Signs from Allah, History, Science and Faith in Islam
35. The Fall of Granada, History Turns to the West – Part 1

By Prof Dr Nazeer Ahmed, PhD
Concord, CA


It is said among Muslims that the hills of El Pujarra around Granada still weep for the sound of the adhan every morning and the mosque of Cordoba stays awake all night waiting for the sajda of a single momin. To this day Andalus evokes among Muslims nostalgia for a golden age when it resonated with the sound of prayer every morning and the name of Prophet Muhammed (p) was honored every day.
No other country was contested between Muslims and Christians as bitterly as was Spain. The struggle went on for 500 years. When the battles had ended and the last adhan was said from the ramparts of Granada in 1492, Muslims had lost the crown jewel of the Maghrib. Soon, they would be tortured and expelled, along with the Jews, from a land they considered the garden of the west. Their monuments were razed, their mosques destroyed, their libraries burned and their women were sent as slaves to the courts of Europe. It was a turning point, a milestone and an event that profoundly and fundamentally changed the flow of global events.
Granada did not fall in a single day, nor did its collapse come with a sudden stroke. Rather, it was the last breath of a decaying society, which had lost the capacity to defend itself against a sustained offensive from Christian Europe. Long before church bells replaced the call of the muezzin and Boabdil (Abu Abdallah, the last emir of Granada) stood on the hills of El Pujarra, looked down on his lost capital and wept, Spain had spent itself politically, militarily and culturally. There was warfare between competing emirs, intrigues within each dynasty pitting father against son, tension between the religious establishment and corrupt administrators, murder, mayhem and external aggression. The surrender of Granada was only the final curtain in a drama that had played itself out.
The Maghrib was a vast area, which included the modern nations of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania, Sene-Gambia, Spain and Portugal. It was separated from Egypt and the Nile Delta by the Libyan Desert, from Europe by the Pyrenees Mountains and from the Sudan by the great Saharan desert. The high Atlas, which branched off into the Andalusian Peninsula, tied together the topography of the region. The hinge for this geographic entity lay in Morocco. Andalus (Spain) and Ifriqiya (Tunisia) served as its extremities.
This vast region was inhabited by a diverse group of people. Andalus was a composite of Hispano-Muslims, Christians, Arabs and immigrants from North Africa. The Atlas Mountains were home to the Berbers. A sedentary Arab layer, resident primarily in the coastal cities, existed side by side with the Berbers. To the south, the historically important tribes of the Sanhaja, Zanata and Nafzawa roamed the pasturelands. Powerful tribes such as the Banu Hilal completed the landscape. The relative isolation of the Maghrib meant that this region had to face its political destiny on its own, more or less isolated from the rest of the Islamic world.
To understand the events of 1492, we must take an historical perspective of events dating back to the beginning of the 13th century. The Crusades in Palestine ended with the victory of Salahuddin at the Battle of Hittin (1186). This was also a period when Al Muhaddith power was at its zenith in the Maghrib. The Al Muhaddith Abu Yusuf won a major victory over the Crusaders at the Battle of Alarcos (1196). The Crusaders regrouped and came back with a vengeance. At the Battle of Las Novas de Tolosa (1212) a powerful army of the Crusaders overwhelmed the Al Muhaddith. The magnitude of this defeat can be understood from the sheer number of soldiers involved. Muslim chroniclers record that as many as 600,000 Al Muhaddith took part in the battle. Over 150,000 fell on the battlefield. When we consider that the entire population of the Maghrib at the time was about three million, it follows that practically every able-bodied man took part in the battle and one fourth of them lost their lives. The Al Muhaddith Emir al Nasir who had assumed the title of Emir ul Muslimeen, returned distraught from the battle, locked himself up in his palace in Marrakesh and died soon thereafter (1213). Sensing an historic opportunity, Castile, Aragon and Portugal carved up Muslim Spain for conquest. The major towns were overrun one by one. In 1236, Cordoba, the capital of the Omayyad Caliphate in Spain, fell. Seville was lost in 1248. Only Granada remained. Muhammad Ibn Ahmar of the Nasirid dynasty, who had captured Granada in 1238, managed to maintain his position by becoming a vassal of the Castilian monarch. Granada remained a vassal of Castile until 1333, when the Nasirid Emir Yusuf I, abrogated the annual tribute to Castile and made an attempt to carry the war into Christian territories.
In North Africa, the Al Muhaddith territories disintegrated into three emirates: the Merinides in Morocco, the Zayyanids in Algeria and the Hafsids in Tunisia. The Al Muhaddith capital of Marrakesh faded away and in its place sprang up three regional capitals-Meknes, capital of the Merinides; Tlemcen, capital of the Zayyanids; and Tunis, capital of the Hafsids. Nostalgia for the Al Muhaddith Empire was so great that all three attempted at one time or the other to recreate an empire that included all of the Maghrib. The first to make an attempt were the Hafsids. In 1236, the Hafsid Emir Yahya I, claiming his descent from Omar ibn al Khattab (r), declared himself Emir ul Muslimeen. When he died, his son al Mustansir succeeded him.
Events in far-away Baghdad presented an historic opportunity to al Mustansir. When Hulagu Khan occupied and destroyed Baghdad in 1258, the Islamic world looked to North Africa for leadership. For a brief period of one year, from 1260 to 1261, al Mustansir was recognized as the Caliph by the world of Islam. The Khutba was read in his name all over the Muslim world. The title was short lived because the Mamluke Sultan Baybars of Egypt resurrected the Abbasid Caliphate in Cairo in 1261, in part to provide an ideological boost to his troops who were on their way to Palestine in a desperate attempt to stop the Mongols at the Battle of Ayn Jalut (1261).
