Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

Muslim Minorities in the Iberian Peninsula

The Challenge of the Convivencia Model

Prof. Ana Echevarria Arsuaga

The discovery of new sources in Arabic and vernacular languages has changed the landscape of minority studies in the Iberian Peninsula in recent years. Terms concerning assimilation or changing identities among Iberian Jewish and Muslim minorities in the Middle Ages, such as coexistence, convivencia, cohabitation and convenience have been discussed in academic forums, but the hermeneutical models which these concepts have helped to construct need to be revised with new evidence from the sources. Drawing the map of religious minorities in Iberia, it will be possible to study the changes from majority to minority and how to deal will them empirically.

Conceptually, terms concerning assimilation or changing identities such as coexistence, convivencia, cohabitation and convenience have been discussed in academic forums, but discoveries in the actual medieval sources can help to clarify the terms further. Even theoretically sound words, such as aljama (for a Muslim community and its leaders), morería (Muslim quarter) or Mudejar (Muslim subject to Christian rule) are now being re-qualified and redefined, as Arabic and Latin sources are reassessed. The hermeneutical models which these concepts have helped to construct need to be revised, and this will be part of the contents of the first chapter and the conclusions.

Written sources in Latin, Arabic and Spanish give a great deal of information about Muslims living in the Iberian Peninsula under Christian rule between the 11th and the 15th centuries, the time in which protected Mudejar status was active. Tax registers, chancery records and chronicles help draw the map of religious minorities in Iberia and study the changes from majority to minority. Muslim communities under a feudal scheme –i.e., as vassals- might belong directly to the king, some were donated to cathedrals and others to the Military Orders, in order to improve the control and administration of great numbers of population, that was likely to revolt every time the frontier wars resulted in successes for the Islamic polities.

Meanwhile, Islamic legal scholars tried to persuade their coreligionists that a just life is possible only if lived under the guidance of sharῑ ‘a –which needs an Islamic polity dedicated to its application-, and therefore migration to an Islamic land was, at least, desirable. The reasons given during the 10th-11th centuries to avoid living in the lands of infidels ranged from being subject to the laws of unbelievers to the impossibility to practice religion, to the fact that children might learn the habits of non-Muslims or be enslaved, and women might be abused. However, once the legal experts realized that Christians were there to stay, and Muslims were not going to emigrate, reactions to this question changed to justification on several grounds, like the possibility to convert the unbelievers or to provide for the needs of the fellow Muslims who were staying, in the case of religious scholars.

The project will deal with some general issues concerning the protected status of Mudejars, such as the comparison between the definition of dhimmis in Islamic polities, and that of mudejarism in Christian polities. Christian kings, however, were keen on using Islamic settlers at their will, especially at times when the protected status was weakened by involvement in war or other contingencies.

Religious practices of minority groups such as Muslims and Jews living under Christian rule in Europe have often been approached as immutable from their origins in the Islamic and Jewish traditions. Otherwise, they have been conceptualised as deformations of former “canonical” practices. The situation of Muslim minorities in the Iberian Peninsula involved a special status that granted them their right to keep their faith, their places of cult –including mosques and cemeteries- and their rituals, as a precise setting for religious interaction.

The tension between normative ideal and actual practices had to be bridged in several aspects. Among them, the retreat of Arabic was unavoidable, and created the need to transmit their religious heritage using subterfuges that accounted for the gap between Romance languages as the medium for religious instruction, and Arabic as the language of authoritative Islamic texts. In my view, and despite these hindrances, religious identity was displayed by the religious and legal elites ruling the Islamic community of Castile and a particular feeling of belonging to a broader Islamic ‘ummā was developed, as shown by the proceedings of the meetings of a Muslim confraternity in Toledo (active c. 1400-1420).

Public display of Islamic faith, as symbolized in space by the mosque is another topic to be dealt with. In a context in which the Church councils and royal legislation had forbidden new mosques to be built, it is remarkable to find new mosques being created in Iberian cities, even at times of war, and not demolished by Christian authorities. Christian laws on this subject started to be drawn according to precedents applied to synagogues. From the thirteenth century, Muslims expanded their living quarters in Iberian Christian cities, scattered throughout the town, while having new mosques built in them despite prohibitions.

The question of collective ruling among the Muslims living under Christian domain is fundamental. Collective assemblies of Muslims and councils must be taken into account as a reflection of their conscious will to partake decisions that might affect religious status, thus reinforcing the feeling of the ‘ummā.