The tragedy of Al-Andalus
Mubarak Ali February 4, 2019
The defeat and victory of a nation is a common factor in the annals of history. Whenever the historians of a nation narrate victories, there is pride over the success that is attributed to courage, boldness, confidence and unity, and the display of a skilled war strategy in the battlefield.
But when the decline of nation is discussed, it is related to disunity, opportunism, compromise, independence and humiliating treaties with the opponents. It shows a loss of the energy and ambition to survive. In the case of Al-Andalus, both the stunning victory of the Arabs and the miserable defeat are part of history, which on the one hand creates a sense of pride and on the other reminds us of defeat.
Some historians reject the story that Tariq bin Ziyad, the conqueror of Andalus, issued orders to burn boats and urged soldiers in rhetorical Arabic to not think about returning and instead fight and win the battle. Some historians believe the entire story was concocted as Tariq bin Ziyad could not utter such rhetoric in Arabic because he was a Burbar and Arabic was not his mother-tongue. However, the story has become so popular that it has become difficult to refute it. Historically, it is true that when Tariq Bin Ziyad invaded Spain in 712 AD, he easily defeated the Spanish Army and conquered a southern territory. Cordoba became its capital.
Before the Arab conquest, it was part of the backward area of Spain. The Arabs introduced an irrigation system, new crops, planted fruit trees and made the land fertile and productive. They built new cities, constructed private and public buildings, and established a pluralistic society in which Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together peacefully. In the early period of history, the Arabs emerged as a strong power that conquered and defeated their Christian neighbouring states. The Arab world also became the centre of civilisation and culture, and introduced many new inventions to Europe. This included paper, which they brought from the Middle East to North Africa and then to Al-Andalus, from where it reached Europe.
The standard of education the universities in the Arab world was quite high and a large number of European students sought admission at these varsities to obtain higher education. Ibn Rushd, the philosopher of Cordoba, influenced the philosophy of Europe and his books were also part of the curriculum at European universities.
From 711 to 1492, the Arabs dominated Southern Spain and defended their borders from the invading Christian powers. Soon after, the unity of Arab rule ended. Small states emerged and started to fight against one another, which weakened them politically. When Isabella and Ferdinand, the rulers of Aragon and Castile, were united by marriage in 1492, they formed a great military force and conquered Arab states one by one. Grenada, the last Arab state, also succumbed to the Christian powers.
As a result, Spain became ‘Christianised’. Jews and Muslims were asked to either convert to Christianity or leave Spain. It is tragic that Muslims who ruled for nearly 800 years and contributed culturally and socially to the region were forced to leave their rich heritage of religious pluralism, beautiful buildings, literature, art and architecture. Since then, the tragedy of Al-Andalus haunts Muslims.
The loss of Al-Andalus was a loss of religious tolerance and served as the victory of Christian extremism, which wiped out all traces of religious harmony. Institutions were established to try newly-converted Jews and Muslims on the basis of doubts over whether they had actually converted to Christianity. The progress made by the Arab society was relegated to sheer backwardness.
In his book on the history of Spain, Reinhart Dozy discusses the causes of the downfall of the Arabs. According to Dozy, the rivalries among Arab tribes and the constant civil war weakened them, and they were easily defeated by the Christian powers in a series of wars that are referred to as the Reconquista.
When Iqbal visited Spain, he was also moved to see the remains of the Arab rule and wrote a passionate poem on Masjid-e-Qurtaba (the mosque of Cordoba).
Therefore, the loss of Al-Andalus is a permanent wound that has not be healed even though so many centuries have passed. It is repeatedly mentioned in literature, art, theatre, and films. The years 711 and 712 AD were important in Muslim history as Muhammad bin Qasim invaded Sindh and established Arab rule in the region. Arab rule was not challenged by rulers in North India or Punjab. With time, Muslims permanently settled in the region and, after the local population converted to Islam, secured political clout. In the same year, Qutayba ibn Muslim conquered Central Asia and some parts of China. The Chinese stopped him from moving further. However, there was no threat to Qutayba ibn Muslim from the Iranian sides.
Arab rule was consolidated in Central Asia. Both in Sindh and Central Asia, Muslims settled permanently and there was no threat to exile them. It is often seen that nations use lessons learnt from past events to address their present problems. But even though Muslims repeatedly remember the tragedy of Al-Andalus, they do so without learning any lessons.
The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.