With the move of the Caliphate to Cairo, the center stage of Islamic history moved back east. Al Mustansir paid the price for his Caliphate of one year. In 1260, Louis IX of France, in the mistaken belief that defeating al Mustansir would deal a deathblow to all Islam, invaded and briefly occupied the city of Tunis. During this period, there existed a de-facto alliance between the Crusaders and the Mongols to conquer the Muslim world. However, the numerous attempts of Louis IX to conquer North Africa were repelled and he died during a siege of Tunis in 1270.
The defeat at Las Novas de Tolosa (1212) was a result of several interrelated political, religious and economic factors. There was deep distrust between the Spanish emirs and the Al Muhaddith of North Africa. This led to poor coordination on the battlefield. Within the Al Muhaddith court, there was infighting between the religious establishment and the vizier. The Al Muhaddith ulema had a running quarrel with the Grand Vizier Jami and demanded his removal. The detrimental effect of this quarrel can be appreciated from the structure of the Al Muhaddith court. The emir was the head of state. In the discharge of his responsibilities, he delegated the administrative and military affairs to the grand vizier and the judiciary affairs to the chief Kadi. A fight between the administrative-military wing and the judiciary wing was a disaster.
In modern terminology, it is like two senior vice presidents of a corporation fighting with each other before launching a new product line. The economic condition of the empire was precarious. Inflation was rampant, which in turn led to corruption. On his way to Spain to fight the Christians in 1210, the Al Muhaddith Emir Al Nasir stopped off in Fez and Ceuta and had the governors of the two provinces beheaded for corruption. Lastly, the Al Muhaddith doctrines, heavily influenced by the Mu’tazilites, were deeply suspect in the eyes of the ulema, who tolerated the Al Muhaddith as a shield against the aggression of the Crusaders, but otherwise offered them no support.
For the next eighty years (1248-1328), a political equilibrium developed in the western Mediterranean involving Castile, Aragon and Portugal on the Christian side and the Merinides, Zayyanids, Hafsids and Granada on the Muslim side. The tribe of Banu Hilal in the south joined this fray from time to time. Political alliances shifted back and forth and it was not uncommon for a Muslim emir to side with a Christian king against another emir, or for a Christian chief to support a Muslim against a fellow Christian. Meanwhile, the power struggle between the Merinides, the Zayyanids and the Hafsids continued. The Merinides gradually gained the upper hand over the other two. In 1269, the Merinide Yakub took Marrakesh and followed it up with the capture of Sijilmasa in 1274. Granada was under pressure from Castile and appealed to the Merinides for assistance. Yakub crossed over the Straits of Gibraltar and inflicted a defeat on the Christians at the Battle of Ecija in 1274. In 1279, the Merinide navy won a battle against a combined naval squadron of Castile and Portugal. While Yaqub was busy helping Granada, the Zayyanids were at the throat of the Hafsids. The emir of Granada, in a thankless rebuff to the Merinides, joined forces with Castile and occupied the city of Tarifa in 1291. In 1295, the Granadans incited a revolt in Ceuta against the Merinides. Disgusted with the thankless emirs in Spain, the Merinide Yaqub turned his attention more towards North Africa. By 1307, he had conquered all of the Maghrib except the easternmost province of Ifriqiya (modern Tunisia).
The Merinides in Morocco reached their greatest strength under the Emirs Ali and Abu Inan (1331 to 1357). It was the Merinide Emir Abu Inan who was the patron of Ibn Batuta, the celebrated Muslim world traveler. There was a resurgence of Islamic solidarity in the Maghrib during this period. In 1340, the Moroccans (Merinides) defeated the Castilian navy and laid siege to Tarifa. For a change, there was close cooperation between Granada and the Merinides in Morocco. The Granadan Yusuf I cast off the Castilian yoke and turned to the Merinides across the Straits for support. However, in 1341, a Castilian force assisted by Crusaders from France, Italy and England defeated a combined force of Granadans and Merinides. This was an indication that the balance of power in the western Mediterranean had turned in favor of the Christians.
After the Crusades ended in Palestine (circa 1190), the balance of power in the Mediterranean moved counter clockwise, with the Turks advancing upon Anatolia and southeastern Europe while the Christians gained the upper hand in Spain and North Africa. The Spaniards, sensing blood, followed up their victory and captured Algeciras (in Morocco) in 1244. Emir Ali was hampered in his efforts at the consolidation of the Maghrib by two factors. The first was the Black Plague, which engulfed his kingdom much as it did West Asia and Europe (1346-1360), causing widespread death and economic dislocation and the second, the recurrent uprisings of the Banu Hilal tribe. Four year later, the Banu Hilal at the Battle of Kairouan defeated Emir Ali himself and his dream of a Maghribi Empire came to an end.
Events now flowed inexorably in favor of the Crusaders. In 1355, the Genoese briefly occupied Tripoli (Libya). In 1390, the French attacked Mahdiya (Tunisia). In 1399, Tetuan (Morocco) was sacked by Castile. In 1415, Ceuta (Morocco) was captured by Portugal. One may juxtapose these losses with the Ottoman victories in Europe where Bayazid I defeated the Serbs at the Battle of Kosova (1389), captured Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, Skopje and smashed a combined Crusader army at the Battle of Nicopolis (1396). With both Ceuta and Algeciras in the hands of the Christians, communications between Granada Morocco across the Straits of Gibraltar were cut. The noose around Granada tightened.
(The author is Director, World Organization for Resource Development and Education, Washington, DC; Director, American Institute of Islamic History and Culture, CA; Member, State Knowledge Commission, Bangalore; and Chairman, Delixus Group)



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