09.09.12, Miller, Guardians of Islam

Main Article Content

Philip Daileader

The Medieval Review 09.09.12

Miller, Kathryn A.. Guardians of Islam: Religious Authority and Muslim Communities of Late Medieval Spain. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Pp. 276. ISBN: 9780231136129.

Reviewed by:
Philip Daileader
College of William and Mary

Kathryn Miller's project is sure to generate excitement among historians of Spain, not so much on account of its subject--much good work has already been done on Muslims in late medieval Iberia, although we could always use more--as on account of its source base. Rather than relying exclusively or even largely on Latin and Romance documents, Miller studies those that survive in Arabic (in some cases both the language and script, in other cases just the script). Latin and Romance documents suggest that relationships with Christian authorities defined Islamic communities, but that suggestion is really a mirage arising from the documents' Christian provenance. The Arabic documents reveal Muslim communities that derived their identity from continuing adherence to Islamic legal and religious tradition, and from continuing contact with Muslims living not in the Dar al-Harb but in the Dar al-Islam, which is to say, living not as subject peoples in Christian-ruled territories, but as ruling peoples in Granada, in North Africa, and beyond. Such is Miller's thesis. Her concise, thoughtful, carefully argued book makes a convincing case that historians have too easily bought into an overly Christian-centric conception of Muslim communities, and that no good understanding of them can be had without an appreciation of what the Arabic documents tell us about these communities' concerns and external contacts.

Geographically, Miller focuses on Aragon. She makes frequent reference to Valencia, noting important regional differences; Castile, where the situation of Mudejars was even more different, figures not nearly as often. This book, therefore, is not really a study of "late medieval Spain." Chronologically, Miller focuses on the fifteenth century, but she draws frequently (and appropriately) from fourteenth- century and from early-sixteenth-century materials.

The surviving Arabic documents are only "scraps," and as a result, Miller cannot study the Aragonese Mudejar communities in their entirety. Instead, Miller focuses on the faqih, who was "a learned Mudejar who knew Arabic and whose profession or vocation in some way involved the knowledge and application of Islamic law and tradition" (8-9). Most faqihs in Aragon seem to have worked as notaries. The faqih's expertise in Arabic and in Islamic law gave him a position of religious authority within the community; it also made the faqih an important go-between whom Christian authorities consulted when they needed explanations of Islamic law. Miller's goal is to understand how "Mudejar faqihs related to their Islamic tradition, how they preserved it, considered it, and connected with it" (10).

Muslim scholars living in lands not under Christian rule bluntly proclaimed (often while directly addressing the faqihs themselves) that the Aragonese faqihs related poorly to their Islamic tradition. Mudejar faqihs (in the foreigners' estimation) wrote bad Arabic, misunderstood Islamic law, and introduced innovations that deviated from Islamic tradition. Worst of all, they accepted Christian overlords. Iberian Muslims who had not fled from Christian to Islamic lands had failed to imitate the Prophet and his hijra; preferring their own comfort and familiar surroundings to the hardships of escape, they risked becoming infidels themselves, succumbing to the pollution and temptations posed by the Christians surrounding them. The foreign scholars' hostility toward the Mudejars was not monolithic, though. Even the most scathing critics deigned to answer, and thereby legitimized, questions posed by faqihs concerning Islamic law and how to maintain Islamic observance while living under Christian rule.

To some extent, the accusations leveled by Granadan and North African scholars were true. Faqihs did adapt Islamic law and practice to local conditions. For example, as Miller demonstrates in her fourth chapter, the Aragonese Mudejars copied and used Arabic notarial formularies, but they adjusted those formularies to account for the fact that some types of contract fell under Christian purview--indeed, the Aragonese Mudejars assigned more weight than did their coreligionists elsewhere to written, as opposed to oral, contracts and testimony, because the Mudejars' Christian overlords valued written contracts so highly. The bigger point, though, is that Aragonese faqihs, despite the inevitable scorn with which their requests were received, continued to seek guidance from the Dar al-Islam about how to be good Muslims. The law books, the fatwas, and the notarial formularies that Aragonese faqihs possessed, as well as the marginalia that the faqihs scribbled around those texts, reveal that the faqihs actively maintained contacts with their coreligionists to the south. They sent letters and ambassadors to Granada and to North Africa, and sometimes they travelled there themselves. The Aragonese faqihs also received visitors from those same places, and those travelling to Aragon from the Dar al-Islam brought with them Arabic religious, legal, and notarial texts. Miller might not be able to quantify these contacts and exchanges, or to examine their ebb and flow over time, but she is able to show that they existed.

Miller well realizes that extrapolating from the sensibility of the faqihs to the sensibility of Muslim communities more generally is a hazardous undertaking. One might expect literate leaders who knew Arabic to feel a stronger attachment to Islamic tradition and a stronger sense of belonging to an international, cosmopolitan Islamic community than illiterate Muslims would have felt, especially if those illiterate Muslims no longer even spoke Arabic. Faqihs were not as exclusive a group as one might have expected, though. Miller estimates that any given Muslim community might have three to five of them, and no great socio-economic gulf set the faqihs apart from other Muslims in Aragon. Some faqihs came from humble artisanal families, which reflects the undifferentiated society of which they were a part: "unlike in Valencia, or among Iberian Jews and Christians, Aragonese Muslim society was comparatively 'flat.' It did not exhibit sharp distinctions in wealth and privilege" (77). This unusually level society also shared a wide appreciation for Arabic texts. The Zaragozan Inquisition of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries convicted moriscos for owning such texts; the number of those convicted and the range of their occupations indicate that "Aragonese literacy, or at least bibliophilia, clearly embraced the whole Mudejar community by this period. It is likely that the fifteenth-century configuration was not much different" (77). To readers familiar with just how forcefully claims to leadership were contested within the late-medieval Christian and Jewish communities of the Iberian peninsula, the idea of entire Aragonese communities easily accepting the leadership of the faqihs is disconcerting, and in truth we know too little about the internal dynamics of these Muslim communities to know how their fellow Muslims felt about the faqihs. Still, even though her evidence is circumstantial and sometimes chronologically remote, Miller makes a plausible case (especially considering the lack of evidence to the contrary) that the Aragonese Mudejar population shared the faqihs' values.

Miller's reading of individual sources is always expert and sometimes virtuosic, but some readers will feel frustrated that Miller nowhere states just how many Arabic documents she has read or survive today. In a case of art imitating life, Miller gives only a few fragments of information concerning her fragmentary sources. The study relies on a "a narrow documentary corpus richer, in its twenty-first century state, in fragments than in complete artifacts" (87), and surely Miller is right to argue that what survives is a small fraction of what once existed; because possession of Arabic-language documents incurred legal jeopardy in the sixteenth century, one imagines that most Arabic-language documents were destroyed then. But the reader has no way of judging just how narrow the "narrow documentary corpus" is, and must reconcile that characterization and others like it with still others giving a different impression, such as the description of a "substantial" collection of Arabic documents discovered in the nineteenth century, stashed in the wall of a house, and covering an "impressive range" of genres: "letters, prayers, sermons, legal texts copied by Mudejar scholars, contracts issued by Mudejar notaries, Qur'ans, stories of the prophet, hadith, and notarial formulae" (10). It is difficult to know how to take statements such as "Aragonese Maliki formularies and fiqh have survived in relatively large numbers" when one has no idea of the numbers involved (89).

One of Miller's boldest arguments is likely to generate controversy. Miller describes well the mechanisms through which Aragonese Muslims ransomed their coreligionists (both Mudejars and others) whom Christians had seized, and one can easily agree that the redemption of Muslim captives likely heightened the sense that Aragonese Muslims belonged to an international Islamic community. Miller goes even farther, though, positing that ransoming captives should be construed as a form of resistance that "allowed Mudejars to cope with and counter Christian hegemony" (175); indeed, Miller posits that fifteenth-century Aragonese Muslims equated the ransoming of captives with jihad. Her certitude on this point accelerates rapidly over the course of two pages, even though the evidentiary fuel gauge remains stuck on empty. From the unobjectionable "while I am yet to find an explicit statement equating the redemption of captives with jihad, one can reconstruct what it would have looked like" (174), we quickly move to "Otherwise put, the Mudejars developed a form of resistance that they interpreted locally as jihad," and then to "Quietly, and--as far as the surviving evidence allows us to see--without making an explicit case to the jurists, Mudejar community action reconfigured jihad as slave liberation and captive redemption" (175). It is not that Miller's connection of captive redemption to resistance and to jihad is inconceivable or even illogical--it is just that there is no evidence of any fifteenth-century Aragonese Muslim connecting the dots in the way that Miller connects them here.

Some readers might seize on Miller's descriptions of "a strong Muslim community" (177) and "the resilience of the Muslim exclave" (181) as signifying that Guardians of Islam constitutes a sort of apology for or defense of fifteenth-century Aragonese Muslims. True, Miller's sympathy for those about whom she writes is evident, and the book's final two sentences are triumphal: "Far from offering an example of cultural collapse, theirs is a success story. For four hundred years Mudejar faqihs held their own among the 'ulama' of the medieval Islamic Mediterranean" (181). An analogue to Guardians of Islam would be Mark Meyerson's A Jewish Renaissance in Fifteenth-Century Spain, published in 2004. Both books argue that older works emphasizing repression have failed to understand and to take into account how Muslims and Jews not only maneuvered within the constraints placed upon them, but overcame them.

In accentuating the positive, has Miller eliminated the negative too well? The negative recedes into the background, to be sure, but it is still there--Miller frames her book with a vignette about faqihs meeting in Zaragoza a few years after the forced conversion of the Aragonese Muslims--and, in the end, such criticism would fail to do justice to Guardians of Islam. Miller does not tell, and does not try to tell, the whole story; she tells a part of the story, a part that deserves to be told separately because it had not been told before. It would certainly be a mistake to dismiss Guardians of Islam as a predictable rebellion against a previous generation of historians, or as a recasting of the history of fifteenth-century Aragonese Muslims into a form congenial to North American academics whose instinct, more often than not, is to sympathize with non- Christian religious minorities and the dispossessed--especially if they can be shown to have resisted, and even more especially if they can be argued to have won. The high-quality scholarship that underpins Miller's book and the thoughtfulness that permeates her arguments make such a dismissal unsustainable. To take one example, Miller's approach to aljamiado (Romance written in Arabic script), which emphasizes how it emerged in the context of documents likely to be consulted by Christians as well as Muslims, is far more nuanced than that of scholars who have seen in its emergence only cultural decline. (One might note that older descriptions of fifteenth-century Muslim religious decadence carried, or could easily be made to carry, political freight of their own. If fifteenth-century Muslims were not adhering to their own religion and traditions, then later forced conversion comes across as less violating.) The Arabic sources that Miller has studied show a livelier and a more self-consciously Islamic culture in fifteenth-century Aragon than one could ever know from Latin or Romance sources of Christian provenance, and Guardians of Islam teaches us much that is new and significant about how Aragonese Muslim communities related, and understood themselves to relate, to the Dar al-Islam.

Article Details

Author Biography

Philip Daileader

College of William and Mary