In the 1991 film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Morgan Freeman plays a Moorish character, one of the few positive representations of Muslims in Hollywood movies. The Moor is depicted as more educated and worldly than his Christian counterparts. The most famous Moor in the English-speaking world is of course the titular character in Shakespeare Othello. But who were the Moors, mostly known as the Islamic conquerors of Spain and Portugal?
Before we get to that, let’s relate some important background; in the late 1980s Saul Bellow, a right wing culture warrior, shouted at his readership ‘who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?’ He carried out a culture war which included dismissing the black African civilisations and upholding Western civilisation as the cynosure of rationalism and scientific enquiry. We will see that this position is absolutely false.
It is perfectly true that the Muslims civilised the peoples of the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal). Named by the Europeans as Moors, the Al-Andalus caliphate flourished, and made great advances in science, engineering, mathematics and philosophy. Called Moorish, this term was used by the Europeans as a blanket term for anyone of darker complexion – Arabs, Berbers and sub-Saharan Africans.
The designation Moorish – which we use in common parlance for a type of art or architecture from Muslim Spain – lazily lumps together different ethnicities. Islamic Arabs, black Africans, and the pre-Islamic indigenous inhabitants of North Africa, the Berbers – have been encompassed by the generic term Moors. First applied by the Romans to darker skinned people from Northern Africa, the term Moor was gradually extended to describe Arab, Muslim, Berber and sub-Saharan Africans.
The term Berber is actually a misnomer. The indigenous inhabitants of North Africa, prior to the Islamic Arab conquest, are self-described Amazigh. Defeated by the Arab Muslim armies, the Berbers converted to Islam or assimilated. One of their number, an Islamised Berber Tariq Ibn Ziyad, became a military commander in the Muslim armies. He led the Islamic conquest of Spain, in 711 AD, defeating the Visigoths, a Germanic people.
Al Andalus became a centre of scientific accomplishments and education, at a time when most of Europe and Britain were illiterate. Averroes (1126 – 1198 CE, Arabic name Ibn Rushd) was one of a number of astronomers and polymaths produced by Islamic Spain. Ibn Zuhr (1094 – 1162 CE) was an Andalusian surgeon who can lay claim to be the earliest to detect cancerous tissues in the oesophagus, stomach and uterus.
To be sure, sub-Saharan African civilisations made their own scientific and philosophical accomplishments independently of Europe. Decades before John Locke, David Hume and the philosophers we all regard as founders of the Enlightenment, the Ethiopian philosopher and writer Zera Yacob (1599 – 1692) already developed the ideas of rational enquiry and scientific skepticism we associate with Enlightenment values. Here is one example of an African philosopher Tolstoy which Bellow never encountered.
Yacob, building on the long tradition of philosophy in black African Ethiopia, went further than Locke or Hume. Questioning the unchallenged supremacy of faith, he not only counterposed reason, but also explicitly opposed slavery, and advocated for the rights of women. Enlightenment ideas pop up in places which are ignored by the Anglocentric mind.
It is completely inaccurate however, to characterise Islamic Spain as a uniquely black African Moorish establishment, as Garikai Chengu does in his article. While correct in responding to European cultural arrogance, and highlighting the achievements of non-European civilisations, Chengu’s advocacy of an Afrocentrist approach, subsuming ancient Egypt and the Moors into one black sub-Saharan African identity, is wildly off the mark.
To emphasise the allegedly black African character of Islamic Spain, and ignore the contribution of Arab Islamic people, results in the dismissal of the significant achievement of Al Andalus under the Muslim rulers. Let us accept the fact that the Arab Muslims cannot be disrespected as just a marauding bunch of slave traders. Chengu, a brilliant scholar in his own right, is a fascinating writer. His articles are always worth reading.
For that reason, it is disappointing to see him recycling discredited Afrocentric myths, such as the tired old cliche that black African peoples sailed across the Atlantic and discovered the Americas before Columbus. Islamic Spain already has a contested legacy in Europe. Both Spain and Portugal are still wrestling with the historical fact that Islam made a huge imprint on their collective histories.
In Portugal, archaeologists and historians are still discovering just how integral the Islamic contributions were to the nation’s identity. The construction of a specifically Iberian identity was made in opposition to the Islamic states, emphasising the centrality of Christianity in the formation of Spain and Portugal as modern states.
The Reconquista, the systematic multi-century expulsion of the Moors from the Iberian peninsula, was an early example of religio-ethnic cleansing. Filomena Barros, a professor at the University of Evora, made a salient observation; we never talk about the Roman or Visigothic conquest of Spain and Portugal, but we always refer to the Islamic conquest.
Let’s end with the words of Garikai Chengu, to be fair; he concludes with the following observations, which we would do well to follow:
If Africans re-write their true history, they will reveal a glory that they will inevitably seek to recapture. After all, the greatest threat towards Africa having a glorious future is her people’s ignorance of Africa’s glorious past.
Exactly. The same applies to the glories of Islamic Spain.