July - Sept 2004, Spain

Spain’s Islamic past

By Gerald Butt
December 12, 1998


“When the Christians recaptured Granada, they burnt all 80,000 books from the palace library – as if to expunge the memory of Islamic rule.”

When the Arab and Berber armies crossed from North Africa into Spain in the eighth century, they thought they’d discovered heaven on earth.

By the time they were finally driven out in 1492 they’d actually created an earthly celebration of paradise – the Alhambra palaces and gardens in Granada.

For desert Arabs, water is luxury. And in the melting snow of the Sierra Nevada mountains they found what they wanted. By a series of intricate channels they directed water into the palace grounds and onto the dusty plains below.

Still today at the Alhambra you get a glimpse of paradise. Small streams take the water hither and thither to innumerable fountains and ponds – at one point rushing down channels in the balustrades of a stone stairway. Everywhere, splashing and gushing water. And great splashes of colour under the conifers – roses, lilies and sweet-smelling jasmine.

Not to mention the luxury of the palaces themselves with their courtyards shaded by trees and cooled by fountains and with the walls decorated by elaborate Arabic inscriptions and patterned tiles.

For an Arabist like me, a visit to Alhambra should have been the experience of a lifetime. But I came away slightly disappointed. Not at the beauty of what I’d seen – rather with a sense that the Arab and Islamic character had been somewhat down-played.

When the Christians recaptured Granada, they burnt all 80,000 books from the palace library – as if to expunge the memory of Islamic rule. Then they built a cathedral on the site of the great mosque and put a baroque facade around the main palace.

Today the Alhambra is marketed very much as a major Spanish tourist site. One Spanish guidebook says that the Alhambra is to Granada what St Peter’s is to Rome or St Mark’s Square is to Venice.

What the guidebook doesn’t say is that the Alhambra is a legacy of nearly eight centuries during which the Arabs not only occupied Spain but also introduced into Europe mathematics, philosophy and Greek scholarship. Furthermore, the Arabs brought into Spain oranges, lemons, rice, sugar, date palms, cotton and much more.

And then there was the elaborate irrigation system, bringing water to the plains of Andalusia and giving it the landscape it has today. Even when the Arabs had been expelled en masse, two families were required to stay in each village to operate the irrigation system.

In other words, the Christians of Europe were happy to inherit the legacy of the Arab occupation of Spain, but were reluctant to acknowledge its Islamic origin. The American traveller, Washington Irving, noticed this when he visited Granada at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Spanish, he said, considered the Muslims nothing more than “invaders and usurpers”. And that still seems to be the case today.

Does any of this matter? I believe it does. Arabs feel bitterly resentful at how they’re portrayed in the West – as ignorant people, lacking the advantages of our history and civilisation. As I drove away from Granada, I remembered what a retired Jordanian diplomat Hazem Nuseibeh once told me.

For him, history was like a medicine. Whenever he felt depressed by the sense of inferiority and failure that haunts the Arabs today he escaped into history books and read about the glories of the past, not least the glories of Andalusia.

But escapism can’t hide the fact that the Arabs as a whole feel they’ve lost their way and lost their self-esteem. They live, for the most part, under corrupt and incompetent regimes, and – as they see it – in the shadow of the West.

“The West calls the tune to which we dance,” Rabee Dejani, a Palestinian businessman in Jordan told me, “We hate the tune and we hate ourselves for dancing”.

The accumulation of this resentment is creating new generations of Arabs who are hostile to the West. With no political platform on which to vent their anger, they’re increasingly turning for comfort to Islam and to Islamic fundamentalism. And the violent acts that militants carry out blacken the name of Islam in the West.

Thus the anti-Muslim slogans I saw daubed on the walls of the ancient caravanseria in the centre of Granada – and the look of anxiety and suspicion on the face of Hassan, the caretaker of the small centre nearby, when I knocked on the door.

Mutual suspicion is increasing. It’s a vicious circle that won’t easily be broken. But a start would be for the West to give credit where it’s due.

Yes, the Alhambra is a tangible legacy of a great Islamic civilisation. But there are many other intangible legacies from the days of Arab rule in Spain, ingredients of our daily lives that we take for granted. If those debts were acknowledged, Arabs, I believe, would still go to their mosques in large numbers. But they’ll be less attracted than they are now by the angry rantings of anti-Western fundamentalists.