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Beyond Convivencia and Conflict? Reflections on the History and Memory of Andalusian and Ottoman Religious Belonging

[Last views of the Alhambra. Photo by Nic McPhee via Flickr] [Last views of the Alhambra. Photo by Nic McPhee via Flickr]

The myth of Europa is, at basis, a parable of partition and estrangement. Zeus, camouflaged as a docile white bull, kidnaps the maiden Europa from her homeland in Phoenicia and whisks her away to Crete, where he offers her gifts and succor. Europa enters legend, and then history, by turning her back on her Levantine origins. She only becomes Zeus’ beloved by virtue of exile. More abstractly, the myth of Europa suggests that traces of “difference”—other places, other pasts—are integral to Europe’s very identity. It is unsurprising, then, that Europe has grappled constantly and ambivalently with questions of identity and difference. As a continent and a “civilization,” Europe has persistently achieved definition in relation to that which it has repudiated and held at a distance. Simultaneously, disavowed differences, akin to Europa’s Phoenician past, resolutely haunt and shadow the very core of European identity.

For centuries, Islam has constituted a durable, prominent object of contrast and renunciation against which Europe has achieved coherence—as Edward Said, among others, has famously argued. Islam’s role in delimiting the boundaries of Europe has increased dramatically in recent years. Most Muslim communities in western Europe—South Asians in the UK; Maghrebis in France, Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands; Turks and Kurds in Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria—were first established on the basis of economically-driven immigration in the decades following World War II, and are now several generations old. However, in the wake of 11 September 2001 and a host of terrorist attacks in Europe, Muslim bodies, practices, and communities have become new markers of difference and estrangement from “European values” across the continent. Consequently, spaces associated with Islam and Muslims in western Europe, from the storefronts of Bradford to the banlieues of Paris, from the cafés of Molenbeek to the mosques of Kreuzberg, now mark a frontier of “Europeanness” within Europe itself. Strikingly, skepticism over Islam often unites the otherwise fractious Right and Left. Whether as a threat to imagined national communities, the glories of European “civilization,” or the imperatives of multiculturalism and freedom of expression, Islam and Muslims are reliable bugbears across the political spectrum.

It is not difficult to point out the vested political interests, partiality, and bias that prop up ideological images of “clashing” European and Islamic civilizations. The erasures and amnesia that result from reductive images of Europe and Islam, however, are more difficult to negotiate. Few public commentators on the ostensible dilemmas surrounding European Muslims recall that Islam did not arrive in Europe today, or even yesterday. The history of Islam in the southeastern and southwestern appendages of the continent—the Iberian and Balkan peninsulas—is as substantial and varied as it is in many parts of the so-called Muslim world. Muslims first arrived in Iberia when the Umayyad military commander Tariq ibn-Ziyad crossed the straits of Gibraltar—a toponym derived from the Arabic phrase Jabal Tariq, “Mountain of Tariq” –in 711 CE. Muslim political power in the peninsula lasted until 1492, when Emir Muhammad XII of Granada, known popularly as Boabdil, capitulated to the Castilian monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella; Phillip II’s expulsion of the moriscos, descendants of Iberian Muslims who still spoke Arabic and practiced Islam covertly, in 1609 marked a more decisive end to Islam in Iberia. Islam first gained a foothold in the Balkans with the Ottoman conquest of Thessaloniki from the Venetians in 1387 and, close on its heels, the Ottoman victory at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Although Ottoman sovereignty over its European provinces eroded in the 19th Century, culminating in the Balkan Wars in 1912 and 1913, Muslims were never decisively expelled from the Balkans in the manner that they were from Iberia. Balkan Muslims—speakers of Albanian, Pomak, Romani, Serbo-Croatian, and Turkish—are able to lay claims to “nativeness” that perniciously elude (post-) immigrant Muslim communities to the west.

