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Thursday, 18 June 2020 09:57

Portugal: Rediscovering the country's Muslim past

Historians and archaeologists are showing just how integral Islam is to the country's identity

Arabic influences can still be found in the Portuguese language. For centuries, the region was ruled by Arabic-speaking Muslims known as Moors.

In the 8th century, Muslims sailed from North Africa and took control of what is now Portugal and Spain. Known in Arabic as al-Andalus, the region joined the expanding Umayyad Empire and prospered under Muslim rule. But that legacy has been largely forgotten in the predominantly Catholic country.

In Portuguese schools, the five centuries of Muslim rule are studied only briefly.

"A great part of the population converted to Islam," explains Filomena Barros, a professor of Medieval History at the University of Evora.

Research has suggested that by the 10th century, half the population of the Iberian Peninsula was Muslim.

For Barros, Muslims who sailed from North Africa were no more foreign than the Christian kings and armies from northern Europe who conquered the territory before and after them.

Today, however, less than 0.5 percent of the population of 11 million is Muslim, and few are aware that Muslims once made up a much larger proportion of the population.

"I wish there was more focus on the heritage left by Muslim rule, it's not very well-known in Portugal," said Noor-ayn Sacoor – a member of Lisbon’s Muslim community.

Throughout the 15th and 16th century, Portuguese kings continued to expand into North Africa, where they established military bases and engaged in warfare. This continued until a disastrous 1578 defeat in the Moroccan town of Ksar el-Kebir (known in

Portuguese as Alcacer Quibir) that put an end to Portugal's expansionist ambitions in North Africa.

The Moor became Portugal's stereotypical "other" as European identity was being shaped in opposition to Islam. Although the term "Moor" traditionally referred to Arabic-speaking Muslims in North Africa, the label was often used to broadly refer to Muslims, reducing their diversity to a mass of otherness.

In 2019, a newly formed far-right party won a seat in Portugal's parliament for the first time since the end of Salazar's rule. The party has proposed excluding "the teaching of Islam" from public schools, and emphasises the need to combat "Islamic fundamentalism" and defend Europe's borders from an "invasion" from the south of the Mediterranean.

When religious minorities were given three stark choices - convert to Christianity, leave Portugal or face the death penalty - most Muslims fled to North Africa, where they assimilated into local populations.

Historians believe that Muslims might have been allowed to leave the kingdom unharmed because the king feared retaliation from Muslim states.

Historical reparation

Although Muslims were not granted redress in the form of citizenship rights, a growing interest in Portugal's Islamic past is slowly clearing the way for a different kind of historical reparation.

The Portuguese writer Adalberto Alves made a list of Portuguese words derived from Arabic. What started as mere curiosity turned into a decade-long project that led to the publication in 2013 of a dictionary of more than 19,000 Portuguese words and expressions with Arabic origins.

"I wanted to overcome the 'cliche' of antagonism between Christians and Muslims and the oblivion about Andalusi civilisation," Alves explains.

His goal was to emphasise common heritage and to give visibility to the long-neglected presence of Muslims and their contributions to the country's identity and history. Alves wanted to show that the "other" was, in fact, part of the self.

Alves believes the cultural and intellectual legacy inherited from Islam is yet to be acknowledged in Europe, as Muslims have been written out of European history.

To correct this historical erasure, Alves has spent the last 35 years documenting the influences of al-Andalus in Portugal - his efforts were acknowledged by UNESCO with the Sharjah Prize for Arab Culture in 2008.

The legacy left by Muslims is vaster than most imagine, Alves explains, pointing out how the Portuguese empire depended on the navigational sciences developed by Arabs. Even Vasco da Gama, whose epic voyage is so widely celebrated in Portugal, is believed to have relied on a Muslim pilot to reach India.

Close to the southern city of Beja, in a region where the influence of Islam is most evident, another pioneering project is debunking the stereotype of an Arab-Muslim invader and recovering the Islamic past as a foundational element of Portuguese identity and heritage.

It all started with broken pieces of pottery found under a fig tree in Mertola, a small town by the banks of the Guadiana River.

Archaeologist Claudio Torres first visited the whitewashed town in 1976 with the historian Antonio Borges Coelho. Then a lecturer in medieval history at the University of Lisbon, Torres had been invited to Mertola by one of his students. Torres and Coelho stumbled upon some Islamic ceramics near the town's medieval castle.

Torres, who is now 81, decided to start digging. In 1978, he established the archaeological Field of Mertola and moved to the quiet town with his family.

"Mertola doesn't show us the battles," explains researcher Virgilio Lopes, who has been working at the archaeological site for the past 30 years. "It shows us how people used to live together. Underneath these rocks, there is this extraordinary idea of coexistence."

"Different communities lived together here until the end of the 15th century," explains Susana Martinez, a researcher at Mertola's archaeological field and professor of medieval history and archaeology at the University of Evora.

Archaeologists in Mertola uncovered a past of coexistence that challenged the way history is told in Portugal. Torres believes that Islam spread across the region through centuries of trade and economic relations and not as a result of violent conquest.

Darul Ihsan Media Desk

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