Whatever Happened to Inter-Racial Love?*

Al-Andalus | The region of current day Spain at the time it was governed by Muslims between 700 – 1500 CE. During this time the region was home to Mozarabic Christians (Christians living under Muslim rule in Spain), Jews and Muslims. A peaceful coexistence of these three religions seems unlike in the world we are leaving today:

[..] The obvious fact that medieval Iberia was characterized by a high degree of religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity long before multiculturalism became a touchstone in our own raging culture wars. When Al-Andalus –conventionally deemed “Muslim Spain” or “Islamic Spain”- came of an age in the ninth and tenth century as a center of urban culture, prosperous economic power and independent polity ruling most of the Iberian Peninsula, the country comprised three ethnocultural religious communities: […] Arabo-Islam, Romance-Christianity, and Judeo-Hebraism (Ross Brann, 2009).

A trip to the south of Spain, therefore, potentially could be an inspiration for our world today; to derive some ancient tolerance for one another. However, the history of Islam in the Iberian Peninsula is mainly writing in terms of conquiesta and reconquiesta by European historians, hence leaving little room for a more nuanced image of the region. Even though a peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Christians, and Jews prevailed in the region for more than 300 years, namely in the Caliphate of Cordoba (Islamic state) proclaimed by the Umayyad dynasty. The tolerant attitude of the Umayyad caliph (religious and political leader of the region) for other religions and cultures was a result of interracial relationships at the court. The women in the family lineage came from northern parts of the Iberian Peninsula and thus brought along Christianity. However, we tend to know next to nothing about the peaceful coexistence of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity fostered by women on European soil. Therefore this piece will elaborate on how the story of the Umayyad dynasty is a prime example of biased history writing, as the narrative is mainly framed to create a contradiction between Christianity and Islam while neglecting the role of women. The author acknowledges the briefness in which the story is outlined in this blog, may this piece serve as an encouragement to write more about the role of women in Islamic history (reinforced by Micheal E. Pregrill’s main criticism in his review on Shahab Ahmed’s book “What is Islam?”). Firstly, a really short history of the Iberian Peninsula will be discussed in order to understand the Muslim reign in the region for about 800 years. Thereafter,  an analysis will be presented of women’s role in the peaceful coexistence of these three religions on the Iberian Peninsula under the Umayyad reign.

Plaza de Espana in Seville. The many plaques around the palace depict historical events in different regions in Spain, the plaques concerning the South often depict the “reconquering” of Spain by the Christians from the north ( The photo is the example regarding Cordoba).

A really short history of the Umayyad Dynasty

The history of the Cordoba Caliphate in Spain started with the rise of the Umayyads in Medina (current day Saudi-Arabia).This dynasty came to power after the assassination of caliph Ali, who was Muhammad’s cousin and married to Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, in 661. Caliphs were seen as successors of the Prophet Muhammad -there would be four of them in total – chosen by contemporaries after Muhammad’s death in 632. The Umayyad dynasty conquered eventually the entire region in 661. An important aspect of the Umayyads is the blend between Arab culture and the religion Islam, by which they defined their version of Islam as one that is in dialogue with other traditions (Maria Rosa Menocal, 2002). Their empire, namely, was expanding remarkably fast, almost covering the exact same lands as the former Roman Empire along the Mediterranean Sea at the beginning of the 8th century (CE). The Umayyads took Islam out of the desert by, amongst others, exchanging Medina for Damascus as capital for their caliphate (Menocal, 2002). However, in 750 the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyads and killed the entire family, only one family member, Abd al-Rahman, was able to flee westwards towards the Iberian Peninsula. At that time (± 750 CE) Europe was still recovering from the fall of the Roman Empire, simultaneously the Catholic Church gained more and more influence during this power vacuum. So Hispania was no unity at all: political instability and religious fragmentation were the order of the day.

The surrounding Muslims,from the Berber region in North Africa, profited from this instability when crossing the Strait of Gibraltar in 711 (Menocal, 2002). In 756 Abd al-Rahman and his supporters would settle in Cordoba. Eventually, his family lineage (Abd al-Rahman III) proclaimed the Cordoba Caliphate in 929, this lasted until 1031. Thereafter a civil war broke out between the different groups of Muslims, resulting in a number of independent Muslim kingdoms on the Iberian Peninsula. In 1090 the Almoravids annexed these kingdoms. The Almoravids came from the Berber region. Their adherence to the Quran was stricter than the way Andalusian Muslims were following the holy book. In 1172 the Almohads alternated the Almoravids. The ruling of the Almoravids and Almohads felt for the Andalusian Muslims as an invasion (Menocal, 2002). Between 1198 and 1216 the region knew turbulent times due to different ethnicities fighting each other,  at the same time the Christians from the North organized crusades to Christianize the entire peninsula. In 1212 the Almohad reign crumbled, which would eventually end with the capitalizing of Granada in 1492 by the Isabelle I, queen of Castile, and Ferdinand II, king of Aragon.

When talking about “Muslim Spain” or “ Islamic Iberia” one needs to be cautious not overusing the term Islamic or Muslim. History constructed by Muslims is referred to by the religious term Islamic, even though this is not the case for history made by non-Muslims, for example, the Roman or Carolingian Empire (Shahab Ahmed, 2016). There are many different forms and streams within in Islam and different Muslim Empires have existed. Therefore the term Islam or Islamic does not express a coherent meaning (Ahmed, 2016). This is also the case for Al-Andalus, as the mix of Arabo-Islamic, Romance-Christian, and Judeo-Hebrew cultural elements constructed a society that was unique for the Iberian Peninsula. Thence, this piece is about the Arabo-Islamic reign of the Umayyad dynasty, whereby its cultural is unique for Al-Andalus unless otherwise indicated.

Maps of mentioned Empires in Europe 500-1500 CE Maps of mentioned Empires in Europe 500-1500 CE

Introducing the-unknown-and-often-deprecated-power of women

The Umayyad kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula (750 – 1031) was by no means homogenous since it consisted of many different ethnicities and religions. The mix of cultures in Cordoba was noted in West-Europe, as Cordoba would be described as a place receptive for other religions. A German nun, Hroswitha (955), wrote about the City Cordoba based on experiences from an ambassador of the German Holy Emperor Otto I. Cordoba was depicted as a city that appreciated literature marked by  the many libraries throughout the Islamic empire, which could also be used by Christians (Burgess, 1957). The city was referred to, by Western European scholars, as the New Athens. Hereby, Hroswitha introduced Cordoba, on the basis of the ambassador’s’ account, as “Ornament of the world” (Menocal, 2002).

Instead of perceiving the comprised cultures as a threat, the Umayyad rulers were a product of this mix. The mothers of the Umayyad caliphs were, namely, white blonde haired Christian women from the North (Fairchild Ruggles, 2004). The Umayyad rulers, thereby, were white and often blue–eyed with blonde hair. Nevertheless, the Umayyad lineage focussed on the men, and these identified themselves with the originally Arab males in the family. Historians have applied the same methodology when writing about the Umayyad dynasty, thus overlooking the influence of women on the Cordoba Caliphate. The impact of women was inside the court when taking care of the children and regulating the household. This gave these women incredible importance during the forming years of the further caliphs (Fairchild Ruggles, 2004).

On a side note, blondes did not seem to be viewed as particular attracting or desirable since the poet Ibn Hazm felt obligated to defend the Umayyad men for fancying blonde women:

They blame the girl of whom I’m fond
Because her lovely hair is blond:
“But that’s exactly”, I reply,
“What makes her pretty, to my eye!”

They criticize the color bright
Of glittering gold, and shimmering light,
And they are crazy so to do,
And stupid, and erroneous, too.

Is there just a cause to crab, think you,
The tender-sweet narcissus’ hue,
Or is the twinkle of a star
So hateful to behold afar?

Ibn Hazm – The Ring of the Dove (994 – 1064)

Side chicks

The manners around marriage and concubines were according various hadith (reports describing Muhammad’s messages, words, action etc.) at the Umayyad court. The here presented genealogy of the Umayyad dynasty suggests a marriage between  Umayyad males and one particular woman. However, the woman’s name next to the Umayyad ruler refers to the woman with whom the successor was conceived. Besides wives, the caliph had a considerable amount of concubines. The concubines were the property of the ruler; they were enslaved women abducted from the North. The concubines held fewer rights than the wives, however, the children beget with the ruler had the same rights as the children from the legitimate wives (Fairchild Ruggles, 2004). This meant that all male offspring could be chosen by the father to become his successor because there was no system in place that automatically would give this right to the first-born.

The preference for a successor conceived with a concubine stems from the desire not to create a possible family lineage from the mother´s side of the family. The same practice would also be applied by the Ottomans later in time. For example, Abd al-Rahman III’s parents were Muhammed and Muzna. She, Muzna, was an enslaved woman from Frankish or Basque descent. Muzna is probably derived from her original name Maria or Marta. She was a Christian woman, who did not have to convert to Islam as her son would automatically become Muslim through father’s side. She was captured from the North and brought in as a slave to the ruler’s harem. Only Christian and Jewish women could be enslaved since the Muslims could not hold other Muslims as slaves. Between 750 and 1031, only three caliphs from the Umayyad dynasty were not born to enslaved women (Fairchild Ruggles, 2004). The fact the Umayyad rulers were born in such culturally vibrant place had an effect on their appropriation of other cultures.

