He is As His Servant Fears He Is

The arches of La Mezquita. >Flickr/rogiro

He is As His Servant Fears He Is

After the fall of Granada in 1492, Spain’s rulers offered native Jews the choice of conversion or departure. Muslims were allowed to stay as Muslims, with certain restrictions. Their autonomy was not to last. Within a decade, Muslims too were asked to convert or depart. The “choice” was anything but: Muslims who chose to leave could not bring their young children with them, or they could stay, but live as Christians. Even childless Muslims had little real choice. Muslim nobles, knights and the otherwise well-to-do had seen the writing on the wall and long since fled.

Elements of Catholicism and Islam come together in La Mezquita, the Mosque of Cordoba, which still largely retains its original Muslim architectural style even hundreds of years after Catholic rulers took over the city. >Flickr/Santi

Elements of Catholicism and Islam come together in La Mezquita, the Mosque of Cordoba, which still largely retains its original Muslim architectural style even hundreds of years after Catholic rulers took over the city. >Flickr/Santi

Most of Spain’s remaining Muslims were farmers. They were tied to the land. Many, probably most, had never even left their villages.

To where would they go? To whose embrace would they flee?

Reluctantly, nearly all of Spain’s remaining Muslims converted, but that conversion was never deemed sufficient. Though most were forced into Catholicism (some went willingly), they were subject to onerous restrictions — for fear of religious backsliding — that other, “old stock” Catholics were not. The game was rigged, in other words. At the turn of the 11th century, the majority of Spain’s indigenous inhabitants had converted to Islam without compulsion, following demographic trends that held across much of the Muslim world. (Probably Egypt became majority Muslim around that time, long after the Arab invasions had ended and the Umayyads had disappeared from the Middle East.)

By the early 17th century, this Spanish, and Portuguese, Muslim majority had dwindled, but there were still several hundred thousand (former) Muslims living mostly in southern, eastern and northeastern Spain. They rebelled against the terms imposed on them (for example, that they leave their houses open on Friday afternoon, to prove there were no secret Muslim prayers). Revolt after revolt was put down, brief periods of horrific violence punctured by eras of uneasy peace. It deserves underlining that most Muslims were simple people of limited means who were no more related to the great Muslim dynasts of Iberia than the average Anatolian today is any kind of scion of an elite Ottoman line.

Spain’s Muslims lived in the halfway house of suspect Catholicism for some 12 decades, many of them secretly practicing Islam, but many more with no real link to their religion and living as suspect merely because of who their ancestors had been. In 1609, all the same, the monarchy ruled that all former Muslims would be expelled. Many nobles opposed the decision and many good folks fought it, but Spain was a great power overextended and eclipsed by rising rivals.

Spain was insecure, afraid and picked the easiest target. There are lessons in this, with worrying resonances in the current climate. For one, that sometimes the minorities who live in great powers brought low — Spain for Muslims, Germany for Jews — are the most vulnerable; and second, that protestations that Islamophobia is not a kind of racism, more and more in circulation today as well, ring hollow.

The arches of La Mezquita. >Flickr/rogiro

The arches of La Mezquita. >Flickr/rogiro

Though the Muslims were now Christians, with only a distant past in Islam, their religious ancestry was perceived as an ethnic marker. The same went for Jews in Eastern Europe who had converted to Christianity: Not good enough, Hitler and the Nazis concluded. Secular Christians of Jewish descent and traditional Jews of religious life were demonized, segregated and then massacred. In the case of Spain, at least the rulers in 1609 had half a heart: They expelled those with Muslim origins instead of killing them outright.

Though that too was mooted.

Most died along the way. They fled in rickety ships, robbed of their wealth, with no idea where they were going. Many drowned at sea, were kidnapped by pirates, were raped and assaulted, or landed on desert shores and starved to death. When the Ottoman Caliph realized what happened, he did as his predecessors had done in the 1490s — he ordered his navy to pick up the survivors and bring them to his domain. (Sultan Bayazid had shown the same magnanimity to Spain’s Jewish population; consider in turn what today’s so-called Caliph represents, and how far we have fallen.) I reflect on this moment because of the words and proposals we hear more loudly in our political circumstance.

