Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Faith, Power, and Violence in the Age of Crusade and Jihad

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9780374535322: Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors: Faith, Power, and Violence in the Age of Crusade and Jihad

An in-depth portrait of the Crusades-era Mediterranean world, and a new understanding of the forces that shaped it

In Infidel Kings and Unholy Warriors, the award-winning scholar Brian Catlos puts us on the ground in the Mediterranean world of 1050–1200. We experience the sights and sounds of the region just as enlightened Islamic empires and primitive Christendom began to contest it. We learn about the siege tactics, theological disputes, and poetry of this enthralling time. And we see that people of different faiths coexisted far more frequently than we are commonly told.
Catlos's meticulous reconstruction of the era allows him to stunningly overturn our most basic assumption about it: that it was defined by religious extremism. He brings to light many figures who were accepted as rulers by their ostensible foes. Samuel B. Naghrilla, a self-proclaimed Jewish messiah, became the force behind Muslim Granada. Bahram Pahlavuni, an Armenian Christian, wielded power in an Islamic caliphate. And Philip of Mahdia, a Muslim eunuch, rose to admiral in the service of Roger II, the Christian "King of Africa."
What their lives reveal is that, then as now, politics were driven by a mix of self-interest, personality, and ideology. Catlos draws a similar lesson from his stirring chapters on the early Crusades, arguing that the notions of crusade and jihad were not causes of war but justifications. He imparts a crucial insight: the violence of the past cannot be blamed primarily on religion.

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About the Author:

Brian Catlos, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a research associate at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has received many prestigious fellowships and awards. He is the author of the prizewinning The Victors and the Vanquished: Christians and Muslims of Catalonia and Aragon (1050-1300), The Muslims of Medieval Latin Christendom ca. 1050-1615, and is featured in the documentary Cities of Light. He has traveled extensively in Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas, and has contributed to many travel guidebooks, including his Rough Guide to Languedoc & Roussillon. He and his family divide their time between Boulder and Barcelona.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

An Ornament, Tarnished

 

It was the evening of December 30, 1066—the ninth of Teveth, 4827, by the Hebrew calendar, and the year 459 of the Hijra, on the tenth day of Safar, a month characterized in Arabic folklore by calamity. It would have been a quiet Saturday night in Granada, a city of mazelike alleys huddled against the northern face of the Sierra Nevada. Perhaps a few white flakes blew down from the mountains. The only sounds to be heard, aside from the barking of stray dogs, would have been the voices of the city’s muezzins, calling out in near unison from their minarets, “Allahu akbar! God is most great! Allahu akbar! God is most great!” and sending the most faithful grimly shuffling through the dusky, unlit streets to salat al-‘isha, the evening prayer. The Sabbath would be drawing to a close, and the city’s Jewish inhabitants would be preparing for the start of the new week. Light from the waxing crescent moon may have reflected off the snow-covered peaks above, and between the mountains and the city, Granada’s residents would have seen the flickering yellow of oil lamps outlined by the shutters along the walls of al-Hamra’.*

This, the “Red Palace,” named after the hillside on which it stood and separated from the main part of the city by the creeklike River Darro, was the home of a Jew, Yusuf (“Yehosef” or “Joseph”) ibn Naghrilla, who had recently been deposed as wazir, or prime minister, of the Muslim Kingdom of Granada. On this evening, inside his palace, Yusuf and a band of his most trusted confederates were feasting in celebration of what they were sure would be the ex-wazir’s imminent coronation as king. As the guests ate and drank, listened to music, and recited poetry, an army led by Ibn Sumadih, the king of Almería, was on the march. In exchange for a declaration of submission, he would place Yusuf on the throne of Granada. As the story goes, a combination of overabundant wine and overconfidence led Yusuf to boast to his ‘abid, his African-born slaves, of the estates and honors that he would grant them once he was king. One of these slaves demanded to know whether the current king, Badis al-Muzaffar, had been killed. When he was rudely silenced, he burst out of the palace in a fit of panic and outrage, shouting, “The Jew has betrayed al-Muzaffar; Ibn Sumadih is about to enter the city!” Hearing his cries, the city’s Muslims poured out of their homes and rushed to al-Hamra’, where they stormed the banquet hall and pillaged the palace. Even the appearance of Badis, still very much alive, could not calm them, and Yusuf, attempting to flee the city in a blackened cloak, was cornered and killed. Next the mob turned on the Jewish inhabitants of the capital, putting them to the sword and plundering their homes.