In light of Muslims’ renascent status as the constitutive Others of Europe, it is high time to revisit al-Andalus and the Ottoman Empire, the two great Muslim polities and territories of European history. Fortunately, there is no shortage of recent scholarship on the parallel legacies of Andalusian and Ottoman Islam. This scholarship divides into two currents, which, following historian Pierre Nora, we can identify as history and memory. Broadly speaking, historical scholarship relies primarily on archival methods to address lacunae in knowledge of past events and modes of life without attending directly to the consequences of the past on the present and future. Scholarship on memory, by contrast, seeks to illuminate the multiple legacies and logics of the past as an aspect of social, cultural, and political life in the present; it therefore relies on ethnographic and sociological methods, as well as archival. Research on both the history and memory of Islam in Iberia and southeastern Europe has flourished in recent years, despite a political environment that is frequently hostile to nuanced perspectives on the relationship between Europe and Islam.

Whether in key of history or the key of memory, much scholarship on the legacies of Andalusian and Ottoman Islam focuses on inter-confessional relations among Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Two polar concepts orient much of this research: tolerance and tension, convivencia and conflict. Authors frequently pose a reductive, binary question: Was the dhimmi[1] system—the nexus of legal, political, social, and cultural practices that defined the place of non-Muslims within Muslim polities—a means to harmony and mutual goodwill or a principle of oppression and discrimination? Polemical contemporary concerns often lurk beneath the surface of such dichotomous queries. Antagonists of Islam today relentlessly assert a transhistorical Muslim intolerance, while apologists of a variety of stripes pursue an equally essentialist image of timeless interreligious goodwill. 

Fortunately, the historian’s imperative to bracket current debates when reconstructing the past can act as a salutary check on such reductive questions. Janina Safran’s Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Islamic Iberia is an exemplary work in this vein. With meticulous attention to a neglected body of archival sources—the legal opinions (masā’il) of Andalusian Umayyad jurists (fuqaha’) who abided by the Maliki School of Sunni jurisprudence—Safran sketches a nuanced, detailed portrait of intercommunal life in al-Andalus. Neither inherent conflict nor seamless harmony is sufficient to describe the texture of daily life in the major cities of al-Andalus— especially Cordoba in the 9th and 10th Centuries—that she describes.

The Maliki jurists of al-Andalus considered a fascinating array of questions stemming from quotidian interactions between Muslims and non-Muslims. Some of the cases that Safran discusses are disarmingly familiar; others seem peculiar from a contemporary vantage. On one occasion, a Christian misrepresented himself as a Muslim and performed ritual prayer with a group of Muslims—should the prayer be considered invalid? Another jurist entertained a hypothetical question: Suppose that a Muslim and a Jew living in the same home perish when the house collapses, and the corpses are indistinguishable from each other—how should funerary rites be performed? Common public resources also created dilemmas. For instance, should Muslims avoid water from a well shared with a Jew or Christian who drinks wine? Questions of conversion and intercommunal marriage were especially persistent topics of speculation during the first centuries of Umayyad rule. What to make of the Christian woman who converts to Islam in order to secure a separation from her (Christian) husband? Should the Muslim judge, or qadi, annul the marriage? Slavery also presented a vexing issue: “A Christian or Jew could not own a Muslim slave; might a slave convert to Islam and hope that the forced sale to a different (Muslim) master might be an improvement (with prospects of eventual manumission)” (p. 109)? Conversions to Islam inevitably created new fault lines within families, with both material and social effects. Were deathbed conversions, which often had drastic effects on matters of inheritance, legitimate? More mundanely, should a Muslim accompany his Christian mother to church, or perform burial rites for his deceased Christian father? Each of these questions demanded creative forms of reasoning on the part of jurists. Rather than derive judgments automatically from the pristine precedents of tradition, Safran demonstrates that Andalusi judges and legal scholars adduced supple “guidelines for all manner of relationships and situations…and allowed for the accommodation of practices of which they disapproved” (p. 124).

Inevitably, the specificity of Safran’s sources creates pitfalls for generalizing about social life and inter-confessional relationships in al-Andalus, and she is admirably forthright about the limitations of her study. By its very nature, the archive of legal documentation privileges occasions of argument, dissent, and confusion over the sway and legitimacy of religious principles. A total reconstruction of the plenitude of intercommunal life is impossible from the jurisprudential archive alone. Nevertheless, Safran largely succeeds in her “experiment in the interpretation of Islamic legal texts as sources for understanding intercommunal relations in a specific legal and historical context” (p. 5). Her ample, provocative material illustrates that boundary-making and –breaking among Muslim and non-Muslim communities in al-Andalus was an ongoing, multiform process. Far from the abstract, essentialized categories of identity that underpin narratives of both civilizational clash and convivencia, the religious communities of Ummayad Iberia and the boundaries among them were incessantly made and remade in everyday life. 

