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Opening leaf of the text with Latin note and text in aljamiado — University of Cambridge digital library
Opening leaf of the text with Latin note and text in aljamiado — University of Cambridge digital library

While this sounds like a sweeping charge, perhaps even condescending, scholars now declare that much of what we have received as history is really a discipline that grafts flesh on the skeleton of pre-fabricated grand narratives, and this is an ideological sport. So a vast body of facts has been suppressed from standard historical accounts, or, at best, these facts languish in the ghettoes of the academy’s ivory tower. The formation of world literary canon; the decision as to what historical phenomena are to be brought into sharp relief and given prominence and centrality; the construction of periodisation walls that generate the Golden Age-Dark Age/Rise-Decline dichotomies; the manufacture of contraries such as the Orient-Occident binary — all of these seem to be ideological constructs with debilitating methodological consequences. Yes, some historians have attempted to outlaw this sport, but it continues to recruit players and attract a vast audience.

The history of Spain from the early 8th to the first decades of the 17th century is a case in point — perhaps more than any other region of the world during these almost 900 years, this history has suffered both suppressions and mutilations; and what is more, even a neglect of intriguing paradoxes that embody the complexities of our human civilisation. Many years ago, the superb historian of Islamic art Oleg Grabar had spoken eloquently about some of these paradoxes in the realm of material culture — why, for example, even in those regions of Muslim Iberia, al-Andalus that is, which saw the most merciless bloodshed during the Christian Reconquista, the architectural monuments of the Moors were not only preserved and maintained, but copied and replicated? One compelling example is Peter the Cruel’s 14th century palace in Seville; another is Queen Isabella’s policy of paying for the preservation and upkeep of the Alhambra from her own purse. And speaking of the Alhambra, “the ornament of the world,” why is this palatial complex utterly unlike any other piece of Islamic architecture in the entire world of Muslims, and yet unmistakably Islamic? Is there a Spanish spirit infused in all of these expressions of material culture, a spirit that transcends faith and blood? This was Grabar’s resounding question.

Not much scholarly attention has been paid to these paradoxes. Then, there is this question of placing the eight centuries of Europe’s Arabo-Islamic culture in the context of world culture. Here at this juncture, how painfully one misses the Yale historian Maria Rosa Menocal, and how grateful one feels for her elegant series of writings on this issue; she succumbed to death just too prematurely in 2012. The marginalisation of al-Andalus — an act that confounds it to the periphery of the world history’s mainstream — has yielded drastic intellectual as well as political consequences; note that the latter has implications for our contemporary world in terms of international relations, casting its shadows even on global peace and security. For once we recognise that European culture is indelibly linked to Spain’s Arabo-Islamic culture, and what we call the modern world is not the work of a single body of people but is a convergence with a gushing Andalusian stream flowing within it — once we recognise this, we cease to have any justification for considering Europe and the Muslim world as combative contraries, and when this happens the divisive act of “othering” loses its doctrinal ground. Let’s recall that in 2004 Columbia University Press had published the famous historian Richard Bulliet’s plea with the self-explanatory title, The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization.

On the rhythms of world literary culture

But there are so many more yawning gaps in our histories of Muslim Spain. For example, the ruthless Reconquista persecutions, the obliteration by royal decree of Arabic language and culture, forced conversions, the cruel exile of Jews and Muslims, these happen to be phenomena that are yet to be studied comprehensively, especially in the case of the latter. One must acknowledge that many scholars have certainly paid attention to these blood spots on the scroll of Andalusian history, and the list of these scholars seems to be quite long — among the more recent ones is Matthew Carr, and not too far behind in time stand Trevor Dodson, David Coleman, Natalie Zemon Davis, Cristian Bercoit, and then there is of course Leonard Harvey with his numerous studies. I have already spoken of Menocal and Bulliet, and there are several others. And yet, it seems that these voices have reverberated only in academic chambers, failing to leak through into our zeitgeist. Indeed, the magnitude and coercive powers of received narratives is just too massive to be dented easily.

It is not generally known that roughly between the beginning of the 12th century and the middle of the 17th, Iberian Muslims, and later crypto-Muslims, produced a sizable volume of various genres of literature in the Spanish language. What is both intriguing and significant, much of this literature is written not in the Latin but in the Arabic script, especially and overwhelmingly in the 15th and 16th centuries — that is, during the latter phase of the Reconquista that was accomplished in 1492 and the first decades that followed it. Spanish (often in the vernacular Castilian, Catalan, or Portuguese) written in the Arabic script? Yes, and this is precisely what we designate as aljamiado, a corruption it seems of the Arabic ‘ajamiyya, from ‘ajam, being a disparaging term for non-Arabic places and peoples.