They claim to criticize Islam, as a religion, but the effect is totalizing, ethnicizing, collectivizing. An unsurprising fact, is it not? After all, if Islam is an inferior religion, as is alleged, then it is not very far to go from condemning the religion to blaming the people who converted to it, hold to it or refuse to “modify” it on the terms the supremacist demands. It is a demented chicken-and-egg kind of inquisition: Did Islam make, for example, the Arabs, Persians or what have you, “inferior,” or is it because Arab (etc.) culture was already “inferior” that it led to Islam, or is it the Arabs (etc.) themselves, who are themselves fully and fundamentally inferior, which explains their worldview? In medieval Spain, this was limpieza de sangre, or purity of blood.

Pure blood meant Christian descent. Free of Semitic taint. Religion became racialized. Well into the 19th century, even suspicion of Jewish or Muslim ancestry excluded one from many institutions of the Spanish state. Even though most former Muslims had long since been expelled.

Nine hundred years of indigenous Muslim life had been destroyed, erased, denied. To understand how long this is, the time between 711 and 1614 is far greater than the time since. If Tariq ibn Ziyad had landed in Spain in 1492, a year we can all comprehend, the last Muslims would be forced out in 2395. Or, perhaps, 2509, for the last case of a person brought before the Inquisition for the crime of practicing Islam, which was a crime, actually took place in 1728, well over a thousand years after Tariq ibn Ziyad had landed.

While we might lament what is lost, we should also appreciate the duration this rich culture endured for. Anything that had been ham-handedly forced on a people or a place would have vanished quickly and left less of a legacy. As it is, the meaning of Muslim Spain is only now being fully understood, and the questions of its influences only beginning to be comprehended.

What shall we make of them?

Allama Muhammad Iqbal visiting the Mosque of Cordoba in 1933.

Allama Muhammad Iqbal visiting the Mosque of Cordoba in 1933.

The great South Asian philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), wrote some of his most piercing poetry about Spain, or while in Spain. In the early 1930s, in fact, after delivering a lecture in Madrid, Iqbal visited the former Mosque of Cordoba, in which he was allowed to pray. He may have been the first Muslim to pray there since the fall of that city to Catholic rule in 1236, and the conversion of the mosque to a cathedral. Among my favorite Iqbal poems is Masjid-e Qurtuba, which he wrote after that visit to Spain. It’s an almost existential take — I mean in the Sartrean sense — on the question of why we choose to live or to do anything at all when confronted with the apparent futility of an ephemeral existence.

If you know you are going to die, after all, why live at all?

These are not questions many Muslims are taught to ask. But Iqbal asked, and he answered. (The poem is originally in Urdu, but several good translations are available online.) For Iqbal, the answer was love. Love of God, love of Muhammad, love of community, love of purpose, love of knowledge, love of beauty. Islam began with and ended with love. Love, and love alone, explains faith, and how identity and piety are constructed through a desire for God that is not against reason, but transcends reason and compels the innermost heart. This is not a passive or foolish love, but a relationship with the Divine that can only be understood, if it is to be comprehended at all, in the language of love. (The immature, perhaps, experience faith as lust, which, like all intemperate desires, has terrible consequences.)

Iqbal saw that love in the Mosque of Cordoba, which remained despite the forced departure of those who once prayed in its halls. Love transcends time.

Love is like God. Because it comes from God.

In the spirit of that heritage — our actual heritage, the rich and humanistic faith, the arts and letters, the poetry and philosophy, the piety and artistry, that once undergirded an Islam that spanned much of the known world — I too turned to verse.

I began this poem well after a trip to Spain and subsequently Bosnia, where lived survivors of another Islamophobic outrage. The genocide of Eastern European Muslims proceeded, very much like the Holocaust, on the grounds that religious identity could be treated like an ethnic marker (Islamophobia is, like anti-Semitism, a bias that converts religion into a blameworthy ethnicity). I did not have the spiritual means or intellectual mechanisms available to come to terms with what I had seen in Spain, the abandoned ruins of an expelled civilization, or what I encountered in Bosnia, which was repeatedly and independently described to me as Granada in the 21st century. At a young age, I’d been taught that religion makes one’s life easier.