A diversity of protean relations between Muslims and non-Muslims also defined the other great European Muslim polity, the Ottoman Empire. This was especially true in the Balkans, where, for a variety of demographic, political, and socioeconomic reasons, conversion to Islam among the Christian peasants, or reaya, was relatively small in comparison to other areas of the Empire. As with al-Andalus, recent years have witnessed an upsurge in historical scholarship on the religious, political, and social dimensions of intercommunal life in the Ottoman Empire. In contrast to historical studies of Muslim Iberia, however, histories of the Ottoman religious communities—the millets—often double as apologia for the millet system itself. Ottoman historians conduct research and write in an implicitly polemical context, saturated by Orientalist and Islamophobic clichés that abet cynical debates over Turkey’s EU candidacy. It is unsurprising, then, that historical studies of the millet system are compelled to speak to contemporary concerns in a manner that research on al-Andalus is not.

The Ottoman Mosaic, a recent volume of essays on Ottoman-era interreligious and intercommunal life, epitomizes the present-day orientation of research on the millet system—indeed, the subtitle of the book is “Exploring Models for Peace by Re-Exploring the Past.” The collection’s guiding metaphor, the mosaic, encapsulates its perspective on intercommunal relations in the Ottoman Empire. Each millet is understood as a distinct element within a broader configuration; together, these diverse religious communities are thought to form a greater, harmonious whole. Although the volume’s individual contributions address a broad swath of themes and topics, from architecture and literature to transformations in Ottoman law on non-Muslim communities and citizens, they share a perspective on the millet system as just such a “mosaic.” 

The introductory essay by the editors of The Ottoman Mosaic, Kemal Karpat and Yetkin Yıldırım, establishes the tone and agenda for the collection as a whole. After summarizing the key features of the millet system as a method for organizing religious plurality in the Ottoman Empire, Karpat and Yıldırım reach an unambiguous conclusion: “Historical examples of successful peaceful coexistence must be sought. The history of the Ottoman state and its foundation of tolerance, which is still evident in present-day Turkey, may provide just such an example. Faced with rampant ethno-religious conflict all over the world, the Ottoman Empire demonstrates what multi-religious civilizations can become: a land where people of different religions, cultures, and ethnicities can live together peacefully” (p. 23). The volume’s other authors share and expand on this enthusiastic assessment of Ottoman-era religious diversity, rooted in the millet system. In his individual contribution, Karpat extols the communal autonomy that the millet system safeguarded: “Under Ottoman rule, all ethnic and religious groups enjoyed extensive religious, cultural and linguistic rights and were governed by their own religious leaders. No group, however powerful, could impose its creed, language and culture on any of the others, however small” (p. 42). İhsan Yılmaz’ essay on the legal principles and practices that undergirded the millet system—an interesting companion piece to Safran’s work on al-Andalus—makes a similar point about the autonomy of the non-Muslim millets. Although non-Muslims could, and did, appeal to Ottoman Sharia and kanun[2] law on occasion, they were under no obligation to do so, and were largely governed by their own, community-specific legal codes.

While the millet system established a high degree of autonomy for non-Muslim religious communities, it also informed and framed the character of the Empire as a whole. Linda Darling, for instance, argues that a religiously-plural image of the Ottoman Empire can be traced back to its early decades, at least to Sultan Mehmet II’s conquest of Istanbul in 1453: “The remarkable thing is that an obviously Muslim polity formed by conquest saw itself so strongly as an amalgam of Muslims, Christians, and Jews held together by justice” (p. 117). Occasionally, Ottoman rulers were extraordinarily welcoming to non-Muslims, as Nisya Ishman Allovi points out in her review of the Ottomans’ accommodation of Judaism. Here, the histories of Iberia and the Ottoman Empire are closely intertwined. Ferdinand and Isabella’s Alhambra Decree of 1492 ordered the expulsion of the peninsula’s Sephardim; Ottoman Sultan Beyazit II offered sanctuary to many of the refugees, and Spanish/Ladino-speaking Jewish communities soon thrived in many Ottoman cities, notably Thessaloniki, Izmir, and Istanbul.

