Modern tellings of the Spanish Reconquista are inevitably colored by our times. Cynical polemicists search for a “clash of civilizations” between the Islamic world and the Christian. The messy reality of the end of the Reconquista puts the lie to this claim. The fall of Granada in 1491 to Isababella and Ferdinand, the initial leniency towards the Spanish Muslims, and their subsequent persecution inaugurated the modern era of imperialism. Isabella and Ferdinand, far from being liberators of the oppressed, built a self-serving brand of Christian supremacism that echoes down the centuries.
Isabella and Ferdinand’s Spain: The Battle Between East and West?
The history of Spain is inseparable from its position at the border between the Islamic world and Roman Catholic Western Europe. The Umayyad invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in 711 CE set up the governing historical dynamic in Iberia, known as the Reconquista. Many historians (and more cynically-minded polemicists) portray the “Reconquista” as the ceaseless struggle by Christian Iberians to throw off the yoke of Muslim oppression, in pursuit of religious and political freedoms. But examining the real history of Spain demonstrates this to be far more complicated.
The invasion of the Umayyad dynasty’s armies led to the spectacular collapse of Hispania’s Visigothic ruling class, and the appointment of a series of governors to manage the regions of Iberia as overlords to the local Hispanian elites. From the 12th century onward, justifications for war against the Moors were more explicitly couched in a Crusader-inspired religious paradigm. But the enmity between Muslims and Christians was far from immutable. Not infrequently, alliances were formed between the Christian kingdoms in the North and regional Islamic governors in order to expand their influence at the expense of their peers. Even El Cid, the late-11th century Spanish national hero, spent a good deal of time as a mercenary for one of the Muslim taifa kingdoms. Indeed, the Christian kingdoms spent just as much time in conflict with one another as with the Moorish states.
The Storm Before the Storm
By the time Isabella and Ferdinand acceded to power in the early 1480s, the Reconquista had progressed to reclaim at least three-quarters of Iberia. The Umayyad Caliphate had fragmented in the 10th century, and was never truly reunited, constantly hamstrung by infighting between upstart taifas. In the early 13th century, the Christian kingdoms had united just long enough to deal a crippling blow to the disunited Almohad Caliphate at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, and in 1236 CE the historical capital of al-Andalus at Córdoba fell to the Christians.
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The Emirate of Granada, dominated by the Nasrid dynasty, held its foothold on the southern Mediterranean coast with remarkable aplomb — despite being “enclosed between a violent sea and an enemy terrible in arms,” in the words of the Nasrid court writer Idn Hudhayl. The Emirate’s fall and the Reconquista’s ultimate success was far from a foregone conclusion, and the art and architecture of Nasrid al-Andalus remain a towering achievement. However, Granada’s position had been dependent on the disunity of the Christian kingdoms, and its effective exploitation of border disputes and divided loyalties among local elites. The success of Isabella and Ferdinand in the War of the Castilian Succession changed everything: now, the two largest counter-balanced forces facing Granada were united — and a final showdown was only a matter of time.
The Reconquista Granada War (1482- 1491)
Seeking to strike first in order to put Isabella and Ferdinand on the back foot, the Emir of Granada Abu Hasan took the city of Zahara in 1481, treating the populace brutally. While the Catholic Monarchs and their allies scrambled to contain the Nasrid attacks, they were greatly aided by the sudden rebellion of Abu Hasan’s son Abu Abdallah Muhammad, known to the Castilians as Boabdil. Isabella and Ferdinand seized upon this development, looking to exploit his rebellion to topple the Emirate entirely.
Capturing him in the early stages of the war, Boabdil agreed to serve as a Duke under the Catholic Monarchs, in return for guaranteeing the independence of Granada after his father’s removal. With their fingers crossed behind their backs, Isabella and Ferdinand made this promise, and duly freed him in order to fatally undermine the war effort of Abu Hasan. In 1485, unlucky Abu Hasan was overthrown — but Boabdil was beaten to the punch by his own uncle, az-Zaghall! Losing the critical port of Malaga to the Christians, doom was writ large for the Emirate. After a grinding war, az-Zaghall was captured at Baza, and Boabdil took his seat in Granada as Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII, the 23rd and last Emir of Granada.
But all was not well. When he assumed power over the rump state, Boabdil found that the lands promised to him were not quite as independent as the Catholic Monarchs had implied: he was king over a handful of towns around his capital, and not much else. Castilian administrators constrained his rule, and he chafed bitterly under the chains that he had unwittingly accepted.