As dawn rose on the city the king was safe and the armies of Almería had turned back. At least this is the tale as it has been told. It seems both incredible and predictable: a Jew very nearly became king of a Muslim kingdom in medieval Spain, and a community of innocents was massacred. And it has long appeared to represent a turning point in Jewish-Muslim relations in Islamic Spain and beyond. But was it? To understand the events of that December night in 1066 we must go back to the turn of the millennium, to the collapse of the Caliphate of Córdoba and the founding of the Kingdom of Granada.

THE CALIPHATE IN THE WEST

In the tenth century, Islamic Spain—al-Andalus—developed into the greatest economic and cultural power in the West. In the early 900s under the amir ‘Abd al-Rahman III, a long period of upheaval, civil war, and foreign attacks came to end. ‘Abd al-Rahman subdued the ever-rebellious Arab elite of al-Andalus—the descendants of the warriors who conquered Visigothic Hispania in the early eighth century—forced the small Christian principalities that dotted the mountainous north of Spain to submit to his authority, and undertook the conquest of northwest Africa. With that campaign Córdoba gained access to gold that originated on the far side of the Sahara, in the Niger Delta and the Akan Forest farther beyond. Intrepid Muslim merchants began to take cloth and salt across the vast desert and trade them pound for pound for high-quality gold, as well as ivory, pelts, and slaves. Much of this gold found its way into the royal treasury, funding a navy with which the amir controlled the Western Mediterranean, and a new army that soon had no serious adversary on the Iberian Peninsula. Up to this time, the Arab tribal elite of al-Andalus had dominated the army of a relatively united Umayyad Spain, and ‘Abd al-Rahman’s predecessors could not rule without their consent. But now, with a new army made up largely of Berber mercenaries recruited from Tunisia and Morocco and paid for with African gold, ‘Abd al-Rahman cowed both the tribal elite and his Christian tributaries, some of whom were his own kin. The submission of these tributaries to Córdoba was so complete that the Muslim court became a center of Christian diplomacy and intrigue, and its harem a destination for their daughters.*

The African gold also inaugurated a time of unprecedented prosperity in al-Andalus, and a cultural and scientific renaissance. Córdoba became the center of both trade and culture. The city’s population swelled to nearly half a million, making it, alongside Constantinople and Cairo, the largest metropolis west of Baghdad. The streets were paved, and unlike the filth, squalor, and danger of the stunted and primitive cities of Northern Europe, the capital had a working sewage system, a police force, and street lighting. On those streets peoples from across the Mediterranean and beyond rubbed shoulders: most of the city’s inhabitants were Muslims, but there were also many Christian Mozarabs and Jews, who were all but indistinguishable in language, dress, and habits from one another and from their Muslim neighbors. The strange accents and languages of foreign visitors could also be heard: merchants and scholars from the expanse of the Islamic world, and not a few Latin foreigners, as well as slaves imported from the “land of the Blacks” and pagan Eastern Europe or captured in raids on Christian lands, and even the occasional Byzantine Greek. These peoples were joined by an increasing number of new arrivals from North Africa, Berber warriors and their families who were looked down on by the native Andalusis for being dark-skinned, and—as they saw it—rude and uncultured.* The city was a tumult of workers and craftsmen, traders and merchants, stern royal officials, veiled courtesans, haughty slaves, beggars, soldiers, scholars, and holy men. The aromas of Africa and India wafted from the covered market northeast of the royal fortress, where cloth merchants hawked silks and linens and where gold- and silversmiths’ hammers added to the din caused by the braying of donkeys, the bellowing of camels, and the chatter of townsfolk, visitors, officials, and charlatans of all kinds.

Next door to the market sprawled the majestic Great Mosque, which ‘Abd al-Rahman renovated, doubling its size to accommodate the city’s burgeoning population. Outside of the magnificent structure, scribes-for-hire wrote petitions, contracts, and letters for all and sundry. Within the stone walls, a broad patio, shaded by orange trees and cooled by sprinkling water fountains, served as a public park and gathering space. Near the doors to the prayer hall, the qadi, or magistrate, held court and passed sentence on cases both mundane and sensational. Inside, among the marble columns taken from Roman ruins in the Western Mediterranean and beneath the red-and-white-banded arches that crowned them, people read, meditated, or dozed. Here, on Fridays at noon, the amir himself joined his Muslim subjects, prostrate on the carpeted floor. They faced the ivory-inlaid mihrab, the amir separated from the masses only by the wooden honeycomb of a mashrabiyya screen.

Buoyed by his successes, in 929 ‘Abd al-Rahman took a monumental step and declared himself to be the caliph (khalifa) and Córdoba to be the center of power in the Islamic world. This was not only a blow to the prestige of the ‘Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, who had been universally recognized as legitimate by Sunni Muslims, but a challenge to ‘Abd al-Rahman’s enemies, the Shi’a Fatimids of Tunisia, who had declared their own independent caliphate twenty years before. More than anything it marked a shift in the practice of leadership in Islamic Spain. To that point, the amirs had been “men of the people” in the style of the tribal Arab warlords of old: earthy, practical, and simple. In a stroke ‘Abd al-Rahman transformed himself into a near-divine autocrat, in the mold of Persian and Byzantine emperors. His act had profound consequences. Most immediately it meant that he would withdraw from public life. Protected and served by an ever more efficient and elaborate civil service, his direct intervention in the daily affairs of his realm was no longer practical or necessary. And in 939 a rare defeat at the hands of the forces of Christian León persuaded ‘Abd al-Rahman to end his military career—the life of the caliph could not be risked.

Three years earlier ‘Abd al-Rahman had begun construction on Madinat al-Zahara a few miles west of Córdoba, imagining it as a self-contained palace-city. For forty years, ten thousand workers and slaves were said to have labored on the immense complex, which included residences, a huge mosque, barracks, storerooms, and baths. To its luxurious and extensive gardens were brought exotic plants and trees gathered from as far away as India. The poet Ibn Zaydun would recall “the meandering waterway … its silvery waters … like a necklace unclasped and thrown aside,” and the “fragrant breaths from the pome of the water lilies.” Once finished, Madinat al-Zahara was staffed by thousands of slaves, officials, and soldiers. It became the official seat of government in 947; there would be no reason for the caliph to venture beyond its walls. The center of the palace was the great reception hall, its ceiling decorated with gilt and multicolored panels of translucent marble, interspersed with gold and silver panels and sheltering an ornate fountain sent from Constantinople by Emperor Constantine VII. On sunny days, the light streaming into the great hall was said to be sublime, and when the caliph wanted to awe visitors, his slaves would knock a mercury basin, and its ripples would send shimmers of reflected sunlight through the chamber. It was here that envoys from Africa, the Holy Roman Empire, and Constantinople would come to offer their respects, and the rulers of Christian Spain would come to bear homage.

