Mozarabs. Resistance Accommodation.

Mozárabes: Resistance and Accommodation.
“Mozárabes” or “Mozarabs” is the term generally used to identify Christians living under Muslim or Moorish rule in al-Andalus. “Andalusi Christians” or simply “Christians” are frequent alternatives.

The term “Mozarab” is not, however, universally
 since no document records its use

either by Andalusi Christians or by Muslims in
al-Andalus.  Its first recorded use is in a document
in the Christian kingdom of León, in 1024.

Together with the Jewish communities of al-Andalus, the Mozarabs enjoyed the status of dhimmis, which offered them freedom to follow their faith and traditions, subject to certain restrictions and the payment of land and poll taxes.

Since Mozarabs followed a different faith from their Islamic neighbours, we might assume that they constituted a homogenous group, speaking with one mind. Such was not the case.

Broadly speaking two strands developed in the Mozarabic community over time: one conservative, determined to keep its Hispano-Visigothic religion and traditions alive, and the other more receptive to accommodation with the lifestyle of its Muslim neighbours.  The former were made up primarily of priests, monks and devout lay people, the latter mainly of ordinary individuals probably less religiously inclined and in close daily contact with their Muslim neighbours.

Living in the midst of a superior Islamic culture, the more open-minded Mozarabs predictably felt the tug of Muslim habits and customs. Equally predictable, devout, conservative Christians feared acculturation or assimilation and resisted integration. Writing in 854, Paul Alvarus of Córdoba criticised –in long and widely quoted lament– his fellow Christians for their obsession with things Arabic, whose attraction he saw as a threat to Christian identity: The Christians love to read the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the Arab theologians and philosophers, not to refute them but to form a correct and elegant Arabic. Where is the layman who now reads the Latin scriptures, or who studies the gospels, prophets or apostles? Alas, all talented young Christians read and study with enthusiasm the Arab books… they despise the Christian literature as unworthy of attention.  They have forgotten their own language… (Menocal 66).  The attractions of Muslim customs even seduced some members of the church hierarchy, whom Alvarus denounced as collaborators and traitors.

Alvarus’s fears that continued exposure to the seductive culture of their Muslim overlords was undermining Christian identity were not without justification. Hundreds of Mozarabic families converted to Islam in the first half of the 8th century, although in fact many may have converted because of increased tax burdens or a desire to better career prospects rather than out of religious conviction.

With mosques now outnumbering churches, some radical Mozarabs took the step of aggressively challenging Muslim tolerance in the 850s by publicly denigrating Islam, insulting Muhammad and encouraging Muwallads (Christian converts to Islam) to apostatise. All these actions were punishable by death.

This widespread act of civil disobedience was initiated by one Isaac, a wealthy, educated Christian noble.  Fluent in Arabic, he became a prominent figure in Cordoban society, rising to the rank of katib adhimma, a kind of mediator between Christians and Muslims.

For reasons unknown, he underwent a religious conversion, resigned his post and in 848 entered the monastery of Tabanos in the hills just north of Córdoba. About 3 years later, he returned to Córdoba, and immediately sought out a qadi (Muslim judge), ostensibly with the wish to be instructed in the Muslim faith. Isaac’s intention, however, infuriated the qadi and the Muslim public by openly vilifying Islam and Muhammad.

Despite the insults, the qadi and his advisors tried to defuse the situation, suggesting to Isaac that perhaps he was drunk or momentarily insane, an excuse that Isaac rejected outright. The qadi had little choice. After a brief period of imprisonment, Isaac was beheaded and his corpse hung upside down outside the city walls, a visible deterrent to other blasphemers. It didn’t turn out like that, however.  On the contrary, Isaac’s death seemed to have spurred others to a similar search for martyrdom, despite attempts at reasoning by both Muslim and Christian authorities.

Both Muslim and Christian leaders had their reasons: the Muslims wanted to reduce tensions, the  Christians feared that further antagonism would only force the Muslims to extreme measures.  About 50 martyrs were strung up upside down between 851 and 859 in this macabre form of suicide.  In 882, the bodies of some were transported to León, where they were instantly proclaimed as saints, and later provided much fodder for Christian historiographers wishing to paint a gory picture of the intolerant infidel.