Cursing the name of Isabella and Ferdinand, he rebelled against his former allies, in the hope that the other Islamic states in Europe would rush to his aid. But no help came — Isabella and Ferdinand had already sewn up relations with the Mamluks and other North African states with a series of sharp treaties and trade deals. In the end, Boabdil, amid whispered assassination plots and total administrative paralysis, surrendered Granada to the Catholic Monarchs on 25th November 1491. The Reconquista was complete: the Christian rulers, who only three centuries before had controlled less than half of Spain, were now its masters, from the Rock of Gibraltar to the snow-capped Pyrenees.
The Treaty of Granada
The Treaty of Granada is a fantastic example of how the Catholic Monarchs were willing to bend religious and moral principles for the sake of realpolitik. Boabdil, despite being a disloyal vassal, was not executed — he was given a small holding in the Alpujarras in which to live out his days.
Formally, there was little to no religious persecution of the half-a-million Spanish Muslims now living under the rule of the Catholic Monarchs: they were not forced to convert, they were given a protected legal status as “mudéjar” a Medieval Castillian rendering of the Arabic مدجن “mudajjan” meaning “subjugated”. Although they were made legally subordinate, their rights to prayer were enshrined in the Treaty — it even contained penalties for Christians who ridiculed the Islamic call to prayer. No reparations or seizures of property were enforced. Ferdinand is recorded as preferring to aid the Muslims of al-Andalus so that they could “see the error of their faith,” rather than forcibly converting them — a remarkably tolerant attitude for the era.
Isabella and Ferdinand: Tolerance Turns to Intolerance
However, this surprisingly enlightened policy was not to last — and subsequent events call into question whether the lightness of the Treaty of Granada was merely a cynical ploy to forestall dissent while Catholic government was not yet entrenched. Within just three months of the signing of the Treaty of Granada, Isabella and Ferdinand proclaimed the Alhambra Decree from the former Nasrid palace, which formally expelled all practicing Jews from Castile and Leon. Although the history of the persecution of Jews in Spain is a horrific and altogether separate story, it demonstrates the new religious fanaticism that Isabella in particular was pushing from the Crown. More authoritarian figures quickly came to the fore in the Christian government of Granada in the years following the Reconquista.
The infamous Francisco Jiménez (Ximines) de Cisneros (whose extremism has been seen by historians as significantly influencing the punitive religious policies of Isabella and Ferdinand) extended the newly-minted Spanish Inquisition to Granada in 1499, making examples of prominent Muslims who asserted their rights. The tolerance enshrined in the Treaty began to unravel amid the intensifying religious persecution enacted by the Catholic Monarchs. Caribbean intellectual Jan Carew points to an ideological nexus which connects the Alhambra Decree and the deteriorating attitude of the Catholic Monarch towards the mudéjar with the brutality practiced by the Spanish Empire abroad:
“From the moment the ink had dried on [the order expelling the Jews], the fate of the Moors was also sealed. It would only be a matter of time before their turn came to be forcibly expelled. And it did come ten years later. This precedent established a tradition of treachery and racism that was adopted by all the European colonizers who came in the wake of the Spanish.” (Jan Carew)
This swerve towards religious authoritarianism (or, perhaps, its unveiling from behind a temporary mask of tolerance), was not accepted quietly by the Muslim citizens of Granada. The mudéjar broke out into armed revolt in 1499, and the crackdown from the Catholic Monarchs was harsh.
After the armed rebellion had been quashed, the Granada Treaty of 1491 was formally revoked, and all Muslims in Granada were forced to either convert or leave — a policy which was extended to the rest of Castile in 1502, reducing the practice of Islam to the same forbidden status as Judaism after the Alhambra Decree. This policy would become an unresolved ulcer for the Spanish Crown, leading to further Andalusian rebellions of the Moriscos (nominally Catholic descendants of forcibly converted mudéjar) in the 16th century. Even the Moriscos were formally expelled by King Phillip III in the first quarter of the 17th century — although many managed to avoid this wave of repression.
The end of the Reconquista, and its ignominious duplicity by the Catholic Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand, sets the tone for a century and more of religious strife in Spain, and framed the specific form of Christian supremacism which Spain (and other empires) would export worldwide. In this sense, it is a most modern phenomenon.