Religion can also cause you persecution, oppression and death.

How then do we come to terms with this? Not rationally, if you will, because I can rationally grasp that God gave us free will, and that free will can turn into an Assad or a Baghdadi, a Milosevic or a Putin, and I can understand, again on an intellectual plane, that God allows evil to unfold not to punish the good, but to unveil the depths of a person’s mendacity. But then we are all casualties of an experiment, so to speak. How do we make sense of evil then? How do we make sense of God when He permits evil? How is He still good? And are we permitted to share this disquiet? In his great poems, Shikwa and Jawab-e Shikwa, sparked after another, prior genocide of Muslims in Eastern Europe, Iqbal attempted to do just that. I cannot claim that I will ever reach Iqbal’s status as a poet, as a wordsmith, as a thinker, but I can assert that I am inspired by him, motivated by him and reassured by him. He, who wet his Quran with his tears, who would have to regularly replace copies so ruined, nevertheless challenged the received opinion of his time, and did so — and here, perhaps, is the critical part — because he loved his faith and his community, and he was torn apart by what was tearing it apart. If this love produced this anguish, still he could not let go.


Complaint (1614)

There must’ve been a last Muslim, who for Semitism’s sins

took a final, fumbled step off Spanish soil, from terra firma

to the tilting croaking timbers that floated on an ocean’s ceiling.


He sighed and then he cried, soon the one become the other,

not simple tears but epic sobs and heaving fears, in every tear

a sea nine centuries steeped, till had to come the captain himself

to rest his steady hand on a quaking shoulder and demand:

‘Brother, your tragedy will sink our boat!’


So he did as he had done, he lied about his loss of faith

As his fathers could not their loss of state. He saw with stranger’s eyes

the parapets of his grandfather’s alcazars, now forbidden,

made immodest by unfriendly pennants, tragedies, theologies—

Read: God said. But where some of you recite, some cannot but write.


We are pens. Blood is the ink with which we speak.


Their Turkish imam soon came by with courage and coffee:

‘Brother, there are mosques’ and more meanings, new lives in

Sarajevo, or perhaps you’d rather restart

In Tripoli or Alexandria.

This Bahri Jihad can leave you on the road to Baghdad—’


He whispered, parched. ‘Take me to your Mecca, to this so-called Ka’ba,

Though shocked, the Imam lobbied the Reis. ‘We owe him this.’

‘To God’s House!’ the commander concurred, where many months later,

worn down and wearied, this refugee raced for the cloth,

and wrapped its blackness in his fierce fists.


Dust in my mouth, he might have said, words to kill him dead.


Upturned to the sky, the only qibla he’d ever known, he cried,

‘I know there is no home, no end to these journeys.

I know there is no hope for family lost, no future to my line.

I demand only to know, by what justice,

Lord of this house, that you can keep your home

While you’ve seen fit to drive me from mine?’


Those in earshot scattered like gunshot,

Till the very walls of the House were as empty as they had been strained

and not a sound in all the universe for that moment.


Then it barreled down like free-falling thunder, a voice outside and apart

as much as it rang in his heart. ‘My child,’ came words like cannon fire,

and the sun bowed, her every photon cowed, stray clouds blew like carded wool,

stunned worshippers forgot their prior fear and stared dumbstruck to the sky

While Caliphs and Kings sneered: ‘You answer this peasant fool and not I?’


‘My child,’ He roared and the planet stalled, and the mountains trembled,

and the oceans fled, and the stars blinked, and the angels came down,

rank upon rank, thinking this might be the trumpet,

looking every which way for Raphael.

‘My child,’ He whispered, loud enough for the future to hear:

‘Do you not see that I have dressed my house in black

Because I am in mourning for you?’

Screenshot 2016-02-09 11.29.08This article appears in the Winter 2015/6 print issue of The Islamic Monthly. 

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