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, this remarkable building was built as a Basilica, transformed into a Mosque (784), and eventually became a Cathedral (1236). The Mosque designed by the Umayyad dynasty is a mixture of different architectural styles inspired by as well the Mosque in Damascus, art from Arabia, and mosaic constructed in the (Christian) Byzantine Empire. 
The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, this remarkable building was built as a Basilica, transformed into a Mosque (784), and eventually became a Cathedral (1236). The Mosque designed by the Umayyad dynasty is a mixture of different architectural styles inspired by as well the Mosque in Damascus, art from Arabia, and mosaic constructed in the (Christian) Byzantine Empire.

She’s a boss lady

The enslaved women, who made up the ruler’s harem, were in the position to make a career at the court. These women were well trained in poetry, fashion, dance, and well-spoken in as well her native language as Arabic. It was definitely possible for these women to climb the social ladder by gaining the attention of the ruler’s mother and the ruler, through distinguishing herself in the above-mentioned characteristics. Especially as the mother of the successor, an enslaved woman would possess a lot of power and high social status at the court (Fairchild Ruggles, 2004). Therefore, every woman tried to conceive the next caliph with the current ruler. Women could be manipulative to succeed in this goal. Subh, originally from the Basque region, was a prime example. She persuaded al-Hakam II to sleep with her by dressing up as a man. Rumour had it that al-Hakam II preferred men as a sexual company, therefore to get al-Hakam’s interest Subh dressed up as a boy. She allied with the vizier [the highest government official] to make sure her son would become the successor (Fairchild Ruggles, 2004).

During the upbringing of the children, the mothers were very involved in their children’s lives. This was the time in which mother’s cultural background had a lasting effect on the next caliph. Arab was the main language of the court, however, the concubines were raised in their own cultural setting and taught in their native language. One can imagine in which language the mother sang to her children, or what kind of stories she would tell (Menocal, 2002). Their own upbringing -of these Christian women- must have influenced the way they educated their children, including the eventual ruler. The fact that the caliph’s mother emanated from Christianity must have played a role in the existence of tolerance for other religions at the court and throughout the empire.

Living Apart Together

Al-Andalus was throughout, what Western historiography calls, the Middle-Ages a vibrant place in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived apart but together. The three religions all existed in the region and would interact with one another regarding politics and economics. This, however, was the world of men outside the house, while women’s influence was inside the household. The taking care of the household also included cultivating religious rituals concerning, amongst others, death, birth, and marriage. Therefore, it was their duty to make sure they would pass along the rituals and traditions to the next generation. This responsibility made women less likely to intermingle their traditions with others, as they wanted to protect their household against external influences (Maria Jesus Fuente, 2009).

Even though women were restricted to a role within the household, one should not underestimate the role women played in these households. Religions, consisting of traditions and rituals, could not survive if not kept alive. Women had the responsibility to instruct their children in the essence of these religions. Muslims women, for instance, were in charge of celebrating hadas eight days after the birth of a child. Christian women had to know the days of fasting and the rules regarding accepted and disapproved food. Another example is the task of Jewish women in preparing the celebrations of adafina, this entailed the lightening of the candles on Friday, changing clothes and praying in the house on Saturday (Jesus Fuente, 2009). These examples are just a small fraction of  knowledge women had to possess in order to carry out her religion. The correct adherence to religious precepts protected one’s rituals, and thus identity, against external influences in a multicultural society as Al-Andalus (Jesus Fuente,2009).

Women, however, did interact with one another in their efforts to preserve their own religion from outside influence. This happened, for example,,  in bath houses where Muslim and Jewish women went for their purifying baths when menstruating (Jesus Fuente,2009). One can imagine the feeling of companionship when encountering women expressing the same menstrual complaints. Furthermore, women interacted with each other when preparing meals according to prescribed manners in community places, or helped each other in bringing new lives to the world. At those moments religious backgrounds were ignored and services of any midwife or nursemaid were welcomed (Jesus Fuente, 2009), Moreover, women supported each other in fulfilling one’s religious precepts. As Jewish women could not cook on Saturday, they would heat up their food in the houses of Christian and Muslims neighbors (Jesus Fuente, 2009).

Instead of perceiving these women submissive towards the precepts of their religion, women were on the forefront of defending their rituals against outside forces. Women, actually, supported each other in practicing their own religion as good as possible. Therefore, Al-Andalus was  truly a multicultural society as it represented and respected various religions, and it did not demand assimilation.

One can see the minaret of the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba between the house is the Jewish Quarter, this used to be the Jewish neighborhood during the Umayyad reign. 
One can see the minaret of the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba between the house is the Jewish Quarter, this used to be the Jewish neighborhood during the Umayyad reign.

