope you do not mind. There is an Iranian who has received threats from the Iranian gov’t. I will give you his site, but not his name, because I do not have permission to do so. Please let him know you will do all you can to protect him. Thank you.

  2. Rosemary says:

    I felt bad for not reading your article, so I went back read it. lol. You are a very articulate writer, and I like the way you just say what you mean. It was not boring. I don’t know if I agree with everything you wrote, but then again, I haven’t studied that period of time as you have. I wish there was no fighting. Maybe someday? Nah. Not as long as humans inhabit the earth! Aarrgghh! (j/k)

  3. sokari says:

    Thanks for the review and pointers to other books on Islamic Spain – I have read a few but its always worthwhile to read more. Yes Granada is a beautiful city with so much history. I have spent quite a bit of time in the city which I have now grown to love and am very much looking forward to living there.

    1. Curt says:

      Is this the first time we “met”?

  4. For a more recent look at Muslims in Spain, see my interview with a spokesman from the mosque in Vilafranca del Penedes, a medium sized town in Catalonia, Spain. He believes “there is acceptance for Muslims here.” [First published in the English language newspaper, Catalonia Today.] Link below:

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