Together, the essays that form The Ottoman Mosaic endorse the Ottoman Empire as an indispensable precedent for interreligious tolerance and convivencia today. There is nothing inherently wrong with this aspiration, of course, and I am generally sympathetic to its spirit. Nevertheless, the pitfalls and limitations of such an approach, which yokes historical research to contemporary political aims, demand acknowledgement. First, the recruitment of the millet system to inspire contemporary interreligious harmony risks whitewashing the asymmetrical, coercive aspects of interreligious relations in the Ottoman Empire, most notably the notorious institution of the devşirme, the forcible conversion and seizure of Christian boys from imperial peripheries—especially the Balkans—into the Janissary corps. More abstractly, the political expectations and effects of “tolerance” as an aspect of governance in contemporary liberal democracies are far removed from the limited, non-liberal modes of communal autonomy provided for by the millet system. Finally, and most importantly from the vantage of this essay, bygone interreligious and intercommunal relations in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire are not merely matters of history that can be grafted directly onto contemporary political projects—they also fuel multiple cultures of memory in the present.

Geographer Amy Mills’ evocative ethnography, Streets of Memory: Landscape, Tolerance, and National Identity in Istanbul, pursues contemporary memories of Istanbul’s dwindling non-Muslim communities—Jews, Armenians, and Greek Orthodox Christians—to devastating effect. Mills focuses specifically on the neighborhood of Kuzguncuk, a village on the Asian shore of the Bosporus with a deep history of communal plurality and intercommunal interaction. By doing so, she is able to trace the ambivalent textures of memory in the city’s daily life—textures that, again, defy the binaries of conflict and convivencia, hatred and harmony.

A basic tension between nostalgia for a cosmopolitan urban past and Turkish national identity in the present animates Mills’ overarching argument. As she carefully delineates throughout the book, the consolidation of a homogeneous ethnonational Turkish identity after the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire had radical, transformative effects on the spatial and social dimensions of city life, especially in neighborhoods such as Kuzguncuk, where the descendants of various Ottoman millets continued to live side-by-side. In the decades following the end of the Empire in 1923, Istanbul’s Greeks, Armenians, and Jews were the targets of systematic dispossession, marginalization, and eventual erasure. By the end of the 20th Century, these once-thriving communities were mere shadows of their former selves. Contemporary nostalgia for bygone, cosmopolitan forms of coexistence registers this history of dispossession, even as it also sanitizes the brutality to which the city’s “minorities” were often exposed.

With her keen geographer’s eye, Mills is especially sensitive to the manner in which specific spaces and places shape, and are shaped by, the legacies of Istanbul’s intercommunal past. In particular, she draws attention to the way in which the notion of the neighborhood, or mahalle, has become a central object of nostalgia and repository of memory in the city: “The Turkish word for neighborhood is mahalle, which, in its basic, meaning, is the residential space of the city. Mahalle also refers to a space of memory in Turkish popular culture defined by familiarity, belonging and tolerance in a local, urban space” (p. 36). As a mahalle with a particularly rich intercommunal past, Kuzguncuk has been actively recruited to narratives of cosmopolitan nostalgia in recent decades. Several popular television soap operas take the neighborhood as their setting, and celebrate its “authentic” character as an “urban space of belonging and familiarity” (p. 63). The “authentic,” if lapsed, cosmopolitanism of Kuzguncuk has fueled a recent wave of gentrification, as young urban professionals who prefer a more intimate scale of urban life have sought out the neighborhood in droves. Yet the emergence of Kuzguncuk as a definitive, desirable mahalle that has maintained its authenticity in the sprawl of the global city is rife with sharp ironies. Mills argues that Kuzguncuk’s nostalgia-fueled gentrification is a direct consequence of the earlier process of minority dispossession in the city. The bourgeoisie of Kuzguncuk today, who have capitalized on the lingering aura of the intercommunal mahalle, rarely pause to consider who the previous owners of their very homes and real estate may have been. As Mills trenchantly observes, “the narrative of peace and tolerance embedded in the landscape of collective memory of the mahalle works to support the national historical narrative of Istanbul life in that it obscures the traumas and events that pushed out the minority communities.  While the landscape acts like a real representation of history, it obscures the tensions of the past with a narrative of seamless community” (p. 82).