Back to the future

Nonetheless, there is a need to be cautious in reminiscing the history of Al-Andalus too glorious. The hostilities in West-European countries regarding their Muslim minorities nowadays does make one long for a time in which differences were accepted and tolerated (Justin Stearns, 2009). One of the contributors to this nostalgia is the often cited Maria Rosa Menocal. She stated that the history of the Islamic empires in Spain has been written in the history books as if this period was a constant conflict between Islam and Christianity. At the time the Umayyad rose to power in the Iberian Peninsula, the Franks (from the Rhine area) were also expanding. Along with the expansion of the Franks came also the expansion of Christianity, whereby the European continent was divided by Christianity in the north and Islam in the South. Centuries later the competition for land between Charlemagne (king of the Franks) and Abd al-Rahman has been written as a strife between Christianity versus Islam. The memory of the Charlemagne’s defeat against the Umayyad’s in 777 was supposed to fuel the eagerness for crusades against Muslims in the 12th century (Menocal, 2002). Menocal urges for a revision of this history as one in which Islam, Judaism, and Christianity peacefully coexisted under the rule of the Islamic Umayyad dynasty.

However, several scholars have warned for nostalgia to take over when writing about Al-Andalus. Especially diasporic Arab writers have the tendency to recreate Al-Andalus as a place they would like to see emerging in the current world (Nouri Gana, 2008). Hereby losing the opportunity to grasp the essence of Al-Andalus as it ever existed. William Granara, as well, highlighted this tendency when analyzing the writings about Al-Andalus nowadays as:

Far more complex than the prevalent view that Al-Andalus writing expresses a nostalgia for a paradise lost, the Andalusian chronotope in modern Arabic literature signifies the heightened focus of the “now” as well as the hopes and aspirations of what is to come. It is less a dialect of “ What was”  versus “ What is” than a dialectic of “what is” and “what should or shall be” that compels Al-Andalus to be remembered and recreated over and over again.

There is a relevant fear that writing about Al-Andalus brings along a romanticization that provides one with a false image of what Al-Andalus really was (Gana, 2008). Although one should remember that no one, not even a historian, is able to give an accurate reflection of the past, as writing about the past is merely a distortion of former times influenced by the present.

Time to wrap up

This essay has focused on the role of the Umayyad women in constructing the culturally vibrant place that Cordoba/Al-Andalus was. Women, as slaves, gave birth to highly racially mixed caliphs, who would grow up in a culturally diverse court. History has never focused on how women took care of their children in those determining first years, however, one can imagine the infusion of mother’s native language and education. The court was an intermingling of different cultures resulting in a tolerant policy towards other religions besides Islam. The contrary was the case for ordinary people, as Muslim, Jewish, and Christian women perceived it their duty to safeguard their household against other religions. Even though women defended their traditions against others, they, nevertheless, respected the rituals of the other and supported each other when needed. It seems that tolerance and respect coming from the ruling elite, by interracial lovemaking, for other religions was embodied by the society as a whole. Although, one needs to be careful not romanticizing the story of the Caliphate of Cordoba because of present time needs. One can ask the question: what is wrong with some good old nostalgia when living in a time of Trump, Geert Wilders, Front National, etc.? Perhaps what we need is more interracial love making by our elites, while women support each other in maintaining their cultural identity in the communities.

The author of this piece is aware of the fact that the relationship between the caliph and his concubines would not be called love according to our currentday meaning of the word. The title of this piece is stolen, with pride, from the novel written by Kathleen Collins.

Bibliography

Ahmed, S., What is Islam? The importance of being Islamic (Princeton 2015)
Brann, R., ‘The Moors?’ Medieval Encounters 15 (2009) 307-318
Burgess, H. E., ‘Hroswitha of Gandersheim. A study of the author and her works’, Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers. (University of Montana 1957)
Fuente, M.J., ‘Christian, Muslim and Jewish Women in Late Medieval Iberia’, Medieval Encounters 15 (2009) 319-333
Granara, W., ‘Nostalgia, Arab Nationalism, and the Andalusian Chronotope in the Evolution of the Modern Arabic Novel’, Journal of Arabic Literature 36:1 (2005) 57-73
Menocal, M.R., Ornament of the World. How Muslim, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain (New York 2003)
Pregill, M.E., “I Hear Islam Singing: Shahab Ahmed’s What Is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic”, Harvard Theological Review 110:1 (2017) 148-165
Ruggles, D.F., ‘Mothers of a Hybrid Dynasty: Race, Genealogy, and Acculturation in al-Andalus’, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 34: 1 (2004) 65-94

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