A Thousand and One Histories by Gema Martin-Munoz

The Arabs conquered the Iberian Peninsula in 711, integrating it into the Islamic Empire, and in 1492 the Catholics put an end to the peninsula’s last Muslim entity, the Kingdom of Granada. These eight centuries represent the longest civilisational period in the history of what we now call Spain, and the Arabs called al-Andalus. The Andalusi cultural component did not disappear with the last Islamic political domain, but survived first through the Mudejars, the Muslims who remained for some time in the Christian kingdoms, and above all later through the Moriscos, Muslims forced to convert to Christianity, until their expulsion in the early seventeenth century. Al-Andalus thus represents a historical experience almost a millennium long.

Few historical periods have been more controversial. Few demonstrate more clearly how the past can be made to serve current ideologies. Al-Andalus and its significance have been the objects of multiple polemics and contradictory historiographical visions, and a fount of myths that have frequently obstructed balanced and contextualised study. Most approaches to al-Andalus have suffered from an excess of grand emotions and a priori assumptions.

Ideological positioning has marked the interpretation of Andalusi history. The ‘Catholic Kings’ paradigm was based on the unity of Spain and the negation (and persecution) of religious diversity. Christianity was the major constructor of an ideology which stubbornly excluded the eight Islamic centuries from the Spanish historical memory. ‘Hispania’ (from which ‘Spain’ is derived) was imposed on al-Andalus in both name and meaning. The Romans named the Iberian Peninsula Hispania when it was integrated into their empire. Of course, this conquest never provoked the historiographical controversy of the subsequent Islamic conquest. The Greco-Roman heritage was presented as the essential source of European being and thought, definitively excluding any oriental contribution.

The Romans, succeeded by the Visigoths of the Kingdom of Toledo and then the Christian kingdoms of the north after the formation of al-Andalus, were  presented as part of the line that culminated in the Catholic Kings, guaranteeing continuity with Hispania and, as a consequence, with the essence of Spain (‘Spain as a historical unity’ was Spanish historian Claudio Sánchez Albornoz’s central idea). Al-Andalus, due to its Arab and Islamic identity, was excluded, interpreted as a historical anomaly, a foreign experience lying beyond the true Spanish personality of Christian and Latin roots. This historical construction nourished official interpretations until the eighteenth century when, for a brief period, Enlightenment thought brought a new approach.

During the eighteenth century, Enlightenment thought caused a rupture with the negationist interpretation of al-Andalus, approaching the reality instead from an assimilationist perspective. According to Maria Antonia Martínez Núñez, ‘Enlightenment thinkers conceived of history around the rationalist paradigm of modernity, viewing the past as an uninterrupted progression until the triumph of reason (in fact, of the bourgeoisie and its values). Renowned Enlightenment thinkers wanted to reclaim al-Andalus as part of that history of progress seen as a worthy alternative to feudalism.’

The new interest in al-Andalus brought such advances as the founding of the first Chair in Arabic at El Escorial at the behest of Charles III in 1786 (suggesting a surprising degree of interest in learning the Arabic language), the publication of Arab Antiquities by San Fernando’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in 1770, the beginning of Andalusi numismatics studies and, more generally, research into al-Andalus and its archaeological remains which had until that point been rejected and abandoned, where they had not been destroyed.

Read More...