With the observation that a “narrative of peace and tolerance” is inseparable from the exclusionary, homogenizing impetus of nationalism, Mills forwards a radical critique of the politics of memory in contemporary Turkey. Numerous social scientists have argued that Turkish nation-building institutionalized forms of collective amnesia in relation to the Ottoman past and its legacy of religious and communal plurality. Mills’ ethnography, by contrast, illustrates that the very memory of interreligious harmony, rooted in a sanitized image of convivencia among the Ottoman millets, inoculates and sustains contemporary Turkish nationalism. National identity is not only premised on its exclusions and erasures, but also on the selective memory of communal and intercommunal pasts that no longer exist in the present.

In this respect, there are many provocative parallels between Turkey and the Iberian nation-states of Portugal and, especially, Spain. Memories of bygone religious difference simultaneously challenge and buttress contemporary national identity in both contexts. In Turkey, the Ottoman millets occupy this ambivalent role; in Iberia, Andalusian Islam informs nationalist images of religious otherness. English-language scholarship on Spain and Portugal has generally neglected the formative role of memories of al-Andalus in nation-building in both countries. Fortunately, however, Patricia Hertel’s The Crescent Remembered: Islam and Nationalism on the Iberian Peninsula—recently translated into English from the original German—has decisively filled this historiographic gap.

The originality of Hertel’s research stems from both its temporal and spatial purview. Rather than delve into the centuries of Muslim presence on the peninsula, as Safran does, Hertel pursues the afterlife of Islam as an object of memory in the Iberian Peninsula, especially in the 19th and 20th Centuries. As she illustrates through meticulous analyses of academic scholarship, political discourse, and popular commemorations, al-Andalus and the peninsula’s Muslim past served as “a reservoir of impressions, fantasies, and stereotypes which helped to shape self-image(s) and identity(s) within the society of the peninsula” (p. 4). Hertel’s work also represents the first explicit comparison of Spanish and Portuguese memories of al-Andalus. There is a broad, sharp contrast between these two national cultures of memory in relation to Islam—while both al-Andalus and the Reconquista are central to national identity and memory in Spain, they are relatively marginal to Portuguese self-conceptions, which pivot more on the glories of the Age of Exploration than triumph over Muslim antagonists.

Although Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula came to an end over five centuries ago with the capitulation of Granada, collective memories of al-Andalus have never been settled or unanimous. Rather than a fixed object, Hertel shows that the peninsula’s Muslim past has been subject to a variety of evaluations and interpretations depending on the imperatives of contrasting political projects and climates: “When nineteenth-century historians evoked Islam as a religious enemy, when romantically inspired scientists were enthused about the Muslim cultural heritage, and when colonial politicians used the past in their attempts to legitimize contemporary colonial rule, they were all actually dealing only superficially with Islam. The variable and often contradictory memories of the Islamic past were reflections of the search for a national identity” (p. 7). To a great degree, memories of Iberian Islam have been conditioned by Catholicism and its relationship to national identity in Spain and Portugal. On the whole, more conservative Catholic ideologues have tended to regard the Muslim past with greater dismissiveness and hostility. Nevertheless, the shifting relationship between national identity and the Muslim past has also witnessed unexpected moments of reevaluation and rapprochement. For instance, during the dictatorships of Franco and Salazar, the Iberian Muslim past was subject to positive reassessments, even if these reevaluations provided a fig leaf of justification for colonial rule over Muslims in Morocco (in Spain’s case) and Guinea, Mozambique, and elsewhere (in Portugal’s).