The tale of the “Cordoba martyrs” comes down to us from a work by a Christian priest named Eulogius, a contemporary of Isaac. Eulogius himself was executed in 859. Paul Alvarus later wrote a biography of Eulogius

However, from the second half of the 9th century onwards, many more Mozarabs chose a less dramatic means of protecting their Hispano-Visigothic heritage: emigrating to the Christian kingdoms of Asturias and León (and later Castile) in the north. This northbound wave of refugees was also encouraged by the kings of Asturias and León as part of their expansion plan to repopulate unoccupied territories bordering the frontier with al-Andalus.

Santiago de Peñalba. Closed arches surrounded by an alfiz (rectangular frame)

Many of these refugee Christians were monks from Córdoba who, at the same time they were carrying with them their Christian Visigothic heritage, ironically carried influences from the Arabic culture by which they been surrounded and from which they were escaping. 

They were granted land, and monastic documents confirm that several important monasteries were constructed or rebuilt by them during the 10th and 11th centuries (e.g San Miguel de Escalada, León 913, Santiago de Peñalba, León ca 937, San Baudelio, Soria late 11th century.  Generally called Mozarabic churches, they have architectural and decorative elements that betray the influence of Andalusi mosques, especially the Great Mosque of Córdoba, e.g. tightly closed horseshoe arches surrounded by an alfiz –a rectangular frame: e.g. Santiago de Peñalba).

Mozarabs: Almoravids and Almohads.
The fall of Toledo, the ancient Visigothic capital of Hispania, to Christian forces in 1085 triggered the arrival of the fundamentalist Almoravids from the Maghreb, invited reluctantly by the rulers of the remaining taifa kingdoms that made up what was left of al-Andalus.

The Almoravids were shocked by the indulgent life style of Andalusi Muslims, scandalised by the humiliating payment of tributes (parias) by the taifa rulers to the Christian kingdoms, and dismayed by the prominent presence of Christians and Jews in Muslim society.

Determined to return al-Andalus to a much stricter version of Islam, the Almoravids imposed a repressive and intolerant rule where Mozarabs (and Jews) were concerned. This heightened religious consciousness encouraged conservative Andalusi Muslim alfaquíes (jurists with a thorough knowledge of Islamic law) to denounce non-Muslims, which in turn increased the feeling of the alienation among the latter. An example of the increased intolerance is the destruction of a church in Granada in 1099 (coincidentally the year that Jerusalem was conquered by the first Crusaders) on the orders of the Almoravid leader, Yusuf ibn Tashufin.

In addition, Christian advances from the north didn’t make life any easier for the Mozarabs, who were viewed as possible fifth columns by many of their Muslim neighbours. Indeed, frustrated Mozarabs rebelled in Granada in 1125, which in turn encouraged Alfonso I, the crusader king of Aragón, to lead a raid into al-Andalus in the same year.

The raid ended with thousands of Mozarabs from Granada accompanying him on his return to Aragón while many others headed for the recently reconquered Toledo. By way of reprisal, however, a large number of the remaining Mozarabs of the south were shipped off to Morocco in 1126.

Although politics still trumped religion, and alliances between Muslim and Christian leaders followed a long-standing pattern, by the end of 11th century and throughout the 12th a more ideological stance crept into the relationship between the two groups. On the Christian side, the crusading spirit of the Middle East was transferred via France to Spain; in al-Andalus response to crusader militancy brought greater intransigence, not from the Almoravids but from a new and even more zealous invader who crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 1146: the Almohads

Brushing the Almoravids aside as having become degenerate, the Almohads imposed a much more rigorous orthodoxy on al-Andalus. Mozarabs (and Jews) were now confronted with a simple choice: conversion or exile. Some did, at least in name, but thousands fled ending what had been for centuries a multicultural society where despite tensions and disagreements there had existed a degree of tolerance and civility that allowed three religious groups to exist in relative peace.

Carr, Matthew Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain New York, London 2009
Christys, Ann  Christians in al-Andalus (711-1000) Richmond, Surrey 2002
Dodds, Jerrilynn, Menocal, María Rosa, Balbale, Abigail K  The Arts of Intimacy: Christians, Jews and Muslims in the Making of Castilian Culture  New Haven, London 2008
Hitchcock, Richard  Mozarabs in Medieval and Early Modern Spain: Identities and InfluencesAldershot, Hampshire 2008
Lowney,  Chris A Vanished World: Muslims,  Christians and Jews in Medieval Spain Oxford 2006
Menocal, María Rosa  Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Christians and Jews Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain  New York, London 2002
Rincón Alvarez, Manuel  Mozárabes y mozarabías  Salamanca 2003
Image of Santiago de Penalba: