Cervantes and Islam

Everyone with some interest in Spain knows about Don Quixote. The world laughs at him as a foolish figure of locura (silliness) but like many things in Spain, there is more to what meets the eyes. Cervantes, although called the writer of the first Western novel, was also a figure we all need to observe with more care- some speculate that he might have been a Muslim; he may not have been the author of Don Quixote; but he certainly had more to do with Islam than one sees on the surface.

A few years ago an Iraqi doctoral paper was born by Muhsin al-Ramli titled “The influence of Islamic culture in Don Quixote “.  It is a proof that this celebrated book is a biting satire of the Christian church. The thesis is a great attempt to closely examine the context in which much of Spain’s history has been desecrated and demolished, the author brought fascinating ideas forward that certainly changes the way we look at the way history and literature form our knowledge base. This thesis, indeed, proves that literary critics are only starting to resolve the story behind Cervante’s lines.

Cervantes is the man of the turn of the 16th and 17th century. While he is celebrated as a man of Spanish identity and a proud Islamophobe by many literary figures, who exactly was he and what was his relationship with Islam? A man born in Madrid, in Alcala de Henares, the biggest morisco population at the time, he was surrounded by Islamic culture from his childhood. He also lived in Seville and Cordoba, so he certainly was not a bystander to Islam. He saw Islam in many forms and practices and some historians even think his ancestors might have been converts to Christianity at the time of the Inquisition. In 1575 he was travelling to Barcelona from Naples when he was taken hostage by a Berber ship and was taken to Algiers where he was held hostage for 6 years. He tried to escape four times but never managed to walk more than to the next village. He was surrounded by a cosmopolitan city of 125,000 and even believed to have had a long affair with a Moorish woman. By 1580, the ransom money for which he was held arrived and he returned to Spain. After a few months, however, he was longing to return to Algiers, and he ended up on the Barbary Coast as an envoy.

His book, Don Quixote is a laugh-out-loud -of -the irony of the world kind of book. The main character is portrayed as a fool, so we know he has a lot to tell us. After all, fools are the most knowledgeable people. Cervantes delivered a blow on the clergy, the church system and the inquisition through him. He did so purposely through him as he was afraid of the backlash of his views that did not fit in with the Catholic church authority of the time. The novel is laced with references to Islam and Moors in subtle and more obvious ways throughout.

He begins early on in his novel, as in chapter 1, he is the narrator explaining the surname of his main character. He plays with us, readers, as he says it does not matter what his surname was, whether it was Quixada or Quesada. Well, having a closer look, if we take Quexana (or Quejana in Spanish) is the most northern town in Basque Country, marking the border of Muslim Spain. If we take Quesada, it was a Moorish surname at the time. So both surnames carry an importance in relation to Cervantes’s motivation behind the naming.

There are numerous speculations and even direct references from Cervantes himself that he was not the author of the novel. He states that it was originally an Arabic script written by Cide Hamete Benengeli, an Arab historian, a Spaniard and a Manchegan (in chapter VIII of the book).

“[Hamete Benegeli] is a Moorish name,” said Don Quixote.

“Maybe so,” replied Sancho; “for I have heard say that the Moors are mostly great lovers of berengenas.” [Berengena, or eggplant, was brought to Iberia by Muslims, and traditionally consumed by some during Ramadan.]

“Thou must have mistaken the surname of this ‘Cide’—which means in Arabic ‘Lord’—Sancho,” observed Don Quixote.

Some state that Cervantes was venerating Muslims as heroes, and his writing was a subtle but powerful recall of the glory of Islamic Spain. The novel certainly has references to Muslim life under the Christian rule. The Oran fatwa issued in 1504 (a special fatwa issued on the Iberian peninsula to relax some rules for the Muslims under the Inquisition rules) by Ahmad ibn Abi Jum’ah. This fatwa decreed that Spanish Muslims might feign Christianity and consume alcohol and pork when under duress. The task of eating pork was a method introduced to prove anyone who grimaced eating it their true origin. We can still see the legacy of this ruling in today’s cuisine, pork being the main ingredients in most national dishes of Spain.

Another interesting reference is made to the green silk socks of Quixote, as the colour green is perhaps the color most symbolic of Islam. It appears on many historic and contemporary flags in the area, including that of Algeria, Andalucía, and Al-Andalus.

In his sequel to Don Quixote published in 1615 he writes about the Moorish treatment in more details. In chapter 54, Sancho meets Ricote, his former neighbour, who has retuned to Spain from exile disguised as a pilgrim. They have a good time before they talk about the expulsion decree. In the end, Sancho refuses to denounce the Spaniard, “an illegal” in his own land. Ricote’s character carries the sentiment of the moriscos of the time. He states that  “Nowhere do we find the reception our unhappy condition needs; and in Barbary and all the parts of Africa where we counted upon being … welcomed, it is there they insult and ill-treat us most…. So profound “is the love of one’s country” and “the longing we … have to return to Spain,” Ricote says that “wherever we are we weep for Spain.”

I believe none of the references in the story of Don Quixote are accidental; the list is too long and the consistency would fail us. But we have to take everything with a pinch of salt when it comes to the Middle Ages. A thorough study is always necessary as we learn about history, identity and important political decisions that can be misread so easily. Nothing at the time was straightforward and we must learn to be critical as we study this fascinating time in history. Even when it comes to learning about a man everyone thinks is a fool. Because fools are often the most intelligent people.

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