In Spain especially, Islam and al-Andalus have maintained an ambivalent relationship to national identity as a simultaneous source of disdain and pride. Spanish historians and politicians of a variety of ideological stripes have faced a vexing question: How to incorporate, and even celebrate, the accomplishments of a long era of Iberian history against which “Spain” itself has achieved definition? How to honor the Battle of Covadonga while also admiring the Alhambra? Hertel argues that a distinction between “culture” and “religion” often provided a solution to these dilemmas. For many, if not all, Spanish commentators on al-Andalus in the 19th and 20th Centuries, praise for the Islamic cultural heritage of the peninsula and criticism of Islam as a religion and political power went hand-in-hand. Architectural monuments such as the Alhambra and the Great Mosque of Cordoba were often the flashpoints for such debates: “Questions of exclusion and inclusion crystallized around the architecture. In Spain the architectural witnesses to the Muslim presence were undeniable…the origins of the structures had to be made ‘Spanish’ to legitimize their continued existence, conservation, and promotion” (p. 69). In order to make the Islamic architectural legacy congenial to Spanish national historiography, architecture itself was reinterpreted as an aspect of “cultural heritage” that had little to do with religion per se.   

Hertel’s specific analyses of a plethora of Spanish and Portuguese authors on Islam, as well as her perspective on the role of folklore as a repository for collective fantasies about the Muslim past, make frequent, original contributions to the nascent understanding of Islam as an object of memory on the Iberian Peninsula. But it is her broader, somewhat more polemical argument that ultimately distinguishes the book. As she avers near the end of her exposition, her genealogy and archaeology of memories of al-Andalus and Islam decisively demonstrate that “Europe” and “Islam” should not be thought of as coherent, a priori entities that either clash or coexist. Rather, “the concepts of Europe and Islam…are part of a daily reality which must be understood in the context of history and shaped in our contemporary society” (p. 151). 

With this observation, we return full circle to the concerns with which I began this essay. Although their themes and questions differ, the four works that I have discussed unanimously insist on a more nuanced perspective on the relationship between “Europe” and “Islam,” one that avoids the clichés of conflict and convivencia. As Safran and the contributors to The Ottoman Mosaic illustrate, the centuries-long history of Islam in Iberia and the Ottoman Balkans unsettles homogeneous ideological images of both Europe and Islam. Furthermore, the effects and traces of Muslim-European pasts persist as fraught memories in the present, as Mills and Hertel elucidate.

Broader recognition of these disavowed histories and memories would necessarily perturb notions of Europe itself in productive and urgent ways. With the histories and legacies al-Andalus and the Ottoman Empire in mind, perhaps we can finally take inspiration from the fact that Europa herself was originally an exile. Exiles, as I suggested at the outset, are necessarily defined by the traces of difference—forgotten pasts, distant places—that haunt their identities. Rather than seeking to exile contemporary forms of difference, as Europe’s xenophobes demand, we might celebrate Europa’s exilic nature. Such a celebration would acknowledge, rather than deny, the formative role of multiple “differences,” including Islam, as partial bases for European identity. Furthermore, it would necessarily contradict calls to exile Islam from European territories and self-conceptions. For, as we have seen, Muslims and Islam have occupied these physical and conceptual spaces at great length, in multiple ways.


[1] Literally, “protected peoples.” In most Muslim polities, dhimmi status was conferred to the ahl al-kitab or “Peoples of the Book”: Jews, Christians, and other monotheists such as Zoroastrians who recognized the legitimacy of a revealed text prior to the Qur’an. However, numerous Muslim thinkers have argued that the category of the dhimmi is sufficiently capacious to include all religious communities living under Muslim rule.

[2] Kanun law—cognate with the English “canon” law, as both derive from the ancient Greek kanōn—was a separate legal code that existed parallel to Ottoman Shari’a law. In general, kanun was elaborated and propagated by the Ottoman sovereigns, while Shari’a was strictly the domain of Muslim scholars and jurists, the ulama and fuqaha. Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent’s honorific, Kanuni or “Lawgiver,” gestures to the role of the Sublime Porte in creating kanun law.

[This essay originally appeared in Spanish as “La identidad europea y el islam” in Revista de Libros]


Works discussed in this essay:

Patricia Hertel. The Crescent Remembered: Islam and Nationalism on the Iberian Peninsula. Translated by Ellen Yutzy Glebe. Brighton, Chicago, Toronto: Sussex Academic Press, 2015.

Kemal Karpat and Yetkin Yıldırım, eds. The Ottoman Mosaic. Seattle: Cune Press, 2010.

Amy Mills. Streets of Memory: Landscape, Tolerance, and National Identity in Istanbul. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2010.

Janina Safran. Defining Boundaries in al-Andalus: Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Islamic Iberia. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2013.

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