Creating new perspectives since 2009

Leaving Iberia: Islamic Law and Christian Conquest in North West Africa

February 17, 2022 at 3:04 pm

  • Book Author(s): Jocelyn Hendrickson
  • Published Date: November 2021
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Hardback: 424 pages
  • ISBN-13: 9780674248205

Jocelyn Hendrickson takes us on a historical and legal tour exploring Islamic responses to Christian conquests in Spain and North West Africa in her book Leaving Iberia: Islamic Law and Christian Conquest in North West Africa. How do a series of legal opinions born in the context of the fall of Granada in 1492 make their way into the religious response of Muslims in 20th century Algeria and Mauritania? And how did the meaning of them change within a new context?

Hendrickson explores these questions and challenges our perceptions of how to understand the history of the judgements and opinions (fatawa, pl.; fatwa, sing.) issued by Muslim scholars. She also gets us to consider medieval Spain and Portugal as part of African history, rather than seeing Muslim rule of the Iberian Peninsula (711-1492) as a historically unusual and unique event unrelated to anything else.

“By the early fifteenth century,” she writes, “Christian Iberia’s conquests extended to North Africa, motivated in part by the same ideologies of reconquest and crusade current in the peninsula. These conquests linked the two regions politically and reproduced in North Africa some elements considered unique to Iberia.”

In other words, the fall of Granada was not the end of the European Christian “reconquest”; it was the beginning.

In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Muslim scholars in present day Morocco were confronted by a new problem, the Portuguese. The European kingdom of Portugal was developing its empire and expanding its territorial conquests to include Morocco. Muslims were not only living under Christian rule, increasingly so, but were also interacting and serving in a colonial enterprise that sought to take more lands.

Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century

Religious scholars generally base their judgements on tradition and precedent, but there was no historical precedent for this situation upon which the Islamic religious class could base their judgements and opinions. Most of the legal rulings that came before them were issued in the context of growing Muslim influence, where the discourse was focused more on how to deal with non-Muslims living under Muslim rule. The fear of being conquered by foreign powers added to the urgent need for clarity on issues such as whether or not Muslims should stay in non-Muslim lands, or leave.

“Muslim jurists resisted foreign dominance not by deriding or directly attacking the Christian enemy, but by assigning religious consequences to special social, economic, and political behaviours deemed threatening to Muslims’ communal identity,” explains the author. “Boundary crossings and political treachery were seen as religious disobedience, as individual Muslims’ religious transgressions could have grave political ramifications.”

Hendrickson’s study begins by taking us through the legal discourse of Ahmad Al-Mawasi (d.1491), Abd Allah Al-Aghsawi also known as Ibn Bartal (d.1495) and Wansharisi. All three were jurists based in Fez and were in the first generation of scholars confronted by expanding European power. The three covered a wide range of topics, including trade, religious obligations, tributes, spying, warfare, property and migration under Christian rule. Some took a negative view of Muslims who could afford to migrate but instead chose to remain, as Hendrickson explains: “Ibn Bartal implies [in his fatwa] that their membership in the Muslim community must be suspended.”

Unsilencing Gaza: Reflections on Resistance

The advice given by these scholars was not only based on concerns for the welfare of Muslims in territories conquered by Iberian Christians, but also shaped by the fear of being colonised. A concern present in their work is the suspicion that Muslims were spying for the Portuguese; what we would today call “national security concerns” featured prominently.

However, these three were not the only active scholars looking at these issues, as Hendrickson demonstrates. She also looks at another three scholars, and detects two major overarching trends within the discourse being produced. “In the first model, a Muslim’s status is determined by such actions as spying or fighting the enemy, while in the second model, his status hinges on whether or not he voluntarily — or even contentedly — resides in Christian territory.”

Leaving Iberia… does not end in early modern times; the author traces how such religious opinions change over time and in different contexts. She takes us into colonial Algeria and Mauritania in the 20th century and examines the way that thinkers understood, re-appropriated and used these opinions.

Jocelyn Hendrickson’s study is a rare find in the field of Islamic studies in western academia. Too often published works focus on singular manuscripts and authors offer little in the way of wider context or even the transmigration and transformation of ideas over time. Leaving Iberia… is an intellectual treat layered with depth and breadth, and should become a go-to text for the study of Islamic law and historical Muslim responses to global events. It is very much part of a wider effort to return the experiences of Africa and the Maghrib within the wider study of Islam.