Islam and Columbus’ America

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Islam and Columbus' America

In 1499, seven years after the tragic fall of Granada into Castilian hands, Cardinal Ximenez de Cisneros came to that city to break the 1491 treaty that guaranteed Muslims’ religious rights. The last king Boabdil was exiled but the common people of Granada were left behind to bear the brunt of persecution and torture in Inquisitorial jails for the next century and a quarter. By 1502, valuable books, many of them bound in leather and trimmed with gold leaf, were seized from private libraries in Granada, and burned publicly, while 2000 respectable matrons and maidens were sold at auction. Into what service, I might ask? These same laws were next applied just as ruthlessly in Mexico beginning in 1521, and in Yucatan and Peru, scarcely a quarter of a century later. In 1521 vicious Pragmatica or official decree was issued by the Castilian crown to regulate Muslim conduct under which among other things, Muslims were to leave their windows and doors open on Fridays and Islamic holidays, in a vulgar invasion of privacy, lest they be caught saying their prayers or celebrating a marriage or a funeral in their traditional manner. It was revived in 1568. ‘Lapsed Catholics’ who had been baptised forcibly were burned at the stake, cynically ‘to avoid bloodshed’!

The Spanish Muslims produced great philosophers and scientists during their rule in the peninsula. Although Toledo might have served as the basis for longitude, we now have Greenwich because the Reconquista that was coming did not know how to assimilate the broad aspect of Muslim science. Just as silk and paper, and later gunpowder, reached Spain as industrial processes and not mere articles of commerce, travelling 8000 long miles from China. On the other hand they never reached France, a few hundred miles to the northeast, until centuries later. Such was Islamic civilisation in its westernmost outpost.

We are told that Spanish Muslims were ‘Moors’, as if they belonged to Africa, and should go back there, or be massacred as Cardinal Cisneros and his cohorts wanted them to be. Thus today the Mexican city of Matamoros opposite Brownsville in Texas, still means ‘Moor slayer’, and its name has not been changed. Several dates need to be remembered for the next few years. In 1999, we should commemorate and act to rehabilitate the vandalism of Cardinal Cisneros in Granada; 2002 if no attention has been paid to the terrorism that began three years earlier; 2009, to mark the 400th anniversary of Philip III’s decree of Expulsion of the remaining Spanish Muslims; and 2021, on the anniversary of the proclamation of the Pragmatica which deprived Muslims of their normal civil rights. All these dates should be recalled, and utilised for the purpose of rehabilitating Islam on the Iberian peninsula, and also to repeal any such laws that still prevail in the Americas.


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