A contemporary Muslim observer recorded one such visit. In 962 Ordoño IV, King of León, journeyed to Córdoba for an audience with al-Hakam II, the caliph’s son and successor. After stopping to pray at the tomb of ‘Abd al-Rahman III, the Christian king proceeded under escort to Madinat al-Zahara. The caliphal bodyguard had been deployed in parade regalia and the notables of the court had assembled. As Ordoño made his way through the resplendently decorated palace toward the inner sanctum, he was gradually deprived of his own entourage, until he was surrounded only by his closest advisers. Before reaching the reception hall he was forced to dismount his horse. Entering the dazzling room, the king must have been awestruck by the gilded and marbled walls, which were intended to give a sense of Heaven on Earth. At the center, surrounded by well-coiffed and perfumed officials, slaves, and eunuchs, and flanked by soldiers—blond-haired and bearded “Slavs” and Africans whose black skin had been oiled to a glistening sheen—sat the caliph, garbed in exquisite, brightly dyed silk robes. As he drew near al-Hakam’s throne Ordoño bowed, rose, took a few steps, and bowed again, repeating this performance until he reached the caliph, who held out a hand. After Ordoño retreated respectfully, his grandees each rose to kiss al-Hakam’s hand, and then the king exclaimed, “I am a slave of the Commander of the Faithful, my lord and my master; and I am come to implore his favor and to witness his majesty, and to place myself and my people under his protection.” The desired effect—to overwhelm the visiting Christian king, to render him speechless—had clearly been achieved.

Though the caliph’s move to the palace increased his isolation and resulted in new powers for the palace bureaucrats, notably the wazir, the top administrator, and the hajib, or chamberlain, who controlled access to the sovereign, ‘Abd al-Rahman remained involved in the affairs of his kingdom. He was astute enough to realize that the loyalty of his various officials, generals, and wives was tenuous at best—any of them might plot to depose or assassinate him and place a kinsman on the throne. And so he relied for his own protection on bodyguards recruited or captured from the Christian lands in the north, men called “the Silent Ones” for their inability to speak Arabic, who, having no natural allies in al-Andalus, would be unlikely to betray him.

In the same spirit, one of the keys to maintaining the political equilibrium in the caliphate was his cultivation of dhimmis, the Jews and Christians who were the “protected” subject peoples of the Islamic regime. Both communities were granted broad liberties, and both were integrated into Muslim society. A century earlier, after a brief flurry of resistance, the local Christian Church had effectively become a branch of the Andalusi civil service.* Thus, for example, the Christian aristocrat and courtier Reccemund, who went by the name Rabi’ ibn Zaid in Muslim circles, was rewarded for his faithful service to the regime when he was appointed bishop of Elvira by the caliph. Jews found themselves with similar opportunities. The Jewish physician and rabbi Hasdai ibn Shaprut became the caliph’s close friend and adviser, and even led the caliph’s most delicate diplomatic missions. As a consequence of his influence in Córdoba (not to mention his extraordinary devotion and learning), Hasdai was recognized as Nasi, “prince,” and became an advocate for Jews across the caliphate and beyond.†

Non-Muslims, slaves, and Berbers were useful to ‘Abd al-Rahman because they were in their own ways outsiders, and would be unable to harness popular support in a coup. As a consequence, each group served the caliph as counterweights to potentially subversive Muslim and Arab factions within the kingdom. In essence, the administration oversaw a dynamic meritocracy in which neither class nor ethnic background nor religion posed insurmountable obstacles to success. This is not to say that Córdoba’s political culture was based on a principle of tolerance, but rather that the Umayyad rulers were interested only in power. But the regime’s pragmatic self-interest fostered a situation in which Christians, Muslims, and Jews found themselves working together to build a caliphate in the West, each group secure and confident, and each speaking Arabic and moving within an Islamic social, cultural, and intellectual milieu. Muslims felt no threat from the dhimmis among them, and Christians and Jews were accommodated and integrated to such a degree that only the most stalwartly reactionary would harbor any resentment against the still superior status of Muslims.

By 961, when ‘Abd al-Rahman’s son, al-Hakam II, came to the throne, the caliphate was practically running itself, leaving the heir free to pursue his scholarly and intellectual interests. This...

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