Our educated culture ordinarily knows very little about aljamiado, most revealing for historical research as it might be. It is in this context, for example, that we need to look at the pioneering work of European fiction and “the world’s greatest novel” Don Quixote, a work that is presented to us by its author as a translation from Arabic. True, in Muslim Spain we do have the eminent case of the Jewish sage Maimonides who wrote his Arabic treatise Guide for the Perplexed in the Hebrew script, and this makes perfect sense, given that there was a sustained tradition of Arabic scholarship in the Andalusian Jewish community: But why would Spanish be written in Arabic characters?

Again, note that the bulk of aljamiado emerged during the time when there was a complete Arabic blackout in Spain. This is that phase of human history when reading, writing, or speaking Arabic was outlawed in the peninsula: these acts were deemed capital crimes, carrying excruciating punishments and dispossessions. This is the time when in this land Arabic books were burned in what became public spectacles; this burning of world Arabic legacy taking place in the very land which had boasted of the likes of the monumental philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes), “the grand Sufi sage” (al-Shaykh al-Akbar) Ibn ‘Arabi, and the pioneer of philosophical romance Ibn Tufayl. This is the time when practicing of Arabo-Islamic customs — including even the refusal to eat pork and minutiae such as the use of henna — became treasonable transgressions. And this is also the time of forced (and failed!) conversions, eventually leading to mass expulsions, a process during which families were torn apart and thousands died including women and children.

Syed Nomanul Haq is professor and advisor of the social sciences and liberal arts programme at the IBA, Karachi. He also holds a visiting faculty appointment in near eastern languages and civilisations at the University of Pennsylvania.
Syed Nomanul Haq is professor and advisor of the social sciences and liberal arts programme at the IBA, Karachi. He also holds a visiting faculty appointment in near eastern languages and civilisations at the University of Pennsylvania.

We are talking particularly about the period between 1495-1525 when Muslims were coercively baptised, and about the 1609-1614 interval when they were expelled, having already been demoted by the authorities to be referred to by the pejorative appellation “Moriscos,” meaning “little-Moors” or “half-Moors”! Despite their conversion to Catholic faith, Moriscos could not be assimilated, so it was pronounced by the Church, and must be made to leave. According to the Spanish historian of our times Danvila y Collado, “There was no pity or mercy for any Morisco …”

So aljamiado opens many historical vistas. One of these shows us desperate attempts on the part of Spanish Muslims to keep Arabic alive, saving their language from slipping into complete extinction by disuse; thereby, it also embodied a risky affirmation of cultural resistance — it was “a cry in blood.” Another vista brings before our eyes the manifestation of Grabar’s observation: intrinsic to Andalus was cultural hybridisation, embodying a spirit that was uniquely “Spanish.” Small wonder that Moors-turned-Moriscos found themselves misfit strangers in the Muslim North Africa from where their ancestors had come many centuries before.

Thousands of aljamiado manuscripts, all considered by the Inquisition to be evidence of the “sect of Muhammad” (upon whom be peace!), were confiscated and burned; those who produced or possessed them being subject to arrest and punishment. And where were they found? In wall openings and cavities, under rugs, in chests, buried under floors, and even in caves with weapons. The suppression was effective, Matthew Carr tells us, for the existence of aljamiado was forgotten until the 19th century when they were discovered accidentally during construction work, and

in one incident that is redolent with irony, a priest saved one of
these books for posterity when he stopped a group of local boys
from tearing its pages and throwing them into a bonfire …

What was the subject matter of these clandestine Spanish texts written in the Arabic script? Gerard Weigers has done a detailed study of this question. But more directly my answer derives from Carr. We are told that most of the aljamiado manuscripts discovered so far are anthologies whose editors have not been identified; then, there are compilations from other sources whose aim appears to have been, unsurprisingly, to save the Moorish cultural and religious world from falling into oblivion. And as for their contents —

[They] seem to range from extracts from the Koran and Koranic commentaries, writings on Islamic jurisprudence, and folkloric accounts of the life of [Prophet] Muhammad [upon whom be peace!] to collections of medicinal cures, spells and magical charms, such as The Book of Marvelous Sayings, or miscellaneous almanacs …

Does it not seem that literary culture has its own rhythms and the creative human urge finds ever-new ways of expression, like a river that cuts through the hard chest of a mountain standing in its way? Once again, the discovery of aljamiado throws into sharp relief the phenomenon of embracing connections between what has been presented to us as, what I called, combative contraries.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 24th, 2016